3/31/2024

“The Good News We Share”

The Good News We Share

First Baptist Richmond, March 31, 2024

Acts 10:34-43

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…

The date was March 14, 2024, a little less than three weeks ago. Do you remember it? It was the first truly warm, sunny day of the year. It was also my 65th birthday, and my wife, Christy, had planned a surprise Tuk-Tuk tour. Have you seen them? Those brightly colored, multi-passenger, motorized tricycles putting around Richmond? I didn’t know what we were doing. I just showed up at the VMFA at 4:00 on that Thursday afternoon and there was the whole family: my wife, her mother, my children, my grandchildren, and a few assorted in-laws. We piled into those Tuk-Tuks, got the grandchildren into their car seats, buckled ourselves in, and then lurched away from the curb to see the sights of our city. We were out there in public view as we putted around Richmond, but we also had a good view of the public, and they seemed to be in the most wonderful mood.

As I said, it was the first warm, sunny day of the year, and that kind of thing tends to bring people out of the woodwork. They came out in shorts and T-shirts, baring their pale limbs and turning their faces toward the sun. Pedestrians jaywalked across the street in Carytown, smiling and waving as we narrowly missed them. VCU students sprawled on the grass in Monroe Park, talking and laughing, listening to music. It was a practically pagan celebration of springtime.

That kind of thing has been going on forever. I remember hearing a woman

named Barbara McBride-Smith tell the story of Demeter and Persephone. She told it with a twang, like someone who had been born and raised in Waco, Texas (which she had), and included a detail about Zeus inviting Demeter to come up and sit on the porch with him and have some ambrosia ice cream which is not in the original story. The original story is an ancient Greek myth about why the seasons change, and as Barbara McBride-Smith told it, it was because Hades kidnapped Demeter’s daughter Persephone and forced her to become his wife. For six months of every year she had to live with him in the underworld and her mother, Demeter, grieved so hard that summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter. But when Persephone came home Demeter rejoiced so exuberantly that winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer.

Smith ends her story by saying, “Do you have any idea how strong a mother’s love for her child is? Well, one day in the spring you just look outside at the crops and the wildflowers growing. You listen to the birds singing, you feel the gentle breeze and the warmth of the sun, and you’ll understand something of the joy and love a mother feels for her child. And then, you look outside again on a bitter winter day. You see how stark and desolate the fields are, how dead the grass and trees look. You feel the cold wind blowing around you and you’ll begin to know the emptiness in a mother’s heart when her child is taken from her. And then remember this—a mother’s love is as endless as the cycle of the seasons.”i

Long before there was anything called Easter our ancestors were telling their stories and celebrating springtime. They had to. There is something in human nature, something deep and primal, that simply has to celebrate when the icy blast of winter gives way to the warmth and beauty of spring. But then this happened, this thing we’ve been talking about today, when a man named Jesus

apparently rose from the dead. And if you think people get excited when spring overcomes winter you should see what they do when life overcomes death. Because we’ve stood beside too many open caskets, haven’t we? Looking down on the faces of those we have loved and lost? If we had the power to bring them back to life, if we could take them by the hands and lift them up out of those caskets, we would, wouldn’t we? And so when we hear a story about someone who actually did it, who actually came back from the dead, we get excited. We put on our most festive and colorful clothes; we come to a place like this one and sing hymns of resurrection; we lean in close to hear the story of how it happened that first time in the hope that it might happen again for all of us, but especially for those we have loved and lost.

That’s what Easter is usually about: it’s about hearing the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And if we’re honest Mark’s Easter story—the one that was read this morning—is not our favorite, because at the end of that story there is no proof of the resurrection, no appearance of the risen Lord; it’s just two women running from the tomb, terrified: women who say nothing to anyone because they are so afraid.

We prefer John’s version of the story, where Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early on the first day of the week, while it is still dark, and finds that the tomb is empty. She comes back and tells Peter and John what she has seen and they run to the tomb to see if it’s true. They find the empty grave clothes, but they don’t see Jesus. And then, a little later in the story, Mary does: she sees the risen Lord! At first she thinks it’s the gardener, but then he calls her by name and she runs to him and throws her arms around him and hugs him so tightly that he finally has to tell her to let go. He sends her to tell the others what she has seen

and she runs back and blurts out the world’s first Easter sermon in five unforgettable words:

“I have seen the Lord!”

I appreciate the fact that we have different resurrection accounts in the Bible. I like it that John can tell his story in one way and Mark can tell his story in another. It allows each of them to focus on what they find most essential. But what about Peter? What’s his story? Peter, who was arguably closer to Jesus than anyone other than John and maybe Mary Magdalene: what did he say when people asked him about the one he had followed for three years?

