Risen Week 4 - "Cornerstone"
This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks--a sermon series entitled, "Risen."
We've been struggling with an important question each week during this series--a question that anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ needs to be answering on a daily basis.
Here's the question: "Jesus is risen... now what?" Do we celebrate Easter as a one off event, and then just go back to business as usual for the rest of the year? Or is there something more?
What does it mean that Jesus is risen? What does it mean for you and me? For the church? For all of Creation? This has been at the heart of our study for the past month--a study that we're going to conclude today.
I'm actually going to go directly to our text this morning. So if you have your Bibles, go ahead and open them to Acts 4:5-12. This story is actually the continuation of the story we explored last week. Peter and John, two of the original disciples of Jesus, had just healed a beggar who had never been able to walk.
So, naturally, people freaked out, and wanted to know how they did it. So they told them it was because of Jesus. And so naturally, the religious powers-that-be took notice. After all, the religious powers-that-be were the ones who got rid of Jesus in the first place.
So here's what we find in Acts 4:5-12
5 The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is
“‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the cornerstone.’
12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Okay, can I just say again that these are the very people who had Jesus executed? I should qualify that a bit. Some of the people in this group, which was known as the Sanhedrin, were not present during Jesus farce of a trial about 60 days before this. The high priest and his cronies made sure of that. The group that Peter and John stand before in this story are almost certainly all of the members, some of whom would have never been a part of Jesus' execution.
Still, Peter comes correct doesn't he?
And then there's this. When he starts talking about Jesus being raised from the dead, he is actually touching a very hot button for the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was made up of essentially two different religious sects--the Sadducees and Pharisees.
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They did not believe that anyone would be raised from the dead at the end of all things. They pretty much just believed that the end of all things was the end of all things.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the resurrection, which made them a bit more popular with the unwashed masses than the Sadducees were. Because they were more popular, they tended to lord their position over people, which is what Jesus was always beating them up about.
So when Peter hits this group with the whole resurrection thing, it's actually a stroke of genius. Because it puts them at odds with one another right off the bat.
Which makes them ask this very important question: "By what power or what name do you do this?" The reason why this question was so important is because in the ancient world everything came down to questions of authority--whoever seemed to be wielding it needed to be conformed to societal and religious norms--if not, they had to prove themselves.
Peter doesn't miss a beat. He replies, "By the name of Jesus whom YOU crucified." He then goes on to quote some Scripture, but not just any Scripture. Peter quotes Psalm 118 to the Sanhedrin. Psalm 118 was a song of the Temple, you sang it when you were going to worship. It was also a song that signified victory--as in God's victory of his opponents, evil in the world, etc.
What Peter is quoting here is directly from this Psalm--"the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone..." In other words, those who were building tossed out a stone that was gathered to be used in the construction because it was too malformed, not neat, not perfect. And then after all is said and done, the builders realized that it was the one stone that was needed in order to complete the building properly.
And Peter is making no mistake that his remarks are being connected to the Temple, and to building as in building the Temple, but not the Temple, a new Temple, which in his later letters Peter referred to as a "temple not made with hands..."
Then as if that wasn't enough Peter goes on to add this:
"There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." Interestingly, this quote is something that people regularly said in the first century--about Caesar.
Just 60 days prior to this moment some of the members of the Sanhedrin were present when Pontius Pilate pointed to Jesus who was standing in front of a crowd, beaten, scouraged, bloody and maimed, and he said to them, "Here is your king." To which the people, the priests and the ruling council members who were there replied, "We have no king but Caesar."
Peter essentially reminds them all of that moment with is comments, but there's something deeper and more groundbreaking to what he says than merely pissing off the Sanhedrin.
He believed it. He believed that the only way to God was Jesus.
And this, my friends, leads us to the very next step in our struggle to determine why the risen Jesus is so important.
People give up on Christianity for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes they give up because they've been hurt by the church. I get that. I have talked to more than my fair share of people who share horror stories of mean church members, hypocritical pastors, you name it.
There was a young woman in my former church who came to be part of our college ministry for a while. She had grown up in one of the local Baptist churches for as long as she could remember. She got pregnant out of wedlock, and found out pretty quickly that the fine upstanding citizens who attended her church, the very ones who had always thought she was so cute and sweet when she was little, wanted nothing to do with her once she got knocked up. So she left the church. And eventually walked away from any semblance of a vibrant faith.
She got hurt.
People also stop going to church because of things they read in the Bible that makes them feel as though they can't possibly accept any of it. They'll say things like, "There is absolutely no archaelogical or historical evidence that there were ever Jews in ancient Egypt." Or they'll sketch out the dimensions of Noah's Ark and realize that there is no way that every species of animal, insect, bird or reptile would fit in it. Or they'll say, "The Bible says that people lived to be 800-900 years old, but there is no evidence anywhere to back that claim up.
