Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000
Acts 10:34--43; John 20:1--18
(VII of VII in series "God's Amazing Grace")
Since Ash Wednesday, I have shared six sermons on the amazing grace of God. They were entitled, Ashen Grace; Saving Grace; Redeeming Grace; Precious Grace; Teaching Grace; and Delivering Grace. Today is the final sermon in this series. All six are available by the Ninth Street entrance in the information rack. They also can be found on-line. Following today, all seven will be printed and bound together. Would you join me in prayer as we explore "Eternal Grace: Leads Us Home" ..
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Have you ever suffered a loss so deep that no one's words could ease the pain - nor could your own words express the feelings? In this loss have your eyes, your thoughts, your Spirit been blurred by the streams of tears flowing from deep within?
Then, when you least expected it and most needed it, have you experienced some dream, or presence or impression that brings you a moment's peace?
In his essay, A Grief Observed, British author, C. S. Lewis shares with the world the journal he kept following the early and sudden death of his wife, Joy. In the journal Lewis writes of his struggles to make it through the time after Joy's death. Near the end of the journal, Lewis tells of the day, several months after Joy's death when something quite unexpected happened. He recalls that on that day he awoke to bright sunshine. It was a perfect day. There were no grey skies, no presence of gloom or sadness. It was day like any which had preceded it since Joy's death. Lewis writes:
Suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned Joy the least, I remembered her best. Indeed, it was something better than a memory; it was an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was something in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of a sorrow removed a barrier.
Why had no one told me these things? Why had no one told me this could happen? How easily I might have said to another man in this situation, "He's got over it. He's forgotten his wife," when the truth was "he remembers her better because he has partly got over it.
You can't see anything properly when your eyes are blurred with tears . . . The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can't give it . . . But, then later, God calls you by name and says, "Christian, I want to give you something." (C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.)
C.S. Lewis encountered a "Resurrection Revelation" of eternal grace. Similarly, the Resurrection according to John's Gospel focuses on Mary Magdalene. Wrapped in sleepless grief and in the darkness of the first Easter's predawn hours, Mary makes her way to the tomb of Jesus. Through the pain of her loss, she has come to anoint the dead body of her beloved teacher and savior. His grace and love have saved her from demon possession, prostitution, and sure death. Now she feels, the least she can do is to wash clean the open wounds and cleanse his body of bloodstains in the aftermath of his brutal execution on Golgotha's cross. Instead of a body, she finds an empty tomb. His body was all she had left and now that was gone! In horror, she runs back to tell Peter and the disciples. They return to the tomb ahead of her. After the men are satisfied that what Mary has told is true, they leave her there weeping in the garden. If they try to lead her away, she refuses them. She is like an abandoned pup who has lost her master, staying firmly rooted in the last place he has been without the least idea of what to do next.
Alone in the garden, alone in her grief, Mary stoops down to look into the tomb. Two angels speak to her, but they cannot soften her resolve. "Why are you crying?" they ask. She answers that they've her Lord away and she doesn't know where to find him. In her grief, it doesn't cross her mind that the angels may have been the culprits. Operating on automatic pilot, she leaves the tomb and meets the gardener. She begs the man to show her where the body is. But, she is speaking to "The Body." He says, "Mary," and she recognizes the gentle voice of her teacher, friend, and Savior. "Rabboni!", "Teacher!" she exclaims. Mary is embraced by his words (but not by him), and she comes to encounter Resurrection Revelation — the eternal grace of God. Like C.S. Lewis, God calls her by name and gives her the gift of His presence in Christ Jesus!
Amazing Grace! Amazing God! The grace of God enters our lives through resurrection revelations when we partly get over the griefs of our lives and are empty enough of our grief to be open enough to God entering our hearts and minds.
Eternal Grace leads us home when we are shaped by resurrection faith lived after the "conjunctions." Many of you remember diagraming sentences in English class. A friend of mine reminded at lunch this week of all the lines and symbols of sentence diagraming. My English teaching mother used to say, "the but clarifies the sentence." In other words, if I tell you something wonderful and then end the sentence with "but, that's only for today... " I have just negated the positive impact of my words. You know some of the conjunctions — "But," "Nevertheless," "Because." Eternal Grace is shaped and lived at the conjunctions.
In today's Gospel lesson, there are 14 major conjunctions in the Greek. But, the most pivotal one is found in verse 11. "But, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb ... " At this conjunction, Mary begins the movement toward resurrection faith. All that has happened before is a prelude to the life she will know next in the Risen Christ. Such amazing grace meets us at the conjunctions of our lives and how we live after the conjunctions changes everything.
