Easter A Sermon (2023)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: Acts 10:34-43;
Col 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Sh6Pd7Ou4Cs


James Alison is a good friend of mine. He’s a Catholic priest. He’s also a brilliant theologian who’s authored many books that have a wide readership throughout church circles — books, in other words, that are cited in scores of other books of theology. Since he has lived on other continents — mostly, Europe and South America, currently in Spain — we don’t get to see each other very often, but we correspond in between those times and value the times we do see one another. The first time we met, at a conference in Chicago in 1995, he handed me a computer diskette that held files which would later be published as his second and third books — these two books, as a matter of fact (holding up Raising Abel and The Joy of Being Wrong).

I want to especially dedicate what I have to say this Easter morning to the bigger book, The Joy of Being Wrong. The subtitle says a bit more: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. Original sin through Easter eyes. Our entire Lenten journey began with the story of sin’s origins in Genesis 2-3. Way back on February 26 we read the familiar story of Eve and Adam tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Lent 1A). They are told by God not to eat of one tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but the serpent convinces them to do so anyway. The sin, however, is much more than the simple disobedience. They too easily believe the serpent’s lie about God holding out on them, and so they fall into rivalry with God. The broken relation with God comes from believing a lie that God is against them. And so that broken relationship of rivalry with God turns their lives — our lives — into the constant struggle of rivalry with others, of coming into conflict with one another such that our human history has been one long tale of seemingly endless rounds of war, a tale of the powerful seeking to control and oppress the less powerful. When the man and the woman ate of the tree, instead of obtaining God’s knowledge of good and evil, they fell into our sinful human version of it. We became trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking that keeps our human family perpetually divided against itself, leading to the long history of death and oppression.

This is what we’re trying to talk about on Easter morning in terms of “The Joy of Being Wrong,” precisely as the ability to see how wrong we’ve become at the joyful moment that we’re forgiven for it. To help bring us to the joyful moment of the “joy of being wrong,” I’d like to take a couple minutes to recount where we’ve been. In the intermediate weeks of Lent, we have read amazing stories of Jesus’ ministry from the Gospel of John — stories which reveal Jesus challenging our Us-vs-Them thinking and its consequences. On the Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17; Lent 2A), Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that he must be born again from above — reborn, in other words, into God’s Us-only perspective which can heal our Us-vs-Them thinking. God looks at us, even while we were still enemies in our sin (Rom 5:8-10), and sees us only as children, only as part of us in the human family.

The next week (Lent 3A; John 4:5-42) we heard the story of Jesus engaging in an incredible conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well in her village. Jesus not only crosses all the boundaries of the centuries-old, deep-seated hatred between Jews and Samaritans. In the end, the whole village is converted from their Us-vs-Them thinking into an Us-only perspective, and Jesus stays with them for two days, earning the scorn of fellow Jews who later accuse him of being Samaritan (John 8:48).

On the Fourth Sunday in Lent (John 9:1-41; Lent 4A), Jesus heals a man blind from birth, whom the disciples assume is blind because of sin due to their Us-vs-Them thinking. Jesus heals the man in two verses, and the rest of the story is about how the Pharisees can’t be healed of their blindness — their Us-vs-Them thinking that leads them to expel the formerly blind man and to seek killing Jesus. It is actually a story about Jesus’s overall mission to heal the blindness of humanity since our birth as a species, to heal our original sin of Us-vs-Them thinking.

Finally, in the last week of Lent, we read the strange and lengthy story of Jesus (John 11:1-45) first delaying a trip to heal his sick friend Lazarus, and then when Lazarus dies during the delay, Jesus calls him out of the tomb and orders that he be unbound. Once again, it is much more a story of unbinding all of humanity than a story of raising just one person. Humankind is bound-up with a fear of death, and mixed with our Us-vs-Them thinking it becomes a toxic brew that leads to scapegoating. Sure enough, the story immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus is that of the Judean leaders getting together to plan scapegoating Jesus. They are afraid of the crowds rising up in rebellion, so Caiaphas says the scapegoat principle right out-loud: “It is better for one person to die than for the whole nation” (John 11:50).

