Acts 2:14a, 22-32/ Psalm 30
Self confidence is a wonderful thing. It's a quality we admire in politicians and others in public office. It's good as long as it's not based on that smugness that some folk tend to carry around with them. You know the sort of thing - I'm the original self-made man. Everything I have and everything I surround myself with has been earned through hard graft. I don't need the crutch of a God to lean on, I don't owe him anything. I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself, thank you very much.
There's a lot of folk who think that way; for whom life has somehow smiled favorably and given them everything they could want - good job, faithful and loving partner, nice house, well-behaved children - try telling them of a God who can give them so much if they will only put their faith in Him, and they will turn round and say simply 'Why?'. Why add a burden and responsibility to their lives when there doesn't seem to be a need that requires meeting.
Of course there are needs; they're beneath the surface, and they'll have to be dealt with eventually.
There's another kind of self confidence though, and this is sometimes seen in Christians. It's the self-confidence that says that 'With God on my side nothing can go wrong.' It's often based on past experience of God's goodness and the anticipation that God will continue it, but it's self-confidence non-the-less. It's a riding along on a crest of spirituality sort of confidence, which refuses to believe that life can be anything other than rosy now that I've become a Christian.
There are three periods in the average life when this temptation can become a problem; in youth after the first thrill of conversion; in middle age when life settles down to an ordered routine; and in early old age, when one is tempted to take the easy and more comfortable road. This is just as dangerous as the first example, for when things seem to go wrong in our lives; when, if you like, the carpet is pulled out from under our feet, we are left to ponder on just who our confidence has it's roots firmly seated in, self or God.
Which brings us to our first reading from Psalm 30
On first reading, a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from a danger that threatened David's life. But in the middle a reminder that his downfall was centred on overconfidence. He'd forgotten that God's care was not based on his merit but on God's grace. An overconfidence, a cockiness that needed removing. And when it was, when David found himself in mortal danger, he remembered from where his confidence originally came, and turned to God in prayer and praise.
A simple message, and one which links in with our second reading; the more we remember the source of our confidence and hope, and turn to prayer and praise, the less likely we are to lapse into complacency and self-confidence.
ACTS 2:14a, 22-32
What does Easter actually mean to us? Does it conjure up any particular emotions, removed as we are by so many centuries from the original event? Do we observe the Church's calendar and remember Maundy Thursday with the story of Jesus meeting together around that final meal with his disciples. How does Good Friday affect us - the horror of that cruel and sadistic death on a cross, the emotions of those friends and the family of Jesus as the stood at a distance and felt so helpless as they watched his final few hours. Then the joy of Easter and the body no longer in the tomb, despite the boulder and a guard posted to keep troublemakers away.
Certainly the world at large seems to find the whole thing a bit of an inconvenience. Shops are happy enough to open over the holiday period, and in fact I've noticed one or two actually carrying notices apologising for the fact that they're not open on Easter Sunday.
Do we now live in a society which has to apologise for its Christian heritage, and where do we stand when it comes to explaining to those outside the church why it's so important that the message of Easter remains forever an essential part of our faith?
What have we got to do to get this message across?
Peter had no doubts as to the message he wanted to get across, and he was happy to stand up and shout it to whoever would listen. Clearing his throat he strikes up the familiar authoritative language of the Davidic tradition to speak his message of the risen Christ. And he doesn't mince his words when he gets going, telling his hearers in no uncertain terms that as far as he's concerned they're as much to blame for the death of Jesus as the very people who pronounced him guilty and drove the nails through his wrists.
"This man, who was put into your power by the deliberate intention and foreknowledge of God, you took and had crucified and killed by men outside the law."
Do you see how Peter is trying to make those listeners stand up and take notice, to feel themselves included with the guilt of those who abused the law in order to rid themselves of one so-called dangerous man.
This very forceful message seems to have had its effect on the crowd, because we read later in the chapter that 'Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles 'What are we to do, brothers?'
But is this the sort of message that would be as effective today? Would there be any point in me or any other preacher standing here, banging my fist down hard on the pulpit, raising my voice to fever pitch and condemning us all as implicated in the unjust death of Jesus. Other than waking up any snoozers, it probably wouldn't have much lasting effect.
