Easter 4B Sermon (2003)

4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 11:11-18;
Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24


Dear People of Faith, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:3). It is an honor and a privilege to be invited here as part of your year-long celebration of fifty years of ministry in this time and place. I count myself blessed to have been a member with you for about half those fifty years. Even after twenty years since leaving, there are so many familiar faces. I thank God for the nurturing of faith, in Word and Sacrament, that I received here among you.

An anniversary is a time for both grateful remembrance of the past as well as hopeful encouragement for the future. With the help of the Spirit, I hope to do something of both with you this morning. My remembrances are fairly wide-ranging, going all the way back to my first year here at Faith. As a Kindergartner, I well remember a cold winter’s day out on the play-ground, when I fell victim to that age-old prank: an older student coaxed me into sticking my tongue to the frozen metal of the Jungle Gym — and I mean stick! Ouch!

But I did say grateful remembrances, didn’t I? That takes me especially to the event that signaled my moving on from this community of faith: the covenant Ellen and I made, which began our new family in Christ. It was a cold, gray November day in 1985, and we had a wonderful celebration of life, grounded in Word and Sacrament.

But it was a cold, gray November day only a year before, in 1984, on which I want to focus my grateful remembrances with you today. That day, too, those gathered here experienced a heartfelt celebration of life — even though it was on a very different sort of occasion, under very different circumstances. It involves, in fact, the making and unfurling of the Easter banner hanging right over here: “Life is the answer — the victory is won!” Many of you will remember with me the bittersweet circumstances of that day. For those unaware of its history, you might be surprised by even the simple fact that this Easter banner wasn’t unfurled for the first time on a nice spring day in April but on a dark day in November. It was in the face of our terrible grief that we first beheld it at the funeral service of thirty-three year old Priscilla Kipp. She had grown up as a daughter of this congregation and then had happened to marry one of its pastors, Paul Jaster.

So many of my beloved memories of this community of Faith have to do with Word and Sacrament and your rich tradition of worship — so much wonderful music and liturgy, so many transforming sermons. Yet it this one worship service in particular which I would like to pick out for you today in grateful remembrance.

Again, for those who can’t personally remember that day with us, let me be clear about the circumstances: A few people, while still inhabiting these earthly bodies, will make suggestions for their own funerals; some even write them out and file them with their church. But it is a very few, like Priscilla, who, as they lay dying, will find a theme, choose the hymns, commission the making of a banner, select the organist and the preacher, and make sure that all of us have something to celebrate. And so, with a terrible grief weighing on our hearts, celebrate we did. On a cold, dark November day, with death staring us in the face, we celebrated the Easter proclamation of life: the answer is life! In the presence of our enemy death, God the Good Shepherd led us through that valley of shadows and spread a table of victory before us.

I would like to recall that theme for us today, with our particular readings from Holy Scripture, as we stand precisely in the middle of our Easter celebration with our grateful remembrances of God the Good Shepherd in Jesus Christ. Pastor Schleef, the preacher Priscilla invited, posed it for us this way: “Life is the answer. But what is the question?” He offered a number of questions which were heavy on our hearts that day and not only comforted us with the Good News of life, but even, in the midst of our grief, called forth an Easter joy — not happiness, mind you. The grief was too real. But this was the Easter joy that can survive even such a terrible grief.

I think we would do well this morning to recall this theme in a similar way. Life is the answer. But what is the question? Our Gospel Lesson contrasts the message of a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us with the hired-hand sort of leadership that humankind still suffers through. In John’s Gospel, from the very beginning, Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd but, paradoxically, the Lamb of God who lays down his life to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has come to give us life, and to give it abundantly (John 10:10). But having just come through another war, and the specter of terrorism still confronting us — with violence looming in our own community, with AIDS and SARS, with all the stresses of our modern, frantic pace of life — death would still seem to be a formidable foe. Life is the answer. But what is the question?

This is the point at which I hope to make the turn from grateful remembrance of the past to hopeful encouragement for the future, encouragement for the next fifty years of ministry in this place. And I would like to do that by sharing with you something that has been an encouragement for my faith in the years since I’ve moved on from here. It is a gospel anthropology — that is, an understanding of who we are as human beings, rooted in the cross of Christ — a gospel anthropology which has helped me ask sharper questions. Life is the answer. But what questions do the violence and death of this world still pose to us? Are they questions that can penetrate the haze and confusion of the sort of hired-hand leadership and finally get to our human responsibility in that violence and death? Peter boils it down nicely in our First Lesson today: we are the ones who kill, God is the one who raises to life. God’s answer to us is life, even in the face of all the questions posed by the death we continue to dish out to one another. As long as death, especially violent death, continues to pose its questions, this community of Faith will have a vital answer of life to offer.

I’d like to give you the briefest of sketches of this gospel anthropology that you might get even just a glimpse of the hope I think it brings. Our Second Lesson from 1 John gives us a strategy of going back to foundational stories of our faith, but first let me set that up with one perhaps more familiar to us from St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans. Paul goes all the way back to the story of the First Adam (Rom. 5:12ff.); and then he focuses on the last commandment, the one about coveting (Rom. 7:7ff.). The gospel anthropology that has helped me in recent years also begins with coveting, which the Tenth Commandment itself helps us to understand as a desire formed through the neighbor. It gives us a whole list of things of our neighbor’s not to covet, but then abandons the list to simply say, ‘Don’t covet anything that is your neighbor’s.’ It realizes that the problem lies with desiring through our neighbor. You see, since the First Adam we have desired according to what our fellow creatures desire, instead of desiring in obedience to God’s loving desire for the whole creation. The first woman desired according to the serpent’s desire, and the first man according to his wife’s. The result was a mess of conflicting desires that resulted in broken relationships and competition with one another, instead of cooperation. Madison Avenue understands this anthropology of desire: they try to get us to desire through folks like Michael Jordan. Modern advertising plays a role akin to the serpent, leading us into a morass of desires and thus into frantic lives of trying to keep up with the Joneses — in other words, of coveting our neighbors’ things.

St. Paul realizes that it takes the Second Adam, the only obedient son of the heavenly Father, to finally come and do God’s will, which is a loving desire for the whole creation. As we come to graciously live in Christ, the Second Adam, and he in us, then we finally find ourselves beginning to get free from the tangle of desires in this world. We can begin to live in the one unifying desire of God’s love. Do you know anyone who could use a new measure of freedom from the stressful, frantic pace of our modern consumerism, a stress that leads to death? If you do, then you have an answer of life to offer them, for another fifty years and beyond.

Our reading from 1 John, then, uses a similar tactic of going back to foundational stories — only he goes back to the First Cain, Adam’s son. Listen to the verses leading up to this morning’s reading:

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother…. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:11-12a, 14-16)

And so goes the remainder of our reading.

Do you see the question John poses for us? What happens when we, following the First Adam, get caught up in our tangles of desire? Eventually, it turns to violence — to broken relationships, to bloodied and broken bodies. It may not be we ourselves who suffer the violence directly, but perhaps our children will. The First Adam and Eve fall into a tangle of covetous desire, such that their relationships with God and with each other are distorted and broken. And their first son murders their second son. Essentially, John poses for us in Christ Jesus, not a Second Cain, but a Second Abel, the innocent brother killed. With even our hatred of another, says St. John, we continue in the murderous ways of the First Cain. But God has sent his Son into the world as the Second Abel, the innocent brother whom we kill. (Were there any innocent Iraqi brothers or sisters who were killed as fruit of our hatred for Saddam Hussein?) But God sends Jesus as the Second Abel so that he might raise him up as a new way of reconciling brothers and sisters: a way of peace based in forgiveness, not vengeance; in love, not hatred and violence. Do you know anyone plagued by questions of death posed by this violent world? If you do, then you have an answer of life to offer them in this time and place, for the next fifty years and beyond.

One of my new friends, who has been teaching me this Gospel anthropology, has written a book called The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. Again, this joy is not about a giddy happiness. It is about an Easter joy that can survive the darkest day. And it is a joy in discovering how wrong we are, how deep goes our complicity with violence and death. It’s a joy because at the same time we discover that deep darkness, we discover that we are already forgiven for it. We have done our very worst, slaying the Lamb of God on the cross of our righteous violence, and our worst could not defeat God’s power of life. Just at the moment that the questions posed by death lead us into the discovery of our complicity with it, God’s answer is life.

Let me simply end, then, in the way that Pastor Schleef did on that grey November day in 1984. His concluding words that day are remarkably fitting for us today.

God … offers us himself. He becomes one with us in this vale of tears, takes his place beside us for worse and for better, and keeps on giving us himself in the Word and Food we share at his table. He keeps on giving up himself that we might live.And that is where we go from here, the way we move into the future. God used the little body of Jesus to bring us all to life. And he used the little body of a 33 year old woman to bring that life to us, even here tonight, and to countless other people in this community and beyond, in ways we will never be able to calculate, known only to the Holy Spirit, to whom nothing is lost. And that is exactly what God would do with your body and mine. As Jesus gave his life for us his friends, so we his friends become the givers of his life to others. We have a job to do, a joy to share, good news to proclaim: “Tell it on the mountaintop, tell it in the desert, tell it in the city streets, He will be the measure: the vict’ry is won, Jesus is risen, we’re all going home.” Life is the answer.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Livonia, MI, May 11, 2003

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