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You Can't Stop Resurrection

. 11 min read
Thanks to Joel Shuman for stepping in at the last minute and preaching for us on April 3, the day after my father-in-law died. Appreciate that kind of flexibility and the gift of his message.
Acts 5:27-32
John 20:19-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the
council. The high priest questioned them,
saying, ‘We gave you
strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem
with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But
Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human
authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by
hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour,
so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are
witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to
those who obey him.’
The bad news is that I did not learn I was preaching this
morning until yesterday afternoon around 5:00. The good news is that I had
spent time over the second half of last week reading and commenting, as I often
do, on the sermon of a far better preacher than I am, from whom I am going to
borrow shamelessly this morning. God bless her sweet little heart, as they
might say down where she lives.
During the just-completed Lenten season, we spent a good deal of
time in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, where, as you may have noticed, the
gospel of the kingdom tends to be disruptive. Beginning with the Angel
Gabriel’s annunciation of the incarnation to the girl Mary and the
revolutionary battle cry of a song she sung out in response and concluding with
the arrest, execution, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the proclamation
that the kingdom of God has broken into history and is even now among us turns
all manner of things over onto their heads, from people’s lives to their ideas
about what is possible to the social, economic, and even the political order.
The gospel of the kingdom of God and the one who proclaimed and embodied it
leave virtually nothing in Creation unaffected. It—he—transforms us, which is,
in spite of the fact that it can be oh so discomfiting, a very good thing.

Take, for example, the resurrection. Resurrection does not make
any sense if you are playing by the rules of the world where most of us live
our day to day lives, which is one in which dead things stay dead. That’s the
definition of death—it is the end of life, and the beginning of a process of
decay from which there is no recovery. 
Entropy always wins. But then there
is this story, the one we began celebrating only a week ago, that breaks all the
rules.  It’s a disruption like no other.  In order for this story to
make sense to us, a whole mess of other assumptions have to be
re-evaluated.  Can our brains handle this new thing, where death is not
the end? Where the first are last and the last are first?  Where the
humble are exalted and the exalted humbled?  My brain hurts just thinking
about it. Is it any wonder that the religious authorities who confronted the
Apostles in today’s text—which is, by the way, a continuation of Luke’s
gospel—wanted to make it go away?   
My daughter Jessie, who is, for those of you who didn’t already know,
the “far better preacher” I mentioned earlier, has been living the past several
months with stories of disruption, culminating last month with a pilgrimage she
helped organize in cooperation with the School for Conversion, an amazing
ministry in Durham, North Carolina whose motto is “making surprising
friendships possible.” 
She and a busload
of 40 friends drove west on Interstate 40 toward Nashville to immerse themselves
in the untold history of the Civil Rights era, the period beginning in the late
1950s following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which at least formally outlawed
segregation in public schools in the United States.  Their pilgrimage traced
the emerging consciousness of African Americans in this country as they learned
to insist upon being afforded the same dignity, respect, and economic
opportunity as whites. They learned about boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, and
Freedom Rides across the South.  They listened to painful stories of
violent backlash against the non-violent protests.
Jessie writes,
“For me, the most painful part of these journeys was the
realization that ‘my people (that is, good white Christians… like most of us)
don’t come out looking so hot in these stories.  Perhaps it was the way I
was taught history, [or] perhaps it was a coping mechanism, but until these
trips it was easy for me to assume that the forces opposing Reconstruction and
Civil Rights in this country were a bunch of bad apples who wore white hoods
and had secret meetings.  It wasn’t good, sweet upper-and-middle class
white… Protestants like us—until it was.  My first instinct is to push
these people as far away from myself as possible to swear that they are not
like me, but right now I’m trying to sit with the discomfort of the truth that
they were like me.  It’s one of
those maxims (likely said by someone famous) that those who fail to reckon with
their past are doomed to repeat it.”
