An Easter to Remember

A Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020.  Text: John 20:1-23

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Happy Easter! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the refrain of congregations around the world today. This is the refrain of all of heaven and earth today. We don’t need to hear or sing or say anything else, really. This is the proclamation that makes Easter, Easter.

Still….it sure doesn’t feel like Easter, does it? It’s certainly an Easter unlike any Easter any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Years from now, I imagine we’ll remember this day as the Easter “without.” The Easter without the baptisms, without the choir, without the packed sanctuary singing along to every hymn and anthem. The Easter without new dresses, egg hunts, or anticipated large family gatherings around long tables filled with sumptuous food. The Easter without quite as much shared laughter, quite as many shared smiles. All those things make Easter, Easter, for us, too, by convention and expectation. I’m missing all those things this morning, as I’m sure you are. And those absences will leave an impression in our memories, no doubt. But I also hope that at least for today, at least for our time together this morning, we’ll recognise that this Easter is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get in our lifetimes to understanding what that first Easter was like.

There was no choir warming up, no lavish meal in production; no new dress laid out on that first Easter. No celebrations of any kind in the works. The disciples awoke on that first Easter morning much as they had the previous morning – to a void, to a palpable absence. Jesus – the one they had thought to be the Messiah, the anointed Saviour of Israel, the one some of them had left everything (family, possessions, livelihood) to follow – Jesus was dead. And not just dead, executed. He had been betrayed by one of their own, arrested by the religious authorities, and crucified by the Romans like a rebellious slave. And throughout the ordeal, the mighty prophet and healer had appeared helpless.

Think about all they had seen and experienced with Jesus. He had cast out all manner of unclean spirits, including a legion of them in the land of the Gerasenes. He had healed the sick in droves, restored sight to the blind, and fed 5,000 hungry people with five loaves and a couple of fish. He brought Lazarus back to life, and even calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. Yet, when the soldiers came for Him, He could do nothing to stop or resist them. At least, He didn’t do anything to stop or resist them. In a matter of hours, everything they had hoped, everything they had dreamed, everything they had invested and sacrificed was over. Done. Gone.

That’s how deep the void that greeted the disciples on that first Easter morn was – a morning that found many of them in isolation, too – not for fear of a virus but of the soldiers who might still be looking for them as Jesus’ followers. And even though Mary Magdalene had ventured to the tomb before dawn and found it empty, things don’t instantly get better.

When Mary finds the grave open and Jesus’ body missing, she runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who return to the tomb with her. They find it as she had described: the stone rolled away and Jesus’ burial cloths lying inside; but Jesus is nowhere to be found. What did it mean? John says, “they did not yet understand the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). After entering the tomb, John says the beloved disciple believes, despite the fact he doesn’t understand the Scriptures; but then he and Peter go home. We’re not told that they say anything to anyone else.

Mary lingers at the Tomb, weeping. Only then does she encounter Jesus. At first she thinks He’s the gardener and implores Him to tell her what has happened to the Lord’s body. She recognises Him by voice, not by sight, when He calls her by name. The risen Christ then asks her to go and tell His “brothers” (not disciples, not servants – brothers) that He is “ascending to My Father and your Father.” True to these instructions, Mary Magdalene returns to the disciples a second time, saying she has seen the Lord. She has seen Jesus: not dead, but alive; not missing, but very much present.

The good news of Easter thus gradual dawns in John, rather than flooding in. And we’re still not done. For the rest of that day, many of the disciples were left to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus alive? Or had His body been stolen? In John’s telling of the Easter story, it won’t be until later that evening that anyone other than Mary Magdalene sees Jesus.

When the Risen Christ does break into the disciples’ sequestered lives, He leaves no doubt. He speaks a blessing upon them: “Peace be with you.” He shows them His hands and His side, where the implements of death found and left their mark – but ultimately lost. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and commissions them, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Until that time, however, uncertainty remains. And even then, Jesus’ appearance doesn’t magically or instantly change the disciples’ circumstance. As we will see, they continue to meet behind closed doors. Some of them, including Peter, even go back to doing what they had been doing before they met Jesus. They’re lying low, seeking out something familiar, perhaps something reliable. Much remains unclear to them.

Which is, of course, how things will continue for us, too. When our time of lingering at the tomb with Mary Magdalene’s is over this morning, we’ll return to the same restrictions and limitations to which we awoke. My hope and my prayer, though, is that we’ll return knowing that what may seem like a void really isn’t. Because Christ is risen! Christ is risen and He is radically free and present with us. His abundant, irrepressible Life now fills the chasm that death had hollowed out; and His enduring Presence continues to subvert the machinations of the powers of this world.

