Sermons

Sun, May 18, 2014

Keeping the spirit of Easter alive

Series:Sermons

The Easter eggs have all but disappeared from the shelves––

apart from a few heavily discounted items…

which, clearly, weren’t popular…

or weren’t very nice.

You can still find hot cross buns––

at least in the big supermarkets––

but everyone else has moved on.

It’s now four weeks since Easter.

Four weeks since we heard again the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Four weeks since we heard again the story of the empty tomb.

And both in our everyday lives and in the life of the Church…

things have gone back to normal.

Hopefully, we have all lost the weight that we put on…

from eating too many hot cross buns…

and too much chocolate…

and, once more, we’re simply having to deal with the ups and downs of everyday life.

In every respect, Easter seems a long time ago now.

And, in many ways, perhaps that’s a relief.

We’ve suffered through the interminable repentance and penitence…

and intense introspection of Lent.

We’ve endured the pointedly political prods of Palm Sunday;

and reflected upon the collusion of politics and religion…

and the sheer horror that is Good Friday.

And, although we’ve sung joyous hymns…

we’ve also endued the minister’s earnest efforts to make the events of the first Easter intelligible…

despite his tendencies towards flights of deeply impenetrable theology.

And, four weeks after Easter, perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of the God of Easter––

the God of resurrection…

the God who can’t be contained or confined and who isn’t safe.

Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of the God of resurrection…

who meets us in unexpected people and places…

who doesn’t respect our closed doors…

but who bursts into our lives and sends us out to continue the work of Christ––

healing, restoring, and making new.

Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of the God of resurrection…

who calls us to be family…

to be truly open and honest…

to be vulnerable and take risks…

to welcome and love each other––

without distinction…

without prejudice…

without judgment…

without pretence.

So, four weeks after Easter…

perhaps you’re hoping that it’s safe to come back to church again…

for a nice, soothing, comforting story––

something uplifting…

something to help you cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life.

But, instead, we’re confronted this morning with Stephen––

arrested, tried, and killed because he was outspoken about his faith in the risen Christ.

And, in our reading from Acts, we hear some of his defence.

Prior to this morning’s reading he has been indirectly criticising the authorities––

the religious powers-that-be––

for their unhealthy attachment to the Temple…

for the barrenness of their lives and worship.

And here, in the conclusion to his speech, he sharpens his criticism.

No longer subtle or indirect––

here he launches into a full-frontal assault…

entirely shattering our image that Christians are meant to be blandly “nice”:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do”.

His accusations recall those made by Moses and the prophets…

who criticised the people of God for only hearing what they wanted to hear;

for not perceiving where God was actually at work;

for actively resisting God’s work in the world;

and for turning aside to gods of their own making––

gods who were comfortable;

gods who wouldn’t demand too much of them;

gods who wouldn’t upset things;

gods who would simply do what the people wanted.

 

And yet, Stephen’s criticism actually arose out of his life of faith and service.

After all, he had been appointed to see to the needs of widows.

And, in a world where there were no widows’ pensions—

and no social security at all––

and where wives didn’t inherit anything from their husbands’ estates…

widows were often left destitute and defenceless.

And, being a widow was synonymous with being poor, powerless, and vulnerable.

That’s why Jesus got stuck into the religious establishment…

condemning them, according to the Gospel of Luke, because…

They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers”.

And now, here, we have Stephen––

who worked for the welfare of the widows in the community––

standing before the very people whom Jesus had condemned…

because of their exploitation of widows…

and accusing them of using their religion for their own ends…

worshipping a god of their own making…

perverting God’s purposes…

and turning religion into a matter of merely personal piety and devotion––

a matter of me and God;

and, at the same time, propagating a God who doesn’t demand too much.

In other words, he’s accusing them of creating a God who is safe and comfortable––

a God who exists simply to meet their personal, existential needs.

So, in effect, Stephen was on trial for continuing what Jesus had begun to do:

caring for the needy…

disturbing comfort and complacency…

challenging oppressive forces that caused widows to be vulnerable…

and calling into question the established religious order.

And, in the midst of doing that, he has a vision––

a vision of the risen Christ––

which comes to him while he’s taking a stand;

while he’s confronting those who manipulated, exploited, and oppressed.

He is acutely aware of the risen Christ with him.

And, even as he kneels, dying, he forgives…

following the example of Jesus…

continuing his ministry.

 

Five weeks into this Easter season, this reading is a salutary reminder––

it’s a reminder that faith can never be just a me-and-Jesus thing;

that faith can never be a matter of simply coming to church…

looking for comfort and support…

and having my personal, spiritual, social, or psychological needs met––

certainly not faith in the God of the resurrection.

Because the God of the resurrection can’t be contained or confined…

and isn’t safe.

Because the God of the resurrection calls us to be truly open and honest…

to take risks…

to welcome and love each other no matter what.

Because the God of the resurrection bursts into our lives––

changing and transforming…

and sending us out to continue Jesus’ work of healing…

reconciling…

loving…

and forgiving.

But the God of the resurrection also sends us out to continue Jesus’ work by taking a stand…

actively working for justice…

offering practical aid to the disadvantaged…

and opposing those forces that exploit and oppress––

whoever they might be…

and wherever and whenever we might encounter them—

even within the community of faith.

 

And this reading is a salutary reminder…

that we only encounter the risen Christ among us as we engage in mission––

as we look beyond ourselves;

as we feed the hungry;

care for the needy;

stand up for the marginalised;

condemn hypocrisy;

challenge injustice;

confront those who oppress;

and dare to risk all that we are and all that we have.

Because it’s only when we do that, that we’re actually continuing the ministry of Jesus.

It’s only when we do that, that we’re truly being Church.

It’s only when we do that, that the risen Christ is known…

and seen…

and encountered.

It’s only when we do that, that we keep the spirit of Easter alive. 

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