Monday, April 28, 2014

Sermon. Second Sunday of Easter. The Rev. Rick O'Brien. Christ Church Episcopal, Las Vegas, NV.

I love the Acts of the Apostles.  It always seems to me like the old serials you used to see at the Saturday matinee movies.  Remember Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers?  Each episode featured one of our heroes getting into danger, rescuing a damsel in distress, and otherwise frustrating the plans of the villain.  There was drama, action, and a cliffhanger ending that always left you wanting to know what would come next!  While it may seem a bit blasphemous to some, that is the way I think of Acts.  We have our intrepid band of Apostles, journeying into the world; sometimes getting into danger, rescuing people from a life apart from Christ, and generally frustrating the plans of the Pharisees.  Sometimes our star is Paul, other times Barnabas, or Steven or Phillip.  In today’s episode, Peter is our leading man, accompanied by the other 11, the cast of supporting players.

Our story opens with Peter boldly addressing the crowd, confidently telling them of Jesus; how he had fulfilled the scriptures, and how he was raised from the dead.  “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day.  But this Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”  Peter is self-assured and quite powerful in addressing this crowd, almost as if he is accustomed to public speaking.

But I marvel at the change in this simple fisherman from Galilee.  Peter had always been one of Jesus’ inner circle, but he was singularly unimpressive in many areas.  He never quite understood what Jesus was teaching.  He was a man prone to stumbling as he did when he tried to walk to Jesus across the water, only to sink and need to be saved.  He was rebuked by Jesus when he tried to forbid the Lord from washing his feet.  He reverted to the sword when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and had to be restrained with a word from the Lord.    And of course, he ultimately denied Jesus three times just hours after he had sworn to follow him even unto death.  Yes, Peter was all-too human, with all of our failings and foibles.  He is such a wonderful character that, had he not already existed, you could easily see how a Hollywood writer would have had to create him and set him up as the unlikeliest of heroes.  Peter was a great example of Jesus’ phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” 

And yet this simple uneducated fisherman, who we know was very human and weak, now stood and boldly addressed the people.  How was this possible?  What had happened that could bring about such a transformation in this exceedingly average man?

We spoke last week of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s concept of another trinity being the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Let’s see if we can apply this to Peter.  Through the incarnation Jesus took on our form and became human that he could live and work among us truly as one of us. He lived a quiet life in Nazareth and didn’t attract any notice until he began his public ministry at the wedding at Cana.  He called Peter and the disciples and began to preach throughout Judea of God’s plan.  But it was not the fact that Peter lived with and learned directly from Jesus of Nazareth.  We see time and again that Peter, in fact all of the disciples continually missed the point of Jesus teachings, even though they were with him every day for years.  So it was clearly not the incarnation that brought about this change in Peter.

Perhaps then it was the arrest and the crucifixion that changed Peter?  Well, we have already discussed how Peter tried to mistakenly take up the sword to defend Jesus at the arrest, and then chose to deny him in a very human effort to save his own skin.  As for the crucifixion, Peter wasn’t even there.  The gospels teach us that Jesus was abandoned by most of the disciples, including Peter.  Only the women and John stayed by his side and followed him as he carried his cross to Golgotha. Peter and the other disciples had run away, afraid that they too might be arrested and tried by the authorities.  No, it seems that the arrest and the crucifixion didn’t bring about the change we see in Peter.

And so we get to the heart of the matter.  If it wasn’t the incarnation, and it wasn’t the crucifixion, perhaps it was the resurrection of Jesus?  Now we have our answer.  The experience of the physical Jesus didn’t do it, the arrest and the crucifixion didn’t do it, but the experience of the resurrected Jesus had changed Peter and the disciples.  For now Peter knew that Jesus was indeed the son of God and that the resurrection was a divine act.  He and his fellow apostles finally understood what Jesus had been talking about; that nothing was impossible for God and all had gone according to His divine plan.  The son of Man had to die that he could rise again and reconcile us to God.  Our salvation had been assured by Jesus’ death and resurrection and since He had conquered death, we had no more need to fear it.  Peter himself tells us that in the epistle as he says “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” 

Truly a huge change had come over Peter.  He went from being a fragile man consumed by all of our human concerns, to a confident believer who claimed his share of Jesus resurrection and preached His word boldly to all who would listen.  The resurrection changed Peter forever in ways he would never have imagined. 

How has the resurrection changed you?  What has it meant to you in your own life?  We are an Easter people and we know that the resurrection changed the course of everything.  But what does that mean to you on a personal level?  Have you claimed your share of Jesus death and resurrection?  And if you have, how has that changed your life?  What do you do with your faith that proclaims Jesus as Lord?  I am asking a lot of questions of you because we all need to ask ourselves these questions.  How have I been changed by the resurrection and more importantly, what am I going to do about it?

Thankfully we are not often called to stand among a hostile crowd and proclaim our faith.  But we do find ourselves presented with more subtle opportunities every day.  It may be a comment from a coworker, or a question from a friend.  It may be an opportunity to do a simple act of kindness for a stranger or a chance to offer compassion for someone who is hurting.  I cannot tell you how it will occur, but you will have opportunities that will test your faith and your convictions.  You may not even recognize them when they happen, but only in hindsight will you see the choice that was presented to you.  When they do arise, may the resurrected Jesus give each of us the strength that He gave to Peter; that we may rise to the challenge and proclaim our faith in our words and our actions.  Then we too will be living out our calling to preach the gospel to the world.