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A Strange Messiah

Check out my most recent sermon, A Strange Messiah.

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And That Changes Everything

Acts 4:32-25

There a Billy Currington song that goes like this:

I said, “I know a shrimp boat captain out of Galveston”
I’ve been thinkin’ I’d go down and work for a spell
Oh, you never can tell it just might suit me fine
Spend some time out on the bay

But then there’s always cowboy work in Colorado
And I was thinkin’ that that just might be the thing
Make a little pocket change I figure what the heck
Ain’t nothin’ standin’ in my way

But then she smiled at me
Looked a while at me
And that changes everything
That’s a whole ‘nother deal
That puts a brand new spin
On this ole rollin’ wheel
That’s some powerful stuff
That’s a girl in love
And that’s one thing
That changes everything

Billy ends up staying in that dusty old town, he even buys a house.  He never gets to set by the bay, or see the Colorado sunset, he gives up on all his dreams of the footloose life.  But somehow it’s all okay, because she smiled at him and looked a while at him, and as anyone who’s ever fallen in love knows, that changes everything.

The disciples had an experience similar to Currington’s.  Sometime in the first century, they came to believe that Christ is risen.  The resurrection of Jesus is the most fundamental and elemental facet of Christian theology.  Without the sacraments we’d have no worship, without the teachings of Jesus we’d have no ethics, without the Bible we’d have no theology, but without the resurrection, there’d just be no Christianity.  That’s why the first thing we notice in today’s text describes the message of the early Church, it says simply “they testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  If you want to strip Christianity down to its bare bones, you’ll come up with the earliest sermon of the Church, Christ is risen. And for this ragtag bunch of Jewish fishermen and businessmen, everything changed. Let me tell you what I mean by that.

Christianity was from the outset a kingdom of God movement—they started to live, in other words, as though the Kingdom of God had come.  And for Jews in the first century, the kingdom of God had a very specific religious and political meaning.  We will sometimes talk, for instance, as though the kingdom of God is a place souls go to be with God when bodies die.  This could not be farther from what 1st century Jews meant by the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is not so much a place as it is a certain type of rule or governance.  The kingdom of God is also not a religious experience.  Oh, a 1st century Jew may have a spiritual experience, they may feel the presence of God in a special way, or come to see God more clearly, and that would have been nice, but they never would have described it as the kingdom of God having come.  And if they had described it that way, whomever they were talking to would have said, “That sounds like a very nice experience, I’m glad for you, but what does that have to do with the kingdom of God?”  Because, you see, to the 1st century Jew the world was, and had been for some time, situated in what they called “This Present This Present Evil Age.”  This Present Evil Age was characterized by war, injustice, sin, sickness, death, and the oppression of Israel by Rome, or whatever other power currently controlled her.  But they believed that at some future time, God would move in history in a dramatic way to free Israel from her oppressors and bring all runaway Israelites back to the land; to bring life, forgiveness, justice, and peace to the world—to bring about the kingdom of God.  And like I said Christianity was from the beginning a kingdom of God movement—they lived as though the kingdom of God was already at hand.  We’ll talk about what exactly that means in a moment, but first let’s consider: Why did they live this way?  If the kingdom of God has such a specific religious and political meaning, and the characteristics of the kingdom of God had obviously not come to fruition—Israel was still under the control of Rome until long after the New Testament was written, in fact Israel did not because a fully independent state until 1948.  And to this day the Jewish people are scattered all over the world, they are not living in the land of Israel.  Moreover, we still live in a word at war, and a world of injustice, a world where in America alone over thirteen thousand children live below the poverty line.  We live in a world of sin.  And despite all of our advances in medical technology, we still live in a world of sickness and death.  It does not take a very hard look at either a newspaper, or into our own heats to see that we are steeped in This Present Evil Age—then why did the disciples of Jesus begin living like the kingdom of God had come?  Why would they think and act in a way that was so obviously not in accordance with reality?  This would be like us deciding to walk around in our winter coats and earmuffs in the middle of August because another ice age is upon us.  So, why did they decide to live in a way that seemed so obviously wrong?

