Yesterday, the nation said goodbye to a woman beloved by many, the wife of one president, mother of another, Barbara Bush.
One theme that ran throughout the funeral was her belief in Jesus Christ and in the resurrection from death that will come to all who believe in Him. Her son, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, reported visiting his mother shortly before she died. He wondered if she was ready to die, if she was frightened. “Jeb,” Mrs. Bush told him, “I believe in Jesus and He is my Savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know that I will be in a beautiful place.”
Barbara Bush expressed the faith we have as disciples of Jesus Christ, God the Son, Who took on human flesh to receive the condemnation for sin that you and I deserve, the condemnation of death and separation from God, then rose from the dead to assure that all who turn from sin and daily entrust their lives to Him, will also be raised to live with God “in a beautiful place,” the eternal kingdom of God.
In the past two centuries or so, the Western world has seen the rise of what some see as rational thought. It features a rejection of belief in God, the deity of Christ, or His resurrection.
In fact, one of this nation’s founders, Thomas Jefferson, was just such a “rational” thinker: He produced his own version of the Bible, with Jesus’ miracles and His resurrection, deleted. For Jefferson, his “bible” produced a more palatable “Christianity.”
Today, there are large numbers of ill-informed people who have never taken the time to consider the evidence who agree with Jefferson. Earlier this month, Scientific American cited polling showing that the number of Americans who profess no religious belief whatever rose from dramatically between just 2005 and 2013.
This is why our friend Bill Mowry and others say that the United States is one of the largest mission fields in the world.
Some who reject the witness of the early Church that Jesus rose from the dead and the belief that those who trust in Him will also be raised are members of Christian churches who attend worship only out of habit, for social connection, or something to make them feel good once a week.
But rationalism, in my judgment, isn't the biggest reason some people reject Christ and His resurrection. The biggest reason revolves around the old question of power. It's a question that goes back to the garden of Eden where the serpent lured humanity into sin and death by lying to them, telling them that if they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they wouldn't die as God had warned they would. Instead, the serpent insisted, God only warned Adam and Eve against the fruit because at the moment, they did, they would be like God (Genesis 3:1-5). We human beings have been hot on the trail of god-likeness, of power ever since. We look for it in all the dying stuff of this world because the last thing we want to do is play second fiddle to anyone, even to the God Who made us!
But think about it: When you know that one day, if you will remain faithful to Jesus, you will be reunited with Him “in a beautiful place,” how powerful are the things of this world?
How powerful is money?
How powerful are comfort or ease?
How powerful are governments or the in-crowd?
The power and utility of each will end for us at the moment we draw our last breaths.
If you belong to the risen Jesus, can anything intimidate you?
Can you be intimidated by sickness or setbacks, adversity or rejection?
Can you be intimidated by death?
Years ago, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu raised his voice in Christ’s name against the system of racial slavery known as apartheid that existed in his land. He received multiple death threats daily. Why, a reporter asked him, did he keep pressing Christ’s case against government-authorized hatred, he was asked? He couldn’t help it, Tutu said, God hates injustice and loves it when we treat others justly. “Besides,” he said, “death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.”
Do we live in that assurance?
Do we dare to fight for the good of our neighbor, not worrying about what’s best for us in this world because we know that by God’s grace through our faith in Christ, we have a share in God’s best for all eternity?
Do we brave the taunts of an ego-imprisoned world to share the good news of new life from the risen Jesus with people who need Him as much as you and I do?
The early Church, having gone through the darkness of Good Friday, the glory of Easter, and now filled with God’s Holy Spirit, did live in the assurance that because Jesus rose from the dead and they belonged to Jesus, nothing could separate them from God (Romans 8:31-39).
They knew that no power in this world could rob them of eternal life with God!
That’s why after the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost--as He comes to us in our Baptism, they shared the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus.
They were and they made disciples, just as Christ calls and commands you and me to do.
But their message about the risen Jesus threatened those who clung to the power and comforts of this world, just as He does today.
In Acts 3, we’re told that, in the name of the risen Jesus, Peter and John, two of the apostles, healed a lame beggar at the temple in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, eople were amazed! Peter explained that this had happened not because he and John were great, but because the risen and living Jesus is infinitely the greatest of all.
