Easter 4B: Yep, him too. Yep, her too. Yep, you too.
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Easter 4B: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Part of what we are up to in these fifty days after Easter is to really understand and learn to live from the gift of the resurrection. Easter is a season, not a day, a movement, not a moment and that’s because it takes us while to see and embody what it means to be an Easter people. It’s the work of discipleship and it lasts a lifetime. You may have noticed that our first reading—usually from the Old Testament—has been replaced during Eastertide by a series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles. That’s because Acts documents how the early Church lives, loves, struggles, and argues with one another after Jesus’ resurrection. Acts might not be the best history or geography lesson in the world (it was never intended to be), but it has lots to tell us about what it might mean to be an Easter people—people who live from the bracing freedom of Christ’s victory over death and who practice as a community living from abundance versus lack, love versus fear, forgiveness rather than vengeance and scapegoating violence.
The whole narrative sweep of Acts is important to understand. So often, we just hear little snippets (Pentecost, the Ascension, the martyrdom of Stephen, the conversion of Paul) and we don’t get a sense of the broader narrative purpose Luke is up to. Acts is really the second part of Luke’s gospel narrative—we have to read the two together to understand what the full force of the Easter message. Otherwise it just sounds like bad history written by a fantasy novelist with a penchant for the improbable. The basic arc of Acts can be summed up by those verses in Acts 10 spoken by Peter in his seismic encounter with the gentile centurion Cornelius: “…but God has shown me that I should not call any human common or unclean…. Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears hum and does what is right acceptable to him.” Up to this point, Peter was still operating under the old system of clean and unclean, insider and outsider, Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians, keeping kosher, or not. But his rooftop bedsheet smorgasbord vision—“What God has made, you must not call profane” (10:15)—reveals to him that in the light of Jesus’ resurrection that whole house of cards has lost its power and collapsed. All of Acts is the gradual, bumpy, one-step-forward-two-steps-back working out of the implications of this insight, that God shows no partiality, that God is God for us, all of us, and not just a group of privileged insiders.
Seen in this light, Acts starts to hang together in a new way. It becomes evident that the whole Spirit-driven story is about the early Church realizing that they are called to be a Church without walls, a Church where everyone is an unexpected insider, a child of God created in God’s image and likeness called to union and communion with the divine life. The narrative even starts, heaven forbid, to have a slightly comic tone to it. It’s as if the disciples run up against someone they’d prefer not to admit into the household of God and ask Him, “Are we really supposed to love this person too?” Time and again, God replies, “Yep. This person too.” “What about this guy?” “Yep. Him too.” “Her as well?” “Uh, let me think about it… yep her as well.” The Church starts to see with the eye of love, opened by the resurrection of Jesus, and it opens wider and wider and wider until it includes everyone. So when we hear about eunuchs being baptized in roadside puddles, or the walls of a prison tumbling down, or healings that re-establish not just physical well-being, but relationship with the community and a sense of the inherent dignity of each human being, it is all meant to show us that God’s all-inclusive, welcoming love is sweeping across the world like a wildfire and setting alight anything that destroys or distorts the children of God and God’s good creation.
With that basic shape of the story in mind we can turn to today’s reading. One of the things I’ve been recalling for myself about these first chapters in Acts is that they present us with the first five sermons ever preached in the Church. We hear first-hand Peter’s understanding of what it means to be an Easter person. He’s living out what we are living right now. His journey is our journey. And if you read through those first five sermons, I think you’ll see something pretty interesting—they all share a common theme. And what is that theme? That human beings kill and God gives life. That in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God has gifted to us a new way of being in the world that frees us from the trap of endless violence and revenge. Don’t believe me? Here are lines from each of those five sermons—
“…this man … you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up…” (Acts 2:23-24) “…and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:15); “…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10); “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30); “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…” (Acts 10:39-40).
The theme is pretty clear—human beings kill, but God gives new life. Humankind killed the messiah, but God raised Him to life.
We misunderstand completely if we think that “the Jews” killed Jesus. That’s not what Peter is up to here. The whole point of preaching the crucifixion is that it shows us our own enslavement to violent impulses. It’s hard look in the mirror and see our own hostility. As Gil Bailie writes in Violence Unveiled
The surest way to miss the link between the cure (the crucifixion and its aftereffects) and the disease (the structures of scapegoating violence upon which all human social arrangements have depended) is to read the passion story with an eye to locating and denouncing those most responsible for it. There is a deep irony in this. The fact that we automatically search the text — or the world outside the text — for culprits on whom to blame the crucifixion is proof that we are one of the culprits, for the crucifixion was demanded by those determined to find a culprit to blame or punish or expel.
Anytime we hear the word “the Jews” we should assume that it’s us being talked about. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as Walt Kelly wrote in his Pogo comic strip for Earth Day 1970.
So here is how this all hangs together. God’s deepest desire is to unite us with Godself, to fashion a truly human human community that lives no longer for itself, but to glorify God in the embodiment of peace, justice, reconciliation, and love. But we are addicted, from time immemorial to the nasty habit of thinking that scapegoating is the cure for all our ills. We secure temporary, tenuous peace in the backs of innocent victims whom we declare unclean, but the peace never lasts long. Sooner or later conflict arises and we have to find another scapegoat to avoid coming to blows.
The whole reason Peter is repeating this theme over and over in the first five sermons of the Church is that he has his finger on the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. In the crucifixion we see the cost of our addiction to violence. Jesus’ horrible, shameful death is a sign to us of our own attachment to unreality and self-enclosure. We are stuck. We can’t get out of the trap of violence by ourselves. God raises Jesus from the dead as a sign that there is another way, that love wins, that death and violence, scapegoating and the careful maintenance of a system of insiders and outsiders doesn’t have the last word or lead to human flourishing.
That’s how the resurrection actually saves us. Left to our devices, we’d just be running around in circles confident in the bloody illusion that all of our problems would vanish if we just found the right sacrificial victim to expel. God steps into that broken system to show a new way to be, a new ground from which to live. God does for us what we could never do for ourselves. God reveals to us in his Son something we could never dream up on our own. The birth of the church, as told in the narrative of Acts is all about what happens when we live from the ground of the Resurrected Jesus—the ground of freedom, forgiveness, all-inclusive love and seeing each person as precious, cherished, in God’s sight.
Eastertide is a season where we practice, like those first Christians we hear about in Acts, rooting ourselves in the Risen Jesus and listening to the voice that says, “Yep, him too. Yep, her too. Yep, you too.” There are all sorts of competing voices out there in our media-saturated world. The voice of the wolf calling for blood. The voice of the hired hand who will say whatever he needs to say to keep his job. These voices scatter us, pull us apart, set us one against the other, and leave us isolated, fearful, and lonely. The voice of the Good Shepherd is the voice that reminds us that in God there is no partiality. The voice of the Good Shepherd is the voice that sees everyone as a beloved child of God. The voice of the Good Shepherd is the voice that recognizes people as people not possessions, as fountains of life not objects for use, traffic, or trade.
Being Easter people means we are careful and discerning about what voice we listen to, and where we abide. When we learn to abide in Him, and make that abiding a habit, the voices of the wolf and the hired hand, the voice of the angry mob that cries out, “Crucify Him!” are heard for what they are—the fear-driven voice of something less than the full stature of our humanity to which we are called. Listen to His voice—it’s speaking now under the din and chatter in the silent depths of your heart. Know yourself to be known. Keep opening the eye of love. Abide in the fold that has no gate, the church that has no walls, and invite others to drink deeply from the source of true and abundant life.