Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Light Shines in the Darkness

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There's a line in the movie Rounders that I seem to come back to over and over. That's the poker movie from the late 1990s that stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton. In the film, in order to forestall the violent beating of his friend, Damon's character vouches for Norton's character, agreeing to accept the gambling debt of the latter as if it were his own. The two men work together, cheating at poker, in order to raise the money. Just when it looks like they are close to having enough, their dishonesty is discovered, and they lose everything. Damon's character must appeal to other friends and acquaintances, seeking a loan to prevent his own violent demise, and one of those would-be lenders begins to lecture Damon on where he went wrong. Damon's reply still bears truth in my own life: "This is the one time I don't need you to tell me how I [screwed] up. I know I [screwed] up. What I need from you is money."

I have always been uncomfortable with Good Friday sermons that identify the sins of the congregation as the nails that held Jesus to the cross. I don't disagree with the theology behind those sermons--just the timing. Sure, Jesus died on the cross to free us from our sin once and for all, but, when I'm staring at the cross itself, my mind and heart are not fertile ground for such seeds. I know I screwed up. I don't need the preacher to tell me I screwed up. I need a way out. I need hope. I need Jesus and the limitless love that he brings to the world.

The light of Easter seems a much better time for me to confront my role in the cross. Repentance is always easier when I have something to turn toward and not just something from which to turn away. Today is Tuesday in Easter Week. We're just three days into the resurrection, and what is the appointed reading from Acts? "Peter said to the multitude, 'Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified'" (Acts 2:36). We've just finished forty days of penitence. We've done the self-examination. We're ready to move on. But Peter isn't finished with the cross yet. He can't be. From the defeat of the cross springs new hope and new life and new possibility.

Notice how Peter says it: "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." He doesn't start with the failure. He begins with the victory. God has made him victorious over death despite your worst efforts. Easter shines forth into, over, and above the darkness you created. There is possibility here, and Peter starts with the possibility, but, at the same time, he doesn't want us to miss the circumstances that gave rise to that new possibility.

Pay attention to how the crowd responds: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" The hope is not detached from the circumstance; it is articulated in opposition to it. God raised the one you crucified. Presented with this reality, the response is a seeking: "What should we do?" An exposition of darkness cannot draw out such a response. If Peter had merely beaten the people over the head with their misdeeds, they would have turned away from him and his message. But Peter offered hope in the context of reality, and the product was faith.

What should we do? Repent, Peter says. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Repentance, after all, isn't only an act by which we leave behind our misdeeds, our old life, our wrong-headedness. It is the act by which we turn around to embrace something new. It is the beginning of a new life. Peter's invitation, therefore, is to accept that God's path is revealed in the resurrection (and ascension, but that's later in the calendar,) of Jesus. The path that the people had been on was the path that led to the cross. "Which path would you rather be on?" Peter seems to be saying, the one that you were one--the one that led to the cross--or the one that God is one--the one that leads to life? Repentance is an opportunity to change course, and it's always easier to change course when we have the light to show us where we've been going and where we might now go.

Don't let the light of the resurrection come and go without allowing it to illuminate both the Easter path that you're on and the Good Friday path that you've come from. Your sins nailed Jesus Christ to the cross. All of ours did. But that's not the end of the story. Our sin is what led us to the cross. God's victory over that sin is what leads us away from the cross, through the empty tomb, and out into the world in the light of Easter. May our walk with Jesus Christ be a continual repentance from the old and an embrace of the new.

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