“This Changes Everything”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Easter Sunday, 2019
Imagine being Peter. A fisherman from Galilee, he and his brother Andrew were the first individuals Jesus invited to follow him—to fish for people instead. Peter was a Jewish man whose faith was important to him. He had learned all the “rules” as a child, and he did his best to keep the faith. He was amazed and inspired by this man, Jesus, who possessed a power and a freedom unlike any person he had ever known. He knew he wanted to be more like him. Peter could see this carpenter-turned-itinerant-rabbi from Nazareth was obviously close with God; he was so full of love and wisdom, uninhibited by the rules of the world, not bothered by what others thought of him. But he was always concerned about others’wellbeing, especially those whom the rest of the world deemed as “less worthy”, and those whom the righteous folks called “sinners”. They were allprecious in Jesus’ sight, which made him exceptional. It was Peter, occasionally called Simon or Cephas, who first dared out loud to identify Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior God had promised through the Jewish prophets.
But like most of us, Peter was a study in contradictions. He was simultaneously proud, and insecure. He felt he knew a lot about life and relationships and God—but he kept discovering how much he still had to learn. How many of his ideas and beliefs needed to change. How so much of what hethoughthe knew about God’s intentions and God’s preferences, was simply misguided.
A couple nights ago, on Maundy Thursday, when we were remembering the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples, we heard about how Jesus gave his disciples a new mandate, a new commandment. As he knelt down and began to wash his disciples’ feet—an act of love demonstrating humility and grace, Jesus instructed them, “Love others just as I have loved you.”
But Peter refused him, saying, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” Evidently, there was a prejudice at work in Peter’s conception of the world at that point. It was about to change, but in that moment, Peter seemed to believe that tending to dry, dusty, battered feet was an act beneath the stature of the one whom he called teacher, leader, and Lord. Had he not heard or comprehended Jesus earlier when he’d taught the disciples, “The greatest of all must become servant of all”?
But when Jesus said, “If I don’t wash your feet, then you will not be my disciple,” Peter immediately overcompensated: “Lord,” he gushed, “don’t only wash my feet, then! Wash my hands and my head, too!” Jesus patiently explained that Peter was missing the point, but he didn’t shame him. He continued to teach as they ate their dinner, using words that probably didn’t make much sense in the moment—words about broken bread being his body, and outpoured wine being his blood—words that would return to Peter later, and that he would share with others because of their power and effectiveness in conveying the truth of divine love. But in that moment, in an upstairs room somewhere in Jerusalem, Peter’s understanding of the world was undergoing a gradual transformation. Even in his final moments with them, Jesus was changing everything.
What happened next probably seemed like a blur to Peter. Luke reports that, after their shared dinner, they went out to the Mount of Olives as was Jesus’ custom. In retrospect perhaps, Peter probably recognized that Jesus seemed a little agitated. He had invited the others (except Judas, who had had excused himself early from dinner) to come and pray with him. That was so typical of Jesus: he regularly spent time praying. So they went, clearly not anticipating the weight of what was about to unfold.
Like any of us in the moments before a traumatic event, Peter and the others were benignly oblivious. Dinner had been wonderful, it was a pleasant evening, and they were buzzed and feeling a bit dozy. Jesus woke them a couple times and asked them to keep praying with him, but their eyelids were heavy. Until, that is, the armed guards appeared, guided by their friend and fellow disciple, Judas, who tried to greet Jesus with a kiss. Then everyone was on their feet. And, as the fight-or-flight impulse kicked in, they measured their odds—and every one of them fled. Peter must immediately have had mixed feelings, because Luke reports that he followed the guards and Jesus at a distance.
Imagine being Peter just then. His head was surely spinning, and not just from the wine. Jesus’ words always made him think and ponder; he always recognized their truth and power, and the ways they challenged what he’d previously understood. And now so many of those words were flooding his imagination, consuming his thoughts.
He was remembering how, when Jesus asked, “But who do yousay that I am?”, he had confidently replied: “You are the Messiah of God.” But now, all of a sudden, he wasn’t sure what he believed. Wouldn’t God’s Messiah have the authority to throw off nuisance worldly powers? Wouldn’t he smite his enemies in a flourish of force that would humiliate them for even attempting to mess with him? Didn’t he believe that his God was the power above all powers—and if so, what on earth was going on here?