Today — today! — we are at the climax of reliving the three days that change everything. The first two days we relive the bitterness and terrible grief of Jesus letting himself be made the scapegoat. As his people prepare for the festival of Passover, he becomes the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. On the cross itself, we see the collision of two politics articulated in the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. We see the politics of a typical human reign, a politics based on Us-vs-Them thinking and so uses armed force to make scapegoats in order to protect Our way of life from Them. But we also see the politics that come into this world from God through Jesus based on something else, the power of love, even for one’s enemies. And so Jesus in that kind of love is able to lay down his life for the healing of all humankind, the possibility of being converted to Us-only thinking. And it’s all grounded in the faith of the power of love to create life itself.

Which brings us to this day, the celebration of God’s power of love to vanquish even the power of death — love revealed as the power of life itself. That can raise a dead person. That’s why John’s Gospel begins with the story of Creation. Because we see at the end of the story, on the first Easter morning, how the power of love we see in Jesus’s going to the cross for our sakes is the power behind all life in the first place. Love is at the beginning and the end. It is creating all through the middle, too. And that work of creation itself is all about life, the flourishing of all life. So on this Easter two thousand years later, we celebrate the rebirth of God’s creation itself, the whole creation becoming unbound from the powers of sin and death.

And what does that mean for us? It means the joy of being wrong, because of the joy of being forgiven. Here’s the way my friend James describes it: “the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And that this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim” (119). We are joyful today because the depth of our wrongness is being set right! As I like to say, it’s not just about having sins forgiven, as in our (plural) acts of disobedience. It’s about having the sin (singular) of our way of being human forgiven. We are being given a chance to be human in a whole new way! Our Us-vs-Them thinking is being converted in love to Us-only thinking so that we can join God and our fellow human beings in properly caring for the creation and for one another. We are reborn as Human Being 2.0 to join God’s project of New Creation for which the goal is the flourishing of all life.

I’d like to leave us this morning with the vision for mission which is most near and dear to my heart and, I’d like to propose to you, is the analog of the central mission in the early church. The issue near and dear to my heart for Christian mission is that of battling the continuing reality and effects of racism. Now, I know, as white people even that word seems to strike terror and anger in our hearts. We don’t want to talk about it. These days, that literal. In many places, they are passing legislation to not talk, or even read, about racism. I understand. But, brothers and sisters in Christ, I submit to you this morning that this is a quintessential example of instead of being afraid or angered by something like racism, we can instead experience it as the joy of being wrong. We can experience it as the joy that comes from being forgiven for something so wrong that we can now be part of the work to setting it right.

What’s more, I deeply believe that racism in our time is an analog to the central mission in the early church. Let’s take a brief look at our First Reading this morning. Peter gives this wonderful sermon to one family, basically. He’s in the house of Cornelius, who’s a Roman Centurion. One of their enemies. He’s a Gentile. The story begins with Cornelius having a vision, that he’s supposed to meet some guy named Peter. And Peter has the same sort of vision in reverse. What’s more, while Peter is praying, he has this vision — a nightmare, really — where God is presenting him with all this unkosher food — things like pork and shellfish, things Jews aren’t supposed to eat. And so the sermon we read to today is later after Peter does arrive at Cornelius’ home. Recall from our reading Friday night that the Judean leaders won’t even go into Pilate’s palace, for fear of becoming unclean before the Passover (John 18:28). Here’s Peter going into the house of a Gentile army commander, one of their enemies, and finally having the insight, the ‘Aha!’ moment — and we don’t know if this is weeks or months or years after Easter — but it’s finally occurring to Peter that this is all about getting together God’s family, Jew and Gentile — mending that Us-vs-Them thinking, mending that kind of brokenness. Bringing together bitter enemies, like Jew and Samaritan, Jew and Gentile.

We see that this is what Paul’s letters are all about, bringing together Jew and Gentile. This is his main mission. He’s the Apostle to the Gentiles. I really lay that out in the Sermon Notes which were handed out, so I won’t go through all of that here (see those Sermon Notes below after the main body of the sermon). You can look at it later, because I’d really like to talk about it in the weeks ahead. But if that was the main mission back in the First Century was bringing together Jew and Gentile, then the analog of that mission today should be what? Bringing together white people and people of color. Fighting racism.

