Living in the Light of the Empty Tomb

Easter 2, Year B, Sunday, April 15, 2012

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our first lesson has been the center of some political and economic controversy, over the last hundred and fifty years.  And it seems fitting, on April 15th, Tax Day, to mention political and economic controversy.  The Acts reading is the story of a community, the first Christian community, in Jerusalem, in which the first apostles lived and taught in the months and years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  For the first 1800 or so years of Christianity, this story was seen as an ideal, a pleasant but unrealistic look at what the Christian life would ideally be.  It was the model for many monasteries, and other intentional Christian communities.

Then came political and economic models that we call socialism and communism, and their direct opponent capitalism, and this story was reduced to a political rallying cry.  For liberals, it is “proof” that the earliest Christians were socialists.  For conservatives, it is quietly ignored and other texts are searched out to “prove” that Jesus supported capitalism.  And for both groups, this text becomes merely a club to beat their political opponents over the head with.  Have you noticed, in today’s political climate, how many people spend more time using the Bible to attack those they don’t like, than they do studying the Bible to discern God’s Word for themselves and their community?  Have you noticed how many Christians spend most of their time being afraid—afraid of the future, afraid of people they don’t agree with, afraid of losing what they have?  Too many Christians spend more time and energy on their fears than on their faith and love.  Have you noticed how many people today reduce Christianity to slogans, and Jesus to a bumper sticker?

But our faith is more than slogans, and Jesus is more than a bumper sticker.  Jesus Christ did not live, teach, die, and rise again for the sake of our political parties and economic ideologies.  Jesus Christ came to bring light to those who walk in darkness, salvation to the sinner, healing to the blind, and an abundant, joyful life for all.  With that in mind, how should we read the story of the first Christian community?

Let’s back up a bit, and start with the Gospel reading.  The 20th chapter of John is the story of the Christian community in the first week after the Resurrection, before the events told in Acts.  Although the women who had gone to the tomb had told the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the disciples didn’t really believe it.  They gathered in secret, hiding away in a locked room, afraid of the authorities who had so recently killed their friend and leader.  They were afraid of death, they were afraid of outsiders, they were afraid of a lot of things.  They were so afraid, they could not believe that God could or would raise Jesus from the dead.  It was Easter, but in their hearts it was still the day of crucifixion.  All the doubts, and fears, and pain of that day still dominated their souls.  The walls of their grief and terror pressed in around them.

And in the midst of all this fear, Jesus appeared.  Jesus came through the locks and bars, not just the physical ones but the locks and bars that fear put in their hearts.  Jesus shared with them his peace, and breathed on them to give them the Holy Spirit.  He showed them his wounds, to prove that he was truly their friend, not just a vision or a ghost.  Yes, the crucifixion still happened, and Jesus still bore the marks of it on his body.  But God’s love was stronger than the hate death and sin which had crucified Jesus.  God’s love was stronger than death, stronger than Hell itself.  And Jesus came back to tell his friends to live in that love.  Leave behind the bonds of fear and loss and pain.  Walk in the light and freedom of God’s love, and the peace that only God can give.

The disciples believed Jesus.  But notice where they were when he came back the next week: they had gathered in that same room.  This time the doors weren’t locked, but they were still afraid to go out and live in the light of the promises God made to them.  They were still living as if the Resurrection hadn’t happened.  They were still afraid of the big, scary world outside their doors.  And again, Jesus came.  And again, Jesus showed them his wounds, showed them that he wasn’t some kind of mass hallucination.  The cross was real, but so was the empty tomb.  And all of Jesus’ teaching, all of his preaching and healing, was to prepare his followers to live their lives in the light of that empty tomb.  To live lives walking in the light of Christ, who shattered all the locks and barriers that keep us trapped in our fear and pain.  Christ came that we may have life, abundant, joyful life, walking in light.  And this time, the disciples believed.  They took it to heart.  They left that room and went out among the people.  They started living their lives, again.  They started living as Christ’s people.  They started telling people about the great joy Jesus had given them.  They create a community based on love, not fear.

And that’s the community we read about in the book of Acts.  It’s not a call for government to impose an economic system.  It’s not a proof-text to be trotted out to advance a political position.  It’s about living together in love.  When you love someone, and they need help that you can give, don’t you give it?  If your child, or your parent, or your sibling has a problem they can’t solve on their own, don’t you try to help?  Not because it’s required, not because anyone says you have to, not because you feel guilty, but because you want to.

That’s the kind of love the early Christian community had.  That’s the kind of love Jesus taught.  That’s the kind of love we can live when we are no longer locked up in our petty disputes, our petty power-struggles, when all the fears and sin and brokenness no longer control us.  That’s the kind of life we can live together when our trust in God’s abundant love, the love that was shown us in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, is the reality we live.  It’s the kind of love rooted in joy.  The Psalmist writes of the love of a community together, the abundant love and goodness that overflows “like fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard of Aaron, flowing down upon the collar of his robe.”  And it’s that abundance, that overflowing goodness, that joy, that the first Christians lived out together.  It’s that kind of joy that led them to tell people about what Jesus Christ had done for them, for all people, through his resurrection.

Did you notice the way the Acts passage sandwiched the message the Apostles preached between descriptions of how they lived?  It’s as if, for the writer of Acts, their words and their actions were so intertwined, they were almost the same thing.  They proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ’s love poured out for the world, and they lived that reality in the way they treated one another and the way they loved one another.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment that you love one another, that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Paul says in Romans that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, the same Holy Spirit that Jesus gave to the disciples in the Gospel lesson.  And Paul says that we owe nothing to anyone except to love them, and that everything we do should be done in love.  The great love passage in 1 Corinthians 13 is a model for all human relationships.  The question is not about politics.  The question is not about factions.  The question is, are we going to live the lives of faith and love to which our Lord Jesus Christ has called us?  Are we going to stay in that locked room, trembling in fear and misery, or are we going to let Jesus’ love break us out of the tomb?

We love because God first loved us, because God’s love is stronger than fear, stronger than death, stronger than Hell itself.  We love because we are an Easter people.  We love because we walk in the light of Christ, the light of the empty tomb.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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