Death's Grip Broken

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 16, 2023

When we think about the two parts of the Bible, there are a lot of themes we can name—and probably even more characters. The New Testament, of course, is all about Jesus. And some Christians would say that the Old Testament is, too—though obviously in a different way. But there are two other personalities—one in each testament—that I think stand out. In the Old Testament, there’s Moses, Abraham, Elijah—these are some of the important men in the Hebrew Bible. And we also get to know plenty of women: Deborah, Sarah, Ruth, and Naomi, to name but a few. But the one we get to know the best—the one whose head we’re best able to get inside to understand what makes him tick—is David. We go through a lot with David. And many of the psalms are attributed to him. And so we can actually imagine ourselves in his shoes a lot of the time. And we understand his hopes and fears, his victories and his defeats.

We get to know lots of people who populate the New Testament as well—just about all of them followers of Jesus. Paul wrote a lot of the books of the New Testament, so of course we meet him in many places. And there are Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, a faithful disciple (and some would say the first apostle), James, the brother of Jesus, and the one whom we somewhat unfairly call Doubting Thomas. And though there are dozens of others, the one I think we get to know best is the Apostle Peter.
There are a couple of books of the New Testament attributed to Peter, but that’s not how we get to know him. We know him because of all the earliest followers of Jesus, he was by far the most impulsive—quick to act and quick to speak.

In Matthew and Mark, we first meet him on the lakeshore. Only not as a disciple named Peter, but as a fisherman named Simon. He was working on the boat with his brother, Andrew. We don’t know what Jesus saw in either of them, but he said to them simply, “Follow me, and you’ll be fishing for people.” And they dropped their nets, left everything behind, and started a new life.

Luke fills the story out a little bit, but in a rather confusing way. Before Jesus calls on him to be a disciple, he visits Simon’s house and heals his mother-in-law. We never hear anything more about his family—whether he still had a wife, or whether or not he had any children. But in the next chapter, we find Simon fishing, but not catching anything. Jesus stands on the shore and tells Simon where to put out his nets, and he ends up with the biggest catch ever. Simon’s first reaction is to fall on his knees and say, “Go away from me, Lord, because I’m a sinner.” Jesus called him anyway, and he dropped everything and followed.

Throughout the gospels, it is Simon who speaks either alone, or first, or loudest. He’s obviously a spokesman for the other disciples. And at one point, when Jesus asks what the disciples actually think of him, it’s Simon who says that he is Messiah. It’s at that point that Jesus starts calling him Peter, which means Rock, because it’s on the solid foundation of Peter’s confession that Christ was to build his church.

Jesus then goes further, telling the disciples that Messiah is not what they’re expecting, that he’ll be rejected and killed, but that he’ll rise again. Peter was very concerned with this messaging and told Jesus he was wrong—he’d never be rejected. Jesus also told Peter later on that he was going to deny him, but Peter said this would never happen… until it did.

What we see in Peter, over and over again, is a deep concern with what others think of him. Whether he’s trying to impress Jesus or worried about criticism, it looks like this is a recurring theme throughout his life—at least the life of the Peter we read about in the gospels.

Unless we’ve read what happened before and unless we’re already familiar with who Peter had been, we might not give that much thought to what happened on the Day of Pentecost. Because here we find Peter becoming the rock that Jesus said he would be. Here’s Peter—the one who was so scared of other people that he denied knowing Jesus, not once, but three times—here’s that same Peter boldly proclaiming the good news. And it’s not the good news as he thought it should be—a gospel that denied the rejection and suffering of Christ—because remember, he’d already tried to deny that. Here he is sharing the truth about Christ and inviting others to believe.

We’re going to look at Peter’s words on the Day of Pentecost again next week, so today I want to focus on something he said that I think had deep meaning—not only for Jesus and not only for Peter, but also for us.

God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.
—Acts 2:24 (NLT)

The end of Jesus’ life was indeed horrible. The accounts we read about it in all four gospels describe what Isaiah predicted:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
—Isaiah 53:3

When Easter happened, the amazing thing was not just the miracle of the resurrection. It was also the miracle that God loved the despised and rejected so much that death could not keep its grip—God would not let that One go.

The statement that “death could not keep him in its grip” stands at just about the exact center of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. It could be translated in a number of ways without doing damage to its original meaning. I might say, “Death could not keep him down.” The NRSV says that “it was impossible to keep him in its power.” But I prefer the New Living Translation’s version: “Death could not keep him in its grip,” because that’s not just a good translation of the Greek, but it also describes the human condition.

It's a condition that Peter knew well—a condition that we saw most clearly when Peter denied Jesus three times. Peter’s preoccupation with what others thought seemed to control him at many times throughout his life. Whether he was trying to impress Jesus or whether he was afraid of the crowd, Peter was in the icy grip of something that denied him life.

But here we see him finally free to speak the truth. He wasn’t saying what others wanted to hear—because his message was going to be unpopular with anybody in power. And he wasn’t afraid of what others could do to him. Death’s grip had been loosened and Peter was finally free to be himself in the presence of God and other people.

As are all of us. Because of Easter, we know that God has power over the powers of death. And because of Easter, we know how much God loves the despised and the rejected. There is no power so great that God can’t defeat it. And there is no one so lowly that God doesn’t value them.

This was good news for Peter, and it’s good news for us, for all of us are in the grip of something that denies us life. Maybe it’s a preoccupation with what others think—after all, Peter’s problem wasn’t all that unusual. Maybe it’s something much more threatening, like addiction or disease.

For a lot of people these days, it’s fear. We listen to voices that tell us to be afraid, and none of those voices are Easter voices. None of them share with us the message that God has power, and that God loves us—no matter how weak or despised we feel like we are.

The good news is that we don’t need to live lives of fear. Life was meant to be lived in abundance, even if we are one of the despised or rejected ones. Even if we’re weak, our God is strong. And because of Easter, we know that God loves each of us enough to bring us through to the other side of what others think, of our dependence, our illness, or our fear. Because Christ is risen, we know that God can and will get us there.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.