042521 Easter 4
Service begins at minute 10:00 of the video. Sermon at 28:00
One strong lesson that finally got my full attention in the past year is that one important way to be antiracist is to speak up when people make racist jokes, or speak or act in ways that put down a person of another race. I confess that I haven’t always done it, but the intention and consciousness have made a difference. Last week, I was reminded that the lesson doesn’t apply only to racism, but also to other isms that infect our society. I was watching someone tame a horse in Mexico. A man made a joke that it was easier to tame a horse than to tame a woman. They all laughed. I wondered how my sister-in-law and niece were taking that, but since I had my back to them, and was the only gringo present, I hesitated to turn around or to speak up. The moment passed.
I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about the missed moment. The next day I asked my sister-in-law how it had made her feel. She said it was just a joke, and she didn’t think much about it. I told her what I had learned this past year about speaking up when people told racist jokes. I asked her how she thought her 15-year-old daughter might have felt, since she has probably learned more about sexism. She didn’t know.
Today’s story in Acts reveals that this isn’t a modern problem, and it’s not about being politically correct. Bold speech in the face of opposition is a manifestation of resurrection life. Peter and the other disciples had two problems with preaching and practicing Jesus’ message with boldness before the resurrection. First, they weren’t totally convinced that Jesus’ message was legitimate. Secondly, they were afraid of the authorities.
Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples were inspired enough by Jesus to follow him, but his teaching and behavior were so different from what they were used to that they weren’t yet ready to speak and act like that themselves. When Jesus taught that losing is winning, they couldn’t accept it. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t the way things worked in real life. When Jesus said things like that it created cognitive dissonance for them. They believed Jesus taught the truth. But they “knew” that losing could never be winning. They couldn’t deal with the contradiction, so they didn’t let it in. The Gospels tell us “they didn’t understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Before he died, Jesus brought the disciples to the brink of understanding; he taught them all he could. But only his death and resurrection could shift their perception of failure, loss, and death.
Even before his death, Jesus understood that death wasn’t the last word. His mission wasn’t distracted by fear of death or failure. His understanding of the world wasn’t limited by seeing death and failure as final. He knew that failure and mistakes were the very stuff of learning and growing in life, and that death was a necessary part of bringing wholeness & healing to a broken world.
That’s why he could learn from a foreign woman who questioned his theology on behalf of her daughter who was oppressed by an evil spirit. And why he could surrender himself into the hands of violent people to reveal God’s love, and to teach that death isn’t as definitive as people thought. But those were the very things that the disciples rejected or failed to understand about Jesus’ mission. We must understand that Bishop Bruno’s death is not an ending, but a transition to glory.
After the resurrection, the disciples began to see that everything that had scandalized them when Jesus was alive was actually the core of his message. They re-read their past involvement with Jesus in light of the resurrection. Peter even refers to this in his speech: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, has become the chief cornerstone.” If Peter were honest, he would have acknowledged that he too had rejected the cornerstone. He may not have put Jesus to death; but he had refused to defend him. After the resurrection, he understood what Jesus had been talking about. He gained a clarity that led to the bold speech we hear in today’s passage. The resurrection removed not only the stone from the mouth of Jesus’ grave, but from Peter’s own mouth.
The second reason Peter wasn’t bold in the face of opposing opinions was fear of the authorities. He saw what happened to Jesus, and didn’t want that to happen to him. But once Jesus appeared to him and forgave him three times for the three denials, Peter could boldly proclaim Jesus as the Anointed One of God and heal the sick in his name. He no longer cared that his life might be in jeopardy. The same Peter who denied Jesus is now boldly defending him before the very people who plotted Jesus’ death. Far from denying that he even knew Jesus, he is risking imprisonment to defend the right to heal in Jesus’ name. He could no longer shut up, no longer run away. He was on a mission. He was focused, and did what he was sent to do.
St. Athanasius Church has a mission too. Two days ago, Jon Bruno, one of the beloved rectors of this church and bishops of this diocese, transitioned into glory. Bishop Bruno was an example to me of the kind of boldness Peter demonstrated. He refused to allow tradition to stand in the way of justice. Next Sunday – May 2 – is St. Athanasius’ saint’s day. It has been said of Athanasius that rarely in the history of the Church has the course of its development been more significantly determined by one person than it was by Athanasius in the fourth century. Wouldn’t it be great if that could be said of a church with his name? Our mission statement printed each week on the cover of our bulletin is: God loves us-no exceptions. We love God, welcome all, and serve the world. That’s a high calling. We may feel as ambivalent about that mission as Peter and the disciples did before the resurrection. St. Athanasius and Bishop Bruno had post-resurrection perspectives on life. They embraced their missions boldly.
The New Testament teaches us that we won’t be able to face life or embrace our mission without facing death. St. Athanasius church has faced many deaths along the way, and now faces a transition into a new identity as a mission congregation. Will we see those deaths and that transition as challenges to strengthen the boldness of our witness to the inclusiveness of the Gospel, or as reasons to cower in fear and back off from our unique identity as a multicultural, urban, inclusive outpost of the Gospel? When we fail to confront death, loss, and change with boldness, they must appear in more powerful ways the next time in order to get our attention – because they must get our attention before they can transform us.
Our church isn’t the only community facing death and change. Our country is facing them in dramatic ways. Just this week, the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin arrived on Tuesday; the memorial service for Daunte Wright occurred on Thursday, along with another police shooting of a black man. Also on Thursday, President Biden announced that the U.S. would reduce carbon emissions to 50% less than the 2005 amount by 2030, and a judge ordered Los Angeles to provide the unhoused population of Skid Row with permanent housing. On top of all that, the former president continues to rattle and divide the country with damaging effects.
Will we stand up to these realities with boldness or fear? Is the resurrection just a story that has survived hundreds of years? What do you believe? How has the resurrection changed your life? If we have been touched by the word of God’s love and forgiveness, how can we keep silent about what we have seen and heard and how our lives have been transformed?