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John 20:26-31 & Acts 5:27-41 (CEB)
We are in this “post-Easter” time when we kind of take a break in church. Some pulpits will be filled by guest preachers today, as we enter a period of rest, the frenetic pace slowing a little so we can re-group, getting ready for that final push before summer begins. I’m not sure why we slow down, though…it’s as if the resurrection is the culmination of the impact of Jesus, when it is really just the beginning. The disciples lives got much busier post-Easter, for as they slowly accept the resurrection, they accept much more than just an empty tomb…they accept resurrection lives.
Much of the New Testament is the unraveling of the resurrection, an account of how the reality of a risen Christ also means the embrace of the “Jesus Plan”, a reinforcement of the inherently social, cultural and political implications of a Gospel that announces power to the powerless, hope to the hopeless, forgiveness to the unforgivable…life from death. This was a subversive message during the times in which our scriptures were written. Saying “Jesus is Lord” today is a bumper sticker, proclaimed with pride, openly and loudly. But then the claim “Jesus is Lord” was not only a direct confrontation to “Caesar is Lord,” but also considered a ridiculous, foolish claim to everyone around them…a dangerous act of resistance.
It was also the start of the resurrection life.
At the end of John’s version of the gospel story, we hear an account of this post-Easter, resurrection life in the familiar account of “doubting Thomas. A lot of shadow has been cast at Thomas, but he is more like us that anyone – wanting to trust, but to verify, to have faith only if there’s a guarantee which, of course, isn’t faith. But before we cast aside Thomas, we ought to recognize that he seems to know what is at stake, maybe even more than any of the other disciples. If this is the resurrected Jesus…if this is the promise made real…if this is God’s “Yes” to the Jesus plan, then it changes everything. Of course he wants some verification – who wouldn’t?
The Book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to tell the post-Easter story that we don’t get from any of the other gospels, save for a few days after. Luke carries the story out, letting us see the impact of the resurrection life on the disciples, now called apostles, and the community in which they live. The section from Acts this morning marks the second time that some religious leaders have arrested, detained, and interrogated the apostles for preaching (and for living) the resurrection of Jesus. And once more they declare what they have declared before – their resolve to privilege the call of God over and against human authority.
This can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes privileging God’s law over human law is a positive thing – like the civil rights movement. Other times it can be much more sinister and disturbing. This assertion of the disciples that you sometimes have to buck the system to be faithful raises a critical question – how do you tell? How do you know when you are “following the will of God” and when you are going along to get along? How do you “verify” that you are on the right track?
The Book of Acts is a series of stories about how the disciples, now called apostles, wrestle with this tension. Peter has a vision in which God tells him, quite in opposition to the ways he has learned to be obedient to God’s will, that he should not “call profane what God has made clean.” Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch – both foreigner and sexually atypical – doubly “impure” according to everything that Philip has known thus far, and the action of the Holy Spirit moves him to baptize him, to welcome him into the fold. Saul, according to Acts, one of these very same religious authorities from our passage today, a zealous persecutor of the Jesus movement, encounters Jesus on a road to Damascus, in a halo of bright light, and, after three days of silence and blindness, has the scales fall from his eyes, becoming Paul, the apostle to the Greek-speaking world, quite against all he has known.
If we read the Book of Acts, it seems like being uncomfortable is a pretty clear sign that we are following God and not human law. It seems like moving out of previously held assumptions, even previously held convictions, might be a sign of easing that tension. It seems like transformation might be a component of faithfulness. The resurrection life, it would seem, means that we begin to see things differently. The borders that were once in place become more porous. The distinctions we setup between human beings becomes less important. The ways that we divide ourselves from one another fade into a kin-dom vision, where our differences are part of God’s beautifully created diversity rather than sources for mistrust and fear.
For the disciples, now called apostles, the “verification” of the resurrection is the life that they feel compelled to live. Even more than the appearances of Jesus is their realization of his presence in continuing his walk, so they realize he’s there when they share the bread and the wine, he “appears” among them when they gather together to encourage one another in their work. Who they are changes as the resurrection becomes more and more real to them. As they practice Jesus’ border-busting compassion, his agape love, the love for strangers and the marginalized, he lives again. As they re-embrace his moral values, setting aside their fear and following his ethic of Justice, claiming Jesus as Lord, rather than Caesar, the tomb stays empty. As they change, he rises.