Easter changes everything; yet it changes nothing. It doesn’t magically or instantly alter our circumstance. COVID-19 won’t just up and go away later this afternoon because Christ our Lord is risen this morning. But Easter does alter our place in our circumstance because Easter transforms our relationship to God, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. We aren’t just followers of Christ anymore. We aren’t just disciples of Christ anymore. We are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are brothers and sisters with Christ. “Go and tell my brothers…”, the risen Christ said to Mary. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father…”. Jesus, true to His prayer for us in John 17, has made us one – one family with Him and God the Father: heirs to one and the same Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. We are brothers and sisters with Christ. Think about that. Really think about that!

That means COVID-19 will not and cannot have the final word. Economic contraction will not and cannot have the final word. Neither will supply shortages or price increases. None of it can or will have the final word because, while those things may define our circumstance, they do not and cannot define our identity or our reality: who we are and whose we are. That prerogative, that power, belongs to Jesus because today He is risen – and He is very much still moving in our midst.

So while a lot of things may be missing from today, let’s try our best not to let those disappointments become the defining feature of this Easter. Or any Easter. Because Easter is about a new reality, a new relationship between heaven and earth, a new relationship between us and God. And that means that in the midst of these absences, there is something – or, more specifically, Someone – newly present and radically free for us to celebrate. We are His, and He is ours forever more. Jesus saved His most amazing and powerful feat for last.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Alleluia! Alleluia!  Amen.

Show Me the Way

                 As I went down to the river to pray / studyin’ about that good ol’ way                                                       And who shall wear the robe and crown / Good Lord, show me the way

Each year around Valentine’s Day our thoughts naturally turn to relationships, whether we are in a committed relationship or not. Even if we do not have what we would term a “significant other,” all of us have relationships of one sort or another: friends, family, coworkers, neighbors.  When I recently asked some members of my church to suggest sermon topics for Valentine’s week, one of the most immediate responses I received was, “How do we best relate to God?”

But before we ask ourselves, “How do we best relate to God?” we must first consider two other questions.  First, we have to ask ourselves whether we do, in fact, relate to God. Most of us would say we believe in God, or have faith in God, or even that we know God; but that’s not the same thing as relating to God. I am a big fan of U2. I *love* their music and I am a great admirer of Bono’s humanitarian work.  But week in and week out, that love and admiration does not have much impact on how I go about my day, other than making workouts and commutes more enjoyable.  Simply having love and admiration for someone does not make for a relationship. By definition, a relationship is relational–which goes beyond knowledge or belief.  The demons that Jesus encounters in the Gospels know who He is and why He has come, but that does not make them Christians–not by a long shot.

The second question is, “Is there only one best way to relate to God?”  In the evangelical world, we emphasize having “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” whatever that really means.  I say that because I’m not always sure what it means, even though  I frequently use that language to describe my own faith experience. As a Baptist, I believe I have to own my faith.  No one else can believe for me or intercede for me other than the Risen Christ in heaven or the Holy Spirit on earth.  No priest or saint can “do faith” for me if I don’t do it myself.  Thus, insomuch as I pray directly to God and to Jesus and prayerfully study Scripture on my own, I consider the relationship “personal.”  But otherwise it’s not really analogous to other “personal relationships” I enjoy.  Jesus never calls me on the phone or shoots me an email or invites me for coffee.  Lord knows I wish He would!

Part of my problem with the idea of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus may be that I’m a guy. Guys tend to have trouble with the concept of “relationships” in general.  Dave Barry once wrote that a guy in a relationship is like an ant standing on top of a truck tire. The ant is aware that something large is there, but he cannot even dimly comprehend what it is. And if the truck starts moving and the tire starts to roll, the ant will sense that something important is happening, but right up until the moment he is squashed his primary thought will be, “Huh?” (“What Women Don’t Understand About Guys,” 1996).

The more significant issue, however, is that Jesus never uses “personal relationship” language around the subject of salvation.  When asked, “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He never responds, “Have a personal relationship with Me.”  Instead, He says things like, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor” (Luke 18.18) and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Luke 10.25).  Love certainly stands at the center of His teaching, but the love He’s talking about seems to be a deeper, different kind of love than most of our earthly relationships are based on.

Furthermore, Scripture outlines a variety of  different ways in which God’s people relate to Him, among them prayer, worship, a concise list of thou-shalls and thou-shall-nots, dietary guidelines, repentance, the care of the needy, and the offering of (literal) sacrifices.  The Law of Moses prescribes many of these tenets, and a few of them, such as animal sacrifice and dietary restrictions have been dispensed with over time (see Psalm 51 and Acts 10 respectively for reasons why); but Jesus said quite explicitly that He did not come to overthrow the Law (of Moses) but to fulfill it (Matthew 5.17).  In Mathew 6, He says, “When you pray… when you give alms… when you fast… not if you pray or if you give alms or if you fast.  In Matthew 25, He says the blessed are those who feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned.  I read these teachings (and others like them) as clear indications that Jesus expects His disciples to engage in such “works.”  Even the Apostle Paul, who argues emphatically that we are no longer under the Law but justified by grace through faith in Christ (Romans 3.22-24), also says–with equal conviction–that we do not overthrow the Law by this faith.  “On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (Romans 3.31).  Can we, then, simply dismiss the “works” Scripture proscribes  in favor of a “personal relationship” with Christ?  Or can we (with any integrity) pick and choose which “works” are more and less important for us to engage?  Should we, for example, tend to prayer with more dedication than attending worship or Bible study?  Should we focus on keeping the ten commandments rather than fasting or giving generously to the poor?  I wonder.

