An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Resurrection Ethics

A sermon on Acts 10: 44-48; 1 John 5: 1-6 & John 15: 9-17 by Nathan Nettleton

They say that the only two things that are absolutely certain in life are death and taxes, but we belong to a tradition of people who believe that even death is not all that certain. Perhaps that makes us the most uncertain people on earth! Or perhaps it makes us the freest! God has raised Jesus from the dead, and is calling us to follow him on the pathway through the depths and up into the promised land of resurrection life. God has raised Jesus from the dead and now even death cannot stand strong and immovable and everlasting. God has raised Jesus from the dead and many of the old certainties which ruled our lives with unyielding power have been broken open or forced to take a back seat to the new realities of life in the emerging reign of the Living Christ.

When Jesus broke free from the grip of death, everything was changed; everything was made new. When Jesus broke free from the grip of death, our old ways of living were rendered irrelevant, things of the past. When Jesus broke free from the grip of death, the old rules we had lived by to carefully hold death at bay and safeguard our acceptability to God were blown apart by the earth-shattering and life-giving power of God’s love. This has revolutionised our understandings of what God wants from us and how we are to relate to one another.

When death still reigned and the powers of evil had not yet met their match in Jesus, religious laws and commandments had a central place in our lives. We needed them to warn us off and guard us against sliding unthinkingly into hardheartedness and callousness and greed. And we needed them to be conservative and cautious enough that they kept us well back from the edges of the slippery slopes. In other words, we needed rules that played it safe and ruled out more than was strictly necessary in order to ensure that we didn’t come within cooee of any avoidable temptation. And so the religious laws that are preserved in our scriptures had tight categories of right and wrong, of pure and impure. In Garry’s sermon last week, he mentioned the rules that kept the Ethiopian eunuch from participating fully in the worship at the Jerusalem Temple. These rules were an example of play-it-safe ethics: interaction with gentiles might expose us to ungodly practices, so play it safe and exclude the gentiles. Interaction with those who are outside the sexual norms might expose us to some dangerous deviance, so play it safe and exclude the eunuchs and the homosexuals and the divorced. Play it safe; keep yourself pure; exclude anyone about whom there is some wiff of possible compromise, and it doesn’t matter if it is only a long-shot guilt by association. Better safe than sorry. The power of evil is far too powerful and subtle to allow any risks, so err on the side of caution and exclude them all.

There are those who would turn Christian faith into just another version of the same approach. They approach every moral decision by looking for a biblical ruling for or against. They usually accept that some of the old purity restrictions from the law of Moses have been overturned by Jesus, but they either play it safe by only relinquishing the ones that are specifically overturned in the New Testament, or they treat the New Testament writings as a replacement set of laws and commandments to be strictly interpreted and carefully applied to every conceivable circumstance. They are equally concerned with the boundaries of purity, and with cautiously avoiding any contact with anything or anyone of suspect purity, lest they be contaminated and their own purity compromised. A couple of the readings we heard tonight offer them some favourite verses with which to justify their approach. In his first letter, the Apostle John says, “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” And in his gospel he reports that Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

But to use such verses as a justification for reading scripture as a strict rule book with an answer for every moral dilemma is to wrench them out of context. For in the gospel, Jesus immediately goes on to say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And in the epistle, John says that the commandments are not burdensome, for the faith that is born of God is victorious over whatever the world can throw at us.

Jesus Christ has not only taught us the way of love, but he has followed the way of love, even when it meant making the ultimate sacrifice in laying down his life for those he loves. And in continuing to love all the way to death, he has broken the power of hatred and death. In rising to new life he has disarmed the powers that enslaved us and held us in the grip of fear. He has set us free from the desperate need to win God’s approval by slavish law-keeping. Now we are free to follow Christ in living life with an exuberant and radically inclusive love. We can love one another generously without having to worry constantly about risks of contamination, because evil no longer has the power to tear us out of God’s hands. We are secure in the love of God, and perfect love has cast out all fear. Now we are made pure by being incorporated into the body of Christ who is righteousness personified, and nothing but our own deliberate rebellion can reverse that.

The implications of this turn-around came as an enormous shock to many in the early church, and we are still working out the full extent of it all now, two thousand years later. You can hear it in the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles:

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Can you hear their shock? If God has broken the rules and started treating the impure the same as the pure, how can we be sure about anything? How are we supposed to know who to exclude now? Where are the lines to be drawn now?

But Peter gives the answer and, in doing so, sets out the basis for the radical new way of doing ethics in the community of the resurrection. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In other words, if God chooses to do new things, then our job is to honour what God is doing, not to try to draw lines around what God should or shouldn’t do. This was the same basis on which we heard of Philip baptising the Ethiopian eunuch last week. Can a gentile be baptised into the membership of the church? Do not withhold baptism from those on whom God has poured out the Holy Spirit. Can a eunuch be baptised into the membership of the church? Do not withhold baptism from those on whom God has poured out the Holy Spirit. What if he’s a homosexual? Are you going to try and tell God who not to pour out the Holy Spirit out on? Jew or gentile; male or female; married, single or divorced; gay, straight or bi; rich or poor; right wing or left wing; wherever God has poured out the Holy Spirit and the fruits of love and prayer are flowering, who are we to withhold love and acceptance? Who are we to withhold baptism?

In Jesus Christ, God is doing things in radically new ways. The fear of death is broken, the powers of evil have been disarmed. We no longer need to live life cautiously protecting ourselves against anything about which we are not absolutely sure. Those things which are different from us or outside our experience need no longer be treated with suspicion. We are now free to live in radical openness to the unlimited scope of the all inclusive love of God. We are free to celebrate with whoever is celebrating the welcome they have found in Christ. And we are free to follow Christ in loving others, openly and generously, and to allow the rest of our moral discernment to flow out of that instead of being dictated by timid legalism.

Christ is risen, and the fear of death is broken. Christ is risen, and the powers of evil have been disarmed. Christ is risen and is coming in glory to remove every trace of corruption from the earth, leaving only that which is born of the Spirit and baptised in God’s love. This is the faith of the church. This is the faith in which we stand. Alleluia!


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