In the Christian Ethics courses I teach, one of the things I try
to make my students understand is that any moral argument worth its salt takes
the opposing point of view seriously, which is something that often begins by
trying to see things from the perspective of one’s adversary.  Jessie recently told me that one of her
spiritual disciplines during this election cycle has been a commitment to
putting herself in another’s shoes and trying to see the world from their
perspective before she jumps to vilifying them.  And so, in an attempt to
understand her Southern Protestant ancestors, she’s been engaging in a bit of
perspective shifting these last several weeks.
One of her exercises has been to imagine herself in the place of
a young, white, Christian woman living in the American South in the early 1960s
whose entire world has been shaped around a narrative of separation that
justifies having no contact with the members of her community with skin darker
skin than her own apart from domestic help like housekeepers and gardeners. 
She has been taught from childhood, even in church, that separation is the way
things are supposed to be, the proper order of things. Suddenly, all of that is
being called into question. Talk about integration is scary, and she’s not sure
how she’s supposed to feel about eating and worshipping alongside black folks, or
having her kids going to school with “those” kids.  From our perspective
here in 2016, we can see what white flight to the suburbs and the rise of
private Christian schools was really about, but for that woman, whose world was
rapidly coming undone, perhaps those things were simply a way to make sense of
a world that seemed to be changing way too fast and disrupting the narrative
she had lived her entire life.
Can you see how such disruptions might be scary?  Even when
we stand back from them and see that they may very well be God’s way of moving
the world in the direction of the beloved community that is the first fruits of
his peaceable kingdom, our instinct to make them go away is as real and as
human as instincts get.  So now, think about how strange it would have
been to live 2000 years ago when a Galilean peasant showed up proclaiming God’s
reign and declaring that he was the
fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  If you’re getting along just
fine with life as it is, thank you very much, you might not take too kindly to
one who reinterprets your faith in a way that turns the whole world upside
down, including more than a little affirmative action for the poor and
disenfranchised.  The news that he has come to lift up the lowly and bring
the rich down sound more like fighting words than good news if you’re sitting
comfortably on the top rung of history’s ladder.  If you’re a religious
leader who is accustomed to the masses coming to you to narrate their world,
and suddenly they’re flocking to a person who is offering nothing less than
unlimited forgiveness, unconditional love, and full membership in God’s beloved
community as a way of life, then the story we read ten days ago about that
person being betrayed by a kiss, enduring a charade of a trial, and suffering
torture and execution, somehow takes on a different kind of meaning.
And then there’s the resurrection. Just when you thought you had
the problem taken care of, there are rumors around town that the corpse you put
in the tomb didn’t stay dead. He had
emerged from the tomb and was walking around.  They say he met with his
disciples and gave them his power, something that seems plausible given that
they are suddenly completely unafraid even of death. Because they believe they
have been called and empowered to finish what their leader began, these crazy
fools are proclaiming his kingdom and setting up a whole new alternative to the
society for which you’re responsible.  Those who have become part of that
new society are worshipping this guy and calling him Lord and Savior—titles
that up to that time had been reserved for the God of Israel and Caesar, who
thought he was a god. 
They’ve established communities in which everyone has enough and
no one has too little.  They’ve taken the entire religious tradition for
which you are responsible and upon which you’ve based your life and career, and
they’ve interpreted it in light of this new thing they call resurrection. 
They’ve placed women and some of the vilest transgressors of the law in positions
of leadership. They’ve attracted masses of people with their “good news.”
  You’ve tried to get them to stop, going so far as to put them in
jail—but the movement they represent is unstoppable. 
Today’s lesson depicts just one of these moments of attempted
silencing, and it highlights these two worldviews coming to a terrible
collision.  On the one side are the religious leaders: “We told you to
stop this madness.  This is not how the world works!” On the other side
are Peter and the apostles: “This is how
the world works. Resurrection is real, and it changes everything.  You
can’t stop the movement of God and you can’t stop us from proclaiming it!”
 On the one hand, the resurrection is scary and disruptive.  On the
other hand, it is the mystery that makes possible a whole new world—what Saint
Paul called a “New Creation”—where things are governed by love and mercy and
justice.  
