Sermons That Work

The New Testament Contains…, Easter 5 (A) – 2011

May 22, 2011

The New Testament contains a number of stories in which Jesus appears to people after his resurrection from the dead. However, the Easter message of the New Testament is more complex than these stories taken by themselves. The entirety of the New Testament was written from a post-resurrection perspective. The various documents represent diverse efforts by the first Christian generations to set forth the significance of our Lord’s victory over death.

They do so, not only through the use of story, but by presenting potent images that have been reborn to fresh meaning through the resurrection event. Let’s consider three of these images found in today’s readings:

• Our passage from Acts portrays Jesus as “standing at the right hand of God,” occupying a place of supreme honor beside the heavenly throne.
• Our reading from First Peter features Jesus as a cornerstone that is rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.
• Our selection from John’s gospel presents Jesus as making ready a place where we can abide in the house of his Father.

So: supreme honor, the cornerstone, our abiding place. Here are ways that scripture presents the risen Lord so that we can recognize his significance for us and for all people. Let’s look again at each one of these images.

First: the image of supreme honor. The Acts of the Apostles recounts the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Like Jesus himself, Stephen, when he is about to die, prays that those responsible for his execution will be forgiven.

What enables him to do this? Moments earlier, Stephen cried out, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He recognized Jesus in the heavenly place of honor.

Here is the same Jesus who, a short time before, had been put to a shameful death. The Jesus who rose from the grave with the wounds of crucifixion still visible on his body. Yes, that Jesus.

The Father has delivered him from destruction and exalted him to heaven. Death’s control has been shattered. Moreover, every power has been compromised by this exaltation. Because Jesus reigns on high, no throne on earth can be absolute.

This is good news for Stephen as his end draws near. He recognizes and rejoices that because Jesus is alive and reigns, death will have no dominion over him.

Next comes the image of the cornerstone. The First Letter of Peter offers instruction regarding traditions about Jesus. The Lord is acknowledged as the precious cornerstone that aligns the new creation where Christians serve as building blocks in the construction project that God now has under way.

What’s being raised up is a holy site, a new temple where people offer themselves as living sacrifices. This house built by God replaces every previous temple. It inaugurates a new order in the relationship between the divine and the human.

Christ the cornerstone was at first rejected. The compassion of God, the truth of God, the wisdom of God as embodied in him was more than people could tolerate. They stumbled over what was meant for their salvation. They scorned a precious gift.

Yet divine power was manifest in patience and persistence. Raised from the dead, Jesus became the first and final person in a new humanity, a fresh creation, a bigger and better building project to serve the purposes of God.

Christ as cornerstone announces that the universe does not spiral down to defeat and destruction, but by grace spirals upward to victory and life. And everybody, absolutely everybody, is free to join the winning side.

The third image is the abiding place. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his Father’s house with its multitude of dwelling places. What’s set forth through this language is not limited to heaven, but is meant to appear on earth as well.

Here an image of place serves to illustrate what relationships are meant to be. Jesus wants each of us to enjoy a relationship with his Father through him. That is what he prepares for us.

The term that is often translated as “mansions” or “dwelling places” can also be rendered “abiding places.” It is similar to the language used when Jesus calls on us to abide in him as he abides in us. The life Jesus shares with his Father, the life we share with Jesus are thus revealed as one and the same life.

Here is our satisfaction. Here is our exultation! The abiding place Jesus makes available far exceeds every other notion of human fulfillment. We are welcomed into the life of God. What more can we have than that?

The Easter message realigns us in multiple ways. This happens through resurrection stories that appear at the end of each gospel. It happens as well through Easter images, among them: supreme honor, the cornerstone, and our abiding place.

If these images hold true, then the world is very different than how we often regard it, and life must be lived in a way drastically at variance with how we often live it.

Because Jesus occupies the place of honor, powerful countries and corporations are not absolute, and small idols are obsolete. Authority belongs to him.

Because Jesus is the cornerstone, the world is not spiraling down to destruction, but is a massive building project where death surrenders daily to new life and those who rise with Christ are many.

Because Jesus provides us with an abiding place, we need not get too comfortable elsewhere, nor may we accept anything less as home. God’s life must be our reality and our hope, encountered in company with one another.

God’s heart is set on making real the community these images announce. Easter means that not even death can stand in the way. We are talking here about something huge: God reigns, and we reign with him.

How can our lives become transparent to this light?

To thrive as a Christian is not easy. However, it is simple. By treating it otherwise, we skate around the challenge and miss the blessing.

Jesus recognizes that our hearts are troubled. In today’s gospel, he addresses not only the first disciples, but us as well. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Believe in Jesus. Believe in God. Put your absolute trust there, not in yourself or some other fallible human or some imperfect institution.

Believe in Jesus, the wounded one, the murdered one, now in the place of supreme honor.

Believe in Jesus, the cornerstone of the vast new creation that is being built right now.

Believe in Jesus, who offers us now as well as later a place to abide in the house of his Father.

Become transparent to this light. And as you do, you may find these images of Easter helpful. They contain both the challenge and the promise.

Or you may reach out for other choices, different images of Easter. Consider this one, which came to Harvard professor Nicholas Wolterstorff as he grieved the death of his son: “Faith is the footbridge that you don’t know will hold up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.”

Consider also the Easter image an old gospel song declares:

“Many things about tomorrow
I don’t seem to understand;
But I know who holds tomorrow,
And I know who holds my hand.”

To become transparent to the light, we must have our images of Easter. There are many available, new ones all the time.

Consider these questions during the week ahead:

• What images of Easter help me to be transparent to the light?
• Do I need fresh images so that my faith can keep pace with my experience?
• Where in my life are these fresh Easter images available to me, images that will help me return, time and again, to believe in Jesus, to believe in God?

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Christopher Sikkema


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