|Pastor Steve Molin
Third Sunday of Easter
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the summer of 1975 – back when The Dead Sea was just getting sick, I graduated from seminary and was all set to begin my career as an area director with Young Life in Rochester, Minnesota. So in August, my very pregnant wife and I flew to Colorado Springs to attend the New Staff conference at Young Life’s Trail West Lodge. The first night we were there, we were nervous, sitting in a dining room surrounded by a hundred people and we didn’t know a one of them. But the couple across the table from us seemed really nice. Jeb and Gail were quite a bit older than us and I wondered why someone who was, like, 40, was starting a career in youth ministry. But he had a cool name; “Jeb.” I had never met a Jeb before. And as he and Gail talked about their lives and their family, I realized who he was. Jeb Stuart Magruder was the director of the Committee to Re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972. CREEP, it was called. Jeb Magruder was the mastermind of the plan to break into Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building, which led to the president’s resignation, and a lot of ruined lives in Washington DC, including Jeb’s.
But Jeb’s life wasn’t ruined, because during the 9 months he served in a federal penitentiary, Jeb Magruder came back to faith in Jesus Christ, and he told Marsha and me that he couldn’t go back to politics, he couldn’t even go back to Washington. He knew he had to change, and start living Christianly. Heck, I didn’t even know that was a word, “Christianly.” But what Jeb said is what he did; he served on Young Life staff while completing a seminary degree, and went on to serve as a pastor for 20 years in the Presbyterian Church of the USA.
In these four Sundays of May I am focusing on the First Lesson each week, lessons which are all found in the early chapters of the Book of Acts. These are texts that describe how the followers of Jesus lived in the weeks and years after the resurrection of Jesus. Texts that describe what living “Christianly” meant to them. But more than that, these Bible verses give us a glimpse of how we are also called to live Christianly in the 21st century. Now, as good Lutherans, I shouldn’t even have to tell you that we live under the law of grace. Our sins have been forgiven. Period. End of story. Let me say that again; our sins have been forgiven; the shortcomings of our lives past, present and future have all been erased in the grace of Christ. Living Christianly doesn’t earn us heaven; heaven is a gift. But that doesn’t mean that cavalier lives and corrupt living are allotted to us. To do so would be to cheapen Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. We are his disciples; the ones who follow him, and emulate him, and represent him to a world that is lost. When the world looks at us, do they see any righteousness? Do we emit any fragrance whatsoever that would suggest that we are ambassadors of the Savior? In short, God has called us to live Christianly, and I wonder if the way we live even remotely approaches that description. That’s where I want our focus to be in the coming weeks.
So from today’s lesson, Peter is standing before a very large crowd in the city of Jerusalem, telling the people about Jesus. These people knew who Jesus was; they are people who may have been eyewitnesses to the crucifixion; they may have been the ones who pounded the nails, or who cried out “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” They might have been the ones who hurled insults at him as he died.
And when Peter told them who this was that they crucified, they were astonished. How does Peter say it? “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” And suddenly, they were devastated. In that instant, they realized, perhaps for the first time, what they had done in the previous days; they killed the Messiah and the Savior. The text says “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart….”
Have you ever been cut to the heart because of your sins? I have. When I have recognized that my words have wounded another, it cuts me to the heart. When I realize that I’ve been wrong, that whether it was intentional or accidental, my actions have irreversibly trampled on another person, it cuts me to the heart. In recent years, as I have gotten older, I have come to reflect on the words of that hymn from Johann Heermann that we often sing of Good Friday; Ah, Holy Jesus:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
Have you ever been cut to the heart like that? Because that’s what it takes to turn away from sin and toward Jesus Christ.
It calls for action, doesn’t it? When we recognize the depth of our sin, it calls us to respond somehow. Our friends in any 12-step program would say that we should make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of our lives.” When John the Baptist was asked by people what they should do when the Savior comes, he told them “If you have two tunics, share with those who have none. If you’re a tax collector, don’t collect any more than you are ordered to. If you’re a soldier, don’t extort people.” Always there is change called for. When we recognize our sin, Christ calls us to change our ways. And so when those people from Jerusalem recognized their sin, they cried out to Peter “What should we do?” And Peter gave them the prescription for life: “Repent and be baptized.” To repent doesn’t simply mean to feel badly for one’s sins. It doesn’t even mean to confess one’s sins and say we’re sorry, and then continue the way we lived before. To repent means to change direction; to turn and go the other way.
I suppose for the people in Peter’s audience that day, repenting meant abandoning the silly, nit-picky rules of Judaism that had little to do with loving God and serving neighbor. Changing their legalism for compassion would go against everything they knew of religious life. Trading their pride for humility would mean ridicule and rejection from their friends and family and temple. Yet that’s what it took for them to become followers of Jesus.
For Jeb Magruder, repentance meant leaving behind the circles of influence and affluence that had defined his life in Washington D.C. No longer would he be included in conversations with the power-brokers; indeed, because he repented and told the truth of his illegal activity, he also became among the first to testify against his accomplices. He burned his bridges, but without regret. I love the title of his second book, a book he wrote a couple of years after his departure from the White House, “From Power to Peace.” Who knew that repentance could bring peace? I suspect every one of us who has ever had the courage to turn away from a temptation has had that same epiphany.
But what does it mean for us…for you? It may not have to be as dramatic as Jeb’s repentance, or the transforming change that those first century Christians experienced. For us, our change may come in simpler, more subtle ways; like realizing that we are accountable to God as to how we spend and save and share our money. It might mean cleaning up our language, or cutting out the coarse jokes. Or not having to always be right when it comes to politics, or religion, or parenting. I preached a sermon one Sunday where the point was compromise, and in each bulletin there was a sticky label which said one of two things; either “I’m always right!” or “I might be wrong.” One couple got one of each in their bulletin, and the husband received the one that said “I might be wrong.” He couldn’t wear it, he couldn’t put it on, and he made his wife trade with him.
And let that be the very example for us today; that the very parts of our lives that we refuse to change, the attitudes or actions that we refuse to examine, may be the very qualities that God wants to change in us. Not to humiliate us. Not to restrict the freedom we have in Christ, but to smooth out our rough edges, or to make our actions more consistent with what we say we believe. And that’s the point of living Christianly, isn’t it? To not just recite our faith on Sunday mornings, but to live our faith on Monday, when the pastor’s not watching, or if you’re the pastor and the congregation isn’t watching you. But the world is watching, people: what evidence of the Savior do they see in our lives? Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2011 Steven Molin