“The Beginning of the Church and Our Beginning” – 04-20-14 – Easter Sunday – Cycle A

Listen to the sermon here:

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10

Easter as beginning. The Acts lesson for today (Acts 10:34-43) reads, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

For whom is Easter a beginning? Do you recognize the parts of the Apostles Creed – judge of the living and the dead? Forgiveness of sins? Dead, buried, rose? We remember that, in the Apostles Creed, Jesus is said to have descended into hell or hades or underground – whichever term you prefer. Why do you think Jesus descended into hell? He certainly did not belong there himself. I agree with the people who think that Jesus spent a short time in hell to give everyone there a second chance, a last invitation, to repent.

Do you believe there is a hell? Or do you think that God, in God’s ultimate mercy, receives everyone in heaven, transforming us to meet the requirements? Our Acts passage says that Jesus will be the judge of the living and the dead. I think that most Christians believe there is the real existence of hell. We have the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is written in Luke 16. The Rich Man found himself in hell while Lazarus, the beggar, found himself in heaven cradled in the arms of Abraham. It would be interesting and fascinating to know if Jesus in his hasty time in hell found the Rich Man and finally gave that arrogant person a second chance to travel the bridge between hell and heaven.

Maybe for the Rich Man, Easter was a new beginning. We don’t know about that particular person but we do believe the promise that whoever believes will find himself or herself with Jesus in heaven. We have John 3:16 which gives us the universal Christian creed: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.” We assume that this everlasting life is the heaven variety and not an everlasting life in the absence of God. Aha! Hell is the absence of God. Forget the unquenchable fire! Forget the thirst! Hell is the absence of God! Really!

We can live our earthly life in hell if our lives are void of God. God is not in our circle of friends. God does not help us to make decisions. No God to gently comfort us! No God to say “no” when we are tempted! Truly hell on earth. No hope for the new life when we would be transformed from earthly creatures into heavenly creatures. Yes, the absence of God is not good! It is not that God is actually absent as we believe that God is everywhere, absolutely everywhere. It is ourselves placing a wall between ourselves and God. Our lives are empty of the glories of the Lord!

But hear the word from God in Jeremiah 31 where God is speaking through Jeremiah to the remnant of Israelites who are being brought from captivity in Babylon to their home in Israel – the Holy Land, the place of the temple in Jerusalem, the closest thing to heaven on earth. God is saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. … I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble … The young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.”

This word of God to the returning remnant of people can serve as a prophecy of our journey to heaven. I use the word journey. There are varying opinions about the time between our physical death and our arrival in that delightful land which we call heaven. Time does not seem to be relevant here. I imagine that it is something like receiving anesthesia before surgery, even having a tooth pulled. It seems that we were just given the anesthesia when we are awake and are told that the procedure is complete. Wow! we say! How could that be?

I picture our resurrection from the dead to be like waking from anesthesia. All of a sudden we are there. How can we be sure that the resurrection of Jesus will provide a resurrection of ourselves? Because of our faith! We believe! If we had scientific proof, it would not be called faith. Believing what we cannot see is faith. Why should we engage in this thing called faith? Is it not foolish? Our friends could be laughing at us. They laughed at Noah as he built the ark. They may be laughing at us as Sunday after Sunday we gather in holy places to receive the word of the Lord and to sing from our hearts with passion.

Easter is our new beginning year after year after year! Our faith is renewed, the daffodils are once again burst from their winter shells. There is blessed freedom in the air. No more fearful confinement. No more debilitating worry and anxiety. This is a new life! A new beginning!

The first Easter was also the beginning of the church. The disciples and other watchers and groupies had fallen into a deep depression, immobility set in, sadness, grief not only for the absence of their leader and friend Jesus but for a lost hope. These people had deserted their means of livelihood. They were probably the laughing stock for unbelievers. But guess who got the last laugh! On Easter Sunday morning, the world was transformed. On every Easter since, even now, Easter Sunday is the day that the world can be transformed in little ways, in big ways. Watch! Be Alert! Look over, around, and under continuing wars and hunger. There is a cornerstone of goodness and rightness and peace in this transformation. Yes there is!

Do some of you remember the brass ring to catch as you passed it while riding on a wooden horse on a merry-go-round? It is something to which we can cling. In dictionaries., the brass ring is described as “success or a reward that you try to achieve, often by competing against other people” and as “wealth, success, or prestige” or as a rich opportunity or a prize. The earthly brass ring is a passing privilege. Being resurrected in Christ, because we “believe,” is a permanent gold ring. Our own resurrection happens because we believe that, as we die with Jesus in our baptism, we share in the resurrection with Jesus. We have this wonderful hope of life with the resurrected Jesus.

So Easter is our new personal beginning. But it is also the beginning of the church. It is believed that Luke wrote the book of Luke as well as the book of Acts which is the history of the beginning of the church as directed by Jesus before he left this earth in his ascension. In our reading from Acts we heard, “he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God …”

After Jesus stayed on earth forty days after his resurrection to convince his followers that it was really he and he was really alive, he gave one last message. “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) From Luke we have “And see, I am sending upon you what my father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” From Matthew 28:19, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Yes, the beginning of the church. Go tell. Don’t lose faith. Be faithful! You are the link. It matters! From Psalm 118:22-24, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

As we are rejoicing, let us realize that this is a new beginning for ourselves, renewed each time around. Let us remember that Easter is the birthday of the church. Church is not only for fellowship and membership. The opportunity of “church” is to tell the story, to live faith so other people might catch faith. Will the church ever die? Not until the whole world has come to its deadline, the date of which only God knows. Then church will be incorporated into the Kingdom of God – FULLY – not a partial version of the Kingdom of God. The full kingdom! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Oh Lord God, bring us to fullness in you as we once again experience this resurrection, your resurrection, our own resurrection, the renewal of the church, your church! Amen