worship

By the Grace of God
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
April 5, 2015 - John 20:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

 

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By the Grace of God
John 20:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11             

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2015

 

One of the things I love about Easter is that our working knowledge as a congregation is so strong.  If we crowd-sourced the Easter story today, I have no doubt we could cobble together a pretty good version of the story. 

We might have a little disagreement about who exactly was waiting in the tomb – or we might encounter a touch of confusion as to whom was being greeted in the garden – there are one or two fine points here and there about which we might have to agree to disagree – but guess what, that puts us right up there with the Gospel writers, who didn’t get all the details exactly the same. 

Three versions of the story agree on the same words, though, “He has been raised.”

The fourth, John, doesn’t even have to say the words.  Mary just turned around and there Jesus was.  I guess you don’t have to say it if you show it. 

That’s the great thing about Easter.  We all know what the celebration is about – we started from the minute we walked in getting ready to say those words, “He is risen.”

They are good news.  They are the heart of the Gospel – that in Christ’s resurrection lies the hope of our own.  No doubt about it, it’s the news we want to hear. 

There are a lot of folks who need to hear that good news.  Let me tell you about one in particular.  This fellow was an educated renaissance man, he didn’t attend one of the ivies for college, but he may as well have, such were his education and connections.  He was at the top of his game, respected in his neighborhood, respected in his faith community – his name was Paul. 

Forget what you know about Paul.  Yes, he was a Pharisee.  Yes, he wrote some things that folks have used incorrectly to target people for exclusion.  Yes, he was a persecutor of the church.  All of these things are true – he readily admits them. By his own words, he is unworthy to be called an apostle because he was a persecutor of the church.

But more than that, he was a sinner of God’s own redeeming.  By the grace of God, Paul came to write of the church’s ministry of reconciliation.

We are all familiar with that Easter story, to be sure, but do you know what comes after it in John’s Gospel?  It’s the story of the reconciliation of Peter.  If you remember the story of Jesus’s suffering and crucifixion from the history channel or from the big screen or from the pages of the Bible, you know that Peter denied that he even knew Jesus – three times – for fear that he would be guilty by association.  Then in the final verses of John, Jesus reaches out to Peter – three times, by the grace of God – to bring reconciliation. 

By the grace of God, Paul; by the grace of God, Peter: both of them, sinners of God’s own redeeming. 

I worry a lot of the time that when people hear preachers say the word sinner or sin they hear it as just dripping with condemnation, and maybe some preachers mean it that way.  God knows we have probably all heard one too many public figures conclude their perp-walk with the catchphrase, “I have sinned,” but it really is only a descriptive term – it doesn’t mean we are as bad as we could possibly be – only that there is something broken in us that needs healing. 

Just last Sunday I was preaching about Jesus coming into Jerusalem and said that the hallelujahs that we utter are necessarily cold and broken – that the only kind of proclamation we can make is a broken hallelujah because we ourselves experience brokenness.  And of course, it was blatantly ripped off from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, and so I was delighted when someone caught the reference and sent me Cohen’s song, Come Healing, with the note, after the cold and broken hallelujahs come healing.  Listen:

O gather up the brokenness

And bring it to me now

The fragrance of those promises

You never dared to vow

 

The splinters that you carry

The cross you left behind

Come healing of the body

Come healing of the mind1

 

Truly, truly, into the midst of whatever brokenness afflicts our lives and our loves, the healing balm of reconciliation is the grace of God.    Because by the grace of God, healing is for sinners – whatever our brokenness, the proclamation that he is risen, is the word of hope that by the grace of God, we are reconciled. 

Years ago, at the ordination of a friend of mine, the preacher said that the faith that he lived and would preach wouldn’t be worth a pauper’s penny if it didn’t give insight into the issues of life.

So, I have been thinking a lot about reconciliation this year.  I don’t know about you, but it just seems to me that we need it in extra measure.  Maybe I’m wrong – maybe we don’t need it, but it just seems that so much is conspiring to hold us at arms’ length from one another – when by the grace of God, we should be drawing together. 

I worry about the polarization of how we see one another. 

Think of the protests surrounding police violence in Ferguson and New York and the way folks divided, when we really needed to talk about was reconciliation.  There’s something missing.

Think of the Religious Freedom bills that have peppered the conversation around the country with adversarial language.   I’m still trying to understand why we have to say, “Let’s make a law,” instead of talking to one another.  There’s something missing.

Think of the matters of poverty and wealth and the accompanying ailments of hunger and homelessness, domestic violence and addiction.  There’s something missing.