Peter was wondering whether he’d gotten it all wrong, whether he’d hoped in vain, believed in futility, trusted in the wrong power. Across the evening, as he loitered in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, Peter found himself denying that he knew the one whom he had previously called Lord and Messiah. That was before he heard the rooster crow, and he remembered that Jesus had predicted, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” The tears of pain, confusion, frustration, and fear flowed freely just then.
But the crisis was barely started at that point. The next day, Peter observed the power of a mortal mob to condemn an innocent man to death —a man he had proclaimed was God’s own Son. He watched Jesus being stripped and whipped and mocked and denigrated. He saw soldiers and pedestrians spit on him, and someone crush a crown of thorns into his forehead, before they drove nails through his hands and his feet, and hung him like that to die an agonizing death. It was the most hideous, appalling, unthinkable human behavior—and by all appearances, it was taking the day. Wickedness was winning.
Like you or me in the throes of a crisis, Peter surely wondered why God’s power wasn’t intervening and fixing things in ways that made sense, that stopped obvious tyranny in its tracks? If God is in control, then how could things possibly be allowed to go so horrifically awry?
I can only imagine that sleep was much more elusive in the hours following Jesus’ crucifixion than it was in that olive grove two nights before, and Peter was thoroughly exhausted when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others burst in to report that Jesus was not in the grave, but he was risen. For all of you who struggle to believe in resurrection, you may find some comfort in knowing that you are not alone: Jesus’ closest disciples “thought it was an idle tale”at first. But, with adrenaline coursing through his veins just as it had a couple nights before, Peter took off like a flash. He went to find out the truth for himself. And what he discovered changed everything.
Luke’s gospel tells us that not only was the grave empty, but Jesus later appeared to his disciples and spoke to them, telling them—among other things—that he was bequeathing to them his own Spirit and power, so that his work of love and reconciliation in this world might continue through them.
There’s no explaining that sort of mystery, and faith alone is strong enough and audacious enough to comprehend or countenance it. But the resurrection changed everything for Peter. No longer would he search for the living among the dead; no longer would he invest in the ideas and ideologies of those who saw death as an ultimate power, as the final word. Because Christ was risen, anything is possible. Jesus’ words “let the dead bury the dead” suddenly made sense to Peter. Faith had taken hold; a deeper understanding of God’s created order had opened up for him. In God’s reality, death may represent a period—but it is not a full stop. In God’s reality, what this world fears in death in fact represents the beginning of God’s new and renewing work of eternal life. It changes everything.
Luke reports in The Acts of the Apostles,the sequel to his gospel, that a little while after Christ’s resurrection and appearance to the disciples, Peter had an experience that yet again confirmed what Jesus had taught him: that God’s way of life has a tendency to upend everything we’re taught to expect and conform to in this world. We heard the conclusion of it in our epistle reading when Peter proclaimed, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Having learned from his earliest days to observe certain practices to maintain religious “purity” (e.g., not eating certain meats, not associating with certain people), Peter had a vision and encounter with a newly-converted Gentile believer in Christ named Cornelius, which surely focused and re-framed his recollection of Jesus’ association with the so-called “unclean” and the Gentiles. You can read the whole story in Acts Chapter 10, but Peter’s experience showed him once more that our resurrecting God is constantly doing new and unexpected things. Things that challenge our previous conceptions of how things are, and how they’re meant to be. In a divided and divisive world, our resurrecting God persists in encouraging us to draw our circles of inclusiveness wider. To broaden our definition of who belongs. To dismantle our countless systems of bias and prejudice; to work against partisanship and tribalism; to refrain from presuming to declare God’s favorites . . . because such practices prevail where there is no meaningful or life-giving life; this is searching for the living among the dead.
Friends, there are those who complain that this world is going from bad to worse. That chaos, confusion, horrible things are on the rise. We are more divided than ever. Wickedness seems to be winning the day. And sometimes it really does feel like that. You may be tempted to believe that God isn’t in control; you may wonder why God doesn’t intervene in ways that make sense to human minds. But that’s a Good Friday outlook, and we are Easter people. Remember: the crucified Christ is not dead—He is risen! The creative, immortal, ultimate power of God’s love and life has conquered death and evil. Wickedness may have its moments, but it will not triumph.
Do not search for the living among the dead. Today we worship a risen Savior. And the Spirit of Christ Jesus is alive and active, striving to do His redeeming work of love and liberation through you and me—his hands, his feet, his Resurrected Body in the world today. This changes everything—imagine! What is your next step?
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.