We could spend a lifetime sorting this all out–and we probably should.  Humility is a key component of the contrition the psalmist says makes for an acceptable sacrifice to God (Psalm 51).  But the best place I know within the Bible to try to get a handle on how we should strive to relate to God most fully and most faithfully is John chapters 14 and 15.  I believe these two chapters give us an essential, if not comprehensive, guide to what God wants and intends for us, especially John 14.5-18.

The first thing we learn in this passage is that Jesus Himself is the way (John 14.6).  The road of faith we walk as His disciples is not gauntlet that we have to push our way through in order to prove ourselves worthy. Rather, it is a journey in Him.  It is a journey for Him.  He is both the end and the means of our pilgrimage.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  And that means that faith in Christ is about becoming as much as it is about believing.

The second thing we learn is that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father.  When the Law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God warned him that no one could see His face and live (Exodus 33.20).  In Jesus, that fear is banished.  Not only can we now see God’s face and not die; we can see it and live more fully and abundantly than ever before. And not only can we see His face, we can also look Him in the eye.

He can look us in the eye, too. “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last… (John 15.15-16).  Jesus is the Way, and He wants us to know the Way.  That desire makes us His friends, in whom He confides, not His servants, whom He bosses around.  But friends–true friends–also challenge and confront one another. This is what it means for Him to look us in the eye even as we look Him in the eye.  He intends to hold us accountable for bearing fruit and abiding in His love, for that is the only way we can truly find our way to where He is preparing a place for us.

This, then, is the third and most important thing we learn from these two chapters: the nature of this radical,  all encompassing love that Jesus taught and embodied. The foundation of our relationship with God is the love God has for us and which He freely shares with us in all that Christ is, all He has done, and all He continues to do on our behalf through the agent of the Holy Spirit.  He chose us; we did not choose Him. We cannot earn it.  Jesus offers us this love as a gift.  However, the invitation to receive His love comes with a call to abide in His love, which means sharing it–living it–as well as enjoying it. It means “I am the Vine and you are the branches (John 15.5).  It means “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14.15).

To the best of my understanding, these declarations of Jesus mean that the love we share in Him should spill over into how we relate to one another–and even how we relate to Him.  “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15.12), He said.  Let my life in you and your life in Me impact how you treat each other, how you treat yourselves; let it affect how you go about your day: the choices you make, the actions you take. This is not an abstract love, of the sort I have for U2.  It is a palpable, active love–more akin to the love I have for my wife.  Because I love her, I do certain things and don’t do other things each and every day. Such choices are inextricably tied to the vows I made to her when I married her.  If I do not keep those vows, I would have a hard time convincing her (or anyone else, really) that I truly love her.  So it is with Christ.  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  If we do not keep His commandments (or, at the very least, strive to) then how much do we really love Him?

Thus, I believe the “best” way can relate to God is, like love itself, a many splendored thing.  It is relational: a give-and-take between us and our Lord, as friends rather than slaves–abiding in Jesus as the Father abides in Him, and learning to love as He first loved us. It is personal, for our faith must be ours and ours alone.  But it is more than that. It is also missional, for we have commandments to keep, love to share, time and energy to give, and a story to tell about this Christ  who came not be served but to serve so that the world might know the Father’s love.  And, most of all, it is transformational, for we have fruit to bear and Christ-likeness to put on as branches of the true Vine.

We know this not only from Jesus’ words here in John, but from God’s work at the very beginning of creation.  In the opening chapters of Genesis, everything God makes–day/night, land/sea, plants/animals–is spoken into existence.  “Let there be…,” God says, and there is.  Presto!   But not humankind.  When God determines to make humanity in His image, He doesn’t say, “Let there be people.” Instead, He reaches down into the earth He has made and He sculpts us from the dust of the ground and breathes life into our nostrils.  We did not spring into being fully-formed in an instant.  We were shaped over time.  And God has continued to shape us over time; He continues to shape us to this very day.  He has formed all of us in His image and His ultimate desire is for us to realize the fullness of who we are in Him.  That is why Christ came: to remind us who we really are and to show us what we truly can be.  In Christ, God shows us the very best of heaven paired with the very best of earth.  That is what He wants for us.  That is what He wants with us.  And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks be to God.

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