When we begin to devolve into the polarities of whatever viewpoint we most cherish or at least most find reassuring, there is something missing.  Or rather, there is someone missing. 

We are.

By the grace of God, we are called into the resurrection life and that means doing the work of redemption and reconciliation now. 

Did you know that you are part of the resurrection work of Jesus Christ?

I love a story that Tony Campolo tells about a student of his, Bryan Stevenson, who graduated top of his class from the university where Campolo taught and went on to Harvard Law and clerked for a federal judge – Campolo asks, Do you have any idea how much money this fellow could be making?  A quarter-million dollars a year, he hypothesized, and this was years ago.

But then he says, “instead, he’s living in a one-room apartment in Montgomery, Alabama.  And every morning, Bryan Stevenson gets up and goes down to the jailhouse and defends poor people, especially those who are on Death Row… he says, ‘There are two kinds of law: one for the rich and powerful – they get lawyers that get them off. There’s another kind of law for the poor and the oppressed, and the poor go down the tubes, Tony.  Because the poor have no one to speak for them.’  And the he smiled and said, ‘Except in Montgomery, Alabama, because in Montgomery, Alabama, Tony, I speak for the poor…’ And he said, ‘Tony, I’m good.  I’m really good.’”

And Campolo concludes, “Bryan, you don’t know how good you are.  You didn’t let them kill the dream.  You didn’t let them stifle the vision.”2

Do you know that you are part of the resurrection work of God?

God has a dream and a vision of creation that the resurrection realizes: that we can be reconciled to God and reconciled to each other – we can be the way God created us to be!  When you whisper the phrase, “he is risen, indeed,” you say the first words of reconciliation that lead to the coming of the kingdom of God.  Did you know you’re doing that?

There are so many ways that we are called on by God to practice resurrection, and there are so many ways that God’s dream of reconciliation can yet be stifled. 

The cynicism of believing that we can’t do a damn thing about it is the worst of all.

I suspect that we think that practicing resurrection, living reconciliation has to be tombs cracked open and bodies raised from the dead, and for God, it is. 

But for us, the simplest act, by the grace of God, is turned into the clay from which God is still fashioning a redeemed creation. 

When I graduated college, before I went to seminary, I had the opportunity to go to Russia right after the fall of communism.  The country was a wreck.  We weren’t so very far from thinking of ourselves as enemies either.  What a difference twenty years makes – we’re just about back where we started. 

Our passports were confiscated and not released until we paid a bribe, I think – I didn’t ask questions I didn’t want to know the answer to. 

And we were a little scared of the Russians, the mafia and so forth, and I wonder if they felt a little the same toward us.  Again, everything old is new again. 

But when we got out into the countryside, after a few days, our hosts took us out behind the school where we would be working – the sun was setting, there was a bonfire, there were birch trees and a stream, and they brought out some heavily fortified fruit wine – I’m not sure it wasn’t babushka’s homemade special – and some chocolates and we sat around the fire and they started singing old Russian folk songs.  There we were in the middle of the birch trees singing songs to each other.   

When we are united in the risen Christ, the shortest distance between two people is probably the distance it takes to pass a box  of chocolates and a bottle of bad wine. 

The late Fred Craddock tells the story of traveling in the old GDR and sharing a train car with a woman who spoke no English and he spoke no German and she peeled and orange and handed him half, and he broke his train-station sandwich and handed her half and he said, that’s the shortest distance between two people, across a table. 

What’s the distance between Atlanta and Missouri?  What’s the distance between Atlanta and Indiana, or New York?  What’s the distance between Atlanta and Kenya?

It’s just across that table. 

And it isn’t just this table across which the grace of God flows… it’s every table where the love of Christ is allowed in.  It’s any old table where you or I remember, he is risen, and our cynicism flies away.  It is any old table where we remember, he is risen, and tension between two people can ratchet down long enough for us to be children of God to one another again.

Sure, it’s a naïve, simplistic, do-gooder, Pollyanna-ish way to see the world. 

But don’t you want in on that?  Don’t you want to let go of the brokenness?  Don’t you want to let go of the tension?  Don’t you want to let go of the relentless need to be perfect?

By the grace of God, you can.

By the grace of God, we are all reconciled.

By the grace of God, we are all redeemed. 

By the grace of God, we are all joined to the work of Christ’s reconciliation begun with those simplest words, “He is risen.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 

 

1 http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/comehealing.html

2 Tony Campolo, Children of the Kingdom in Sermons from Duke Chapel, Willimon, ed.  (Duke: Durham, 2003) pp301-302

Last Published: April 14, 2015 8:05 PM