Sunday, April 18, 2021

Where Easter Faith Comes From

Acts 3:11-21
Luke 24:36-49

One of the features of modern American life is that people tend to pay attention to news sources that mostly tell them what they want to hear. 

We can be like the people of ancient Israel who told the prophets of God: “Tell us pleasant things…” (Isaiah 39:10) They didn’t want to accept that before they could experience the pleasant things of God--things like forgiveness, new life, hope, peace--they would first need to acknowledge their sin, turn away from it, and turn in daily surrendering trust to God. They thought that they were nice people in no need of forgiveness, descendants of Abraham genetically guaranteed easy treatment by God. Such were the false pictures of reality they kept in their minds.

The truth is that we all carry false pictures of the way life is. And even when God shows us that our pictures are wrong, we resist. 

Most of us have no idea that our picture of reality is wrong though. We can be bundles of false assumptions, half-baked anecdotes, and self-serving conclusions. And because of these false pictures, we refuse to be confused by the truth. 

Even the truth that comes from God Himself.

“I do the best I can,” more than one person has told me when I’ve tried to impress on them their need of forgiveness and new life through faith in Jesus Christ. But our best can’t make us good enough for God or His kingdom. As Romans remind us: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 

Those “no ones” and those “alls” include you and me. Without an acknowledgment of our sinful condition and impulses...without daily turning to the God we know in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life, we have no hope of eternity with God. Without Christ, we won’t understand or accept that life, death, and eternity are beyond our control. Without Christ, we can’t be righteous. Without Christ, we’re born and we live damnable lives. If these facts make us uncomfortable, it means that God the Holy Spirit is disturbing our false pictures of reality. And that’s a good thing.

In both our first lesson and our Gospel lesson for today, we find God messing with people’s false pictures of reality, including ours

The first lesson comes from the New Testament book of Acts. It’s Luke the Evangelist’s account of roughly the first forty years of the Church’s life. Our lesson, Acts 3:11-21, takes place shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven and the first Christian Pentecost. Peter and John have gone to the temple in Jerusalem. There, they encounter a paralyzed beggar. In the name of Jesus, Peter proclaims God’s healing to the man, who proceeds to walk, leap, and praise God. 

When this happens, people run to Peter and John, treating them as heroes. Peter is horrified. People should be giving thanks to God, not to Peter and John! But people, you know, would rather applaud a human being they think they can manipulate than applaud God Who is beyond human manipulation.

The crowd is then shocked after Peter tells them this miracle has been wrought in the name of Jesus and then goes after them. “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 3:14-15) 

The people in this crowd likely thought of themselves as good souls, doers of God’s will. But Peter tells them they’re party to the killing of Jesus, God in the flesh! That doesn’t fit with their picture of themselves. 

Does it fit with your understanding of yourself? 

Do you understand that it’s our sin--yours and mine--that Christ had to bear on the cross to save us from ourselves? 

Until we take that truth in, we won’t be ready to hear what Peter says later in our lesson from Acts: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20)

Our Gospel lesson, Luke 24:36-49, is set on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The disciples of Jesus discuss that some of their party have seen the risen Jesus. Suddenly, Jesus’ appears. 

But, despite the risen Jesus’ presence, Luke says they thought “they saw a ghost.” (Luke 24:37) 

No matter the reports of Jesus’ resurrection they’d heard or the promises that Jesus had made that He would rise or the fact that the risen Savior is standing before them, they can’t shake their picture of reality that said dead don’t people don’t rise again. 

In verse 38, Jesus asks why they’re agitated and trying to explain away His appearance among them. He’s no ghost and He offers two proofs that He is bodily resurrected: He shows them His scars and He eats some broiled fish. Jesus goes on to show how the entire Old Testament had pointed to His death and resurrection.

But it’s one thing to know facts. It’s another for those facts to change the way we view reality. Accept God’s truth, His true picture of reality, and you need to accept that you’re a sinner in need of saving. You have to accept that only God can do the saving. You have to trust that only the God revealed in Jesus can give us the righteousness that qualifies us for life in God’s eternal kingdom. You have to accept that there is nothing good or meritorious about us, that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. 

We are stubborn creatures though. How do we lay aside our self-serving, self-righteous, self-congratulating, self-aggrandizing, and even self-pitying pictures of reality to embrace the vision of God that calls us to see both our sin and God’s grace in Christ?

Luke shows us how in verse 45 of our Gospel lesson. He writes: “Then [Jesusopened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” God’s Word comes to us both as a mallet that shows us that we’re sinners in need of salvation and as God’s gift of the repentance and faith in Jesus that frees us from sin, death, and darkness! God’s Word breaks open our minds, helping us to see the truth that we are sinners and that Jesus Christ died and rose to save sinners! Jesus told the first disciples and He tells us, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations...” (Luke 24:46-48)

This is the God-given picture of reality that is so foreign to our sinful natures that we won’t believe--can’t believe it--unless, as Jesus did for the disciples on the first Easter Sunday evening, God opens our minds to see the truth that comes from God alone.

Martin Luther explains this in The Small Catechism: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith."

A man I knew grew up in an unchurched family. He married a Lutheran girl and, initially just to placate her, began attending worship with her. Later, he got involved with a Bible study and took an adult catechism class. Imbued with an analytical mind and being one of those people who could do anything, making him self-sufficient, the Bible’s picture of reality that we are sinners in need of saving and that God alone gives salvation through Jesus, was completely foreign to him. But as God’s Word did its work and opened his mind, his view of reality changed. Never have I known a more joyous Christian disciple! After God opened his mind to repentance and faith in Jesus, he challenged people he knew to set aside six consecutive Sundays to participate in Christian worship. “If you can make yourself miss the seventh Sunday, I’ll never talke with you about Jesus again.” He knew that God’s Word has the power to open up minds and hearts to the love and new life Jesus wants to give all people.

God’s Word has that same power today, friends! May God’s Word give you a true picture of reality. May you see that your desperate need of forgiveness and new life has, in Jesus the crucified and risen One, been met by the God Who desperately loves you: Loves you passionately, unswervingly, completely. And may you, like my friend, the early Church, and generations of faithful Christians, share the picture of the God we see in Jesus. Jesus is God’s Word of love for the whole human race. Amen