Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Gifts of Easter

1 Peter 1:3-9
Easter 2
April 19, 2020
William G. Carter

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

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, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 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.  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, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Ever notice?  We often mark our big days with the giving and receiving of gifts.

That’s how we mark a birthday. Or an anniversary or a retirement. And it’s also true for the big days of the church. When someone is baptized, we offer a white rose and a Bible. When a teenager’s faith is confirmed, we throw them a party. When Christmas comes, there are so many gifts that it animates the economy.

And then these is Easter. This year, the shopping may have been disrupted. But I’m sure some Easter baskets were filled with jelly beans, marshmallow Peeps, and a chocolate rabbit.

I remember fondly a childhood Easter gift, so early in my life that I don’t remember much else. It was one of these – a 45 rpm record. It looked like this, although the original is long gone. On the record was the theme song to a television cartoon that I liked: The Jetsons. Old-timers like me might remember “Meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy,” and so on.

The music was jazzy. It was thrilling. I must have played it a thousand times. Most of all, it was a gift. I’ve never had an Easter gift quite like that. Maybe a new necktie or a shiny pair of shoes. But that was something special.

Today, I don’t know why that one sticks with me. Perhaps it’s because I’m spending a lot of time talking to a screen as if it’s a phone, just like George Jetson. Some gifts linger in our hearts, even when they are long gone. I don’t know why.

So let me ask you this: what did you get for Easter?

Last Sunday, we received a beautiful day. The weather was nice. The sun was out. It was a bit chilly, but at least there wasn’t any snow. Not like this morning. We did not have any flowers in the church sanctuary, but in my front yard there were daffodils shouting alleluia. They weren’t going to let some silly old pandemic keep them from praising the Lord. That was a gift.

Some of us had the pleasure of conversation with loved ones. One of you told me about enjoying Easter dinner with a daughter and her spouse in Boston. In two separate homes, each set the table and cooked the ham. At the appointed hour, they turned on their iPads, had a prayer, and enjoyed conversation while they ate. Our friend said, “It was a gift.” An Easter gift.

What kind of gifts did you receive for Easter? If you tuned into our worship broadcast, you heard glorious music on the organ. It was just like being there. After the preacher said the final Amen, our wonderful organist Kay pulled out all the stops and cranked up the volume. She played the Widor Toccata flawlessly, an amazing piece in the key of F. Hearts were stirred and spirits were lifted. It reminded us of what we have heard many times and taken for granted. It offered a glimpse of what we can’t wait to enjoy again. When this pandemic is over, maybe we can gather in the sanctuary and receive the music for what it is. It’s a gift.

Can you think of a gift you received for Easter?

There was a sermon. Easter always comes with a sermon. But sermons don’t last very long. Oh, I know, for some of you a sermon might seem endless. If you think they are long, you ought to try preaching one. When I say sermons don’t really last very long, what I mean is they don’t have a shelf life. Like a piece of music, a sermon doesn’t linger in the air. It evaporates. It fades. Perhaps something helpful will be said, and that would be a gift. But then the clouds roll in. Life takes over. Somebody says, “What’s playing on Netflix?”

So let’s pause to welcome a paragraph from Peter’s first letter, our scripture for today. Some scholars think that letter began as a sermon. It was an Easter sermon, in a sense, because every Sunday is a little Easter. This sermon was written down. It was important enough to keep, even before it was collected into a Bible.

The writer calls himself “Peter.” That’s all he says, and assumes we know who he is. What catches my ear is not the author but the audience. He calls them “the exiles in the dispersion.” In other words, he writes to a scattered church, to Christians who are dispersed. They are not together in one place – do you hear that? That sounds like you and me. You and I are scattered for a time. It feels like each of us lives in exile.

And then Peter, whoever he is, begins to talk about the greatest gift of Easter.

He’s not talking about a chocolate bunny, nor a magnificent organ extravaganza, nor time with people we love. No, he points to something bigger, something grander. The gift comes before us all. It lingers to the end of it all. Do you know what it is? The gift of Easter is hope. Hope. Hope is the gift.

