Sunday’s sermon: The Flip Side of the Tomb

empty tomb

Texts used – Psalm 118:14-29; Acts 5:17-32

NEW THIS WEEK: AUDIO VERSION

 



 

  • In 1942, DC Comic introduced an incredible supervillain into the Batman universe: Harvey Dent, more notoriously known as Two-Face.[1]
    • Former upstanding district attorney
    • Burned by acid when dastardly mob boss throws chemicals on him during a courtroom trial → At first sight of his reflection Harvey Dent is driven mad, and a supervillain is born.
      • Becomes obsessed with good vs. evil → And to make the decision about whether to follow the good path or the evil path with each and every decision, Two-Face utilizes what used to be his good luck charm: a two-headed coin.
        • One side = pristine and unmarred
        • Other side = damaged by the same acid that turned Harvey Dent into Two-Face
        • Constantly flipping the coin sort of like a nervous tick – when it comes to decision time: good side = perform an act of charity/goodness, ruined side = perform act of evil/lawlessness
      • With Two-Face, it all comes down to which side of the coin is visible.
  • Today = first Sunday after Easter
    • Easter = more than just a day in the liturgical life of the church → Easter = a whole season (just like Lent and Christmas)[2]
      • Eastertide = season that stretches 7 weeks (50 days) starting with Easter itself and going up to Pentecost
      • Evidenced by continued white paraments and candles
      • Peppered with Scripture readings throughout the lectionary of Jesus’ many appearances among the disciples after his resurrection → many of these appearance stories are feel-good Gospel stories
        • Luke: Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus[3]
        • Matthew: giving the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[4]
        • John: Jesus’ interaction with Thomas and his doubt[5], breakfast encounter on the beach[6], special mandate for Peter to “feed my sheep”[7]
        • All Scripture stories that leave us feeling pretty warmed in our hearts about what came next for the disciples post-resurrection, right?
    • But then we come across today’s Scripture reading … the other side of the coin (the flip side of the tomb, if you will) – the side that illustrates that things in post-resurrection Jerusalem were not so easy. Things in post-resurrection were not so hunky dory. Things in post-resurrection Jerusalem were not so safe and tame and tolerant as some of our other Scripture readings might portray.
  • Acts passage starts off with the high priest and his allies, the Sadducees
    • Distinction reminder:
      • High priest = Caiaphas, the one who asked Pilate to sentence Jesus to death
      • Pharisees and Sadducees
        • Similarities
          • Both religious sects within Judaism that included learned men with political power
          • Both had seats on the Sanhedrin (70-member Jewish council that made all the religious legal decisions for the people of Israel)
            • Sadducees held more seats
        • Differences
          • Sadducees socially more aristocratic and elite (more wealthy, held more powerful positions, friendlier/more accommodating to the Romans) ⟷ Pharisees represented common working people more (had the respect of the people but resisted Roman occupation/assimilation) → If you think about British parliament as an illustration, the Sadducees would have been more like the House of Lords while the Pharisees would have been more like the House of Commons.
          • Sadducees’ power = centered in the Temple (chief priests & high priest were always Sadducees) ⟷ Pharisees’ power = control of the synagogues → Because of this, the Sadducees ceased to exist as a sect after the 2nd destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE while the Pharisees continued to maintain power in the synagogues which survived.
          • Sadducees = more conservative and strict with their beliefs and their literal interpretation of Hebrew scripture than the Pharisees
    • So while the two groups shared power and both worked together to rid themselves of that troublesome Jesus, there was no love loss between these two groups. And yet in our New Testament Scripture for this morning, once again, they’re forced to work together to try to quell the spread of Jesus’ teaching through his disciples. – text: The high priest, together with his allies, the Sadducees, was overcome with jealousy. They seized the apostles and made a public show of putting them in prison.[8] → This collaboration alone should tell us just how seriously they were taking this situation.
      • Not the first time the religious leaders had harassed and arrested Jesus’ followers since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (previously questioned and temporarily jailed Peter and John), but it is the first time the disciples are all arrested en masse
  • Disciples’ incarceration doesn’t last long
    • Angel of God releases them in the middle of the night → Now, I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that the disciples would want to get as far away from those who had arrested them as possible. You know, get out of town … find somewhere to lie low for a while … let things blow over for a bit before resurfacing. But … NOPE! – text: The angel told them, “Go, take your place in the temple, and tell the people everything about this new life.” Early in the morning, they went into the temple as they had been told and began to teach.[9]
      • Shows dedication
      • Shows audacity
      • Shows resolve
    • Next part of our NT story reads a little bit like a comedy skit
      • Unaware of the disciples’ escape, the high priest convenes the Council (the Sanhedrin) and calls for the prisoners to be brought before them
      • Guards go to the cells to let them out … and they’re not there!
