During the season of Lent this year we looked at the theme of God’s covenant with people as illustrated throughout the Bible. Beginning with Noah and the flood and the covenant of peace whose symbol is the rainbow; to Abram and Sarai and the promise of a large family and a land in which to dwell; to Moses and the freed slaves leaving Egypt receiving the law on Mount Sinai and a new life in the promised land; to the promise of a new covenant written on hearts instead of stone; to the fulfillment of the covenant in the blood of Christ. Today we come to an empty grave and a covenant completely unbound and loose in the world.
Mark tells us that three women came early to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body with spices and they found it empty except for a messenger who told them he had been raised and would go ahead of them to Galilee. Jesus was unbound, loose, at large in the world. The comforting thing for him to do would have been to be present at the tomb to prove he was alive and reassure his friends. But this event was not just about his friends, it was about the world. The world is a fundamentally different place as a result of the resurrection.
After the resurrection, God’s covenant is clearly unbound – no longer limited to a family or a nation or an ethnic group, it is for everyone. When the stone is removed from the tomb and Christ rises from it to new life, anything can and does happen. That sounds good in theory, but when it starts happening it can be unsettling.
Imagine the followers of Jesus locked in a house and suddenly Jesus is standing in their midst. Imagine them in discouragement fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee with no luck when they hear a familiar voice call from the shore, “Children, have you any fish? No? Then try the other side.” Imagine them gathered with him on the Mount of Olives listening to him give these marching orders: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded,” and then watching him disappear in the clouds with no chance for questions for clarification.
Imagine Peter, some time later, having that dream we heard about in today’s reading from Acts, in which God told him to go visit a Roman centurion named Cornelius and offer the good news to him. While Peter understood intellectually the fundamental change in the nature of things which the resurrection of Jesus brought about, this was his most vivid encounter with what the unbound covenant meant for his life. Told by God to go to the home of a Gentile – a person who would have been regarded as an unclean person – this went against everything Peter had been taught.
But with the help of the vision and its explanation, God convinced Peter to step out by faith and go. He was graciously welcomed into the home of Cornelius and invited to teach them what God wanted them to know. Peter was an amazed participant in a drama of which he knew he was not in control. He began, not by teaching but by confessing, by telling what he himself was learning in this experience. He exclaimed, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He recognized, for the moment, that the covenant with Israel was now unbound and that every person on the face of the earth could be included in it.
Peter then offered the bread of life to Cornelius and his household – not in complicated theological terms, but by telling the story of Jesus. He said, “You have heard about how God sent the good news of peace to Israel by Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit, and he went about doing good and healing. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but on the third day God raised him. God made him known, not to all people, but to those of us who already knew him as Lord – we ate and drank with him after the resurrection. He commanded us to preach to the people and testify about him, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The result of Peter’s basic sharing of his faith was that the Holy Spirit came into the lives of his hearers, much to the astonishment of Peter and his companions, and Peter proceeded to the radical act of baptizing these Gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ.
When the stone is removed and the covenant is unbound you just cannot know what is going to happen. Jews and Gentiles begin to be brought together in a household of faith; the church’s worst enemy, Saul, is converted and becomes the church’s great missionary apostle; the emperor Constantine is converted to Christianity in a dream and converts his whole empire from being persecutors of the church to being defenders of the church.
When the stone is rolled away and the covenant is unbound, you, like Peter and like Saul and like Constantine, cannot know what God might call you to do, where God might call you to go, who God might want to send you to talk to and share the good news with.
James Freeman compares what happens beginning with Acts 10 and the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles into the new creation, the new covenant, the church, with what happens near Cairo, Illinois where “the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, their two massive currents meeting, mingling, roiling, and moving on. Each colliding stream is mighty and powerful in its own right. But from Cairo on, there is but one river. In the same way, from Acts 10 on, there will be as much roiling as mingling, but the members of the church, called together through Jesus Christ, will constitute one body at work in the world… God is fashioning the church from many currents.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 372)
Did you know there are faithful church members who don’t like coming on Easter and Christmas because it is too crowded? Freeman addresses this: “The folks who come week after week, and who may consider themselves to represent the witnesses of the community, now find themselves displaced from their pews by people they do not readily recognize, people who may not be back again until next Easter. Who let them in? Who gave them my parking spot? My seat? The answer, according to the writer of Acts, is that God did.” (p. 372)
Debra Freeman goes on to spell out the implications of the covenant unbound on our lives. She writes, “This is the day that we, as a community of faith, can look differently at the world, because we know that God does not look with partiality, even at us. And we must begin to ask ourselves some questions, some serious questions: What door is God opening for us? Who is God inviting to God’s table, and thus to our tables as well? Who, from outside of our communities, is God pushing us toward? With whom in our own communities is God challenging us to be reconciled? Where are forgiveness and restored fellowship needed in our lives and the lives of others?” (p. 375)
Joseph Bernardin, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, died in 1998 shortly after finishing a book called The Gift of Peace, in which he told this story. He had been accused of child sexual abuse by a man named Steven Cook. After months in the glare of media spotlights and assumptions of his guilt, Cook admitted that his charges were not true and the case was dropped. Bernardin did a remarkable thing then. He contacted Cook and asked for an opportunity to meet with him. He wanted to tell him he had no ill feelings and wanted to pray with him. Cook accepted the invitation and said he wanted to apologize.
The cardinal gave Cook an inscribed Bible. He took a hundred year old chalice out of his case and said, “Steven, this is a gift from a man I don’t even know. He asked me to use it to say Mass for you someday.” In tears, Steven Cook received the eucharist. Afterwards, Cook said, “A big burden has been lifted from me today. I feel healed and very much at peace.” Bernardin wrote that as he flew home to Chicago that evening he “felt the lightness of spirit that an afternoon of grace brings to one’s life.”
When the stone is rolled away and the covenant is unbound, you don’t know what might come next… when you might meet Jesus… where he might send you… what he might expect you to do. Not exactly, anyway. We do know that he sends us all to tell the story – beginning in our own Jerusalem, our own life setting, then to Judea and Samaria and Columbia and Moscow and Tehran and the actual Jerusalem and all the world. What is the story? Jesus came… died… rose… appeared… lives… forgives… makes all the difference in my life. Tell that story, then stand back and watch as grace happens.
Here at the table of the Lord the world’s greatest needs are met by God’s greatest answer, its brokenness met with God’s healing and peace. Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Through Jesus’ resurrection we have been made witnesses, we have been made God’s church. We have been made such through this resurrection meal so that the world may know there is an alternative to the kingdoms built on death and destruction. In this meal we continue to eat and drink with our Lord who came preaching peace.” (Journal for Preachers, Easter, 1998, pp. 26-27) This is the joyous feast of the kingdom of God! Today people will come to this table from north and south, east and west. They will read and speak and sing in countless different languages. They will use many different types of bread and liturgies ranging from formal high church to informal house church. We will all celebrate that because of the stone being rolled away and the tomb being empty God’s covenant has been unbound and we are all called and invited to be full and equal partners in it, no longer strangers or sojourners or enemies, but brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the story that changed the world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey April 5, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church Anderson, SC