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Sermon for 27 April 2014

FIRST READING Acts 2:14a, 22–32

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, 22 You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’  29 Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.
PSALM Psalm 16

1 Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the LORD, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.”  2 All my delight is in the godly that are in the land, upon those who are noble among the people.  3 But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied.  4 I will not pour out drink offerings to such gods, never take their names upon my lips.  5 O LORD, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot.  6 My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a rich inheritance.  7 I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me night after night.  8 I have set the LORD always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.  9 My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.  10 For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the pit.  11 You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
SECOND READING 1 Peter 1:3–9

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

GOSPEL John 20:19–31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


One of the things we had to endure in the Air Force was inspections. And anyone who has worked for the government will tell you, if it’s one thing the government can do, it’s invent reasons for inspections: everything from in-progress inspections, to quality control inspections, to Nuclear Surety inspections to numerous unit level evaluations. And as much as I’d like to complain, most all these inspections were crucial to insuring the military was able to operate both at home and when we were deployed.
Two of the major evaluations we would have to withstand had to do with our ability to deploy on a moment’s notice and how well we were able to operate and survive in hostile surroundings including in a nuclear, chemical and biological environment. At the end of these inspections we would get a report and a grade. As you can imagine, the level of anxiety was high as we waited for the report to arrive to see if it was either good or bad news. In early August of 1990, while I was stationed at Seymour Johnson in Goldsboro, such an inspection occurred, but the evaluation and report didn’t occur in the way we expected. Nor was the report we received bad news as anticipated, but rather came as an unexpected announcement of good news.
In early August, the “whistle blew” and we began to go through the process of demonstrating to the inspectors our ability to operate and survive in a war-time environment. About two days into the inspection, everything seemed to be going well, when all of the sudden the inspection ended. We all thought we’d somehow failed and trust me when I say, that isn’t a good thing. The odd thing is, no one said a word. That was until a few days later on the 7th of August. It was Tuesday, about 3:00 in the afternoon, and my boss walks up to me and asks, in a rather unsettling voice, if I’d sent anyone home. I said no, and he said “good, I want everyone from both shifts in this hallway at 4 o’clock, no exceptions.” Expecting the worse, that we had failed the inspection and that life was about to get bad, I gathered the troops in the hallway as ordered at shift change. As soon as everyone was present, the boss walked out and announced that what he was about to say was for “Official use only”. He said that we were going to be inspected again, starting immediately, with the deployment phase and then go right into the employment phase, but this evaluation was going to be very different.
As our minds raced, he paused to allow us time to process the information, and then said, “this deployment is for real. We’re being deployed in response to Sudam Hussain aggression in Kuwait. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to war. Yes, the inspection is real; but how we do in this inspection could mean life or death, so please, let’s gets this right.” Eight months later I would come home from Desert Storm not only to a new daughter, but to once again wait and see how we did on the inspection.
A few weeks later we got the report, and instead of enumerating all the things that went wrong, it was a letter that included a citation naming Seymour Johnson as an “Outstanding Combat unit”. Through all the difficult and trying circumstances, including combat operations, a letter came; a report not containing bad news or admonishments, but one that filled us with joy and peace.
Bernard Kerik is a former New York City police commissioner. Kerik always kept a low profile in his job. He wasn’t a man who sought publicity. That was until the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Suddenly, Kerik’s face was all over the national and international news. He organized and led the highly-praised police response following the attacks. In his autobiography, Bernard Kerik talks about the rocky road that led him into police work.
Commissioner Kerik dropped out of high school, then he entered his chosen profession. He worked his way up to the top of the organization. In the meantime, Kerik–who was adopted–began searching for his birth mother. In his search, the former police commissioner uncovered a huge irony. His mother was an alcoholic and prostitute who abandoned him as a toddler. She was murdered in 1964. No one even bothered to investigate her murder. Without a doubt, Bernard Kerik has come a long way.
