Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.

“Celebrating God’s Saints” A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

All Saints’ Sunday is exactly as the name suggests; we celebrate all saints.  Saints living and those who’ve entered the church triumphant.   We remember how the saints have showed us what the Book of Acts calls The Way.  The first Christians were known as people of The Way.   Many of those saints we remember not because they sought to be rich or happy or well-fed or popular, but because they made sacrifices, often without knowing the names of those for whom they were sacrificing.

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Do we take their Christian witness for granted?  You bet we do.  That’s why we need days like today to remind us of the Christian forerunners of thousands of years who remind us even to this day to keep our lives’ priorities in check with the God’s values.  Those lives of the saints whom we’ve never met, but who put their lives on the line so that we might gather to worship the risen Christ.   Saints from hundreds of years, or even thousands of years ago who gave on our behalf.  Sacrificing their happiness for a greater joy that comes with serving in the name of Jesus Christ.   They sacrificed their own fulfillment so that others could be filled. They sacrificed their own need to acquire more so others might have enough. They sacrificed their own popularity in their fight for the well-being of others.

This is All Saints’ Day, a day we honor those saints who have gone before us and whose memory is precious to us. It is no accident that these challenging words from Luke are chosen for this special day, for it is wrestling with these words that we come to understand the faith of a saint.

Today’s Gospel tells us that death and resurrection are the great levelers. Status things which seem so important to us now — money, gourmet food, entertainment, and popularity — should not seem important to us in this world; and they will be worthless when we are saints in the life that is to come.

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We live in a time when winning and success are so important, that coaches who lose too many games are fired, the bottom line of a company’s profit-or-loss statement gets the most attention from stockholders, and even congregations are judged as “successful” or “unsuccessful” by comparing this year’s average attendance with last year’s. All Saints’ Sunday is a good time for us to hear once the sports cliché:  The question is not whether we won or whether we lost, but how we played the game.

Because, when we get down to it, we have to admit, it’s not easy living the life of a saint. Jesus talks about that life, and it just sounds backward. “Blessed are you who are poor,” but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who weep,” But “woe to you who laugh.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Oftentimes, these words get twisted. “What are we supposed to do?” we ask. “Be a doormat? Lie down and let people trample all over us?” How in the world are you blessed when things are going badly? We think we are blessed when things are going well for us and we’re healthy and happy and safe. But the saintly life isn’t about wealth, popularity, or comfort. It’s about faith and hope, resurrection and life, compassion, love, and purpose.

The saintly life is not just about staying out of trouble. It’s not passive. It isn’t wimpy to live as a saint. To live as God’s holy people takes courage. Turning the other cheek is courageous. It’s bold and it’s tough and it’s impossibly gutsy. “No,” it says, “you will not win. I will not give up. Jesus died for me, rose for me, called me holy, and I will not let that go. I will not let anger and revenge and sin get the upper hand.”

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That’s backward to our way of thinking. It’s not natural. What we want to do, what we are inclined to do, is still largely our selfishness talking, our fear talking, and our sin talking. The good, the noble, the righteous, the merciful, the generous, and the loving — that is God talking. That is God calling. To live the life of a saint is to live in God’s mercy. To live the life of a saint is to live in the often-uncomfortable paradox of being the sinners we know ourselves to be, and at the same time, being the holy person God says we are. Maybe you don’t feel especially holy, but you are. God is calling us to be holy. God is calling us to be his. God is calling us forward. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But God is with you and will always be with you, just as God is with all the saints. Amen.

 

“Praise, Plea, and a Promise: Three Lessons from the Book of Philemon

Earlier in the summer, we worked our way through Paul’s letter to Galatians, each week taking a chapter at a time and really diving deep into Paul’s letter.

This week, not only do we have the opportunity to take a look at one chapter of another of Paul’s letter, we have the opportunity to consider an entire book (read: entire letter).   Paul’s letter to Philemon is unique in the fact that it is Paul’s only private letter which we possess. Certainly, Paul wrote other personal letters; no doubt they were destroyed or lost over millennia.  So, let’s dive into this unique letter (book) and consider the insight from this ancient letter.

Paul writes this letter to Philemon about a slave, whom he calls his “child”.  His name is “Onesimus” and Paul says he has become his “father” during his imprisonment.