This is the resurrection life. It seems like a particularly poignant time in history to suggest that if we are no different post-baptism than we were pre-baptism, if Easter is only to us a day in which we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, with no sense of reverence or anxiousness about what that means for us, if being “Christian” just means a signing ceremony and off to business as usual, then we may not be doing it right.
I am not suggesting to you, or to me for that matter, that living faithfully can only be achieved if you are wantonly and aggressively defying governmental authorities, or engaged in actions that are going to get you flogged and tossed out onto the streets. The world doesn’t need more martyrs, but it does need more people willing to engage with difficult and complex issues, to seek truth and to sacrifice in the name of justice. That’s what I think living the resurrection life means, that we at least consider how to reshape the world around us, knowing that there is a gap between charity and justice, and a difference between compassion and enabling. There are borders for us all to cross, everyday – borders that come to us in the form of a well-worn and far too domesticated question. What would Jesus do?
There are currently more than 23,000 municipalities in the United States, yet fewer than 80 are participating in the ICE programs. Tulsa county is one of them. What this means is that a minor traffic violation can land an undocumented person in Tulsa in the hands of ICE, likely to be deported, regardless of their length of stay in the US, their contributions to our society, or their family connections, children and dependents who will often be left behind with primary breadwinners shipped back to countries where they are in danger, or haven’t been in years, perhaps decades.
We also have a contract with ICE which allows up to 200 of the people you are hearing about on our southern border, refugees from countries torn by violence who are seeking asylum, which is legal, to be detained in our county jail downtown, as they are right now…detained without charges, awaiting their asylum hearings.
This could be a question for us about the rule of law and the sovereignty of our borders, or it could be a question about how we will treat the stranger among us, how what we do to the least of these we do to Jesus himself. See, the resurrection life actually asks us not to merely form a better political opinion, to make our views known on a social policy. It asks us to change the way we look, to act on behalf of human beings in need not because we believe in social justice, but because we have been reborn ourselves into God’s Justice, our baptism a little resurrection of our own, bringing with it the same new assumptions about the world post-Easter – God is at work, the light has overcome the darkness, and though we do not understand it at all, Christ is risen.
The implication of “Christ is Risen” is that the Jesus Plan is in full effect, now living on in our hearts, as well as our hands and feet. We have a chance to announce this new vision to the world around us, to be evangelists, though not like you’ve been taught about evangelism. After all, these disciples, now called apostles, they aren’t out asking people if they die tomorrow, where will their soul go? No, their evangelism comes as they feed the hungry, heal the sick, and stand with those whom Rome has cast aside – and then, when people ask them why they are doing this, they speak of this resurrection life, this carrying on of the Jesus plan.
So I ask us – what is our response to the detainment of human beings in our city? Regardless of how you feel politically or ideologically about an immigration system that we all agree is broken, how we treat those among us who have come seeking new life, seeking shelter and opportunity, even those who have broken our human laws says more about who we are as followers of Jesus than anything else. Can we, as Christians, break up families, orphan children, imprison without charge, or detain indefinitely, and still call ourselves Christians? Or will we strive to see the world differently? When we wonder what we can possibly do about horrific violence like we see in Christchurch, in Sri Lanka, and, horribly, again at a synagogue in California just yesterday on Passover, I will suggest to us, as Christians, that it begins with us saying “no” to dehumanizing tactics any and everywhere, “no” to anti-semitism, racism, to white supremacy, to sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, the fear-mongering used to divide and manipulate, and “no” to the violations of human rights and demonization that start long before a gun is wielded against innocents.
We don’t say “no” to this because of a political party or a social agenda. We don’t say “no” to this because we are lefty hippies, though, to be fair, many of us are. We say no because we follow the risen Christ, God’s great “YES” to the Jesus plan, who has told us what we must do, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”
Christ is risen. Thanks be to God.