Scripture readings: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
I missed out on the chance to say “Happy Easter” to you all last week, so: Happy Easter! I hope everybody had a good holiday last week.
Today being the Sunday after Easter, it’s traditionally kind of quiet in the church, kind of like the Sunday after Christmas. But the Christmas season actually lasts for twelve days, and the Easter season technically lasts for fifty! So the celebrations aren’t over yet. Our scripture readings for today are still about Easter. And Easter is the heart and soul of our faith. We are a resurrection people.
I wanted to include all three scripture readings today because they reinforce each other, and taken together they point to three things about Jesus: three things that could start with the phrase “Jesus is…”
The first thing – which we already know, but it bears repeating – is “Jesus is… alive.” Jesus’ resurrection is mentioned by Luke in our passage from Acts, and by John in the book of Revelation and also in the passage from John’s gospel for this morning.
I want to start with John’s words because John knew Jesus personally. Luke never met Jesus (Luke was friends with the disciples) but John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and ministry. John was there when Jesus blessed the children. He saw Jesus heal a man in synagogue, and he was there when the religious leaders confronted Jesus about healing on the Sabbath and Jesus answered, “which is better to do on the Sabbath: to kill or to heal?” John saw Jesus moved to tears at the death of Lazarus, and weeping over Jerusalem.
John loved being with Jesus. He was convinced Jesus was the Messiah – the main theme of his whole gospel is about Jesus being the Son of God. And he was devastated, along with the rest of the disciples, when Jesus was arrested and crucified. It was like the light had gone out of the world.
The disciples didn’t understand right away that Jesus had been in control of the whole situation. In fact Jesus told the disciples he would be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 9:31-32), but they didn’t understand right away.
So John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and to Jesus’ death. And he was an eyewitness to the events in our readings for today. John tells us after Jesus’ death the disciples were hiding out from the authorities in a locked room of a house, when all of a sudden Jesus was there among them! How Jesus got into the locked room, scripture doesn’t say… it seems resurrection bodies can do some things our earthly bodies can’t. But there he was!
Imagine for a moment, what it would be like if one of our loved ones who has passed suddenly came back and walked into our house and started talking to us! What a joy that would be, and how speechless we would be! That’s how it was for the disciples. They gathered around Jesus, hugging him, touching him, looking at his wounds (at his invitation: “Look at my hands, look at my feet.”)
And then as the group settled down a little, Jesus told them their mission wasn’t over. In fact it was just starting. Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Jesus didn’t send them out right away – he spent another forty days or so with the disciples, in Galilee, teaching them, answering their questions – but this was going to be a whole new beginning for their ministry.
Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15 that over 500 believers saw Jesus alive during his time in Galilee. But the rest of the world didn’t know about Jesus’ resurrection yet. But then Jesus returned to heaven, and it was time for the disciples to tell the world.
Not long after this the events in our passage from Acts took place. According to Acts 5, when the disciples started teaching at the temple in Jerusalem, they soon found themselves in hot water with the temple authorities. What happened was this: the disciples got into the habit of meeting on the eastern porch of the temple every day, teaching the people and healing. As a result of their ministry, more and more people became believers in Jesus. People started bringing the sick and the demon-possessed from the towns and the countryside all around Jerusalem, and the disciples healed them all.
When the high priest and the Sadducees saw all this, and how many people the disciples were attracting, scripture says they were jealous. (Mind you, the high priest and the Sadducees didn’t want to actually do what the disciples were doing. They didn’t want to touch sick people, or teach the word of God to the people of God – they just wanted to have lots of followers, and the power and money that comes from having lots of followers… but I digress…)
So the high priest and the Sadducees, being jealous, had the disciples arrested and thrown in prison. But an angel from God went to the prison, got the disciples out, and told them, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the words of this life.” So they went. They went up to the temple at daybreak and kept on teaching. Later in the day when the high priest sent to have them brought to the council, the temple police went to the jail and found nobody there! They found the disciples in the temple, teaching. And they were afraid because of the crowds, so they brought the disciples very gently and respectfully to the high priest and the council.