There's a lovely story within those many fables written by Aesop which is worth reminding ourselves of at his point . It's called the North Wind and the Sun, and goes something like this.
"The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the winner who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind tried his power and blew with all his might; but the keener his blasts, the closer the traveller wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do.
The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The traveller no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path. Persuasion is better than force.
The Sun's warm rays win over the cold aggression of the cold North Wind.
What about the all to many reminders that scientists keep giving us about how badly we as a people treat the earth upon which we live. The wasted resources, food mountains, devastated rain forests smouldering after being burned to make room for roads and cash crops, the pollution of air land and sea, the fact that so many of the world's population are perpetually hungry while we in the west have so much. What about the calls for debts in the third world to be cancelled, and the reluctance of governments to actually do anything about this.. Do we feel a part of any of this? Or is it all someone else's problem?
What in this day and age has the emotional impact to change our hearts. Is it the sight of mutilated bodies in Kosovo or Sierra Leone, of children scarred by battle or abuse, of famine and disease, of seeing the hopelessness in a child's face staring at us from our TV screen. Almost certainly it is not someone standing in front of us accusing us of being implicated in the wrongs that prevail in this world of ours. It is more likely to be the simple image of a face, or a silent scene of devastation which stirs our hearts, persuades us that all is not as it should be, and that each one of us in some small way shares the blame for that wrong.
What now has the emotional impact to make us aware of our part in Christ's crucifixion, his continuing crucifixion? Yes, you see it was a historical event, the crucifixion; it is placed in time and locality. But Christ did not die just for those who were alive in AD33, plus or minus a couple of years. For if he did then the message, the Good News of the gospels, would be simply a historical essay and of no practical relevance for anyone today, other than as an example of selfless giving.
No, Jesus is crucified again every time another human being shows hatred towards another, every time a family is forced to move from their home by gunpoint, every time another child dies through lack of care or food; every time this world is spoiled by lack of concern for future generations; every time that greed wins over care for those less fortunate.
And why is Jesus crucified time and time again. Because of why he hung there in the first place. He was crucified in order that mankind, which had chosen to live as if they were themselves gods, might be brought back to the one true God. That the guilt of many might be laid on his shoulders as a willing sacrifice. There was no other way for God to bring back creation into fellowship with the creator, for the distance between the two had got so great, far beyond the efforts of mankind to bridge.
There are some dreadful things going on in the world today, perpetrated by mankind against its fellow brothers and sisters. Those images on our TV screens send us the same message that Peter shouted to those who stood listening in Jerusalem. Jesus came to bring mankind back into fellowship with God, to make right again the relationship that had been broken through sin. What it required was that mankind recognise it's need of that sacrificial act. Peter was clear that it was not only the judge, jury and executioner who were guilty of putting Jesus to death - the whole of mankind was implicated.
Yes, we put our faith in one who died and rose again that we might know that he was indeed the Son of God, but that makes demands of us, both at our conversion and throughout our lives. We are called, as Peter called those early listeners, 'to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' But it doesn't end there. Around us we see evidence of need, evidence that the world is not as it should be, our hearts are touched as those early Christians were, by the need of world for the love of God to reign down.
We are not all called to stand up and shout out the message of Peter on the street corner, but we are called to share the message; the message of Easter, a message of hope for a world that lacks hope for so many, a message of resurrection, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of eternal love. We can share it like the Sun in that story of Aesop, gently through our lives, in our words and actions. People can be persuaded, through our example.
But like the psalmist David we must not become complacent about the Easter message. We must not assume that the crucifixion and resurrection are the be- all and end-all of our faith. Those faces on our TV screens remind us that the message of Easter still has not reached the whole world. We must constantly remind ourselves as to where our faith and our confidence lies. In the one who died to bring all men back into fellowship with their creator, in the one who took and continues to take the guilt of many on his shoulders, in the one who offers the resurrection life to all who will turn to him and believe.
© John Birch Top of Page