Connecting with Bible Literacy at Easter

Sermon, First Presbyterian Church, Skaneateles, April 11, 2021

This second week of Easter, with Holy Week fresh in our minds, we’re still thinking about what the resurrection of Jesus means for each of us personally, today. Last week Pastor Carson challenged us to live joyfully, to look at what talents we each have been gifted with, and fearlessly put our gifts to use serving the needs of the community. We need guidance to do this and we have guidance. No, not another committee. Scripture.

We all need to keep learning. Jesus let us know we have to work at deepening both our understanding and our practice. Jesus’ farming parables emphasize this. First the seed, then the blade, then the ear, and then the corn in the ear. Christian life takes time and continuous Christian education. We till and tend the ground as gardeners and farmers of our soul. Then God does the work of bringing the harvest.

Our own Christian learning has to be rooted in scripture. Not the history of scripture, nor reading about scripture or what others have to say about scripture. While these are all good, scripture itself is the more powerful teacher.

Last week we started to return to using the full Presbyterian lectionary on Sunday; three readings and a responsorial Psalm. Each week our Presbyterian lectionary gives us four carefully selected readings. They are always connected. Each of the four readings sheds light on the others. Connecting the readings helps us see more than the plotline and message of the individual readings. Individual readings are good. Connected readings are very good. Jesus often taught scripture by making connections. This is another way we can follow in Jesus’s footsteps.

I am grateful for many things about my mother. Especially for reading to me. An especially happy memory was her reading stories from Jack and Jill magazine to me when I was little. I sat on her lap and while Mom read the stories, my eyes followed along. I began to recognize that the little groups of letters went along with sounds. The sounds made words, and the words told stories full of meaning and magic.

The Bible is similar. With the Bible, the stories, the parables, the rituals and the rules are actually the letters. Like learning to read any language, we first learn these Bible ABCs, the stories. The basics. The alphabet. With more time, we start to recognize the groupings, the connections, the themes. We start to move closer to understanding the word. The “Capital W Word.” Full Bible literacy builds on, then goes beyond the letter, beyond the ABCs. Many adults in this sense are Bible illiterate. Many of us were taught to read only on the surface and we get stuck on the ABC’s.

Jesus wasn’t stuck on using just one teaching method. Jesus taught using words. He used stories - parables. Jesus taught by actions, like the prophets. Even to submitting to the death of his body on a wooden cross.

Jesus also made many scripture connections to explain meanings hidden in the Old Testament. It was a favorite teaching method. Jesus often taught, “You have heard it said, but I say to you...” And Jesus would then say something startlingly new. This wasn’t to contradict the Torah, but to unfold richer meaning. Jesus took the rules and lessons of the Old Testament and connected them to the life and troubles of His own community - Who is your neighbor? Who was the good Samaritan? Which tree bore fruit? Jesus’ connections open up and amplify the Old Testament lessons. Jesus’ connections break down the walls of our own understanding and guide us toward our transformation into joyful sons and daughters of God. Here, in this world, in this life.

Each of our readings this morning, if taken individually, is inspirational. But as a connected set, each selection helps unfold the meaning of the others. Today’s readings teach us what’s available to us here on earth now that Jesus has ascended. It announces the good news of the incredible power and joy immediately available when we turn our lives over to God. When we break out of the prison of our own self, our body, our fears, our hurts, our “stuff.”

We know that immediately after the crucifixion, Jesus’ Jewish followers were huddled together, hiding behind locked doors, scared to death of being found by the Sanhedrin and the temple police. Our reading from acts comes a bit later. We read, “With great power the Apostles gave their testimony”, and, “great grace was upon them all.” The believers are now released from fear. Wow. Great power, great grace. Fearless. No longer defined by what they have or where they stand in life. These are transformed people living fearlessly in unity and in joy. Joy and power here in this life.