Well, thanks to our friend Luke, we have an idea. In Acts, chapter 10, he tells the story of the time Peter went to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who didn’t know anything about Jesus. And so Peter shares his version of the gospel (which is not 16 chapters long, like Mark, or 21 chapters long, like John, but only about 10 verses long, right there in the tenth chapter of Acts). He tells him the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” Peter says, “for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did and said, both in Judea and 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 everyone, but to those of us who were chosen as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

That’s it: that’s Peter’s Gospel. But those of you who have read the other Gospels may be surprised by how much he has left out. For example: where is that detail about Jesus telling the disciples that they will all abandon him and Peter saying, “Even though all fall away, I will not”? And when Jesus responds by saying,

“Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times,” why can’t Peter seem to remember that he said, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you?” Beyond that he doesn’t seem to remember that when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and wanted Peter and the others to keep watch with him, Peter kept falling asleep. He doesn’t talk about cutting off anyone’s ear with a sword, and of course he completely fails to mention that part of the story where he denies Jesus three times, although the others remember.

Matthew says that when Peter realized what he had done he went out and wept bitterly. Mark says that he “broke down” and wept. Luke adds the heartbreaking detail that when Peter shouted out his third denial, the Lord turned and looked at him; only then did he stumble out of the courtyard weeping bitterly. And although John doesn’t tell us how Peter responded when he realized that he had denied the Lord, he does tell us that he did it. Everyone seems to remember that and feel the need to include it in their story; everyone except Peter.

But he does include this other detail, one that I don’t find in any of the other gospel accounts: in Acts 10:36 he says that Jesus came “preaching peace,” which I usually think of as the absence of war, but as you know it can also mean peace between individuals or even peace with God. In fact, that was the title of one of Billy Graham’s bestselling books: Peace with God. He wrote, “I know men who would write a check for a million dollars if they could find peace. Millions are searching for it. But we Christians have found it! It is ours now and forever. We have found the secret of life! When your spouse dies or your children get sick or you lose your job, you can have a peace that you don’t understand. You may have tears at a graveside, but you can have an abiding peace, a quietness.”ii I think

that’s the kind of peace Peter eventually found. He doesn’t include it in his Easter story, but if he hadn’t found it, we might never have heard his Easter story at all.

Mark hints at it. After that terrible thing Peter did to Jesus, after denying him three times, Mark says that when the angel spoke to those women at the tomb he told them to “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Jesus knew that if he didn’t send Peter a special invitation he might not come; he might have felt too guilty about what he had done. And then John spells it out. In one of the most poignant moments in Scripture he tells us about Jesus and Peter going for a walk on the seashore, after Peter had denied him three times and after Jesus had risen from the dead. He says, “Peter, do you love me?” which must have been like a dagger to Peter’s heart. He says, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” But then Jesus asks him again, and again, until you can almost see the tears rolling down Peter’s cheeks. Each time Peter assures Jesus that he loves him, and it’s as I’ve said before: Jesus gives Peter a chance to fill in the enormous hole he has dug for himself with three big shovels full of love. And then he repeats the first thing he ever said to Peter: he says, “Follow me,” reinstating him as a disciple, and restoring their lost friendship.

That’s when Peter found peace with God and for him it may be the best part of the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. Yes, when spring overcomes winter we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. And yes, when life overcomes death, we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. But yes, also, when ruined relationships are resurrected, we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. And that may be the part of the Easter story Peter most wants us to hear.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called The Capital of the World about a boy who had sinned against his father and run away from home. The

father searched all over Spain for him but couldn’t find him. Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper. The ad read: “PACO MEET AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN. —PAPA.” The father prayed that maybe the boy would see the ad and maybe, just maybe, he would come to the Hotel Montana.

On Tuesday, the father arrived well before the appointed time and could not believe his eyes. A squadron of police officers had been called out to keep order among the eight hundred young boys named “Paco” who had come to meet their father in front of the Hotel Montana.iii That’s how much estrangement there is in our world. That’s how much need there is for forgiveness and reconciliation. And it’s part of the good news of Easter: that it’s not only about spring overcoming winter, or life overcoming death, but also about enemies becoming friends.

I wonder if that has anything to do with how many people show up for church on Easter Sunday. Is it like that first truly warm, sunny day of the year? Does it just bring them out of the woodwork? Or is it the idea that life can overcome death: do they simply need to hear that story again, to give them hope? Or is it this: that the Heavenly Father’s love “is as endless as the cycle of the seasons,” as if he had put an ad in the paper saying, “CHILDREN, MEET ME IN CHURCH AT 11:00 ON EASTER SUNDAY MORNING. ALL IS FORGIVEN. –PAPA.” Do we secretly hope, as Peter once hoped, that peace with God is possible? And do we come to church on this Sunday or any Sunday with our ears cocked toward heaven, hoping to hear those words:

“ALL IS FORGIVEN”?

—Jim Somerville © 2024