The answer lies in another quirky, little feature of the kingdom of God.  Many Jews believed that when the sun set on This Present Evil Age and dawn broke on the new age of God’s kingdom, God would speak to the dry bones of Israel and all the dead would be raised to new life.  Let’s be careful not to over spiritualize the text from Ezekiel that Jennifer read for us this morning, because we’ll miss the point.  They really believed this.  Many first century Jews fully expected, when the kingdom of God had come, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. “Hey! Uncle John, haven’t seen you for years.  You’re smellin’ a little musty.”  So here again we see just how weird the disciples must have seemed by insisting the kingdom of God had already come.  Anyone who heard them talking or saw them acting this way would say “Look, I was just at the cemetery yesterday and not an ounce of dirt was displaced.  You’re crazy!”  And yet, the disciples were convinced that the kingdom of God had in fact come.  They were convinced because on Easter morning they saw the stone rolled away.  They were convinced because they met with Jesus three days after they had watched him suffer a brutal death on a Roman cross, and broke bread with him in their homes.  They were convinced because they met with him on the road to Emmaus and listened to his teaching. They were convinced because they met with him on the sea shore and had flame broiled fish for breakfast.  They were convinced because Christ is risen.  And rising he was the first fruits of the great resurrection.  So the disciples came to believe that the kingdom of God had already come despite a lot of evidence—despite the fact that no dead-ancestor sightings had been reported, despite the fact that Israel was still held captive by her Roman oppressors, despite the fact the world was still plagued by war, injustice, sin sickness and death.  They came to believe that the kingdom of God had come because the great resurrection had already began in one man.  They believed the kingdom of God had come, because Christ is risen.

Which brings us to the second part of today’s text, because it’s all well and good to believe in the resurrection, to dress up in our Easter best once a year and sing “Up from the Grave He Arose,” but as Shane Claiborne says, “The whole world could believe in resurrection, but little would change until we begin to practice it.”  Well the disciples of Jesus practiced resurrection.  What does it mean to live as though the great resurrection has already begun, as though the kingdom of God is already at hand?  What does it mean to live as though Christ is risen?  Well, to the early church at least, it meant that they traded up a politics of This Present Evil Age, for Easter politics.  The text says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.  No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…There were no needy persons among them.  From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

All around them, the world seemed to remain in This Present Evil Age.  And it lived a politics of This Present Evil Age.  They looked around and saw an Israel that continued to be held captive by the Roman regime, and who, as a result, practiced a politics of fear hiding every good pleasure they could from their oppressors.  But the disciples practiced an Easter politics of trust— from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and just laid it at the apostle’s feet, knowing that it would be used justly and wisely.  They saw a world that practiced a politics of violence through war and injustice, but the disciples practiced an Easter politics of peace—“they were one in heart and mind,” as the text says.  They saw a world plagued by sin that practiced a politics of greed and accumulation trying to surpass the Joneses, but the disciples practiced an Easter politics of love—they did not count any possession as their own, but shared everything they had.  They saw a world of sin and death that practiced a politics of hoarding and stockpiling knowing that they had to take care of themselves in case of an emergency, but the disciples practiced an Easter politics of giving—money was distributed as anyone had need.

Now let me make a very important point about Easter politics.  None of it was legislated.  The text says that “from time to time” people sold their homes and land and gave the money to the apostles, indicating that it was not a mandatory; they just did it as the Spirit led.  The fact that they even had homes to sell meant that they had personal possessions; they just did not view them as private possessions.  You see it is the politics of The Present Evil Age that tries to legislate kindness and sharing.  Easter politics is borne out of love.  It is borne out of the conviction that the world is fundamentally different than it seems.  The good news for us to day is that we get to live this way.  We get live with confidence.  We get to share.  We get  to believe that our sin if forgiven.  In a world that often seems so desperately evil, we get to live like Easter people.  We get to live as though Christ is risen!

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