How does it happen that someone who started out with so many strikes against him could achieve so much in life? The child of a murdered prostitute and a High school drop-out. And yet it happens. Difficult circumstances can inspire us and cause us to excel and want to be better people. The same could be said of Angelica Guevara.
Angelica graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA. For any kid, that’s pretty impressive, but for a girl who had to overcome what she overcame, it’s truly outstanding. Angelica came from a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles. No one in her family had ever graduated from high school before. Angelica’s parents struggled with poverty and alcoholism, and they pressured her to drop out of school and get a job. But Angelica has a brother who wouldn’t let her fail. His name is Jesus.
Throughout her high school years, Angelica owned only one pair of shoes. Jesus helped her nail the soles on when they started to fall apart. In the Guevara’s neighborhood, kids carrying book bags were often harassed by gang members. But Jesus put the word out on the street that if anyone messed with his little sister, they would have him to deal with. Whenever Angelica was tempted to quit, Jesus was there to encourage her. Today, Angelica is a graduate of UCLA. How does it happen–that one person can overcome so much? Of course, we can’t help but indulging in a little play on words with Angelica’s story. She had a big brother named Jesus, or by the English pronunciation Jesus, to help her along the way. And so do we.
Our Epistle lesson appointed for today is from I Peter, and although we cannot be totally sure, there’s good evidence to suggest that this letter did come from the hand of the Apostle Simon Peter. Tradition has it that for thirty years this former professional fisherman had been fishing for men. And by reading this letter, it’s evident that he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm for the work of the Gospel. This letter was written to the churches in what’s now Turkey. And like all the letters sent to the churches, this letter was passed from one congregation to the next. It’s thought that Peter wrote this letter somewhere around 64 A.D. At that time, the vast Roman Empire was ruled by the emperor Nero, who reigned from 54-68 A.D.
Nero, as you recall from your history classes, has a terrible name among Christians–with good reason. In the year 64 AD, two thirds of the city of Rome was burned by a horrific fire. Many people thought Nero himself was responsible. The event has given us an image that persists today–that of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. In order to escape the backlash, Nero needed a scapegoat. He chose Christians. They started the fire, he suggested. And so the empire began to persecute Christians. Tradition also tells us that both Peter and Paul died as martyrs under the rule of Nero.
Peter is writing to encourage believers who are being persecuted; people who are suffering; Christians who live in fear. But rather than focusing on their persecution, on all the things that are going wrong, Peter chooses instead to focus on God’s promises. Instead of enumerating on all the things that are bad, Peter chooses to look at the good news. Rather than focusing on their trials, he focuses on their future triumphs. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he writes to them, “who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . .”
Does this sound like he’s writing to someone in distress? A “living hope?” Further on in this passage he writes, “and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.”
Joy inexpressible? It’s strange language to use with people who are undergoing all kinds of trials and tribulations. Joy inexpressible? It’s an odd expression for people who are trembling behind locked doors. Joy inexpressible? What are we missing here? How can you have joy inexpressible when your world is being torn apart? To fully understand this passage, and what Peter is telling us here, we first need to understand that joy isn’t a surface phenomenon; joy is something that penetrates the very soul.
Lucy Bregman relates the story of how she once went to a worship service where the entire congregation was told, “If you don’t have a smile on your face, you’ve got the wrong religion and shouldn’t be here. Christianity is a religion of joy.” Lucy fled that service in tears. She was in pain and she didn’t feel at that time like she could smile. She was having difficulties and was looking for comfort. Instead she was told that she was not good enough for God, because she wasn’t smiling. Someone caused Lucy to confuse the surface phenomenon of smiling for authentic joy.
Who here has ever taken “smile training?” Those of you in retail business know the importance of sales people who smile. Department store sales have risen as much as twenty percent when salespeople have gone on a smiling campaign! “Smile and the world smiles with you,” says the old song. And, to a certain extent, it’s true. In business, it’s especially important to smile. People don’t like to work with individuals who they think will be unpleasant.
