Saturday, April 29, 2017

How Far Can Easter Reach?

Acts 2:36-41
Easter 3
April 30, 2017
William G. Carter

[ Peter stood and said: ] “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

There’s the line that I have always liked: “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” It’s a line from an Easter sermon that the apostle Peter preached on Pentecost day. We have the words in our baptism service. They remind us that the early followers of Jesus baptized adults and their children.

And then comes the reminder of whom the Gospel is intended for: “everyone.”  Everyone whom the Lord our God shall call.

That was the promise on that first Pentecost day. Fifty days after Passover, fifty days after Resurrection weekend, the city of Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. We will hear the story again in a few weeks, when it’s fifty days after Easter for us. But suffice it to say, everyone was there.

Luke gives us quite a list of nations: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia. There are visitors from Rome, Libya, the island of Crete, and most of the known Mediterranean world. All of them are Jews, returning home to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. The apostle Peter is a Jew, and he preaches this Easter sermon.

What he is saying is this: right outside the city wall of Jerusalem, God has raised a Jew named Jesus from the dead. This event is for everyone, everyone whom the Lord our God shall call. I did check and it does say “everyone.” That’s as far as Easter can reach: to everyone.

Well, maybe not. A couple of years ago, I visited Montgomery, Alabama. One afternoon, driving around town, we passed a building that looked like it had once been a church. Indeed it used to be First Presbyterian Church. Formed in 1824, First Presbyterian claimed to be the oldest Christian church in the city of Montgomery. But now that building houses an employment education center run by the Baptists. So what happened to First Presbyterian?

A lot of things, it seems. In 1956, in the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, the elders decreed, “No member of the Negro race (will) be received as a member of our church or seated in the sanctuary for regular worship.” And then they assigned the deacons to stand at the door on Sunday mornings and turn away any African-Americans who wished to attend worship. This is a true story.

The Greyhound bus terminal was right next door. When the Freedom Riders arrived from around the country in 1961, people both black and white, they boarded a public bus at the terminal, only to be dragged off and beaten by racist thugs, some of them wearing uniforms. The Presbyterians did nothing and said even less.[1]

When President Johnson and the congress passed the national civil rights act in 1964, the news took a while to reach Montgomery and First Presbyterian Church. You have to understand, the church building was located about six blocks from the Alabama capital, where George Wallace was the governor, and where Jefferson Davis took the presidential oath for the confederacy. The church was also about nine blocks from Martin Luther King’s home, which blown up twice by white segregationists who were arrested and acquitted. In that city, there was a long heritage there of what the white people called “our way of life.” 

I imagine First Presbyterian Church reflected the values of its members over the preaching of the apostle Peter. It was OK for black people to empty the church garbage cans, but not acceptable to let them sit in their pews.

So the question is how far can Easter reach? Is it really for everyone whom the Lord should call? Or is it only for the people who are already there?

There is a deep cost when a church is exclusive. First Presbyterian Church didn’t think so; that’s probably why they built their steeple to look like a castle. They were going to stand firm against the outside world. When the rest of our denomination decided to open the way for women to become elders, deacons, and pastors, First Presbyterian of Montgomery left to start a new denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America. They believed their calling was to stay pure to the way they read their Bible.

And sadly, their numbers began to drop. In the 1950’s, that downtown church had over two thousand members. When they declined to about 160 people on the membership list, they sold the building to the Baptists who had a flourishing ministry to the homeless and the unemployed. The Presbyterians moved fourteen miles out of town to the eastern suburbs. They held fast to their beliefs, but their numbers continued to drop.

About the time that once proud, wealthy, and large congregation dropped to fifty people, they got a new pastor. The new pastor listened to the sad tale of woe. When a neighbor found out where he was now serving, the neighbor said, “Oh, that’s the church that doesn’t allow in black people.” And the pastor stood up on a Sunday and said, “Brothers and sisters, I think it’s time we went back and read the Bible.” That’s why I am telling you the story.

Anybody who has been around a church learns pretty quickly that no church is perfect. Pastors are not perfect, the people in the congregation are not perfect, and neither do people join together to act or speak in perfect ways. Recently I came across some thoughts from Craig Dykstra, a brilliant Presbyterian educator who recently retired as vice president for the Lilly Endowment (for those who don’t know, that was a big deal job). Before he gave away million dollar grant for Lilly, Craig also served for a while as a pastor, so he knows how churches can be.

Here’s what he said: “A basic reality of congregational life is that we are engaged in socially acceptable (indeed socially celebrated) patterns of mutual self-destruction.”

Yikes! He goes on to say,

The mere presence of the story, vision, and language of the faith is no guarantee that those powerful patterns will be overcome. The (self-destructive) patterns easily survive in congregational life, no matter how much that life may be filled with talk about sin, crucifixion, the love of God, or the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

What’s Dr. Dykstra getting at? That church people like you and I are perfectly capable of hurting one another, and that we probably do so on a regular basis – even when the heart of what we say is that forgiveness is real and peace is possible. Sometimes we do serious harm in the name of God. We think we are right when we’re wrong.

And that’s exactly what brings us to the sermon that the apostle Peter concludes in our text today. In the last line of his sermon, he says, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

This Jesus whom you crucified... With that simple slice of resurrection honesty, Peter’s words provoked a collective gasp, for none of the people who heard him could ever claim that they had done the right thing by pushing Jesus out of the city and onto a cross. And it’s this Jesus, the crucified Jesus, that God has raised from the dead, and everything he did, God is going to continue doing. Everything he said, God is going to continue saying. Everybody he loved, God is going to keep embracing, keep calling, and keep welcoming.

Everybody. And it does say “everybody.”

On Pentecost, Peter’s Easter sermon cut them to the heart. And when First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, Alabama, got a new pastor after they dwindled nearly away and moved fourteen miles out of the city, they started to read the Bible together. The whole Bible, not just their favorite isolated Bible verses, but the whole big complicated Bible that belongs to all of us.

And do you know what happened? The Holy Spirit fell on them, and they were cut to the heart, and with a new unified voice they said, “What can we do?” Even though most of them already knew what they had to do.

To their credit, they read the Bible together. And they read the letter of James, where it declares it is a sin to show preferential treatment to some and not welcome all (James 2). And they read the book of Exodus, where God declares that the sins of the fathers continue through to the sins of the great-grandchildren, that iniquity keeps getting bequeathed to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7) until it is stopped.

And then they affirmed that the Bible teaches that the only way forward from our sin is by turning around, what the Bible calls “repentance.” So last fall, these Presbyterians said,

Be it further resolved, that we hereby repent for our sins and the sins of this Church in previous generations, in general a failing unwillingness to minister the gospel to the community in which our church resides, and in particular sins of racism perpetrated during the Civil Rights era and following, trusting that in Jesus Christ there is rich mercy and cleansing for First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, Alabama...

Be it further resolved, that we will henceforth seek to actively minister to all in our community, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status...[3]

How far can Easter reach? This is a question that does not go away, not now, not ever. And when we hear the question, it must lift our eyes toward the outsiders, toward the people who feel excluded, and shut out, and shunned, and neglected, and ignored. Some of them have been left out for so long that they have given up on the church.

Can Easter reach the outsiders? I certainly hope so, and I am committed to working among you that we step over our own boundaries to welcome all the people that God loves. All of them! I believe Easter has the power to reach the outsiders.

But here’s the question that I ask: do you think Easter can reach the insiders too?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved. 

[2] Quoted by Thomas G. Long in The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989) p. 14.
[3] Read the remarkable statement on the church’s website at Entire resolution is available at

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