Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter Sunday: The cup of humanity


Acts 10:34-43
Gentiles Hear the Good News
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Matthew 28:1-10
The Resurrection of Jesus
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

What kind of things are you afraid of?

How do we conquer those fears?

When I arrived in Tanworth I had a phobia about spiders. Having never lived in the country before I had no idea just how many of God’s little eight legged creatures I would see, nor how many would take up residence in our vicarage.

Now they say that the best way to overcome your fears is to be exposed to them and see that they actually amount to nothing, and that in reality there is nothing to be afraid of. And so slowly, slowly, I have begun to lose my fear of spiders. I still don’t like them, but it’s nothing like it was five years ago. And losing our fear is actually a big part of the message of Easter.

Peter said these words, ‘All the prophets testify about Jesus that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ Now we know that Jesus rose from the dead. This wasn’t just a story, it was a fact that was testified to by many eyewitnesses. Over the course of forty days, more than 500 people are numbered as having seen him. How many eyewitnesses does it take to get a jury verdict? This. Really. Happened.

Of the eleven remaining disciples, John was the only one to die of old age. All of the others laid down their lives as martyrs for what they believed in. So I might be a little bit afraid of spiders, and many people are scared of dying, but the one thing that these disciples did not fear was death, because they knew it had been conquered. Death is no longer final!

In fact the early Christians had a bit of a reputation amongst the Romans as followers of a religion that believed so fervently that their leader had been raised from the dead that they welcomed death and were unafraid of it. Now you don’t welcome death unless you’re no longer scared of it, and the reason these early Christians weren’t afraid of death was because Jesus had appeared to them after he rose from the dead.

So it’s a fact, testified to by hundreds of eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by it, that Jesus rose from the dead. And what’s more we know that in some way Jesus’s death meant that we could also be forgiven for the things we do wrong and so we can look forward to eternal life too.

Jesus’s resurrection was only the first; believers are all promised the same future. But the question that is often on our lips at this time of year is, how did Jesus’s death accomplish this? What was so special about his death that it meant we no longer need to be afraid of death?

Think of it like this. Think about how good and how perfect God is. This is the one who created everything that we can see and everything that we can’t see. From the fundamental particles being uncovered by the large hadron collider to the galactic sprawl that is our Milky Way, to those things beyond even the Hubble Telescope’s horizon. All of it was created by him.

For 13.7 billion years his hands have ceaselessly held stars together, thrown planets into place, kept hearts beating, joined the bodies of lovers and underpinned the tireless dance of quantum reality. Into this maelstrom of love came humanity, created and evolved to be in the image of God.

At least we were meant to be. But to be like God entails having the freedom to choose and that means that we can choose to love God or do our own thing, and we choose, over and over again, to do our own thing.

And that causes a problem. Instead of being lit with the glory of God, as was God’s intention, we’ve become fragile broken things, with little in common with what we could have become. But more importantly our brokenness means that we cannot stand to be in the presence of God. All those things that we do wrong have made us weak. We’ve become paper-thin.

And therein lies the problem. Being so fragile means we can’t cope with being in the presence of God anymore than you could stand on the surface of the sun. Let me tell you briefly of an experience I had as a teenager in church. Please don’t think having an experience like this makes me special. I think it was for me to share with people at the right time.

So there I was, kneeling down, preparing to go and receive communion when it became as if God himself was stood where the altar was. All that perfection and awesome power, it seemed, was standing only about ten feet in front of me.

And what that meant to me was a sense of real fear. I felt that if I dared to look up, then I would be destroyed because it was simply impossible for me to remain in the presence of such awesome perfection because I had fallen way short of the mark. I think that for just a few brief moments, nearly thirty years ago, God was showing me why his Son had come to us.

You see if God wants us to be in his presence, and we can’t be because of those things we’ve done wrong, then God himself is the only one who can deal with it. There’s nothing we can do to change the situation. And that’s why Jesus came, to take away the things we do. Now there are many ways of trying to understand the cross, but one possibility is to think of it as an exchange.

Imagine a simple plastic wine glass. Let’s say this is our humanity. And into it we can pour all of the things we do wrong that make it impossible to stand in God’s presence. The kind of things it might contain could be:
Our desire for power over others:
Our desire for the trappings of wealth:
Our desire to have it our way, regardless of the needs of others:
Our use of others for our own ends:
Our ability to simply not notice what others need
The wars we wage:
The famines we cause:
The people we hate:

These are the kinds of things that we do which drive a wedge between us and God. And it is as if Jesus said, ‘This is your cup. This is the cup of humanity. If you drink of this cup then you cannot be in God’s presence. So let me drink it for you.’

And so he did. On the cross Jesus drank the cup of humanity and he allowed his own blood to be spilled.

His death was our death. He died like we do, but that’s not the end of it. I said that Jesus’s death was an exchange. You see he drank our cup, the cup of humanity. But in its place he gave us his cup, the cup of salvation, and it’s from that cup that we drink every time we come to communion. As Jesus put it, ‘The cup of the new covenant between God and humanity; the cup in my blood’.

When we drink from this cup and eat of the communion bread it is as if the body and blood of the Son of God become ours. Jesus can stand in the presence of God because he is perfect, and as his followers we have exchanged our imperfection for his perfection. He drank the cup of humanity and gave us the cup of God.

That’s why it’s so special that today we have four of our young people joining us to receive this communion. They know that it doesn’t mean that they’re special or better than their friends. But like the rest of us, they are coming to the knowledge that we need to be included in that exchange. We desire to be in the presence of God, involved in a daily relationship that will go on becoming deeper and more intimate.

Jesus drank our cup and allowed himself to be killed, the end that we all deserve, so that we can drink his cup and live with him in the presence of the Father for all eternity. And this table is open to all. So if you would like to think more about this, or come to be confirmed, then do please speak to me or your own minister. Amen.

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