This academic year I have had the joy of being the intern at All Saints’ United Methodist Church. This is the sermon I preached at All Saints’ Easter Sunrise service.
Luke 24:1-12 Acts 10:34-43
Why are you here this morning? What brings you to this place when you could still be sleeping? Have you come with spices to cover the stench of death? Did you remember his words and come with hope? This man, Son of God, LORD, the one who is said to be the Messiah, was killed. And not just killed, crucified on a Roman cross; a warning to any who might dare to walk in a similar path. The women in our Gospel reading are at the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body with spices and ointments. He was their leader and friend, it’s the least they can do. But they find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty and they’re met by some questioning angels: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He’s not here, but has risen” (Lk. 24:5). The two figures remind the women of Jesus’ own prediction of these events, and the women hurry back to share the astonishing news with the other disciples. The disciples thought all this was an “idle tale,” which is a nice way to translate a word meaning garbage or a load of crap. They thought the women had lost their minds. But Peter got up, ran to the tomb, and seeing it just as the women described it, he went home amazed.
Did you notice what, or who, is missing from this wonderful story? Jesus. It would’ve been nice if the angels had said, “Hey, he’s not here, he’s risen and went down to fish at the Sea of Galilee” or “He’s eating with his favorite tax collectors and sinners.” As much as we or the women might want those details—He is risen—is all we get. This is good news—Jesus isn’t trapped by the bonds of death, he’s risen and gone from this tomb that can’t contain his life. The life of all of creation hinges on this statement—He is risen. We, Christians, believe that because God raised Christ from the dead, we too will be raised to life eternal. That’s part of the joy we celebrate today, but only part.
Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just about us getting to live forever with God. Jesus’ resurrection changed all of creation, whether anyone notices. The resurrection is God’s defiant “no” to death. God’s refusal to let anything but life have the final word. But, again, it’s not just for us. No one hangs out at the empty tomb—waiting for Jesus to return or their own resurrection. The women return to tell the disciples and Peter goes home amazed.
Which brings us to our Reading from Acts. Peter’s sermon as great as it is, gets dropped on us with no context. There’s a rule that you should never preach from more than one text. There’s also a rule that the dead aren’t supposed to come back to life. So, I’m going to follow Jesus’ lead on this one. The story goes, there was a Roman centurion, named Cornelius, he was a devout man and feared God; he even prayed and gave money to the poor. Pretty good guy. But, he’s a Gentile, not a Jew, and so he’s outside of the group of God’s people. In a vision, God tells Cornelius to go find Peter.
The next day, Peter was praying and he got a little hungry. While he was cooking, Peter had a vision of his own. A table cloth floated down from heaven with all kinds of creatures on it: maybe some cows, duck, pig, alligator, lobster. And a voice said, “Get up Peter; kill and eat.” Peter defiantly responds, “No, Lord, I’ve never eaten anything that’s unclean.” Remember, the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) contains the law: how the covenant between God and Israel should be lived out. Food was part of this way of life. Jews, to this day, don’t eat pork, shellfish, or cheeseburgers (no meat and dairy together). We might call these laws obscure and pointless, but the law set Israel apart as the people of God. So, when Peter sees all the animals and is told to eat them, we shouldn’t be surprised at his refusal. I like to imagine God saying, “Hey Peter, why don’t you try a little lobster tail or a cheeseburger? Or how ‘bout a couple of pork ribs, I’ve got some barbeque sauce that will knock you off your feet.” Peter responds, “Uh, God, have you read the Torah lately? Not supposed to touch that stuff.” But the voice has the trump card: “What God has made clean, you shouldn’t call unclean.” Peter has this vision three times. Maybe we should be proud of Peter, here. He denied Jesus three times, at least he’s standing up for what he believes in. We leave Peter, puzzled by the vision, maybe even amazed.
Finally, Peter (a Jew) meets Cornelius (a Gentile) and the vision clicks. Peter says, I get it, God doesn’t play favorites. Peter reminds Cornelius of God’s sending of Jesus Christ who preached peace and is Lord over all. How God anointed Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed. Remember all the people who were healed; all the people Jesus hung out with against every accepted norm? At the beginning of his ministry Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk. 4:18-19). Peter goes on, ‘But they put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and he appeared to us, chosen as witnesses. And he ate and drank with us after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach about him and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through his name.’
This sermon is anything but routine. This Son of God, took on our flesh as a Jew, ate with the wrong people, taught about a new kingdom where the lowly are raised up, and those imprisoned by bars, sickness or other abnormalities are set free. For all this he was hung on a tree, and according to Jewish law he should be cursed. But God raised him and Peter knew it was Jesus when they shared a meal. Jesus, unjustly killed and deserted by his closest friends, invited them to a table to share a meal, communion. Through a vision of food, Peter now realizes that in Christ no on is barred from the table. Food laws no longer separate Jew from Gentile, Peter from Cornelius. The new life that comes out of the resurrection wasn’t only for Peter; anyone is welcome at this Easter dinner, even Gentiles, even us.
As much as we may want to be Peter in this story, we’re Cornelius. We’re gentiles, who were previously not part of God’s chosen people. But Jesus has invited us to eat the bread of life. We gather around this Common Table and share the bread and the cup, here only by the graceful invitation of our risen Lord. At this table there are no divisions we are one body. All our other tables and meals are supposed to be shaped by this table, this meal.
But this meal of communion and reconciliation—this Easter feast—has often become a way to separate and exclude. Church tables and dinner tables become sites of division and death, rather than communion and life. Sure, we eat with others, but mostly those who look, think, and act like us; this is the way of the world. How can we proclaim the joy of the resurrection if our tables don’t witness to it? Under a recent Durham city ordinance, people are now fined for asking for money on street corners. The Supreme Court heard two cases last week about the future of marriage equality in this country. On the Tuesday of Holy Week—a North Carolina state senator pushed a bill through committee that would resume executions in North Carolina, and supporters, our brothers and sisters in Christ, used the cross to justify this action.
The common strand in these stories is exclusion. We exclude people from street corners, relationships, and life itself; they’re left outside the communion feast of life. This isn’t necessarily done out of malice, but out of our own desire for comfort and safety. We can exclude by accident or out of ignorance, we just don’t notice those people. But by excluding some who we mark as undeserving, we might just deceive ourselves into thinking we deserve a seat at this table. We forget that we would be dead in our own tombs if not for the glory of the resurrection, excluded from sharing in this banquet if all foods are not clean.
But thanks be to God who raised his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, knocking down the dividing wall of death that would keep us from communion with him and one another. Thanks be to God, who called all foods clean and invited us to be part of the people of God. We, like Peter and the Women, can’t hang around the empty tomb waiting for Jesus. He is not here, he is risen! And he waits for us at tables full of joy and life and delicious food, surrounded by people we didn’t choose and who don’t deserve to be there. Thanks be to God!