The temple crowds weren’t the only ones who witnessed these things though. So did the powerful, in this case, the Sadducees, the priestly class who wielded both religious and earthly power. They didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection. And they feared that if the people started believing in the resurrection, they might become fearless. They might realize that they no longer needed the system of temple sacrifices by which the Sadducees kept the people under their thumbs.
That’s where our second lesson for today, Acts 4:1-12, begins. When the Sadducees saw that after the healing of the lame man and Peter’s sermon, 5000 men (and who knows how many women and children) came to believe in the resurrected Jesus, they took the apostles into custody.
With Jesus’ crucifixion fresh in Peter’s and John’s memories, the Sadducees undoubtedly thought that some time in a jail cell and time in their intimidating presence would make the two of them (and the rest of the Church) stop claiming that Jesus rose from the dead.
But they soon learned that intimidation cannot work on those who follow Jesus. As they stood before the powerful custodians of the temple, Peter and John are asked, “By what power or what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7) (Back to the perennial human issue of power again.)
Notice: The Sadducees didn’t deny that the lame man had been healed. That’s not the issue. They know that the man really had been lame and now really was healed. No, their interest is in the power question. “In whose name are you defiantly flouting our power here in the seat of our power, the temple?” they demanded to know.
The reaction of Peter and John is instructive for we who bear the name of Jesus and confess Him to be our Lord and God. They didn’t counterattack. Like the Lord Jesus, when He was tried, they didn’t become defensive. They didn’t issue a torrent of condemnations.
But here’s what they also didn’t do: They didn’t buckle under the power arrayed before them. After all, death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.
Verse 8: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…”
Peter declared that the lame man had been healed by the Savior they’d had a hand in (and we all have a hand in) nailing to a cross, but was very much alive, sitting at the right hand, the power hand, of God the Father!
The world had not been able to get rid of Jesus. Even when the world killed Him off, He rose again, and there is nothing that the powerful, the cynics, the hopeless, or the joyless of this world can do about it! Jesus is risen; He is risen indeed!
Peter goes on to cite a verse from Psalm 118. It's interesting that he does because Psalm 118 celebrated the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity of God’s people. The temple had been an important place long before Jesus came into this world. It was where God’s presence dwelt on the earth. It was where pious Jews offered sacrifices for their sins and prayed.
But those days were done.
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain shielding worshipers from the holy of holies where God lived was torn from top to bottom.
Jesus was and is the final, definitive sacrifice for sin; no more sacrifices were needed.
“Behold,” Jesus’ earthly cousin John the Baptist had told his own disciples when he caught sight of Jesus at the Jordan, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”
Jesus was and is the only foundation stone on whom eternal life is built, which is why Peter described Jesus to the Sadducees, quoting the psalm, as “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone…”
No matter how the power-hungry, rational, self-worshiping world may rail against belief in Jesus’ resurrection or the resurrection of those who follow Him as nonsense, the truth cannot be altered.
The 500-plus disciples of Jesus Who had saw Him risen from the dead and staked their lives on that truth cannot be ignored (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Nor can the millions of lives that have been changed, transformed by the risen Jesus.
Nor could they possibly deny the truth of Jesus’ resurrection if they dared, with the help of Christian friends like you and me, to put their trust in Jesus. When I came to faith in Christ after being exposed to the faith of the people of our home church in Columbus and the Biblical witness on which they built their lives, I reached a point at which I told God, "Lord, I find it hard to believe. But I am willing to believe. I'm willing to trust what these people believe and what your Bible tells me. Help me to believe." If people would dare to come to God in this way, the Holy Spirit would begin to build their faith in Jesus Christ. He and His resurrection would become undeniably and palpably real in their lives!
It’s to underscore the truth of Jesus' resurrection victory over sin and death that Peter says in the final verse of today’s lesson: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Today is the third installment of our series, Church Lessons, taken from the New Testament book of Acts. Here is our third lesson:
The only power to overcome the sin, death, and futility of this world is the risen Jesus Christ. The true, eternal Church is made up of those who trustingly live as though they believe that’s true...because it is!Jesus Christ calls us to live in this truth. Are you in?
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]