Monday, April 23, 2007

From Wishful Thinking to Hopeful Acting

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow! (Hymn 192, The Hymnal 1982)

It would be nice if for once the world cooperated with our 50 days of Easter rejoicing. Away with sin and sorrow! Couldn’t we accomplish that for just 50 days?

Not these 50 days, clearly, nor any Easter that has ever been. We may wish to brush sin and sorrow away, but they will not be brushed. So is our joyful Eastertide just wishful thinking?

When we proclaim, as we do in the preface of the Eucharistic prayer during Eastertide, that “by his death he has destroyed death,” are we just wishful thinking?

What does it mean for us to proclaim that death has been destroyed in a world where death is very, very real, and clearly “alive and well”?

Does Easter have any real meaning in the face of a tragedy like Virginia Tech?

There is a sense in which Jesus himself acknowledges the problem. In our first reading this morning, the risen Jesus appears to Saul, who is “breathing threats and murder” against Jesus’ disciples. Jesus identifies himself as the one whom Saul is persecuting. In another telling of the story later in Acts (26:12-18), Paul says Jesus declared to him, “It hurts for you to kick against the goads.”

This is a protest from Jesus risen from the dead, fresh from what we call the destruction of death, but clearly still subject even himself to the effects of sin and sorrow, threats and murder.

Clearly the resurrection did not “destroy death,” or even sin, by simply making it go away, or even by ending its power over human life. So how then can we say this with any honesty? How is death destroyed?

First of all just in the ongoing presence of Jesus. Certainly we do have faith that Jesus himself has destroyed at least his own death. “Death no longer has dominion over him,” as Paul says elsewhere (Romans 6:9). God is alive, and so one of the chaplains at Virginia Tech said this week that the one thing he could say with certainty to members of that community despite what had happened is that, “God is even here.” That alone is good news worth telling.

But it is not enough yet, because there is the further question of, “What about us?”

There are two answers to this question, both of them right and important. They are found in our other two readings this morning.

The first answer is about a vision, a vision of eternity, of what we sometimes call heaven, of all creation gathered around God in praise, “myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands.”

The destruction of death is a vision, a vision of eternity, the fullness of time, when, as the writer of the Revelation says later, “death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4).

And so we Christians rightly say that death will ultimately be defeated, and this gives us enough faith to go on, and to give God praise and thanks in this life even in the face of death, for, as we say in our burial service, “even at the grave we make our song, ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 499).

But this too is not enough. It is a lot, but it is not enough. For what about this life? For if death is destroyed only in heaven, then is this life only a vale of tears, something to be endured until the great reward in the next life? Some have seemed to say so. But then how can the psalmist say, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning?” Can joy ever truly come in our earthly mornings, we who live in the valley of the shadow of death?

The answer is in the Gospel reading this morning, although it is not as obvious as the vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation.

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with this encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times asked, three times answered. What is going on here?

An obvious answer is that Jesus is reminding Peter of his earlier threefold denial. Clearly this has something to do with it, although I am a bit uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus is somehow getting back at Peter, as if there were at least a subtle vindictiveness in his questioning. Jesus has just come back and forgiven them all, Peter included. Does it make sense that he is now making Peter do some further penance?

What is going on here is related to Peter’s earlier denial but is much more complex than a simple tit for tat, and much more universal. What is going on ultimately is meant for all of us who would be disciples of Jesus, signified in the final statement by Jesus, “Follow me,” a commandment surely not meant for Peter alone.

The complexity is found especially in Greek and isn’t easily translated into English. Let me give it a try, using words other than just “love.”

Jesus asks, “Simon Peter, do you love me more than life itself (agapĂ©)?”

Peter replies, “Lord, you are like a brother to me (phileo)”. Not exactly an answer to the question.

Jesus asks again, “Simon, son of John, will you sacrifice your life for me (agapĂ©)?”

Peter replies, “I swear we are as tight as two people can get (phileo).” Again, not exactly an answer to the question.

Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, are we brothers (phileo)?”

Peter, hurt because Jesus seems to be questioning even what he was willing to say, replies, “Of all people, you know that you are my brother (phileo).”

What Peter does not get in this exchange is that Jesus is not talking about their personal relationship. He is talking about Peter’s life, his ministry. “Feed my sheep.” Jesus is calling Peter to move beyond their personal relationship, even the personal relationship he has with the other disciples. If you love me you will feed my sheep. Even if you would not lay down your life for me last week, you will lay it down for my followers in the future. You will die for them just like I did.

And, as I said, this is not just about Peter. It is about all of us who would follow Jesus. We are called not just to feel good about one another, to have a sense of family, belonging. We are called to lay down our lives for each other and for the world.

And this is the other way in which we can honestly say that death has been destroyed among us. We are called to live, to act, as if death had no power over us, not just in some future heaven, but right now. This, finally, gets us beyond wishful thinking to hopeful acting.

It is not an easy thing, to which this conversation between Jesus and Peter attests. And we resist it, as is also clear here. There is a sense in which Jesus knows Peter will resist this right to the end. “Someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you to a place where you do not wish to go,” Jesus warns him.

Yet that “place” is the whole point of Christianity, the whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole point of what we mean when we say that “by his death he has destroyed death.” The point is that if I am truly to follow Jesus, saving my own skin is not a top priority for me.

And when it is not I have finally moved from wishful thinking about death to hopeful acting against it.

That is a very difficult place to be and not all of us are there, and probably none of us is there all the time. But do not be fooled, it is the journey we are on.

It is good for us to be clear about that—about each of these three ways in which we do believe that death has been destroyed.

Jesus is alive. Death could not hold him in its power.

We hold the vision of life beyond death, which ultimately will not be able to hold us in its grip either.

And we are committed to live as if death did not matter, not living for the sake of saving our own skin, but laying down our lives for one another.

Because of these things, even after this week, we can still sing, “this joyful Eastertide,” “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,” and “by his death he has destroyed death.”

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