Easter 3B Sermon (2024)

3rd Sunday of Easter
Texts: Luke 24:36b-48;
Acts 3:12-21, 1 John 3:1-7

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 11:35): https://www.facebook.com/100003658074151/videos/1678656162871827/

‘THAT THE MESSIAH SHOULD SUFFER’ . . . TO EXPOSE NATIONALISM

Jesus says in our Gospel Reading — opening their minds to understand the scriptures, no less! — he says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. . . .” Just a few verses earlier in Luke 24, while walking with a couple of different disciples on the way to Emmaus, Jesus says, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). And in our First reading from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Peter is preaching a sermon, in which he says, “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.”  Three times with the same basic message, that the Messiah should suffer!! Do you think Luke is trying to make a point?!

The question for today is, What more precisely is that point? I believe that a full answer to the question of why the Messiah needed to suffer can go a long way to answering questions about the mystery of suffering itself. Our American culture seems to be bent on the opposite, on avoiding suffering at all costs. Which raises its own kind of problems because so many of those efforts to avoid suffering, to avoid feeling pain, lead to even more suffering. We get addicted to things that numb us, like drugs and alcohol. We get addicted to things that entertain us and distract us, like sex and gambling and video games. So while we tend to increase our suffering by trying to avoid it, at the heart of our Christian faith is the very different remedy of facing suffering through having faith in a suffering Messiah. Why? How does that help us?

We begin by noticing what follows all these mentions of a suffering Messiah. In today’s Gospel Reading, what immediately follows is this: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” In our Acts 3 reading, it’s this: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” which will eventually lead to “the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”1

The first thing, then, is to understand how the acknowledgment of suffering is the only thing that leads to true repentance. We know this from our own personal sins, right? A minute ago I mentioned sins involving addiction, which cause so much suffering and loss. I’ve talked about the Twelve Steps programs of A.A. and N.A. in recent sermons.2 The Twelve Steps are all about the acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the addiction, both to yourself and to those around you. The Twelve Step Traditions are a model of how only the acknowledgment of suffering can lead to real healing and recovery.

But the second thing to notice about what follows the proclamation of a suffering Messiah is the scope of the repentance and forgiveness and healing. I’ve been preaching about the need to revitalize our Gospel message as having become too small in recent generations.3 We’ve seemed to shrink the Gospel down to just a matter of our individual sins being forgiven so that some of us might go to heaven when we die. First of all, this shrunken version of the Gospel doesn’t necessarily get around to personal transformation. The Good News does always begin with personal repentance and healing and restoration. But since the Reformation we have tended to use the word “justification” not so much in the sense of a real transformation — of real healing and restoration — but instead more like a stamp of “not guilty” on our foreheads that becomes our ticket into heaven. I believe that Jesus and Paul and the Apostles were going well beyond “justification” to talk about real personal transformation — that we could actually follow Jesus into being human in a better way. We shrink the Gospel when it falls short of real personal transformation.4

But we also shrink the Gospel if we don’t go beyond the personal, if we leave this as purely an individualistic possibility. The really Good News is that God has a plan for repentance and healing and restoration for the whole creation! Today’s Gospel Reading says that repentance and forgiveness are to be proclaimed to all nations. Why? Because, as our Acts 3 reading says, God’s long-term plan is for nothing less than a “time of universal restoration.”5 Listen to that again: a time of universal restoration. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that wonderful?!

To begin to understand how that might even be imagined, there’s one last thing we need to notice this morning about a suffering Messiah. How did he suffer? Was it cancer? Was it any kind of illness which Jesus himself healed in his own ministry? Yes, healing defined Jesus ministry. Healing as part of the Gospel is huge. It’s what has occasioned Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, because the Apostles, too, have taken up a ministry of healing. But illness is not the nature of the Messiah’s suffering. No, he was crucified. He was tortured and executed. He was collectively murdered on a cross. Lynched by a mob, basically, with the rubber stamp of the Roman governor. What does Peter confront the crowd with in his sermon? “But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you all killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”

Then, a moment later he tells them, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” In other words, the Messiah had to suffer death precisely at their hands in order to wake them up out of their ignorance, both theirs and their rulers. What ignorance might that be? I propose it’s what we’ve talked about over many weeks now. Namely, our deeply human mistaken belief in political power as the power to force our way of doing things on others.6 We believe we’re right and so we have the duty to make our way the way of the world. Might makes right. That has truly been the basic principle of faith for the history of human nations and empires.