Onesimus, once a slave for Philemon, had become “useless” to Philemon and thus, Paul is “sending him back”.  But, no longer a slave—rather—as a brother, a “beloved brother”.   You need to remember here, that a slave was not a person.  A slave was a tool.  Albeit a living tool, but a tool nonetheless. Thus, a master had absolute power over his slaves.  So whatever reason Philemon had in discarding Onesimus; Onesimus certain had no or little value to Philemon.

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Yet, Paul is making a case that Onesimus, indeed, has value.  Now Philemon must take him back, not has a slave, but as a Christian brother. Onesimus is Paul’s son and Philemon must receive him as Paul himself.

Consider the awkwardness the two men must have felt. 

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Philemon, the owner, welcoming back his discarded property, a slave.  Conversely, a slave who must be welcomed no longer as property, but now in a relationship where both men are equals in Christ.  Sure, Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, but now, no longer a slave but a free man.

If you live long enough, you will understand the difficulty of offering forgiveness when you have been wronged. It does not come easy, yet as believers, we have to recognize that our ability and willingness to offer forgiveness is the result of Christ’s saving work on the cross.

Because of that fact, forgiveness serves as a determining factor in who we say we are and how we hope to live our lives. When we do not forgive, bitterness takes root in our hearts and chokes the vitality out of us.

This is a significant learning for this letter:  faith in Christ is not meant for us to escape our past- our short-comings, failures, and sin; but rather, our faith is to meant to help us face our past and rise above it.

Think of this letter with three “P’s” – Praise, Pleas, and a Promise.   Think of it, not much has changed in terms of human relationship for thousands of years.  At least in terms of asking others to consider our propositions.

Paul begins his appeal to Philemon by praising him because of his faithfulness towards God.  He appeals to Philemon by telling him in verse 4 that he “thanks God always because of [Philemon’s] love for all the saints and faith towards Jesus.” Paul is praising Philemon because of his faithfulness.   Here’s a little tid-bit that doesn’t come across in the English translation – the name Onesimus in Greek literally means “Profitable”.  Whether this is a nickname or an original name, we can’t be sure, but Paul seems to be playing up the pun.

Paul starts his appeal by looking backward to offer complements to Philemon for which Philemon is to commended.   Here’s wisdom for the world.  We need to understand that Paul motivation to Philemon was love.  So often, the world uses motives that are not pure, but Paul is offering, as a motive, love.  His appeal is based on love and a hope that reconciliation can occur between a slave and an owner.  Paul knows there was conflict in the relationship between the two parties.  He acknowledges there is a wedge between them and wants to bring the past up, but in a way that they can move forward.

 

So, often, we have other motives when we make a request of people.  If I walk to a car lot, I expect a sales person to make an appeal to me as his/her motive is to try to get me to buy a car. So much of the world’s appeal is economic.  But Paul’s appeal is appealing here to something that cannot be bought.  It’s a heart matter – the matter of reconciliation.

 

Here’s where the plea comes.

Beginning in verse 8 Paul pleas with Philemon to receive a brother in Christ, no longer a slave.   This is something that must be freely given and freely accepted.  There can be no strings to this reconciliation.

If we’ve done the hard work of confession our short comings with others, this second step should be a bit simpler. If we are sincere and our motives comes “from the heart” and the other person recognizing this feeling, the plea part SHOULD fall in place.   Paul makes the claim again,  “Onesimus was indeed useless to you, but he is useful now.

The key to this plea is Christ.  In Christ, the useless have value.  The “other” is redeemed and beloved. Faith in Christ is not designed to produce useless, vague, and nebulous relationships with other sisters and brothers, but an inter-connectedness where all have value- all gifts are welcomed and needed.  In Christ, we find our value is in service to the “other” especially to the poor and marginalized.  

Finally, there comes The promise.

Certainly life is tricky and relationship are risky.  We will hurt one another — intentionally or unintentionally.  Paul’s letter to Philemon is calling us to look beyond the conflict and embrace each other as beloved sisters and brothers.   Finding forgiveness in Christ, we are able to accept each united in love and mutual service.

In Christ, we are one body as there is no distinction between the members. The only thing that matters is that the body remains health to the call of Christ.  We’ve all got work to do.  Doesn’t matter what function you are in the body.  Christ needs your gifts.  Don’t hold them back, we will all be diminished without you.  Christ’s promise is that he will take what we offer and use it for God’s purposes.  Don’t hold back and don’t worry.  Christ is the One who can reconcile the broken.  Relationships, homes, families, communities and nations.

May we be received by each others as fellow sisters and brothers, we’re all on the road together.  Might as well make the most of a long journey.   Amen.