Sunday sermon from the Second Sunday in Easter, April 7, 2013
Text: Acts 5:27-32
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
(This sermon was featured on the Day1 Radio Broadcast)
I have a bone to pick with a man named Sam Holbrook.
Now, Sam and I have never met. He wouldn’t know me from Adam. It’s entirely unfair of me to carry around this grudge. And yet here we are, opening week of the 2013 Major League Baseball season and I am still a bit hung up on the way 2012 ended, and it has more than just a bit to do with Sam Holbrook.
Last year, my team, the Atlanta Braves, lost the first one-game playoff series in baseball history. In the eighth inning they were trailing the St. Louis Cardinals 6-3 when Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons lofted an easy fly ball into shallow left field with men already on first and second base. Just as the ball landed unexpectedly – and, one might argue, providentially – on the ground between two apparently confused Cardinals, Holbrook signaled to invoke the Infield Fly Rule. Now, if you don’t know what the Infield Fly Rule is, don’t worry: you are in the company of many a professed fan of the game, and, as our luck would have it, at least one of its umpires. Suffice to say that in Sam Holbrook’s hands, a rule that normally protects the hitting team instead ended Atlanta’s best hope for a rally and, by extension, their season, and so, even with that new season here, I admit that I do carry a bit of a grudge.
Of course I am sure that Sam is a lovely man with whom I would get along smashingly were our paths to cross in any other circumstance. Which is why it’s vitally important that we not actually meet: the part of me that nurses this grudge, the part of me that wears it proudly as a badge of fandom, the part of me that could just as easily show you the dozen other wounds that twenty-odd-years of Braves baseball have inflicted: that part of me needs an occasional villain, and, until further notice, Sam Holbrook will do nicely. On the other hand, last weekend was Opening Day: when the entire league, for one brief moment, is tied for first place; when the smells of stadium hot dogs and possibility waft across the grandstand; when even that most perennial non-contender fixes its gaze upon a summertime of what might yet happen. Opening Day bursts with our most fervent hopefulness, and so this grudge I bear does seem contrary to the spirit of the season. It does seem woefully out of place, and so it is hard to avoid the suspicion that in having this grudge I am somehow doing it all wrong, that Opening Day has once again offered me the joyful gift of possibility and instead I just can’t let go of the past.
Last weekend was also Easter, the original season of hope and possibility. The women came to the tomb, and the stone was rolled away, but despite that most excited whisper in the air, our text today finds Peter with his own bone to pick. The disciples have been dragged before the council of Jewish high priests for working and preaching and healing in Jesus’s name, and the Sanhedrin is not exactly in an excited mood: We told you not to do that. But you just couldn’t help yourselves, could you? And Peter’s reply is very simple, and very much to the point: Our allegiance is to God and not to any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus! And that might very well have been the end of the argument. But Peter’s got a bone to pick. Even with the full power of the spirit of Pentecost alive in the city, even with the angel of God having only moments ago stood before Peter to free him from his prison chains, Peter can’t quite get into the spirit of the season, he can’t quite let the past go. He says: God raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.
Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. Now, we might have cause to dispute Peter on the facts of the case. The Luke-Acts account of the Passion has more than enough blame to go around: Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin, yes, but also betrayed by Judas, and victimized by Pilate, and demonized by the crowd — not to mention denied by Peter himself. For him to now stand before the council and accuse them of a singular role in Jesus’s death would seem to demand not only daring but a certain amount of strategic amnesia. But then again, any fan knows never to let the facts get in the way of a good grudge. Every wound needs a villain, and by this point in Acts, the Sanhedrin will do nicely. It’s convenient, of course, that by fixing blame Peter distracts attention from the mercilessly bureaucratic Passion story that Luke tells: it’s convenient to name one villain when the alternative would be to name everybody, and Peter has no more interest in unpacking this complex web of responsibility than I do in sifting through the errors, miscues, and missed opportunities that left my Atlanta Braves pitting their miracle hopes on a routine fly ball. So we might dispute Peter on the facts. But doing so will get us nowhere near the heart of the matter.