So let’s, in closing, once again notice the elephant in the room. On this morning of our Easter celebration, we also note with a tinge of sadness all the empty seats. Why are so many of our family and friends not here any longer? It might be another instance of the joy of being wrong by first admitting that a main reason has been because our basic Gospel message has gone wrong, has lost a lot of its vitality.

I’m told that for every one person who joins a church, three people are leaving. The exodus is a flood; the entry is a trickle. What do we do? Can we go after the trickle of folks who are still joining churches? I have a feeling, and I think the facts back it up, that most of those folks are going to the mega-churches. And it’s very difficult for a small church like Bethlehem to compete with those churches. For my part, it’s a less faithful way of approaching the problem, anyways. We have been wrong in our basic messaging, like over the last five hundred years mostly failing to stand up against things like racism. Like healing that thing between Jew and Gentile which was so central to the mission of the First Century and should be central to us today in our own setting, in our own venue, with our own issues.

I believe from the tips of my toes to the top of my head that the way forward is to invite back those who are leaving, and have left, with a new message which invites them to the joy of being wrong. Even something so deeply wrong as racism. Because it’s also the joy of being forgiven. It’s the joy of working to set things right. It’s the joy, the joy, of really making a difference in this broken world. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, April 9, 2023

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Sh6Pd7Ou4Cs


James Alison (from the Wikipedia page): born 4 October 1959, is an English Roman Catholic priest and theologian. Alison is noted for his application of René Girard’s anthropological theory to Christian systematic theology and for his work on LGBTQ issues.

Alison’s 3rd Book: The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes (Crossroad, 1998).

The ‘joy of being wrong’ refers to how we are able to admit how sinful we are at the same time that we know deep down that we are forgiven — like the disciples on Easter evening. They had abandoned and denied Jesus, but they were able to accept how wrong they had been because Jesus was standing there forgiving them.

This can work for us, too, as we look around at empty seats on Easter. We can dare to look at how the Gospel message we learned has missed the mark — witnessed to by the empty seats — because of the joy which comes from being forgiven by our Risen Lord. We can be sent forth this Easter with a revitalized Gospel message.

Pastor Paul’s Proposal for a Revitalized Gospel Message: following the guidance of the New Testament, our Gospel message should center on standing against and working to heal Racism. Why? Because in the first century, the Gospel message centered on healing the division between Jew and Gentile. Today, the similar division which needs healing is between white people and people of color.

Racism is truly a terrible reality that requires the ‘joy of being wrong.’ We cannot hope to stand against it and work to heal it without first being honest about how wrong we’ve been. It’s very difficult work, but we can do it for the joy of knowing that we are forgiven for it and that God has done something about setting us on the right path when we follow Jesus.

Lutherans Over-emphasize Grace and Miss the Point of Healing Racism: Lutherans needing to revitalize the Gospel Message around racism is nothing new. It’s been around for five hundred years. Martin Luther revitalized the Gospel message for his time around grace, but then missed the point of grace; namely, that God is healing our sin of division and violence. Racism in its White Supremacist form began in the decades leading up to the Reformation as Europeans began to go forth to other continents and conquer the peoples there. When we over-focus on grace simply as grace, without seeing what it looks like in the world, it becomes what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred by the Nazis on this day, April 9, in 1945) called “cheap grace.” Since Luther himself missed the advent of racism (even contributing to it in his writings), is it time that we confess to practicing “cheap grace” for basically 500 years?

The Biblical Story of Using Paul and Missing His Point: Luther set the trend by over-focusing on Paul as the Apostle of Grace, and missing the significance of Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles — that Paul lived the message of grace by working on healing the division between Jew and Gentile, the forerunner to the task of healing racism.

Ephesians 2, the Clearest Example: Lutherans love Eph 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. . . .” But then we miss the main point of what grace does in Eph 2:14-16: “For Christ Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross. . . .” If we focus only on grace as grace, we miss that it’s all about healing racism.

Even Paul’s Letter to the Romans: on Reformation Day, we always read Romans 3:19-28 to articulate the Gospel message of grace. But if we also read the next two verses — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (Rom 3:29-30) — we would not miss the fruit of grace as God making the human family into one.

Examples Abound: Gal 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” See the similar verse in Col 3:11; examples in Rom. 1:16, 8:29; 1 Cor 12:13; and loads more in the Gospels.

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