Easter 2B Sermon (2024)

2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2

Facebook live (sermon begins at 28:25): https://fb.watch/rrMr8m-YpL/

LIVING INTO GOD’S DREAM OF ONE HUMAN FAMILY

On Tuesday, one of the prophets of our time, Jim Wallis, appeared on a cable news station on the occasion of the release of his new book. This book (holding it up): The False White Gospel: Rejecting Christian Nationalism, Reclaiming the True Faith, and Refounding Democracy (St. Martin’s, 2024). It got my attention for a number of reasons. One is that I had pre-ordered the book myself in anticipation of his appearance here in Milwaukee on Friday at the invitation of the churches of MICAH, many of which are ELCA churches in our synod. So I was in the pipeline of communications on his town hall meeting Friday night and had decided to get the book right away. His appearance Tuesday on a national stage caught my eye.

On that news forum, they talked about the challenges facing us this year as many forces swirl around us that threaten our democracy. Beginning on Holy Thursday, I’ve been talking about how democracy is a movement of nonviolence. It gives us the opportunity to keep or change our leadership every two, or four, or six years by the quintessential nonviolent act of voting. But there are voices in our nation right now that are calling for the opposite: political violence, the very thing we hope to leave behind by choosing democracy as our form of government.

I didn’t catch Jim Wallis’ Tuesday appearance until a couple days later because I was at Red Apple school before dawn on Tuesday and worked the polls all day. Something new happened for me as a poll worker that was both reassuring and ominous. Two Racine police officers checked-in several times during the day. They said it’s strategy this year to have police officers assigned to every polling place to both offer a police presence and to be ready-at-hand if there’s problems. The ominous part is that the threat of political violence is a reality to our nonviolent right to vote this year. The reassuring part is that our Racine police are taking the threat seriously.

In his TV appearance on Tuesday Jim Wallis spoke passionately about how the threats to our democracy this year are not just a political matter. He used the phrase “faith factor.” Faith factor. That the looming political violence comes in large part from people of faith who call themselves “Christian Nationalists.” Wallis claimed the Easter season as an ideal time to speak-up and challenge those whose faith endorses political violence, when Easter is about the opportunities to leave behind our old ways, our sins, of political violence, to instead follow the one who nonviolently challenged those ways of empire by going to the cross and being raised to new life.

Another reason why Wallis’ book and personal appearances have gotten my attention this week is that I had come to that realization on my own — in a very new way for me — this past Maundy Thursday. [See the sermon “Holy Communion and the Democratic Ideal.”] My entire way of experiencing the events of Holy Week revolves around the clash between the typical ways of human empire based on using the power of force colliding at the cross with the coming of God’s reign based on the power of love. I believe with all my heart, mind, and spirit that God in the cross and resurrection of Jesus is offering us nothing less than a new way of being human oriented around the power of love instead of violence. That we may begin to be transformed and gradually leave behind those old ways of violence. And I believe, I strongly believe, that democracy is part of that movement.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, as John Lennon once famously sang, but I’ve also come to believe that I have the Bible to back me up. I’ve come to read the Bible as the story of God’s breaking into our long human history of violence against one another in order to give us a different Way to put our faith in and follow. Is there a lot of violence in the Bible? Yes, of course, there is, precisely because it’s the story of how we believe in violence and God doesn’t. It show us our violence — right in our faces! Are there depictions of God using and seeming to support violence? Yes, and this, of course, is more problematic. But not if we let the nonviolence of Jesus to guide us in seeing those violent depictions of God as our projections of our violence onto God. It is the story of our false Gospels based on military might being challenged by God’s Gospel in Jesus Christ of a new way of being human based on love.

One of the points Jim Wallis made is that his book challenging the False White Gospel is centered on well-known passages from the Bible. Each chapter revolves around crucial biblical texts. This is the same thing I hope to do in my preaching. My turn to the theme of supporting the fight for democracy last week was based on Scripture. I can do the same thing here today.

When Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples and commissions them to forgive sins to hold people fast in the Beloved Community of faith and love, where have we seen something similar before in John’s Gospel? At the beginning of John’s Gospel, which we happened to read near the beginning of the Epiphany season (Epiphany 2B).1 John the Baptist tells the account of Jesus’ baptism, where the Holy Spirit came to remain with, to abide in, Jesus. And this also was about sin. “Behold the lamb of God,” John proclaims, “who comes to take away the sin of the world.” Sin in the singular, remember? Not plural. Which sin is it that Jesus comes to take away above all others? We did a Bible study back then that I won’t repeat this morning, other than to simply say that it’s the sin of conflict and violence which breaks us apart. It’s the sin which kills Jesus on the cross. It’s the sin which is reversed on Easter so that the risen Jesus can stand in their midst proclaiming “Peace!” through the forgiveness of sins and love’s ability to hold fast to one another in Beloved Community.

It’s the kind of peaceful community which we see in our reading from Acts 4 today, where “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” The fruit of coming to have faith in Jesus is the ability for humankind to come together as one family.

From that first group of disciples in Jerusalem, it was especially the apostle Paul who went out to cross the greatest barriers for his fellow Jews, which was to have fellowship with Gentiles, too. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2, God in the cross was creating one new humanity out of all the walls and divisions we have erected. Or, as he wrote in Galatians 3 and Colossians 2, when we are one in Jesus Christ, the usual divisions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female begin to melt away. Those differences are still there, of course, but they never become reasons to keep us apart.

What if we claim the “faith factor” for our time, right now in 2024, and come forward to offer healing for all the ways in which we are divided? Do you see how important that might be for not only our nation but for all of our lives, too? What if more and more we could live together like that picture of the early church in Acts 4? Well, having no concept for personal property in our capitalist culture isn’t going to work. But what if we could share more our resources in common to make sure everyone is taken care of? Again, you may say that I’m a dreamer, but it’s the faith of our scriptures which inspire that dream. Please trust me on that. Easter 2024 can be a crucial moment to learn that together, even as dark forces of political violence arise around us.

Let me end with a heart-to-heart talk with you as your pastor. I know there are so many things that grab our attention and are the center of our lives from day-to-day: the usual work things, just making a living to support ourselves, to support our families. Facing losses of various kinds. Facing health crises. What I’m trying to lift up is that these can all easier to bear if we can, in a democratic nation, choose to work together and help each other more — rather than to be so divided. Do you see? That there’s a faith factor this year as we make very important votes to do the kinds of things which prophets like Jim Wallis call us to do.

I want to end by recalling another recent prophet — that this Tuesday (April 9) is the 79th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom in Germany. He was a Lutheran pastor who for fifteen years stood up and spoke out against Hitler and Nazism and the kind of division and hatred on which that was built. It ended up costing him his life. He wrote about the “cost of discipleship,”2 that there’s “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” and that there’s great rewards which come with that costly grace, with standing up at important times in human history to claim that Easter grace of becoming new in Christ Jesus. It’s a lot scary that it did end up costing him his life, like Jesus, executed by empire. But it was ten years after the German people had already lost their democracy. Folks, that’s what’s at stake this year, I believe. With prophets like Jim Wallis, we can learn to read our scripture and our faith tradition to reject things like Christian nationalism and political violence. We are called at moments like this to seek more faithful versions of our faith, in order to not only help save our democracy, but to also refound it, to make it stronger, to make it something that works better for all of us. So that maybe some of those day-to-day, week-to-week worries and anxieties and burdens in our lives actually get better, become lighter. That we can have a nation where we are caring for one another and making each other’s lives better. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, April 7, 2024

Facebook live (sermon begins at 28:25): https://fb.watch/rrMr8m-YpL/

Notes

1. Making the connection between Jesus’ baptism at the end of John 1 and the commissioning of the disciples in this passage from John 20 is an insight I received through Sandra Schneiders‘ two amazing essays on John 20:19-23: “‘Whose Sins You Shall Forgive . . .”: The Holy Spirit and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” and “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” chapters 5 and 6, respectively, in Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Liturgical Press, 2013).

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s chief published work, before being imprisoned and martyred by the Nazis, is simply entitled “Discipleship,” but the American translation titled it “The Cost of Discipleship,” from his insightful opening chapter about “cheap grace” vs. “costly grace.” The preeminent version of that book is now Vol. 4 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Discipleship (Fortress Press, 2000).

 

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