Preached April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19 and 1 John 3:1-7
A woman was driving toward home in Northern Arizona when she saw a Navajo woman hitchhiking. Because the trip had been long and monotonous, she stops the car and the Navajo woman climbs in. In the course of their small talk, the Navajo woman glances surreptitiously at a brown bag on the front seat between them. “If you’re wondering what’s in the bag,” says the woman, “it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.” “The Navajo woman is silent for a while, nods several times and says, “Good trade.”
There are good trades and there are bad trades and then there are notoriously bad trades that never get lived down. Like trading Manhattan Island for a bushel of trinkets. Or trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees. But, hands down THE worst trade off EVER was when a crowd demanded that the life of Jesus be exchanged for the life of a murderer named Barabbas.
Barabbas was on death row for the killing of a Roman. His case was as open and shut as they come. There was no question as to his guilt.
Jesus’ case, on the other hand, was as murky as they get. Even the Roman Governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, who no one would ever accuse of being a bleeding heart, couldn’t figure out what Jesus had done that warranted a death sentence.
According to the Gospels, Pilate would release a prisoner of the people’s choosing, during Passover. So, he put a choice before the people. Who should be set free and who should have their sentence carried out? Who should live and who should die?
Jesus or Barabbas?
Just days before, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, greeted by cheering crowds hailing him as the Messiah.
But on this day, he stood scourged and beaten to within an inch of his life, with the crowds calling for Pilate to set Barabbas free and to crucify Jesus.
Pilate was baffled by the people’s virulent outburst of anger towards Jesus, who seemed more an idealistic dreamer than a threatening criminal.
But, ultimately Pilate didn’t care about justice. He only cared about maintaining order. And on this day, if a miscarriage of justice was what it took to give the people what they wanted, and make Pilate’s job of keeping the peace easier – well, that seemed like a fair trade.
So, Jesus died and Barabbas walked.
Now, THAT was a bad trade. And, Peter, a disciple of Jesus, wasn’t about to let people forget what a bad trade it was.
One day, while on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship, Peter and another disciple named John, passed a cripple begging for money. Peter tells the man that he has no silver or gold to give him, but what he does have to give is this, and he says, “In the name of Jesus, rise and walk.” Then he took the man by his hands and lifted him to his feet. When he let go, everyone waited for the man to crumple back to the ground where Peter found him.
That wasn’t what happened.
Instead, he stood on his own two feet.
Then he took one halting step, followed by another and for the first time he was walking.
Then his walking turned into dancing and leaping for joy. Because he was healed.
In the name of Jesus.
Before long, the Temple is filling with a throng of people, who are in the words of the passage – filled with wonder and amazement.
That’s where the passage David read from the Book of Acts, picks up.
When Peter “saw it” –that is, when he saw that he and John and the formerly lame man – were suddenly the center of attention, Peter recognizes what a teachable moment this could be.
He begins his preaching with a setting the record straight as to who deserves credit for the man regaining his ability to walk.
“It wasn’t me that gave this man his health; it was faith in Jesus.”
Yes, THAT Jesus. The one whose life you traded in order that a murderer named Barabbas could be set free.
Peter’s sermon starts off sounding like hellfire and brimstone are about to follow. But it turns into a message of grace and hope.
He addresses them as friends, not as enemies.
Peter says what they did was done in ignorance of who Jesus truly was.
They had missed the places in their own scriptures that prophesied how the Messiah would suffer for the people’s sins. After all, he and the other disciples had initially made the same mistake, even though Jesus tried time after time to explain to them what the scriptures had to say about him.
Peter could personally identify with their disastrous choosing to reject Jesus because Peter had himself abandoned Jesus.
But, Peter knew something they didn’t know. Which was that on the other side of Easter the guilt of those choices was lifted from his shoulders.
Because the resurrected Jesus substituted grace and forgiveness for the condemnation Peter was convinced he deserved. And, that is what Peter desperately wants them to discover for themselves.
That’s where Peter’s sermon ends; with an invitation to his listeners to receive the same grace that Jesus had shown to him. “Repent therefore,” he implores of them. “Repent and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”
Like Peter’s sins were wiped out.
Like ours are.
Even though Peter is addressing his words to his fellow Jews, he is speaking to us, as well. Because you and I also make poor choices and bad trade-offs, don’t we?
Sometimes our bad choices are made in our failing to discern God’s will. Other times they are the result of our reacting out of our own emotional impulses. Either way, whenever anyone disregards Jesus’ teaching or example in favor of some less demanding or more comfortable alternative, it is like trading Jesus for Barabbas all over again.
Any time we choose retaliation or resentment over working for peace and reconciliation, we are in essence trading what Jesus has to say about forgiving our debtors as God has forgiven us, for what the world teaches us about getting even.
Whenever we choose indifference to others’ needs over compassionate action, we are trading what Jesus said about doing to others what we would like to have done to us for a different Golden Rule of the world, that encourages looking out only for ourselves.
There always will be really, really bad trade-offs that people will make. But all it takes is one good trade-off to turn them all around. The word for that trade-off is repentance. Repentance literally means to reverse our course; to swap the direction in which we had been moving to follow a new compass setting.
One that leads us on a path to becoming the people God created us to be.
The passage I read from 1 John also contains guidance about the difference between good and bad choices. It says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!”
Faithful choices are the product of an assurance of God’s love for us.
When we know ourselves to be children of God it becomes easier to trust God’s purpose for us.
In the next breath it says that those who reject God’s guidance for their lives do so only because they don’t really understand how much God loves them.
God has taken the guesswork out of determining how we should best live our lives because Jesus has shown us how deep God’s love is for us.
God took humanity’s rejection of Jesus and traded it for unconditional love for humanity.
God traded the violence done to Jesus for the gift of our peace, such as the world cannot give.
God traded the taking of Jesus’ earthly life for our resurrection and eternal life.
Jesus is the perfect image of God.
The more we are shaped by our relationship to him, the better are our odds of making good choices with our lives.
A person who has truly experienced the mercy of God will tend to be merciful – not perfectly merciful, but oriented toward mercy.
A forgiven person forgives, or at least strives to forgive.
A person who understands the generosity God has shown them, will find it easier to be generous with whatever they have to give.
But it is our choice whether or not to let our lives be claimed and transformed by that relationship.
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros