Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016 Year C
Text: Acts 5:12-20[21-32]; John 20:19-31
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
This Easter season the lectionary focuses almost exclusively on three books of Scripture. The first and second readings each Sunday come from the books of Acts and Revelation, neither of which are really Old Testament books or epistles as is typical for most of the Church Year. The Gospel lessons come mainly from St. John’s account of our Savior’s life, death, and resurrection. The Gospel lesson of the season recounts either stories of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to His apostles or promises He made prior to His death and resurrection about how He would care for His Church even after He is taken from them. The book of Acts shows how these promises were fulfilled in the early days of the New Testament Church as she gathered around her Lord’s gifts, and the book of Revelation shows how Christ will continue to keep these promises even to the end of this World and through eternity.
Today we are reminded that the resurrected Lord is not bound. First, I’d like to go back to something I said in passing last week, that we do well to ponder as it relates to what we just heard in our readings. On Easter I mentioned that the stone was rolled away for our sake and not for Christ’s. This can be shown from the scriptures themselves. Only Matthew records the actual event of the stone being rolled away. The other evangelists simply recount that it had happened. The women showed up and the stone was no longer where it had been. But Matthew tells us how that came to be. He writes:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. (Matthew 28:1-2, ESV)
Never in all of Scripture do the angels sit in the presence of God. If the angel came down to roll the stone away from the tomb in order that Jesus could emerge victorious from the tomb, he would not have sat. He would have stood, flown, or most likely of all fell down on his face and worshipped the King of Heaven and Earth. When dawn breaks and the angel rolls the stone away, Jesus has already departed from the abode of death. He is already making full use of the exaltation given to Him by the Father whereby He takes up the life that He has laid down and makes full use of His omnipresence so that He mysteriously and gloriously is not confined to the tomb, yet does not cease His incarnation. He leaves the tomb before it is ever opened, for all things are open to Him.
Now some may object and say this doesn’t make sense. To which I would respond, “Who says God needs to make sense?” Jesus is not bound to your reason any more than He is bound to the grave. Do not think that Jesus can only do what makes sense to you, for then you have to throw out half of the Scriptures and the half that remains will become meaningless because it will be ripped from Christ who is at their center and gives them meaning. Jesus is able to walk out of the closed tomb just as easily as He walks through the closed door to greet the disciples on the evening of that same day. He can be locked in no more than He can be shut out.
And where He wills He gives this same freedom to His Church. When the apostles are placed in prison, no one would think to look for them the next morning in the temple courts teaching the people. That wouldn’t make sense. Yet an angel of the Lord opens the doors of the prison and brings them out. Luke incidentally makes it clear that it was not a faulty door or lock that made the apostles’ escape possible. For the next morning when the officers go to retrieve them they are forced to report back to the high priest that “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” The Lord who cannot be bound also frees His people.
But even more significant than the freedom bestowed on the apostle’s bodies is the freedom given to their mouths, which pour forth more freedom. The angel who releases them from jail tells Peter and his companions: “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”
The disciples are released from bondage themselves to preach the liberating Word of the Gospel to all the people. Just as the empty tomb revealed that death had no hold on Jesus, the empty jail serves the purpose of making known to the people of Jerusalem, and ultimately to you, that death has no hold on those who believe in Christ. Here the disciples are to carry out that task for which they were commissioned on the evening of the resurrection—to forgive the sins of all who repent.
The Holy Spirit who was breathed out on the apostles on Easter continues to work through them so that those who by the power of sin are bound to die might share with Christ the freedom He has won for them. One day you will die. And Christian have historically preferred burial to other modes of dealing with the body. The pagans would burn the body so that it could pass through the fire into some other existence; the mystics of the New Age seek to live on in nature by having their ashes scattered over some familiar place; but Christians have buried their dead because we know that we do not escape death by hiding from, or seeking to live on outside of the body. We bury our dead because we know by the sure and certain word of God that not even 6 feet of dirt over a concrete vault around a wooden box will be able to keep Jesus from raising you. And I suspect that on the last day the only reason there will be for the graves to be open will be for the devil to see that the coffins are empty. You will have already been given life. Your body will be raised imperishable and reunited with your soul that has rested in God’s care according to the Scriptures which promise: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 1:7) Then the boundless power of Jesus will be made known for all to see. Blessed are you who have not yet seen and yet have believed.
I will readily admit that the Gospel does not make sense. But I will also point out that the world makes no better sense. Evolution and creation are equally beyond the means of confirmation by scientific experiments. The one flesh union of a man and woman joined in marriage may not make sense to our limited minds, but reason can no better justify gender identification apart from the body given by God. It seems that the reason and virtues upon which western civilization has long been established are fading from our time. Likely we will have to stand with countless Christians in other lands and from other times who have confessed before the pressures of those who do not know Christ that we must obey God rather than men. We may be put in prison like the apostles, or exiled like John on the Island of Patmos. And yet we can know that Jesus Christ who has created and redeemed us is not prevented from coming to us. He holds the keys not only to every locked door and jail cell, but to death and hell. His Word liberates you today just as it liberated those in Jerusalem who were brought out from under the Law and were added to the Lord through the testimony of the Apostles.
Jesus gives us no firm word on when He will release those in jail and when He will let them remain. He doesn’t tell us how many will fall under the Jihadist’s blade. He doesn’t tell us how many lawsuits will come or how many laws will be passed mocking Jesus’ Word and His Church, but He does promise that His Holy Spirit is given to those who have His Word. Where the Word of God is, there Christ will call men into the ministry of forgiving sins; and when those men speak on earth the forgiving Word of Jesus, it is just as valid and certain on earth and in heaven as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with You Himself. Your sins, your doubts, your failings, are forgiven. You are released from them. And with no sin, then death and the grave will not be able to hold you either. We know this because Christ was raised from the dead.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria