Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2009)
“Refreshed” (Acts 3:11-21)

As an asthmatic, I know what it's like not being able to breathe well. I was never hospitalized with this condition like so many others. But when I was younger, there were times when I really struggled to catch my breath. After some exertion, my bronchial passages would constrict. My breathing would become severely labored. The lack of oxygen would cause me to grow weak and light-headed, while at the same time my heart would race because of the stress and anxiety of my situation. Pulling an inhaler out of my pocket and placing it up to my mouth, a few puffs brought the hope of some quick relief. After a few moments, the hoped-for relief would come. My airways would open. Once again, I could fill my lungs deeply. I could breathe again. I felt revived and refreshed.
My asthma is not nearly as bad as it was when in my elementary school years. But I still have to carry around an inhaler when stress or sickness causes my asthma to flare up.

But even if you've never dealt with asthma, you all know what it's like not being able to breathe. Maybe you've been close to drowning. Maybe you've had a choking incident. Maybe you've had a heart attack, and you've felt that crushing weight on your chest. Maybe you've had bouts with such severe anxiety that it feels as if you cannot breathe. Maybe you are claustrophobic, and even being in a crowded elevator makes you feel like the air around you is pressing in on you and you have a hard time catching your breath. I know that I'm a bit claustrophobic. I can deal with being in a crowded elevator. But if I ever have to do any work in the crawl space of my house, I'll have to hire someone to go down there. Just the thought of that makes me want to freak out.

There's nothing like being breathless, then finally being able to breathe, to take a deep, refreshing, reviving breath of air into your lungs. Even when you are simply tired or listless, just take in a few deep breaths, and that ought to get you going at least a little bit longer before you get that much needed nap.

During these weeks of the Easter season this year, we are looking at the first reading assigned for each Sunday from the Book of Acts. Each reading gives us a glimpse of how the Church lived in the days and months and years immediately following the resurrection of Jesus. As we look at these readings, we are asking the question, “How does the Church live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus?”

In today's text, Peter says, “Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” According to Peter, we can expect to be refreshed, revived, removed from under whatever is weighing us down … able to breathe again.

First, let's talk about what led up to these words in our text. Earlier in the chapter, Peter and John were on their way into the temple when they encountered a man who had been lame from birth. Every day, his friends laid him at one of the gates to beg, a place of high traffic. Seeing Peter and John approach, the lame man expected some coins in his cup from these two Galilean visitors to Jerusalem. Instead, he got something even more valuable than a few mites of silver or gold. He was given back the ability to stand and walk. “I have no silver and gold,” said Peter, “but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) Peter took his hand, and the man began to leap and dance and praise God inside the temple courts. Everyone who saw him recognized him. There was no mistaking his identity. This was the same guy who used to sit right outside the gate, begging for alms.

With the crowd gathered, and with the man clinging to Peter and John, Peter knew this was an opportunity he should not pass up. And so he proclaimed to them who was behind the healing. It was not because of the “power or piety” of the two apostles. It was Jesus who healed this man.

But then, Peter lays it on pretty thick. He doesn't hold back. To this crowd who not long ago had been yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Peter makes some pretty serious accusations. Pilate had decided to release Jesus. But, as Peter tells the crowd, “you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead.”

We can look at this from a distance and think to ourselves, “Yeah, those naughty people. They deserve such a scolding from Peter!” Instead, we ought to realize that because of our sin, we might as well have been in the midst of that crowd, too. Every time we disobey God's holy commandments, it's as if we, too, “delivered over and denied … the Holy and Righteous One,” because it was our sins that sent him to the cross in the first place. And how soon we put him back on the cross after our Easter celebration.

Nor can we plead ignorance. Try doing that the next time you get a speeding ticket. “Gee, I just didn't know what the speed limit was, officer!” You might get lucky and get off with just a warning. You might get a hefty fine, depending on how fast you were going. Either way, you are without excuse. You've broken the law and you are guilty. Peter said the same thing to his audience: “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” But that was still no excuse. The Christ of God still had to suffer, as was “foretold by the mouth of all the prophets.” Jesus didn't get off the hook. The Paschal Lamb who sets us free stayed on the hook for you.

The weight of Peter's words may not crush you to the point of being unable to breathe. But if we really understood the depths of our depravity, we would not be walking around like we do acting as if our sin is no big deal. We would be on our faces, begging for merciful alms from Almighty God. Apart from Christ, we are without hope, without life, without the breath of God, the Spirit of God, who breathes life into our dead hearts.

But Jesus is the one who endured the weight of the cross for us. He refused refreshment and pain deadening narcotics when they were offered to him, the wine mixed with gall. Our Lord wished to endure the pain in all its fullness. And if you know anything about crucifixion, it was very difficult for the victims to breathe...and so we might also say that our Lord endured the pains of being unable to breathe, giving up his breath so that he might breathe life into us.

Therefore, Peter's words are for us today, too. Repent, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out. And they have been at the cross. They have been erased. Wiped out. Taken off the record. As far as God is concerned, they never happened. And because our sins have been blotted out, God, through the apostle, promises times of refreshment from the presence of the Lord.

In the Introit, we sang, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11) We are in Christ's presence right now. In Word and Sacrament, the living and risen Christ is truly present with his grace and mercy. As we eat and drink his body and blood, the forgiveness, life, and salvation we receive gives us joy. It refreshes us. Jesus has removed the weight of our sin and God's displeasure over our sin, and we can breathe again.

And having been refreshed, we can await his visible return with joy and anticipation. When that day comes, we will see him with our own eyes, the same risen, flesh-and-bones Jesus whom the disciples saw on the seashore. And we will enjoy his eternal, glorious presence forever.

How, then, does the Church live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus? Repenting of our sins, turning to the Lord, rejoicing that our sins have been blotted out, and enjoying the times of refreshing that come from being in the presence of the Lord … his presence we enjoy now at this altar … and his presence that we will enjoy when he returns.


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