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Sermon for Easter 4

Augustana 2012

Click here for mp3 audio 32 Sermon for Easter 4.mp3

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

I’m going to take a real risk today and mostly depart from the larger theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd in the Gospel reading and have us focus on the first reading from Acts chapter 4.

So let me catch you up on what has been happening because we’ve really been the throes of celebrating the resurrection the past three Sundays and not really focusing on what has been happening in the first readings from Acts.  It’s a little confusing because these readings from Acts do not take place immediately after Easter, but in fact, take place after Pentecost, which isn’t until after Jesus’ ascended and was in fact some 8 weeks after the first Easter.  We keep this timeline in the Church year but not necessarily in the lectionary readings.  That can be a little confusing.  So, just to be clear, what has been happening with Peter and John in chapters 3 and 4 here happened after Pentecost.

At Pentecost, Peter preached and the number of disciples grew and thereafter they would gather daily at the temple to pray and one afternoon, Peter and John went up to the temple to pray and they run across this beggar who had been born lame.  This guy was probably fairly well known; he was daily taken to the big gate at the entrance to the temple courtyards proper.  There was a lot of traffic in and out of this gate and so that’s where this guy would beg for alms from the folks going in and out of the temple.  So this beggar cried out to Peter and John for alms.  Peter looked at him right in the eye and says, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And the most amazing thing happened, Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”  It was absolutely incredible.

But now the first thing you have to understand is that this guy, his whole life was not allowed in the temple.  He had been lame and they weren’t allowed in.  But immediately after he was healed he walked into the temple, in fact didn’t just walk, he was walking and leaping and praising God.  Now this guy was well known.  He had laid at the gate for years begging for alms and the people recognized him.  Maybe even some of them had just given him alms and now they saw him walking and praising God.  And the people were amazed at what had happened to this guy.  So now this guy is just going nuts, right?  Peter and John are his new best friends.  He’s walking with them and hopping around and praising God and telling anybody and everybody what’s just happened and he starts to really draw a crowd.  All the people who are there in the big courtyard, Solomon’s portico, we’re talking about thousands of people, they come running up and they’re all just completely stunned at what’s happened.  And so Peter begins to speak, in fact not just speak but preach to everyone there what has really happened.  This is the last half of Acts chapter 3.  He says that the reason this man who was born lame now walks is by the power of Jesus’ name.

All of this is the setup to today’s reading from Acts.  Peter and John get in trouble with the same authorities that turned Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified.  They’re greatly annoyed because these two followers of Jesus are now teaching the people and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and so they arrest Peter and John and hold them overnight.  But still some five thousand heard what Peter had preached and believed.  They go to trial and the elders want to know one thing, by what power and name did they bring healing to the man born lame?  Luke is sure to tell us that Peter is then filled with the Holy Spirit and says to them what he says.  Jesus healed this man who was lame.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

That’s what we call a Law Gospel sermon, by the way.  But here’s the thing.  Luke makes sure to note that Peter and John appeared before the chief priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees.  Now notably, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and yet this was precisely the message that Peter preached to them, not just generically, that there will one day be a resurrection of the dead, but the day of resurrection has already come in the resurrection of Jesus and that’s how this man who was born lame, this one you all know, it’s on account of the power of the name of Jesus that this man is healed because Jesus is not dead; He’s alive and his name has the power to heal even those born lame.  And there is no other name that can do such things; there is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved.

I think too often Christians take these texts and just sort whittle them down into proof texts to be used to show the superiority of the Christian faith over Judaism or any other for that matter.  And while that is most certainly true I hope you see that’s about the very least one could say about the name of Jesus.  What Peter and John are saying is something far, far more important.  They are saying the old ways that the Sadducees, and for that matter all the religions of men, have come to end and have been superseded in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  There is a reason why these readings are Easter readings, because this is a resurrection message.  We have stressed that this proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection was not just a spiritual rising but a bodily one.  Jesus’ name has the power to heal bodies just as He Himself healed throughout His ministry.  Just as the name of Jesus has the power to heal this man born lame, something no other name can do, so the name of Jesus alone is the sole power by which people can be saved.  I hope you see that’s far more profound than reducing what Peter says here to, “See, my God is stronger than your god.”

Now I said that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t just supersede the religion of the Sadducees but all the religions man has dreamed up and I want to include in that category what some people have done to Christianity.  Some have reduced Christianity to a focus on living a moral life and being kind to others—that is what counts in God’s eyes and that more or less when others do the same things, that’s what really counts to God.  That’s not the content of Peter’s testimony before the high council and it certainly isn’t his sermon in the temple courtyard.  Peter preached the Easter message that Jesus has beaten death itself.  The message of Christianity is not a way to a better life.  In fact, more often around the world today, claiming to believe the message of Christianity is the quickest way to a labor camp or even death.  The message of Christianity is the message that God will end the power of death because He has already ended by raising Jesus from the grave.  Peter’s message was that for men like him to be healing in such a way meant that name of Jesus was powerful to save.

I’ve been struck by some recent remarks of church-going Lutherans recently.  Not people here from here but people I’ve bumped into recently.  I know what I sound like when I preach.  I’m a little, shall we say, strident.  I was told recently, I really “got into” that sermon.  I don’t think it was meant as a compliment.  I think it was said as if I should be speaking about the Good News as if it was merely news and I should report it in the same tone as the television news people do when they report a house fire and the birth of a panda at the zoo.  So, therefore, I am of the distinct impression that the message of Christianity is not, “Above all be nice and let’s all go to heaven when we die,” but rather, Jesus has conquered death and its co-conspirators, sin and hell, for us.  This is a radically different message.  This is a message that upends religions of men, whether it’s the Judaism of Jesus’ day or what even some have made of Lutheranism today.

And this is the reason.  We must take Peter’s words as not merely nice religious words but words of truth, as words of life and death.  We start Lent with the mark of death on our foreheads, ash and dust and we start Easter in the graveyard where the Lord has already not just promised the resurrection of our loved ones but has already started it with His own resurrection.   The kids I’ve baptized have died with Christ and been raised.  The kids I’ve confirmed have been taught the truth of the Easter faith.  The sermons I’ve preached especially during Easter have preached the victory of Jesus over death because the message of the apostles is that the people we’ve buried will be raised because Jesus was raised from the dead.  Because the truth is, I’ve only been here four years and it gets increasingly harder to do funerals because, more and more, I know you.  And so the sermons I preach at funerals are more and more, the sermons I have to preach first to myself in the face of the loss I feel and the fears and doubts that death brings with him whenever he turns up.

This is the Easter message.  It was then; it is now.  This is the message that Peter preached in the temple courtyards and this is the truth to which he and John testified before the ruling council.  There is no other name under heaven by which a man born lame now leaps for joy.  If there is a link to the broader theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd today this is it: there is no other Good Shepherd, one who would do what Jesus has done for His sheep, even laying his own life down for His sheep.  By no other name under heaven is anyone saved like Jesus has rescued you from sin, the devil and the threat of death.  This is Peter’s testimony.  This is the Easter message.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.

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