Beth Wicke, a casting director for ABC, studies audition tapes produced by aspiring actors. At the beginning of these audition tapes the actors tell who they are and who their agent is. Beth says she looks carefully at the way the actors handle this part of the audition tape to see if they give off friendly vibes. Her experience is that a winning smile usually indicates that the person will be easy to work with. Other things being equal, she says, casting agents and directors will pick the friendly actor. “Only people who are extraordinarily talented or rich, get what they want without smiling,” says Eugene Griessman in his book, Time Tactics of Very Successful People, “and a smile doesn’t hurt even them. The Chinese have a proverb: A man without a smiling face must not open a shop.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery is famous for his book, The Little Prince, which was made into a movie, but he has written other charming works as well. One of his stories is based on his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s called “The Smile.” Whether it’s based in fact or not, is not known. In this story, Saint-Exupery says that he was captured and imprisoned by the enemy. He was sure to face a prompt execution. He was horribly nervous and sad. He probed his pockets, hoping that the guards’ search had not been through enough to deprive him of all his cigarettes. He found one, and asked his guard for a light. The guard had been studiously ignoring him up until now. As the guard lit Saint-Exupery’s cigarette, their eyes met. Either out of nervousness or habit, Saint-Exupery smiled. The guard, unable to look away, smiled too.
Now that he had acknowledged his presence as a human being, the guard seemed compelled to say something to Saint-Exupery. He asked if he had any children. Saint-Exupery replied that he did, and he pulled out some pictures. The guard brought out his own family pictures too. Suddenly, the guard unlocked Saint-Exupery’s jail cell and led him out. The guard snuck him through the back roads of city until he brought him to the outskirts of the town. And there he left him. Saint-Exupery was alive and free because of a smile. Even Mother Teresa understood the importance of a smile.
In her book, A Gift for God (1975), she wrote, “Some people came to Calcutta, and before leaving, they begged me: “Tell us something that will help us to live our lives better.’ And I said: “Smile at each other; smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other–it doesn’t matter who it is–and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.'” Smiling is important. Indeed, as Mother Teresa notes, it can even be a religious duty. But it’s not the same as Christian joy. Joy isn’t a surface phenomenon. Joy comes from deep within. Joy is, as Peter tells us in his letter to the churches in Turkey, knowing the power of the resurrected Christ. Joy is experiencing the power of Christ’s presence daily. Joni Eareckson Tada knows about joy. A quadriplegic; physically impaired due to a diving accident, she has a prime excuse to wallow in despair. But she knows about joy.
Joni tells about being surrounded by a crowd of women in a restroom during a break at a Christian women’s conference. One woman said, “Oh, Joni, you always look so together, so happy in your wheelchair. I wish that I had your joy!” Several women around her nodded. “How do you do it?” she asked. Joni glanced at the nicely dressed women around her. She knew that the break would soon be over. How could she answer this woman’s question in about 60 seconds? How could she sum up in a sound bite what had taken her three decades to learn? “I don’t do it,” she replied. That raised their eyebrows. “In fact, may I tell you honestly how I woke up this morning?” Several women leaned against the counter to listen.
“This is an average day,” she breathed deeply. “After my husband, Ken, leaves for work at 6:00 a.m., I’m alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 a.m. That’s when a friend arrives to get me up. While I listen to her make coffee, I pray, “Oh, Lord, my friend will soon give me a bath, get me dressed, sit me up in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don’t have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don’t have a smile to take into the day. But, O Lord, You do. May I have Yours? God, I need You desperately.'”
“So, what happens when your friend comes through the bedroom door?” one of the women asked. “I turn my head toward her,” said Joni, “and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It’s not mine. It’s God’s. And so,” she said, gesturing to her paralyzed legs, “whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning.” The women in the restroom were silent. “And,” said Joni, “it’s the only way to live. It’s the Christian way to live.”
Some may be going through a difficult time. You feel like it’s beyond your power to smile. That’s all right. But you need to know that far beneath the surface, where nobody else can see, there’s an inexpressible joy that’s available to each of us. It’s the joy of the resurrected Christ. All we need to do is ask Him to give you His joy, so that even if that smile never makes it to our face, it will still reside in our heart.
I don’t know what the people expected when they received the letter from Peter. Whatever anxieties they may have been experiencing, the opening message must have filled them with joy. The good news of God’s mercy and our living hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is strongly and clearly proclaimed. We don’t have to wait for a letter to arrive to hear the good news. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is available to us every day; and it’s good news that’s worth repeating: “We are born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

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