Every Easter, there is another reading outside the gospel story of resurrection faith. Generally speaking, we are so completely rapt in brass, timpani, organ, choral voices and the joy of a sanctuary bursting a lot more with family and friends, we loss track of the "other story" of Easter. Every Easter, Acts 10:34--43 is a central reading in the lectionary of the day. It is a text which shapes us at the conjunction of faith. It comes years after the first Easter, but conjunction in the church's story when Jewish Christians are just beginning to welcome Gentiles and pagans into their growing faith movement.
Acts 10:34--43 concludes the long story of the conversion of Cornelius and his household of faith. I call it the conversion of Peter. Without giving you full details, Cornelius is a gentile, a Roman, and an officer in the Roman army. He is a devout man who is in awe of God, prays to God and offers alms to God. He is on the fringe of the first Christian community, but is willing and ready to be guided into the center. Through a vision that both Cornelius and Peter have (simultaneously, but in two separate locations), they end up coming together in Cornelius' home. Peter opens the eyes of this seeker to the ways of Jesus Christ. Then with the Gentile household of Cornelius eagerly listening for some "good news" Peter begins preaching with a shocking admission, "God shows no partiality. But, in every nation, anyone who is in reverence of God (or in awe of God) and does what is right is acceptable to God." In other words, everyone is special in the eyes of God. Peter goes way out on a scriptural limb and with absolutely no biblical support in Hebrew scriptures or tradition to back him up! Then he reveals to them the resurrection faith in Jesus Christ as he has come to know it. Before he can take back what he says, the Holy Spirit blows into the household and everyone is baptized in the household.
In the tenth chapter of Acts, Peter places the church on his redeemed shoulders and carries it into the future! He ventures out into unknown terrain believing that the Risen Christ is with him. If God, indeed shows no partiality, (which I believe is true of God), then how in God's name has screwed it up for the past 2000 years? Why have we turned a Gospel of Grace into a Battering Ram of Judgment? Why have we wasted our time building walls and not bridges; building chasms between global faith communities and persons of color, economic and social status, various conditions of mental, emotional, and physical abilities, and persons whose sexual orientation is different from ours. Perhaps that is why at the end of too many sermons in too many pulpits across our world today, it is not the power of the Holy Spirit that blows through the preachers and the people to transform them from judging all to loving of all, but rather the power of the Hot air of the devil's fiery judgment.
The conversion of Peter must be our conversion as well. We must come to know the truth of the Gospel! Our God loves! Our God shows no partiality when people stand in awe and reverence of God and do the right thing! Our God lives in the conjunction of resurrection faith and grace. Our God, in Jesus Christ calls us to live our faith after the conjunctions! For, in spite of our human tendencies to judge other people in the places where they reflect un-grace and un-love, God's amazing grace blows as the Holy Spirit into our lives and at the conjunction of life and faith says "Nevertheless, you are my beloved and I love you!"
In Bill Moyers' documentary film on the hymn "Amazing Grace," there is a scene from Wembley Stadium in London, England. Various music groups, mostly rock bands had gathered in celebration of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid rule. For some strange reason, the promoters had scheduled opera star Jessye Norman as the closing act.
The film cuts back and forth between scenes from the unruly crowd in the stadium and an interview between Moyers and Jessye Norman. For 12 hours groups like Guns and Roses have blasted the crowd through banks of loud speakers and the fans are riled up and mostly blasted themselves. Many curtain calls for the rock groups extend the time Jessye Norman is to take the stage.
Jessye has decided to close the concert with John Newton's hymn "Amazing Grace." She speaks to Bill Moyers about John Newton. As you know, Newton was a coarse and cruel slave trader. In the midst of a storm that nearly threw him overboard he cried out to God for his salvation. His conversion was slow, for even after he converted to Christianity, he continued to be a slave trader. In fact, he wrote "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," while waiting in an African harbor for a shipment of slaves. Later, he renounced his profession, became a minister and joined William Wilberforce as one of the greatest fighters against slavery. John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. When he wrote, "That saved a wretch like me... " he meant those words with all his heart.
Finally, the hour arrives when Jessye Norman is to take the stage. A single circle of light follows this majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing dashiki, as she strolls across on stage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs restlessly. Few recognize the opera diva. The crowd begins to chant for Guns and Roses and scene is beginning to get ugly.
Singing a capella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, slowly: "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see."
A remarkable thing happens that night in Wembley Stadium. Tens of thousands raucous rock and roll fans fall before her aria of grace. By the time she reaches the second stanza, the crowd is in her hands. By the time she begins the third verse, "Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home." several thousand fans are singing along, digging far back in the nearly lost memories for words they heard long ago. With the last verse, the crowd again falls silent before her single voice:
When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun;
we've no less days to sing God's praise, then when we first begun.
Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night. But, I think I know. The world is hungering and thirsting for grace. When the grace of God descends people stand silent before it.
(This story is drawn from Phillip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mi., 1997, pp. 281-282.)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, May the Amazing Grace of our Risen Savior Jesus Christ lead you home to God. Amen.
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