This is where our scripture reading for today picks up the story. The high priest says to them, “we told you not to teach in this name, but you are filling Jerusalem with your teaching and you’re blaming us for Jesus’ death.” But they answered “who should we obey, God or human authority? This Jesus, who you nailed to a cross, has been raised to life… and we are eyewitnesses….”
That’s the whole point of the story. Jesus is alive, and there are lots of eyewitnesses! Peter and the disciples are not trying to blame the high priest for Jesus’ death… they’re saying the plans they hatched didn’t work. The authorities killed Jesus but he didn’t stay dead! That’s good news… and the high priest and the council are trying to silence it. So they had the disciples flogged and told them not to preach any more in Jesus’ name.
Not a chance that was going to happen.
The disciples went out and gave the same message to the people that they had given to the council, which was: “God has exalted Jesus at His right hand as Lord and Saviour to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus is alive. John says the same thing in the passage from Revelation, when he calls Jesus “the firstborn of the dead”. (Rev 1:5) And in John’s gospel, Jesus says to Thomas, “do not doubt but believe… and blessed are those who don’t see but yet believe.”
Jesus is… alive.
The second thing the disciples tells us in our readings is: Jesus is… Lord.
John says in Revelation 1:5: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness… ruler of the kings of the earth.” In Acts 5, Peter says, “God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Lord and savior…” The disciple Thomas, when he sees Jesus alive, cries out “My Lord and my God!”
In our world someone who is a ‘lord’ is a ruler, or a commander. And in this world we live in, authorities can be problematic. But not so with our Lord Jesus. Jesus once said to the disciples:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors’. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26)
As Jesus’ disciples, we are saved by a servant-king, and we are not motivated by fear, but by love and loyalty. With joy we can say, “Jesus is Lord”.
The third thing the disciples tell us today is: Jesus is… calling.
Jesus’ call is a call to repentance. To repent means to have a change of heart, to turn to a new direction. It includes admitting where we’ve been wrong, where we’ve made mistakes, confessing our sins to God and (when necessary) to each other. But the aim of repentance and confession is not to put ourselves on a guilt trip. The goal is forgiveness and restoration of relationships.
God calls us to change direction, to ‘do a 180’ as the kids would say. To turn away from the things that cause death, and move towards life, and the Source of life. God’s call is a joyful call, to health and to wholeness and to eternal life with God.
To repent means to stop putting our faith in things that can’t save us, like money, or power, or politicians, or religious leaders for that matter. Repentance means making Jesus #1 in our lives, and setting aside anything that gets in the way of that.
And ultimately Jesus’ call is a call to service. John says in our passage from Revelation, [Jesus has] “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” We are called into the service of the Almighty!
Whenever the Bible talks about serving God it kind of reminds me of British TV shows like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs – those grand houses with all the servants. We Americans generally aren’t comfortable with the idea of being servants, but in England in those days the servants of a great house considered it an honor to serve a great family. And the greater the family, the greater the honor. Even today, if you or I were asked to be on staff at Buckingham Palace we would consider it an honor. And before think our American way of life is all that different, which has more prestige: a job at the University of Pittsburgh, or a job at McDonalds?
To be a servant of the Most High God is the greatest honor there is.
As God’s servants, we are commissioned to take God’s message of love and repentance and redemption to people who desperately need to hear it. To call others to faith, and forgiveness, and discipleship. Jesus says, “as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”
So Jesus is alive, Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is calling.
One last thing all three passages have in common: they all mention the Holy Spirit. We are not called to serve God in our own power – in fact we really can’t. The business of heaven requires the power and the wisdom and the love of heaven.
Peter says in Acts, “we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” When Jesus comes to the disciples, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is not religious language for something like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars. It’s not a figure of speech – the Holy Spirit is a reality, as real as Jesus’ resurrection. Whenever we set out to do what Jesus asks us to do, we need the Spirit to bring it to life.
We pray for the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate and guide, our teacher, the one who gives us gifts to use in ministry (which is another whole sermon for another day). But John and Luke mention the Holy Spirit for a reason… because the Spirit is a necessity. And the Holy Spirit is ours because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So Jesus is alive. Jesus is Lord. And Jesus is calling us, and all people, to believe the good news: death is dead, we are forgiven, and heaven is open. Believe, change direction, and follow Jesus. That’s his call, and that’s our message for the world. AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/3/16