So instead of finding people who they can talk about these things with who aren't afraid of questions, they keep their questions to themselves and just walk away.
Sometimes bad theology causes people to give up on Christianity. Maybe they were taught really idiotic things about what it means to be a Christian. I was taught that when women wore pants they were sinning. I was also taught that when Jesus drank wine it turned into grape juice.
This kind of idiotic theology is the kind that some people say was the reason they gave up on Christianity because their basic common sense told them it was b.s.
Here's the thing. These are dumb reasons to give up on Christianity. If one of these was your reason, you need to come back. Because there is so much more to Christianity than that.
But this one... the phrase that Peter uttered to the Sanhedrin... it's tougher.
"Only Jesus." The only way to God is if you believe what the Bible teaches bout Jesus. That's a tougher sell for a lot of people. And you know what? That's one that I would actually admit is not a dumb reason for giving up on being a Christian. Because that reason is the one reason that requires something deeper from you than just assent to an idea or an interpretation.
This is the part of Christianity that you kind of have to accept if you want to be called a Christian.
So if you or someone you know struggles with this--let me share a couple of things with you to help you see things a bit more clearly.
If we fast forward to the 15th chapter of the book of Acts--some twenty years after this story from Acts 4 we find the first church business meeting. Some of you might be thinking that church business meetings might be a valid reason for giving up on Christianity. I might actually agree with you.
So there's this meeting going on and in the meeting a debate ensues about what it means to be truly Christian. Most of the Christians at that time were Jewish, but there were missionaries like Peter and Paul who had encountered non-Jews who received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and accepted that Jesus was the only way to God. Some Christians thought that the only way that these people could be real Christians is if they converted to Judaism, which would require among other things a little surgery for the guys.
In the middle of that meeting a group of Pharisees stand up.
Pharisees. These were the people who opposed Jesus, falsely accused him, plotted against him, and had him killed. These were the people who bore the brunt of most of Jesus ire in his sermons against overly-religious people.
And yet, here twenty years later there are a bunch of Pharisees in the church. How? Here's what I think. They met people who knew Jesus. They talked with people who had seen him killed. They sat around tables with people who had seen him after he was raised from the dead.
And they believed it all.
When someone says that they are going to be killed, but then raised from the dead and then it happens---you trust what that person is teaching. And if that person says that he is the "way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to Father" accept through him. You believe it.
Because deep inside you feel it, you know it's true.
Then in the same business meeting James, the brother of Jesus stands up and speaks. James--the brother of Jesus. He was never mentioned by name in the Gospels, only that he was among the brothers of Jesus who mocked him and did not believe him before he was crucified.
Then he saw him. And he believed it all.
Historians agree that it doesn't make sense that Christianity spread as it did. It's not logical based on the claims that it made, and the seemingly narrow and exclusive message that it offered that you could only get to God through Jesus. But it did. Because people encountered Jesus through his followers. Their lives were transformed and then their lives backed up their claim that resurrection wasn't just a nice idea--it was a reality that changed all other realities.
And these people--hundreds of thousands of them--died for this belief... that there is "no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved..."
Some people say "That's not fair! It's exclusive! God loves everyone--surely he wouldn't make such a narrow claim, to only save through Jesus."
It's only an exclusive claim--if it furthers the agenda of the person making it. If some pastor some where in your past pounded you over the head with this claim so that you would tithe, or volunteer, or walk down some aisle to be baptized---that was an exclusive claim.
That friend you have--the one that goes to that particular church and always goes on about all of the unsaved people who just need to believe in Jesus, but then seems to revel in the fact that they don't and will go to hell... yeah, that friend is making an exclusive claim.
But when you say that the God who loves the world, the God who created and called it good the God who went to the very bitter end to rescue you and me and everybody--when you declare that God saves through Jesus. That's not exclusive at all--it's inclusive, open, incredible beyond belief.
I love the image that Peter lifted up to the Sanhedrin when he quoted Psalm 118. The image of the builders coming to the end of their building project and then discovering that the one stone they need to finish it--the one that fits perfectly is the one they tossed aside earlier because it wasn't what they wanted at the time. That's a beautiful image for what it means that God saves through Jesus, that Jesus is the way, that there is no other name under heaven whereby you must be saved.
Listen, I don't know the details. I'm not God. I don't know how God saves exactly but I know he saves through Jesus alone.
And I know this because it's something I believe we've all been hard wired to know at some level. Within every human being is a missing piece, a stone that they need to complete building. And they know they need it. We all know we need it. No matter who you are, where you came from, what religion you were taught... You know this.
I want to show a video that helps visualize what I mean:
Listen to me. As surely as these children knew their mothers, you know this. The missing piece, the stone that you need, that hole in your life you long to fill, the desires of your heart that you can't explain.
It's Jesus. You know this, beloved. It's only Jesus.
Because Jesus is the very center of a risen life.