And here’s the clincher that’s so important for our moment in history: If we had to name this faith, I think it is meaningful and poignant to call it “nationalism.”7 Nationalism is the belief that your way is right, and so you have a duty to impose it on others, using force if necessary. The Roman Empire sought to impose its way of life on the entire Mediterranean world. Many Jews thought their way to be right and so hoped for a Messiah who would lead them in imposing their way of life on everyone. So here’s Jesus caught in the middle between these two opposing nationalisms. The only way for to Jesus to wake them up to God’s reign based on love and forgiveness and healing was to suffer their collective murder of him. To be a suffering Messiah was the only way for others to begin to see the truth of another way, of God’s way, based on the equality of every person created as an equal child of God. God’s way of reigning being something closer, in fact, to that democratic ideal which our nation has never quite lived up to, that of all people being created equal. That all people, as children of God, deserve equal opportunities for their lives to thrive and flourish.8

So as we have striven in recent decades to come closer to that ideal,9 is it surprising that forces of nationalism once again are rising up to try to block those efforts? And what is one of the main impulses of the current nationalism in our country that goes by the hideous, oxymoronic name of “Christian nationalism”? Well, they need to deny the suffering caused by our form of nationalism throughout our history. They take the position:

‘You can’t allow stories of how slavery brutalized African Americans. You can’t allow for the fact that the racism behind slavery has led to much suffering of injustice and discrimination right up to this present day. Don’t teach those things in our schools. Don’t read those books.’

Otherwise, we might have to face the suffering that leads to real repentance, to real restoration, to real justice, to a fully-formed, multi-racial democracy.

Even worse for Christian nationalists is that being confronted with the suffering of those on the margins might expose the way in which that suffering has often looked just like the suffering of God’s messiah — hanging on a tree, lynched by a mob.10 Thus exposing the lie that Christian nationalism has anything to do with the real Christ, the Messiah who suffered our collective murder by being lynched on a tree.

With that I’d like to conclude this morning with the words of justice-activist Bryan Stevenson — words he spoke in 2018 at the inauguration of a museum commemorating the thousands of lynchings of African Americans for many decades after the end of slavery. Listen carefully and see if his words might not stand as a paraphrase for Peter’s sermon in Acts 3. Speaking about our American history of lynching African Americans, Stevenson said, “I am not interested in talking about this history because I want to punish people. I’m interested in talking about this history because I want us to be liberated. I want us to get on the other side of repentance and experience redemption, and restoration and reparation and recovery. But those are words that can’t happen until we give voice to the pain and the anguish and the sin and the burdens that we have created by our silence.”11

Amen, Bryan! May the reality of the suffering Messiah, who suffers in solidarity with all the victims of our many nationalisms, lead us beyond repentance to the time that God has planned for universal restoration. In 2024, doesn’t this, in particular, mean learning to speak a very different Gospel than the False White Gospel12 of Christian Nationalism?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, April 14, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 11:35): https://www.facebook.com/100003658074151/videos/1678656162871827/

Notes

1. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) assigns this reading as Acts 3:12-19. But that breaks off mid-sentence, omitting, with the end of the sentence, what I consider one of the most important Gospel phrases in the New Testament: “the time of universal restoration” (Gr: chronōn apokatastaseōs pantōn). So I extended the reading in our worship to finish the sentence, adding vv. 20-21.

2. See, for example, the sermon for March 3, 2024 (Lent 3B).

3. For more on revitalizing the Gospel, see the sermons for Epiphany 3B and the Lent 3B sermon in note #2 — the latter coming shortly after I had read Douglas Campbell’s and Jon DePue’s Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul’s Gospel (Wipf & Stock, 2024).

4. That Paul’s Gospel is transformational, beyond mere justification, is a central point of the Campbell/DePue book above, Beyond Justification.

5. The point about the RCL cutting off mid-sentence in Acts 3:19 — right after the part about God wiping out our sins (Justification) but before the long-term goal of “universal restoration” (Transformation) in 3:21 — seems to indicate that the RCL itself might occasionally shrink the Gospel by its choices of what to include and/or exclude in its lections.

6. Since the middle of the Epiphany Season, my sermons have contrasted God’s kind of power, the power of love to heal and restore and renew life, with the human tendency to worship the power of force, the power to make others bend to one’s own desires. See the sermon for Epiphany 4B, “God’s Reign and the Politics of Healing,” and subsequent sermons.

7. I began to name “nationalism” in the sermon for Lent 5 (March 17) and continued to do so through this present sermon April 14.

8. The theme of characterizing democracy in terms of the not-yet-lived-up-to ideal of equality, “All people are created equal,” began with the Maundy Thursday sermon and continued into the Easter Season.

9. In the Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday sermons, I had rehearsed those struggles in recent decades for expanded rights for people of color, women, differently abled persons, and LGBTQ+ persons.

10. The quintessential text on linking the lynching of African Americans to the cross of Jesus is James Cone‘s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011). This had come to front-of-mind for me in reading Brian Zahnd’s new book The Wood Between the Worlds: A Poetic Theology of the Cross (InterVarsity Press, 2024), chapter 13, “The Lynching of the Son of Man.”

11. Quoted in Jim Wallis, The False White Gospel: Rejecting Christian Nationalism, Reclaiming the True Faith, and Refounding Democracy (St. Martin’s, 2024), 113-14. Wallis cites Episode 9 of his podcast Jim Wallis in Conversation. The museum opening was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

12. Ibid. I was using the phrase “False White Gospel” because I had introduced the congregation to Wallis’ new book the previous Sunday, in the sermon for Easter 2B.

 

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