      • Guards return to the Council and report their findings (or, rather, lack of findings) – text: “We found the prison locked and well-secured, with guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside!”
      • of the temple guard and high priest are “baffled and wondering what happened” (can’t you just see them standing around scratching their heads?!) → And then, as they’re standing there wondering what the heck happened, someone comes running in and says, “Hey! You know those guys you arrested yesterday? Well, they’re out there in the temple teaching the people!”
      • Guards (along with capt.) go out into the temple courtyard and bring the disciples back before the Council again BUT – text: They didn’t use force because they were afraid the people would stone them.[10] → I mean, come on … this whole scenario is a little bit comical, right?
  • But once the disciples are brought back, things get serious. – text: The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.”[11] → sobering accusation, to be sure, considering these men make up the council that just sealed Jesus’ death
    • Disciples response is one of courage and conviction: Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”[12] → Imagine how intimidating this situation must have been for the disciples! There the 12 of them stand facing 70 powerful men who had just recently killed their beloved teacher and friend, and they were standing there not in deference or meekness but in bold and tenacious defiance declaring the good news of Christ’s resurrection after death.
      • Declaring the Sanhedrin’s guilt in Jesus’ death
      • Declaring the Sanhedrin’s failure in their attempt to silence Jesus and his message
      • Declaring their intention to continue spreading that message despite the Sanhedrin’s blatant warnings and threats (“in no uncertain terms”)
      • And it is in this defiance, in this bold declaration, in this stirring conviction that we find the flip side of the tomb – not the easy-going, comfortable post-resurrection appearances of a Risen Savior but the challenge and accusation and persecution that awaited all those who followed Christ’s ascension charge: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[13]
        • Scholar: Today’s text, filled with the post-resurrection realities, of which we are all too familiar in our daily life, is terribly sobering. A life of faith, the author reminds us, holds the promise of persecution in tension with the promise of eternal life.[14]
        • I can’t help but think that the disciples may have had the strains of our psalm today running through their minds and their hearts as they stood there before that council. à reminder: psalms were used in worship (some as songs, some as readings) – words would have been familiar (sort of like you have your favorite hymns and Scripture passages that you remember)
          • Ps 118: The LORD was my strength and protection; he was my saving help! … I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the LORD has done. … I thank you because you answered me, because you were my saving help. The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone! This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight! This is the day the LORD acted; we will rejoice and celebrate in it![15]
  • And it’s true, isn’t it? Those twelve disciples nearly two millennia ago certainly weren’t alone in having those in power trying to stop the good news of the Christ’s resurrection and grace from spreading, were they? Throughout the centuries, time and time again, there have been those who have tried to silence the word of God. There are plenty of places in the world today where it is dangerous to declare your Christian faith – North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran being the top ten.[16] And even if it’s not physically dangerous, we cannot deny that we live in a culture in which people sometimes look down on our faith either because of their preconceived notions of what a “Christian” looks like and believes or because they find faith to an outdated concept. In times like that, it can be intimidating to share our faith – to declare the good news that Christ has died and Christ is risen; that God loves us and cares for us; that through God’s love, we find forgiveness and wholeness and hope. But as we continue through this Easter season, remembering the joy and light and promise that we proclaimed just a week ago – “Christ IS risen! He IS risen indeed!” – let us also remember the courage and determination of the disciples this morning.
    • Scholar: When we embrace the Easter miracle, we commit ourselves to embrace all that comes after it: joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion, celebration and persecution. … The apostles got in trouble for doing two things: proclaiming the good news and preaching truth. What wonderful, and holy, disruption![17] Go. Be disruptive. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-Face.

[2] Mark D. Roberts. “The Season of Easter” from Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/introduction-to-eastertide-the-season-of-easter/.

[3] Lk 24:13-35.

[4] Mt 28:19.

[5] Jn 20:24-29.

[6] Jn 21:1-14.

[7] Jn 21:15-19.

[8] Acts 5:17-18.

[9] Acts 5:19b-21a.

[10] Acts 5:26b.

[11] Acts 5:27-28.

[12] Acts 5:29-32.

[13] Acts 1:8.

[14] Cathy Caldwell Hoop. “Second Sunday of Easter – Acts 5:27-32, Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the World” in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 202-203.

[15] Ps 118:14, 17, 21-24.

[16] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. “The Top 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus” from Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/january/top-50-christian-persecution-open-doors-world-watch-list.html. Posted Jan. 10, 2018, accessed Apr. 28, 2019.

[17] Hoop, 203.