What does Peter say about this hope? For one thing, you don’t choose it. It chooses you. It’s like being born. Nobody chooses to be born. Birth is a gift. A seed may be planted. It takes a while to gestate. Then suddenly, there it is. You didn’t ask for this. It comes without any effort on your part. That’s why it is a gift.

And it’s not a disposable gift. Hope is not a battery to keep your light shining. Batteries wear out and are inevitably discarded. Hope is not like that. Peter says we are talking about something imperishable. We may wear out, but hope never wears out. We might wish we had more hope within us, but true hope always comes from outside of us. It’s not dependent on how we feel, or what kind of day we are having. For hope is a gift from God.

Peter calls it “an inheritance.” That is, it’s bequeathed to you and me. As an attorney once observed, there are two conditions for receiving an inheritance. First, somebody must die. Second, our names must be written in the will. For the Christian, Jesus has died. And just think: your name, my name, all our names are written in Christ’s will.

Now, that’s extraordinary. If we poke around in the rest of Peter’s letter, we discover who is included in the inheritance. He writes to women, who were frequently excluded from first century legal matters, including an inheritance. He writes to slaves, those who were indentured, did the hard labor, and could not benefit from the economy. Peter includes those he names as “strangers.” That is how all Christians back then were regarded.

And to these people otherwise regarded as nobodies, Peter says the gift is for you. The inheritance is for you.
It is imperishable. It cannot be changed. It never runs out. For now, it is under lock and key in heaven, guarded by the power of God. The inheritance – the gift – is hope. He calls it a “living hope.”

Now, he’s not talking about optimism. Sometimes we equate hope with looking on the sunny side of life. “Turn that frown upside down.” “Turn those lemons into lemonade.” If only it were that easy, like flicking a switch to make everything better.  

Talk to someone who has been through a pack of trouble. You can’t say to the person who lost everything in a house fire, “Well, it was only a lot of stuff.” No, they are feeling the loss. You can’t say to someone who got a bad medical diagnosis, “Oh, you will be OK.” No, that is still uncertain. It is only when we get through the trouble that our spirits can be lifted again. And then, it won’t be optimism that we feel. It will be relief.  

Yet Peter affirms that, even in the thick of trouble, there is hope, a living hope.

What does he mean? Is Peter reducing hope to endurance? Some of us do that. I confess my own tendency to smooth over somebody else’s difficulty by saying, “hang in there.” Those are thin words. Imagine walking up to the family that has lost their father. Perhaps with this pandemic they haven’t been able to have a proper memorial service. Should you say, “Oh, someday it will all work out,” those who grieve have every right to ask you to step away.

The living hope is something else, something deeper. It comes through the message of Easter. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. The One who suffered and died lives again, never again to die. In that sense, it is Christ who is our living hope. In a broken world like this, we might have every reason to expect things to keep breaking. Yet something happened in a first century graveyard that interrupted the typical pattern decline and destruction. Now it is the brokenness that has been broken. This is the miracle of God.

When we sing that Christ is risen, we affirm there is something greater than our separation and our suffering. When we declare that He lives, we claim that we are living with him. Even in his death, Peter tells us that something greater than death was at work. For as he will say later in his letter,

When Jesus was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free might live for righteousness.  (1 Peter 2:23-24)

This is how Peter believes the word of one of the ancient prophets, “by his wounds you have been healed.” Imagine this: all of us restored, in every dimension of our lives. This is the imperishable hope. It is our God-given inheritance. This is the present-tense work of Easter at work in us. It is how we can rejoice even when times are tough, and we are touched by suffering. Christ is risen from the dead. The brokenness has been broken.

So let me ask you to help me with something. This is a difficult season for us and for many. There are friends, neighbors, and family members who are overwhelmed by what they hear and what they fear. Could you reach out to them? Could you remind them there is so much more to life than the things that make us afraid? Easter is still going on. Easter is at work in us. It is a gift from God, a gift to be received and shared.

For the hope of the Gospel is this: “Although you have not seen Christ, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1:8-9)

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

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