Standing here two thousand years later, in a place that exists because of the resurrection, we might
wonder how anyone could ever reject this good news.  The hymns we so boldly
sing during this Easter season attest to this.  This is our story, the one
around which we have framed our lives, the one that makes sense of everything
else. And yet, if we allow ourselves a moment of candor, I suspect that most of
us find ourselves wavering somewhere between the Apostles’ wholehearted embrace
of a resurrection gospel and the religious leaders’ fearful rejection of it.
  We are human, after all.  This story we claim is a huge disruption,
and to the extent that we benefit from the order of the old age, the
resurrection threatens us.
As we hear these stories of the religious leaders’ attempts to
silence the apostles, and place them alongside other stories, such as the story
of the Southern white Christians who opposed the Civil Rights movement, or the
stories of those in our own day whose hate-and-fear based rhetoric encourages
violence, suspiciousness, and victim shaming, I wonder if we might risk
self-reflection to see what movements unfolding around us make us feel so afraid
and threatened that we reject the disruptions of God’s reign in favor of the
security of the old age.  Are we yet so afraid of death and so enmeshed in
the world of self-preservation that we push against the gospel values of
hospitality, generosity, and grace?  Does the modern civil rights movement
and the cries of young activists of color in our country who desire to live
free from fear and with equal economic opportunity challenge the comfort and
privilege of our lives in such a way that we want to shut it down?  Does
the gospel we proclaim have enough room for everyone to thrive, to be seen as nothing
less than women and men made in the image of God? Do our lives as Christians
living in community together witness to a different way of being that embraces
those who are not yet here and that there is enough in Christ and more than
enough for us to share freely and generously? I can’t answer those questions
for you, but I know myself well enough to admit that there are plenty of places
that my own life is still dominated by fear and a sense of scarcity and a need
for security.  There are plenty of days that I am no different than those
original disciples, hiding out in the upper room, cowering in fear, wondering
what this story of means, wishing that I could go back to a time when things
made sense.
Whatever fears might tempt us to linger in the old age rather
than fully embracing the age of resurrection, we may take comfort from one
fundamental truth. The movement of God toward the healing of Creation has never
once been bound by the barriers put in its path; not by stones rolled in front
of tombs, not by locked doors, not by religious leaders or people in power in
any time or place.  We might yet have instincts to silence and run away from
this crazy disruption brought about by the resurrection, but this short story
from Acts that is today’s scripture lesson remind us that God’s work of truth
and justice and life and peace can’t be stopped.  It is a pesky and
resilient and powerful movement.  It’s a God thing, and as much as it
would not be tamed by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, neither can it be
tamed by you or me or anyone else.  Once it is embraced it becomes the
seed for an entirely new way of being in the world, it creates a community that makes
possible a life of fearless generosity.  Although it disrupts the way
“things have always been,” which is at first a scary and threatening thing, once
it is embraced you wonder how you ever lived life without it.
Jessie wrote that at the end of last week as she was driving
back into North Carolina from her brief sojourn in these parts, something
caught her eye just as she crossed the state line.  It was a plant called kudzu. 
Kudzu is a vine that grows uncontrollably. It is not native to North America,
and its existence has been a disruption to horticulturalists all over the South
since it arrived.  Kudzu came into North America as a seed, one that slips
into the cracks and crevices of this world, and once it takes root it cannot be
stopped. It is a pesky, resilient, and powerful plant. 
The gospel of the kingdom and the resurrection that establishes
it is a little bit like kudzu.  We can do our best to tame it and contain
it, but once it has slipped into the cracks of our lives it will not be stopped
until it has completely filled us.  God is God and God wins this
story.  The One who began a good work—in the act and sustaining of Creation,
in redeeming Israel, in sending Jesus to live, die, and rise again, and whose
Holy Spirit now lives and intercedes for us in this world will bring it to completion.

And so my prayer today is that we who come to this Table to see with our
eyes and touch with our hands the broken, poured out, yet risen for our sake
body and blood of our Lord might have this truth planted deeply within us, so
that the fearlessness of Peter, the hospitality and grace of the first apostles,
and the power of our resurrected Lord might spill forth from our lives with
great joy and without fear, on this day and every day.  In the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.