No, the question instead is this: why can’t he move on? Doesn’t he believe? Easter is here, and the full force of the Gospel with it. Peter’s own words lay it out as clear as daylight: God raised up Jesus that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Repentance! Forgiveness! Everything a new creation! — except you guys. You killed him by hanging him on a tree. Why can’t he move on? For that matter, why can’t I? Opening Day is here, the young season alive with possibility, but mine is a hope calloused by age, wisdom, and the brokenhearted aftermath of the Infield Fly. What would it take for me to believe? What would it take for us? Easter is here, the young season alive with possibility, but ours too is a calloused hope: the winter too long with us, a world too long with us, a world strewn with anger, bitterness, regret, a world where the wounds of every bygone season fester and linger. You killed him by hanging him on a tree! And through the pages of time I want to shout, “Peter, he rose from the dead! Why can’t you move on? Peter, he preached forgiveness! Why can’t you forgive?” But I, too, have a bone to pick: with disease and despair. With injustice and intolerance. With heartache and loneliness. I carry this grudge against the brokenness of the world, and I know you carry it, too. So on this second Sunday of Easter, with the full chorus of Hallelujahs still echoing in the rafters, maybe we can’t just let go, and maybe we can’t just move on, and maybe we can’t just, can’t quite, believe.
So instead of demonizing Peter for his little outburst, I wonder whether we might find comfort in knowing that he is just as wounded as we are. Even though he had witnessed the resurrected Christ, and even though he had stood before the Pentecostal flame, our story today finds Peter still capable of this all-too-human moment of blame-mongering. He’s wearing his wounds on his sleeve. I wonder if we might find comfort here, knowing that even Peter doesn’t always act like a Saint. And more still: after all, in our Gospel text from today, it is the wounds in Jesus’s hands that reveal him to the incredulous Thomas, wounds that make it clear that even the Resurrection doesn’t wipe away the past. Jesus stands before them with his wounds still intact. Peter stands before the Sanhedrin with his wounds still intact. And now we who can’t quite let go, we who can’t quite move on, we who can’t quite believe, we too stand before God with our wounds still intact and we do so in good company. God has always called wounded people. God has always loved wounded people.
But this story is yet about something bigger than comfort. At the end of the day, it’s Peter’s confession – “We must obey God rather than any human authority” – that echoes through the season, a reminder that the Eastertide power of God is bigger, mightier, more intractable and steadfast than anything we have to offer, even our most persistent wounds, even our most persistent disbelief. God’s authority is the first and last Word: God who became flesh, God who rose from the grave, God who left the tomb open for the world to see. At Easter, God not only offers hope to our wounds; God becomes hope; God lives as the hope that vanquished death itself. So bear your grudges as you may, bear your disbelief as you may, bear your wounds as you may: we bear them in good company, with Peter and the first disciples, with every trace of Christendom that gathers around the cross. They are the wounds that mark us as children of creation. But they will not bind us! For even when we are bound to despair, God is hope! And even when we are bound to hatred, God is forgiveness! And even when we are bound to disbelief, and even when we are bound to decay, and even when we are bound to death, God is alive! Christ is risen! The stone has been rolled away! Thank God for opening day!
I still have a bone to pick with the Infield Fly Rule, and I’m not the only one. If you had walked through the concourse at the Braves opener last Monday you would have seen people wearing all manner of “Worst Call Ever” t-shirts. Being a fan means living this faithful paradox that embraces the hopefulness of the new season while wearing last season’s wounds on your sleeve. And the truth is that the Braves have a good team this year; possibilities are sky-high; all grudges aside, there are folks all around the league who really believe this could be our year. But for lots of teams, hopes are not so high. Expectations are not so optimistic. After years of incompetence, mismanagement, or sheer mediocrity there are any number of teams whose fans can only watch with their eyes closed, their hopes long since withered away. But you never know. Anything could happen! That’s the miracle of opening day: even when nobody believes, there’s still hope!