First Sermon EVER

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Easter is hard to understand.

If you don’t believe me, then I dare you to try and explain it to a toddler.  True, Easter is the BEST DAY EVER and toddlers love any excuse to celebrate.  But as soon as you try to explain why you’re celebrating things start to go downhill.

Me:                  On Easter we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead!

Toddler:         [Blank look]

Me:                  On Easter we celebrate that Jesus is alive!

Toddler:         You mean when Jesus was born?

Me:                  Oh, no – that’s Christmas.  Okay, let’s try this again.  On Easter we celebrate that Jesus died but then he came back to life!

Toddler:         [Another blank look]  Is there candy?

Me:                  Yes, but the reason we have candy is to celebrate that Jesus is alive again.

Toddler:         Yay, candy!

Christmas is so much easier.  Christmas is about a baby, and kids get babies.  Christmas is about a birthday, and kids get birthdays.  But death is a concept most pre-school kids don’t understand, and you can’t have Easter without death.  To make matters worse, Jesus didn’t die on a peaceful deathbed like grandma did… it was a horrible, unfair, lonely death.  If I explained the crucifixion in detail to the kids in church I’m sure I’d get an angry letter or two.

But are kids so different from us?  Death is a concept I’m only just beginning to understand and accept at the age of almost-39.  And although I can recite the Apostles’ Creed with the best of them, there is a mystery to Easter that’s still hard for us adults to understand.  Why did Jesus have to die?  And why did he have to die like that?  Did he really raise from the dead?  How is that possible?

Easter is confusing.  Thankfully, Peter is about to break it down for us.

After Jesus was raised from the dead, after he visited the disciples, after he left this world once-and-for-all, Jesus sent a parting gift:  the Holy Spirit.  You might remember the Pentecost event, where that Spirit arrives in dramatic form via gale-force winds and soul-igniting fire.  The inaugural act of the Holy Spirit is to cause the disciples to speak.  First it comes in a kind of multiplication miracle of languages, where they speak and the whole known world can understand.  Next it comes through Peter, and the one who couldn’t find the words to admit he was with Jesus becomes the one who declares Jesus’ identity in front of a huge festival crowd.

St Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs by Jan Styka

St. Peter Preaching in the Catacombs by Jan Styka

This is the first Christian sermon, a Holy-Spirit-inspired declaration of the essentials of our faith.  If you’ve ever found Easter hard to understand, then listen up:  this is for you.

This is what you need to know about Jesus and what happened on Easter.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man…” (Acts 2:22).  Jesus was a man, an actual human being who was born in a certain place at a certain time in history.  The Jewish/Roman historian Josephus documents his existence (The Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3.).  Jesus wasn’t an apparition, a spirit – he was fully human.

“…attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know…” (Acts 2:22).  Acts is written by the same person as Luke, so we can refer back to that gospel to refresh ourselves on these “mighty works and wonders.”  Jesus healed out of compassion, befriended the outcasts, taught with deep wisdom, and performed surprising miracles.  Jesus did these things.  They act as a testimony of their own, showing that although Jesus as human he was also not just human… but something more.

“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).  In what would become the tradition of great revival preachers like John Wesley, Peter goes straight for the second person singular:  YOU crucified him.  It was God’s plan; YOU did it.

Is this fair?  Think of the thousands of people swarming the streets for the Jewish festival of Pentecost.  Maybe a few of them had a direct hand in Jesus’ crucifixion:  folks who had a place on the High Council that sent him to Pilate or in the crowd that shouted “Barabbas!”  Some… but surely not all; certainly not every person there had participated in sending Jesus to the cross.

And yet… don’t we all share this responsibility?  If we were perfectly obedient to God’s law, there would be no need for a sacrifice for our sins.  If we loved God with our whole being and loved our neighbors as much as we loved ourselves, then we’d already be right with God; we wouldn’t need a means of justification.  We don’t obey and we love half-heartedly.  We need Jesus.

So Peter says to each person in the crowd:  YOU crucified him.

Thankfully, the message does not end there.

“But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).  YOU crucified him; GOD raised him.  YOU killed him; GOD proved more powerful than death.

This is the message the Spirit wrote and placed on Peter’s heart.  This is the Easter message in a nutshell:

Jesus was a man

            Whose works showed he was more than just a man

            You crucified him

            But God raised him up

It’s what the crowd needed to hear so they could understand and decide to follow Christ.  And I think it’s what we need to hear, as well… especially any of us who has ever struggled to understand Easter.

Jesus was a man.  It’s easy for us to distance ourselves from this fact.  Make it real.  Imagine Jesus as the person sitting next to you.  He had an ordinary name (before his actions made it extraordinary).  He occupied a body just as you do.  He sweated and felt itchy and got hungry.  He had a birthday.  The work he did caused pain to his body.  The relationships he had caused pain in his soul.  He was as real a person as ever was.

His works showed he was more than just a man.  It’s wonderful to read about these works in the Gospels, but even better to experience them ourselves.  Has one of the parables ever taken root in you, causing you to keep thinking about it and thinking about it until you live differently?  Have you felt Jesus healing your guilt-ridden spirit?  Have you heard about how he spent his time with little kids and undervalued adults and felt your loneliness subside, just a little?  Have you ever found yourself inexplicably tearing up at the sight of some small act of self-sacrificial love – the same kind of love Jesus showed for us?  These are the works that testify to Jesus.

You crucified him.  No, you weren’t there.  But what if you had been?  Too often we go along with the crowd.  Too often we pass judgment.  Too often we make decisions out of fear and self-preservation.  No, you didn’t hammer the nails… but our human track record suggests we may have acted the same.

No, you weren’t there.  And neither was Peter’s entire crowd when they heard his first message.  And yet he tells them – and us – “YOU crucified him.”  Without knowing you, I can say with confidence that you have not loved God with your whole heart.  Neither have you have not loved your neighbor completely as yourself.  I can say this because it’s part of the human condition.  Jesus is the solution and we are so grateful, and yet we know that means that on some level WE crucified him.

But – thank God – that is not the end.  Our guilt is not the end of the story.

God raised him.  We all have loved ones who have been laid to rest somewhere.  I have a grandfather in a cemetery in Georgia and a grandpa-in-law in a cemetery in Waynesville.  As a pastor I’ve stood by gravesides here in Andrews and there in Charlotte.  Most of all I think of my mom, whose cremains are held in a garden at my home church in Florida.  In my mind I can picture those last places that I saw the physical bodies of all those sweet people.

But not Jesus.

The last place Jesus was seen was not a tomb, or a cemetery, or a memorial garden.  The last place Jesus was seen was walking around looking the best he ever had, surprising his BFFs and giving them parting instructions.  Jesus isn’t in a tomb; Jesus broke out.  By doing so he made an escape plan for all our loved ones so they are now but not permanently laid to rest.

Jesus was a man

            Whose works showed he was more than just a man

            You crucified him

            But God raised him up

This is Easter.  This is what you need to know.  This is the life-transforming series of events that Peter and the disciples and us and the whole world in a new trajectory.

And yet… this still doesn’t explain it all.  There’s still a mystery here that points to something greater than us.  There’s something about Easter that cannot totally be explained.

So may we have faith like a child.  Instead of being unnerved by what we cannot completely explain, may we see God in that mysterious space.  May we see Jesus, God’s son… and be drawn toward him.

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