What are we going to do now? Now that we have journeyed through Lent, marked the days of Holy Week, reached the glorious summit of Easter morning – what are we going to do?
Some will say, thank goodness, baseball season has started, or I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Others will say, thank goodness, the rummage sale is coming up, it’s time to get all the stuff down from the attic and up from the basement and over to church. Again others already have plenty of dirt under their nails from preparing the garden, and all they are waiting for is overnight temperatures remaining in the 50’s so they can get their tomatoes in the ground.
With Easter behind us, what are we going to do now? I briefly considered as a topic for this sermon settling once and for all the profound question of how the Easter bunny got into Easter, and if said bunny is a rabbit or indeed a hare, but then, thank goodness, I remembered that Easter is more than an annual spring holiday. Easter is a festival of praise and joy, proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the beginning of nothing less than a new creation.
So the question we must consider today, and in fact every day, is, “Now that Jesus is risen from the dead, what are we going to do?” Or with a slightly different angle, “Now that Jesus is risen from the dead, who are we going to be?” How will tomorrow be different from that dark Friday?
I’ll tell us a story that begins with the high priest.
The high priest slept well on Friday. Jerusalem was quiet again, after the many disruptions this Jesus had brought to the city and the temple. Now he was dead and buried, and the high priest wouldn’t have hesitated to call it a peaceful night.
The high priest slept well on Saturday. The Roman authorities had taken care of Jesus, and Jerusalem was quiet again. The unrest this Jesus had created in the city – it could have become a major crisis, especially during the holidays. Any kind of disturbance of the status quo bothered Rome – but now things were under control. The high priest was proud of himself – he had nipped the problem in the bud. He was done with Jesus, done with civil unrest and with excited crowds, Jerusalem was quiet again. The holy temple would once again be a place for orderly worship and proper sacrifices, with the established hierarchy in place to protect and preserve the sacred tradition.
The high priest slept well – until Sunday. On Sunday he began hearing reports of disturbing rumors; a handful of men and women, most of them, no doubt, Galileans, were making claims that they had seen Jesus, that he was indeed alive because God had raised him from the dead.
“Hello, insomnia,” the high-priest said to himself, “Rome will not be pleased.”
Very soon, he heard reports that Peter and John were in the temple just about every day, teaching people and healing the sick, and attracting large crowds. People were gathering not just from the city but even from the surrounding towns, bringing the sick and those tormented by demons, and they were all cured.
In the book of Acts, the church is presented as a movement of fearless witnesses whose presence and proclamation bring wholeness to the city; a movement that inevitably collides with settled authority in much the same way Jesus did. No wonder, the high priest was nervous; settled institutions – be they religious, political, or economic – settled institutions have a deep interest in keeping things as they are. Which means that any change, any transformation must only occur on their terms and under their control. Peter, John, and Mary and their companions didn’t meet those requirements; they acted with a different kind of authority.
Soon the temple leadership – chief priests, rulers, elders, scribes – assembled to discuss the matter with one another: “What will we do with them?” They called Peter and John, ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, and released them.
Peter and John went to their friends, and they talked about what had happened at the council meeting. And then they prayed, “Lord, look at their threats, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
They prayed for courage to speak and act in the name of Jesus, and their prayers were answered. Their boldness gave the high priest a headache, and after yet another sleepless night he took action. This Jesus thing had to stop, whatever the cost. And so he had the apostles arrested and shut up in prison.
He slept well that night. But while he was dreaming of taking back control of the temple and the city, and of all that is and was and is to be, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and before daybreak, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection was again being proclaimed in the temple and the streets of Jerusalem.
Again the high priest had them brought in and stand before the council for questioning.
“We gave you strict orders, didn’t we, not to teach in this name. Why have you defied the express directive of this council to desist this preaching?”
Peter and the apostles answered with disarming simplicity, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
It was human authority that killed Jesus to stop and silence him. It was human authority that resisted his authority to teach and heal, to forgive and invite. It was human authority that accused him and found him guilty, convicted and executed him. It was human authority that did all it could to put an end to Jesus in the name of religion and public order.
But God raised him up. God exalted him that he might continue to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things. You want to forbid us to witness? You might as well forbid us to breathe, or tell the wind to cease to blow! This is who we are, now that Jesus is risen from the dead, and this is what we do.
Who would have thought that one day Peter would speak like that? Who would have thought that Mary would take a stand like that? Who would have thought that they and the others would look human authority in the eye and defy it with bold grace? Who would have thought they could be so free?
The Gospel according to John shows us a different snapshot of the early church. In it, we see a terrified little band, huddled in a dark room with a chair braced against the door. The air is thick with fear, and nobody says anything. Christ is risen from the dead, but they are stuck in the tomb. Easter has dawned, but they still sit in Friday darkness with little hope and little courage. The gospel makes it very clear: this is a community that will have only one thing going for it – the risen Christ.
And he did not leave them orphaned. He came to them, spoke to them, showed them his hands and his side, and their fear melted away. It didn’t happen all at once, but they encountered the Crucified One alive in their midst and were transformed. The place in their hearts occupied by terror and anxiety became a dwelling place for the peace of Christ.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said to them. Now they were a people with a mission. He breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and gave them authority to forgive the sins of any.
They spoke with boldness, because the Spirit of Christ was alive in them. They acted with authority, not because they had made it to the top of the hierarchy, but because they obeyed the Risen One. They became recognizable as companions of Jesus not because of their bumper stickers, but because they claimed his authority to teach and heal, to forgive and invite.
Now that Jesus is risen from the dead, what are we going to do?
Now that Jesus is risen from the dead, who are we going to be?
As long as there are chief priests, rulers, scribes, and other authorities, and as long as most of them sleep way too well, every city needs disciples of the Risen Christ, ordinary men and women who make reconciliation and wholeness their business, in the name of Jesus.
As long as human authority dreams of complete control, the world needs disciples of the Risen Christ, ordinary men and women who surrender daily to God and become bold in their submission to the authority of no one but Jesus.
Christ is risen, and he continues to call us to repentance and new life. He continues to meet us in the tombs of our hopelessness, to breathe on us and send us out. He continues to break in on us and push through our timidity and our reservations. He continues to transform and equip us for his mission until God’s shalom fills all creation.
This is who we are, now that Jesus is risen from the dead, and this is what we do.