Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
What a beautiful day it is! The sun is shining, the church is all decked out in its festive best, as are many of you. Then again, even if the weather weren’t to our liking and the church didn’t get decorated and our Sunday best was buried somewhere in a whole spring break’s worth of laundry, it would still be a beautiful day. For Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
We just heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection as recorded in St. Mark’s Gospel. One thing I’d like us to note from this reading is Mark’s quoting of the angel at the tomb, who said to the women: “Go tell his disciples and Peter.” Why “and Peter” we might ask? After all, Peter was one of the disciples. Why was he singled out?
Before answering that question, let me point out that we at St. Paul’s singled out Peter in our Lenten observance this year. We read carefully through almost every verse of his first Epistle. One thing that became very clear as we read the book is that those early believers Peter addressed were people who faced great struggles. Again and again, as he does in today’s text, Peter makes reference to their suffering. Perhaps Peter had a special eye for suffering—by this point he had been imprisoned and rejected by many for his faith.
In the midst of his suffering, however, Peter’s faith did not waver, for he had seen the resurrected Christ. More than that, he had been forgiven by Christ. Why did the angel specifically say “and Peter?” No doubt it was because Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times, and this sin hung heavy over him. We are told that he went out and wept. But, this sin did not disqualify him from further work in the kingdom. Peter’s sorrow indicated a repentant heart. Jesus died so that Peter and all those with a repentant heart would be forgiven. The angel wanted to make sure that Peter knew this. Because of the resurrection Peter had new life. Soon he would experience this acceptance from the Lord Jesus in person, who said to him and the rest of the disciples, “peace be with you.”
Peter, in turn, did everything he could to help those first believers, and us, to know the peace of Jesus Christ. Among the things he says in our text today is an encouragement, telling us that “though you do not now see him,” you still “rejoice.” Yes, it’s one thing to put your faith in Jesus if you’ve seen him. It’s another thing to do so when you haven’t. Peter knew that we Christians who have not seen Jesus for ourselves would need encouragement. Therefore he reminds us of the blessed outcome of living by faith.
Before saying more about this outcome of faith in Jesus, I’d like to sidetrack to another outcome of faith – one that many in our country are remembering this weekend. It all started with the faith of 1.8 million Americans back in the year 1860. Those Americans voted for a Presidential candidate who had warned about the danger which slavery posed to our nation. They believed, as their candidate Abraham Lincoln famously said, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” They believed that it was time for the slavery question to be settled, if not yet in the south at least in the expanding western states.
The outcome of their faith in Lincoln was that slavery was indeed abolished. However, the outcome also involved the death of great multitudes of people, including President Lincoln himself, who was shot and killed during these same days of Holy Week 150 years ago.
You and I make decisions based on faith every day. We place our faith in candidates for office, the mechanic that fixes the brakes on our car, the teachers that teach our children and the cooks that prepare our meals at restaurants. Living by faith cannot be avoided. Why would we not then place our faith in Peter and the apostles and all the rest who witness to us of the resurrection of Christ, for it is only through this faith, faith in the resurrected Christ, that we have the greatest of all gifts—the salvation of our souls.
Peter goes on in his text to talk about the benefits of faith in another way. He calls it being “born again to a living hope.” Let me try and unpack that phrase a bit. Again, let’s think back 150 years ago to what was happening in our country.
President Abraham Lincoln was shot by a southern sympathizer on Good Friday while attending a performance at Ford’s Theater. He died the next morning. The effect Lincoln’s death had on America is hard to overstate. A Washington Post article last Sunday said it this way: “For the American people, Lincoln’s martyrdom on Good Friday seemed a sign that God was closely directing human events for purposes not easily grasped. How could this have happened unless God were the one scripting the American story.”
Yes, Lincoln was seen as both a martyr and a sacrifice. As one prominent Boston preacher of the day so bluntly stated it: “Jesus Christ died for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country.” Lincoln’s death did indeed seem to have a unifying effect. The victor’s joy was subdued. The loser’s pain was now felt by all. And families who had lost husbands and sons could only be so angry when even the Commander in Chief had died for the cause.
Lincoln’s death seemed to signal a new beginning for America. The many Messianic references made about this story-telling outsider who now belonged to the ages indicated the new hope that had been born in America. God’s ways may be mysterious and even painful, but they work to move us forward, bringing restoration and new life.
So it is with Jesus and his passion. His death also has unifying effect, and a greater one at that. His goal is to unite all peoples. His death brings us together as one sinful humanity forgiven and reconciled to God. Christ’s death and resurrection cause individual people – you and me- to be “born again”—once, and each day.
In reading through this text from Peter in the original Greek I was struck by how Peter juxtaposes the words for “born again” and “resurrection” in the same sentence. “Anaganaisis” and “Anastasis” – to be born again and to exist again. When we know Jesus Christ as our Savior and place our faith in him we are changed in a way that parallels the very resurrection itself. This change takes place once as we become a justified and sanctified believer, but the change also keeps coming as our hearts are returned again and again to a place of hope each day.
Our united American house has stood strong for many years now. God willing it will continue to stand strong and united. But this house pales in comparison with the house which awaits us when Christ Jesus comes again. In this text Peter calls it an “inheritance.” We are given this new life, we didn’t earn it. We are given it because God our Father is merciful and good, and because Jesus Christ has made it possible.
I’d like to conclude by having us briefly consider those three words Peter uses to describe our inheritance. First he says it is imperishable. The Easter candy we collect today will perish eventually—perhaps in a matter of hours if the kids have their way! All those things that we inherit from our parents and grandparents will eventually break down—even the good stuff. But the heavenly home which awaits will never perish, nor will the words which describe it to us.
Second, Peter calls our inheritance undefiled. Interesting word choice. Maybe he had the defilement which came from certain foods on his mind. That was certainly a big issue for those early Christians, although it had been settled by the freedom Christ granted them. Still, Peter and the apostles faced many other temptations to defilement, especially as they travelled west with the good news. There they encountered many sexual perversions and vain religious practices. We, too, know of these temptations to defilement in our day. They seek to drag us down into their place of false-hope. But the inheritance we receive from Christ is different. It is clean, pure and undefiled. What a source of joy that inheritance is, and will be.
Third, Peter says that our inheritance is unfading. When Moses and the Israelites got to see the glory of God’s presence at Sinai that glow on their faces would eventually fade away. In the same way, the memories of our glorious times fade away too– even beautiful Easter memories which get passed down through the years. I hope you have some of these you can share with your families or friends today. Tell those stories and thank God for them. And yet keep them in perspective too. The story of Jesus risen from the dead is the most important message—the message that alone brings new life and a living hope. The glory of Easter gives a glory that will never fade away.
Yes, the message of Easter gives us… again, using the words of Peter… “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” I like that word “inexpressible.” I resonate with it. Every Easter I try to express the joy of the resurrection as best I can. I try to pick the best hymns, give the best sermon, pray for the best attendance, etc., but I always feel like I’m falling short, because of course I am. We all are. The joy of Easter is inexpressible. Even goose bumps don’t do it.
Easter joy may be inexpressible, but the message of Christ risen from the dead expresses all we need. He has caused you to be born again to a living hope—to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.