One way to read our passage from Acts is as economics, a call to redistribute private property. The disciples sold what they owned and everything was held by the community. Early communism? I see it another way. It’s a statement of the immediate fruit of a new spirit of freedom and unity, the feeling of oneness now at work in the believers. They’ve broken the bonds of “going it alone,” they’ve shed the illusion of needing to be in control of everything. There’s a new freedom in looking beyond the needs and fears we each hold ourselves, and looking at the needs and concerns of God’s creation and community. It’s easy to hide inside ourselves and our concerns. We can be blind to others around us. We can be too trapped to walk in other’s shoes, to love others as ourselves. Releasing those personal needs can free us.

Was this temporary madness or a new, Christian economic plan? Connecting with the other readings in this week’s lectionary gives us some perspective. Psalm 133 tells us how good, how pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. Not in our own world, but in unity with others. Good feelings overflow like precious anointing oil flowing so freely it runs down our collar and spills over our best clothes. And it’s free as well as abundant, like the dewfall on the mountain of God. And this feeling of happiness isn’t fake; this joy accompanies our Lord’s blessing which is life forevermore.

This makes me think about the way we struggle for possessions, for recognition, for security, for creating our own meaning in our lives. Maybe the trap is being trapped in our own selves. Maybe we need to break our ego shell and live in unity with what’s outside our own self - with God and with God’s creatures and creation. As our readings unfold we see that yes, this is a radical thought, but, hey, Jesus was a radical guy!

Our readings describe the joy and fearlessness the Christian way of living gives in the real world. Get out of yourself for immediate payoff today.

John’s letter spells it out for us. This simple truth is worth making noise about. Being a Christian is letting go. Release. Letting go of fakery. The need to impress. The need to have a reputation of being “good.” The Christian life is being. Joyful being. The folks in Acts were so full of joy they could let things go!

Our reading from the epistle 1st John adds another thought to this theme. How do we reach this freedom and joy in unity, this complete joy of community? It’s letting go of our selfishness, our ego. It’s also the release of forgiving. Releasing the sins and hurts we hang on to - both our sins and hurts — and those of others who have hurt us.

In that locked upper room, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples. As he breathed the spirit on them, Jesus gave the power to forgive or retain sin directly to the believers. Was Jesus giving them the power to judge? Or is this a warning that sins we hang onto, sins we don’t forgive stay with us and fester? Think about it: “Whosoever’s sin you forgive, it is forgiven them.” Released. “Whosoever’s sin you retain, it is retained.” You’re stuck with it.

Unforgiven sin — our own or others’ — remains. It echoes, it weighs us down in our hearts. We hold onto it. God forgives and completely erases repented sin from the sinner. But we who have been sinned against also have to release those who sinned against us. Forgiveness is more subtle than we think. And it has more power than we think.

Our connected scripture readings today have an important message for us on the joy of release. Release from attachments, release from our fears, release from holding on to scars, old injuries inflicted on us by others. We know these can become prison walls of our minds, the prisons Jesus wants us released from. God forgives freely. We are taught to release as God releases. Set the prisoner free.

Think about our old friend “Doubting Thomas.” He was locked into his own world view, the one that says “I can only trust what I can see and touch.” He was trapped inside himself. Jesus invited him to step forward, to brave the walls, and finally to trust in something beyond his own self and senses. It’s the eternal call to break out of ourselves and live in and with the whole of divine Creation, not just our own little cell.

Yes, Thomas had doubts. Jesus was kind to Thomas as he is kind to us. Many of us have doubts from time to time. Events test our faith. Times are difficult and discouraging. Jesus asks us to reach out and touch him. Good advice. Good offer. Sit down, sit back, release yourself. Stop struggling. Reach out for Jesus. Touch him. And let him touch you and strengthen you.

When I was young I learned to read the English language as my mother read me Jack and Jill. When I was a little older, I learned Judaism by reading the Old Testament. I didn’t know it then but I was learning the basics, the ABC’s of God’s language. Now, as a Christian learning every day from Jesus’ teaching, connecting the whole experience, I’m starting to learn the joy and release of living God’s Word.