Happy Easter! We’re now in our second week of Easter, which on the church calendar lasts for a few more weeks yet – and rightfully so, because we as Christians are Easter people. We believe in resurrection. We believe in hope, and in life. We believe that death is not the final reality.
We are an Easter people, but we live in a Good Friday world.
We know that Jesus rose from the dead, but most of the world isn’t so sure about that. People may think Jesus was a great teacher, who set a good example for us to follow, but who sadly died a horrible death and that was it. Their story stops at Good Friday at the Cross. But we are an Easter people.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, our faith is worthless and we’re wasting our time sitting here in church today.
But for those who believe, we know there were hundreds of eye-witnesses to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. And for those who believe, Jesus says we are blessed.
The apostle Thomas was one of those believers. In our reading from the gospel of John today we see Thomas wrestling with a crisis of faith. Thomas loved Jesus – Thomas even offered to die with Jesus. But when Jesus died on the cross, Thomas wasn’t ready for that. In his shock and in his sorrow he got stuck in a Good Friday mode and couldn’t move past it. Even when the rest of the disciples saw Jesus and became Easter people, Thomas was still in too much pain to get past Good Friday.
Until he had his ‘Easter moment’. That ‘Easter moment’ – when we see Jesus for who he is, and believe in him and put our faith in him – comes at different times and in different ways for all of us, and Jesus understands that.
And just as a side note: Thomas says at one point ‘if I see I will believe’ – nowhere in scripture does God or Jesus say ‘if you see you will believe’. In fact scripture often points says it’s unbelievers who look for things that they can see. Scripture says “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” When Thomas finally does see Jesus, Jesus speaks to him and invites him to touch his wounds. Hearing, and touching… with every sense involved… finally Thomas is able to say with Easter joy, “My Lord and My God!”
And Jesus answers, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” I used to think Jesus was speaking to us sort of over Thomas’ shoulder – saying to us ‘you are blessed because you haven’t seen but yet you believe’. And in a way that’s true. But I think Jesus also said it as a way to say to Thomas ‘when you go out and start sharing the good news with others, your hearers will believe, even without having seen me. And they will be blessed.’
And you and I can expect the same thing when we share what we know and what we have experienced about Jesus. Others will believe without having seen; others will be blessed, and others will become Easter people too.
But all of this is just the beginning. As Easter people, we have a hope and a future – which Jesus says is ‘for those who believe’. For those who believe, there are promises God gives – in both of our readings today. Promises that bring joy, and as it says in scripture, ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength’.
The first promise, found in our passage from John, is peace, which God gives. Three times in this passage Jesus says “Peace be with you”. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we can have peace with God and a living relationship with Jesus.
And there are lots more promises found in our reading from I Peter.
I Peter is a book written for Easter people who are living in a Good Friday world. When Peter wrote this letter he was writing to a church that was facing persecution. In fact he was writing, rather than visiting as he wanted to, because the believers had moved – they’d been forced out of their homes, and moved hundreds of miles away to get away from people who wanted to kill them.
Sounds like what we hear in the news almost every day doesn’t it? In a world where Palm Sunday celebrations are turned into bloodshed for our Egyptian brothers and sisters… where a Haitian church in Canada was set on fire on Good Friday… Peter’s words speak to us, where we are: as Easter people in a Good Friday world.
Peter’s words in this letter ring with Easter joy, even in the middle of dark days. He begins his letter to the persecuted church with these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
How can he say this in such a dark time? He goes on to explain why: “According to [God’s] great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”
In one sentence Peter takes us from Good Friday to Easter. But there’s so much in this sentence we need to unpack it a bit.
Peter says God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.” We talked about the phrase ‘born again’ a few weeks ago when we talked about Nicodemus. Being ‘born again’ is not joining a socio-political movement. Being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ is what defines a Christian. We literally are Easter people, given a brand new beginning by God’s mercy and power.
Jesus’ resurrection opens the door. Paul says in I Corinthians 15, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
This living hope that Jesus brings means our sins are forgiven. It means we can live our daily lives in relationship with the Living God. It means the Holy Spirit marks us as God’s own. It means that our lives have eternal meaning and purpose. It means we have been born into the family of God, so that all other Christians are our brothers and sisters, literally. These are just a few of the riches that become ours through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This is why Jesus calls us ‘blessed’.
And more than that: the same God who brought Jesus from death to life holds our lives in His hands. This is the foundation of our hope. Peter also says we are born into “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”
We can’t inherit something unless someone dies, but Jesus has died – and risen again – and now he shares His inheritance with us. Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.” This is our inheritance.
And it is being kept, Peter says, guarded by God. A little later on Peter says “you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for salvation” – so both the inheritance and the inheritors are being guarded by God. The word Peter uses for guarded in the Greek has military meaning. It’s like God has a group of soldiers guarding us (only God’s soldiers are angels!) – God has set up a perimeter around us that nothing can break through. Our inheritance and our salvation are absolutely secure and nothing can snatch us from God’s hands. In Romans 8 Paul says:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is what it means to be Easter people.
Christian salvation is not about saying “I hope I make it.” And it’s not – like some people say – “I’ve been a good person, I’ve never killed anybody”. This kind of thinking is a Good Friday mindset – it’s a mindset that says we have to depend on ourselves to be good enough because Jesus is dead and he can’t help us.
Easter people say, “Salvation doesn’t depend on me – it depends on God.” It depends on what Jesus did on the cross, and on Jesus’ resurrection, and the fact that he’s alive now, today. Jesus is keeping the inheritance for us – guarded by His hands and by His angels. We are safe. No matter what happens, and no matter what we see around us, and no matter what the Good Friday people think. This is our hope, which we hold onto by faith, kept by the one who loves us.
Peter goes on to answer his readers’ questions about what to think about the difficulties and trials that come our way in this world. He says:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while… you have been grieved by various trials… so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may… result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
The trials we go through as Christians, because of our faith in Jesus, will only last a little while, Peter says. He doesn’t make light of them. He doesn’t say they don’t hurt. In fact, Peter uses the word “grieved” – and life’s hardships do bring us grief.
But Peter says our faith is being refined like gold in the refiner’s fire. It’s being purified.
And it’s also being documented, he says. When we respond with faith to the trials that come – God writes that down in His book. And when Jesus returns, the books will be opened, and our faith will result in praise and glory and honor, for us.
I’m reminded of the family whose father was killed this past week in Ohio, and his death was put on Facebook. This man’s family are Christians, and one of his daughters said to the press:
“Each one of us forgives the killer.” She said: “The thing that I would take away the most from my father is he taught us about God. How to fear God. How to love God. And how to forgive.”
She went on to offer words of kindness to the killer’s family.
Peter says God is writing these words down in his book. And can you imagine the honor and glory that will be given to this family in the Kingdom of Heaven?
For each of us – our faithfulness, and our hope, in all of life’s trials, will be our glory and our honor when Jesus returns.
Peter says: “Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”
Living in God’s power, and not in our own, makes us Easter people. In a Good Friday world, God’s Easter light shines through us, showing the world there is another way, something beyond the darkness, and despair, and death of Good Friday.
We are an Easter people: a beacon of hope in a Good Friday world. Let that light shine. [AMEN.]
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/23/17
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 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, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith– being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire– may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” – I Peter 1:3-9
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20:19-31