Monday, March 28, 2016
Sermon for Easter Day 2016
It’s amazing the difference one word can make in the meaning of a sentence or phrase.
That really hit home for me many years ago when I was serving a small church in Mississippi. It was Easter Day and the church was packed. It was time for the service to begin. The choir was lined up for the procession into the church. The prelude was coming to a close and the organist was playing the first notes of the opening hymn. Reading what was printed in the bulletin, I saw that the way we were kicking off our Easter celebration, the song that would unite our voices to joyfully proclaim the triumphant heart of our faith, was by singing:
“Jesus Christ IF risen today.”
Of all the bulletin bloopers I’ve seen over the years, that’s one of my favorites.
“If risen” versus “Is risen” - one word makes all the difference in the world. One word moves us from a place of hesitation, doubt, and even despair to faith, hope, and new life.
But we have to start where the first disciples started. And that’s with an obvious fact: Jesus really and truly died on the cross. His lifeless body was laid in a tomb. The women who got up early on the first day of the week were expecting to anoint a dead body. There was no wishful thinking on their part as though some of them might have been saying, “Well, sure, Jesus was crucified and died two days ago, but he might be alive again.” Like everybody who’s ever lived, those women knew that dead people stay dead. End of story.
And so, when they discovered an empty tomb, they didn’t respond with joy. Instead, as Luke tells us, “they were perplexed about this” (Lk 24:4). They were confused. Something was clearly wrong. They were probably wondering if somebody had stolen Jesus’ body. But before they could speculate about what had happened, Luke tells us that “two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them” (Lk 24:4). Stricken with terror, the women fell to the ground. And that’s when they heard the first Easter proclamation as the strangers said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk 24:5).
“He has risen.”
That was a mind-blowing message that collided head-on with the facts about life and death. That a man whom everyone knew had died and been buried was alive again - it made no sense.
No doubt, these women were more perplexed now than when they first discovered an empty tomb. With hearts filled with grief, fear, and wonder, they hurried back to the disciples to tell them what had happened. And in response, Luke tells us that “these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11).
The disciples’ first response to the Easter message was unbelief. They couldn’t accept such a far-fetched story. Because everybody knows that death is a one-way street.
But in spite of the doubts, in spite of how crazy it sounded, the message stirred something deep inside of Peter. He had to check it out. For what if it actually turned out to be true? What if Jesus really had been raised from the dead? And so Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. But like the women, all Peter got was a confirmation that the tomb was empty.
In the Gospel reading for today, the women and the male disciples didn’t actually get to see the risen Jesus for themselves. They did not get to hear his voice, see his face, or reach out to touch him to confirm that he was risen. All they had to go on was a message, a word about Easter. They were confronted with the choice of either rejecting that message as utterly absurd and ridiculous, or embracing it in faith as the most important truth ever proclaimed in the history of the world.
Gathered here in church, you and I are in the same position as those women and men on that first Easter morning so long ago. We, too, are confronted by a message that defies logic and common sense. We are also invited to ask the same questions that moved Peter’s heart: “But what if it’s really true? What if Jesus really did rise from the dead?” And based upon the testimony of those first Christians who did eventually see Jesus alive again, we are encouraged by the Church to move from fear, doubt, and unbelief to a faith that commits our lives to Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ of God.
For if it’s really true that Christ is risen, then everything changes.
If Christ is risen - if God really raised the dead Jesus from the grave with a body no longer subject to disease, death, and decay - then a revolution akin to overturning the law of gravity has been unleashed into the world. Death is no longer a one-way, dead-end street, but instead a doorway into eternal life.
If Christ is risen, then everyone baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection shares in his victory over death. And for those who have died in the Lord, life is changed, not ended. This means that those we love but see no longer are not forever lost, but are resting safely in the loving presence of a living Lord.
If Christ is risen, then the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God creating “new heavens and a new earth” has already started (Is 65:17). For by raising Jesus, God has given us a foretaste of what it looks like for those ancient promises to be fulfilled. It looks like a world that knows no weeping, hurting, or destruction, but instead is filled with life, security, abundance, loving communion between God and humanity, and the righting of all wrongs in eternal peace and harmony.
If Christ is risen, then might does not make right. Instead, Jesus’ way of love, mercy, and forgiveness stands eternally vindicated as the God-approved way to abundant life for everyone.
There’s no doubt about it: the Easter message turns the world upside down. It flies in the face of experience and common sense. It mocks the pretensions of human wisdom. It undermines our faith in the all-sufficiency of reason. It boldly announces that a Power has been unleashed into this world against which tyrants and bullies, sickness and disease, loss and grief, fear and shame, sin and evil, and death and decay are powerless.
And it also underscores a beautiful truth: that God loves this world in all of its dazzling diversity, and that God loves each and every one of us, so very much that He will go to any lengths for our salvation, including suffering the ravages of death and hell so that we don’t have to.
My friends, we are not gathered today to “to enshrine the dead Jesus in the tomb of memory.” On the contrary, we are gathered to celebrate the surprising victory of God over the forces of evil and death through the resurrection of his only Son. We are gathered to renew our trust in the power of God’s love, a love that death can not contain. We are gathered to celebrate our faith in a risen Lord.
For Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life upon those in the grave.
There is no longer anything to fear. For the tomb is empty. The Lord is risen. Death has lost its sting. God’s plan to heal and redeem all of creation is underway. And our lives are now “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
And so we can say with the Psalmist: “On this day the LORD has acted; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).