Easter

The Remembrance that Overcomes

John 20:1-18 (NRSV)

The story of the resurrection is joyous, of course. That which we should fear the most, death, is shown to be a temporary condition.

There are, however, other emotions we can sense in John’s story of the resurrection, as well as the three other gospels. There are moments where even the witnesses who love Jesus experience what we might call muddled minds, showing or expressing confusion and fear at the news Jesus is risen. These anxious responses continue for some time in the stories, even after Jesus physically appears to his followers.

In John’s version of the resurrection, Mary has every right to be confused. Coming to the tomb very early, she is deep in grief. As the events surrounding daybreak unfold, she remains rooted in the horrors of what she has seen. Her beloved teacher, the miracle worker who had brought so much hope into her life, had been beaten, crucified, and even speared through the side in the Roman guards’ effort to be sure he was dead.

Yes, the stone is missing; but Jesus is dead. Yes, there are strange-looking men in the tomb talking of wonders, but Jesus is dead. Yes, Jesus is standing right in front of me, but Jesus is deadit must be the gardener.

Not until Mary hears Jesus’ voice does she begin to live into the truth of the resurrection, soon declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” in a proclamation almost angelic in its power.

Other followers took longer to let the resurrection truth begin to reshape them. The most visible example is Peter, who seems to have continued brooding even after Jesus had physically appeared to, spoken with, and even breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

Peter’s difficulty is understandable. He was, after all, the brash disciple who failed Jesus, three times denying knowing Jesus after his arrest. Near the end of the Gospel of John, in the 21st chapter, Peter tells the other disciples, “I am going fishing.”

I find this one of the most poignant quotes in the Bible. Peter, broken by his own failure, decides to take comfort in returning to what he used to do for a living. He and six other disciples don’t go to fish to relax, like we do on the lake. They pull out the big boat, haul out the nets, and pursue a commercial catch.

The resurrection has happened—Jesus is alive, and appearing to hundreds of followers—but Peter cannot let himself be transformed by this world-changing truth. He will, though. Oh, will he learn!

From the beach, Jesus appears to his followers in the boat, giving them a sign. As they end up on the beach eating breakfast together, Jesus three times asks Peter to affirm his love, which of course, Peter does. Breakfast becomes a do-over for Peter, wiping away the pain of his three fearful denials.

Our own sinfulness and shame are similarly wiped away as we learn to trust the power and grace in Jesus’ resurrection. We hear these stories, we let the Holy Spirit go to work in our hearts, and we too are healed and restored. We call this process remembrance, and every one of us is invited to participate in this process today.

When we use the word “remember” casually, we associate it with memory. Something happened in the past. What we sensed and how we felt was stored in our brains in varying levels of clarity, and we retrieve that mental record.

When we think biblically, however, remembrance moves us to a whole new level spiritually. In a way, the words we translate as “remember” invite us to time travel.

Biblical remembrance means prayerfully immersing our emotions and souls into an event as if we were physically present. It is what we have been trying to do this past week if we’ve paid any attention at all to the story of the crucifixion.

When Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples and said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he was telling them and us, come back to this table, and all that this table representsmy broken body, my shed blood and experience how much you are loved. Our table may be in a different place and time, but we are all in the story.

If we consciously stepped into the continuing story, we walked with Jesus through the betrayals, the agonized prayers in the garden, the arrest, the beatings, and ultimately the horror of the crucifixion. It was frightening, but we see God’s love in action.

If you’re thinking this definition of remembrance sounds far-fetched, consider this: We were there. Jesus had each and every one of us on his mind and in his heart as he died on the cross. He died for our sins; he experienced their great weight and absorbed the punishment we deserve. He saw our unborn faces as he suffered.

And joy of joys, today we are invited to time travel to the resurrection, to let go of pain and shame and live into that moment where we see proof that sin and death are defeated.

Biblical remembrance is a life-changing act. I don’t know what sins weigh on you or what shame or pain you may bear, but on this Easter Sunday, walk with the risen Christ.

The cross has worked, your sins are defeated, and death is now meaningless for you!


The featured image is Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” 1638.

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Triumph Over Sin and Death

Romans 5:12-21 (NLT)

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


He is risen!

It is our great declaration, one usually made in our sanctuaries on Easter Sunday. At our Easter egg hunt Saturday, I asked the gathered crowd if anyone knew why Easter is important. One child said, “We look for Easter eggs!”

Well, no. We do that for fun, but that’s not the core meaning of the Easter celebration. Then a second voice called out, “Jesus rose from the dead!” That little guy got a high-five.

He is risen; Jesus was dead, killed in a most brutal manner, and then he was alive, is alive!

Even if you’ve heard the story before, I’ll bet you would like to hear it again. Every gospel has its version. Let’s look at how the Gospel of Luke tells the story. [Blog readers: You might want to take time to read Luke 24:1-12 reverently and attentively, as if hearing it for the first time.]

Do you hear it? Do you hear the astonishment of those first witnesses? The women, the faithful women, the ones who did not run away, who tried to attend to Jesus even in death, were the first witnesses, hearing the pronouncement of angels that he is risen.

We are told the men, the ones who had run in fear, the ones who had betrayed Jesus, thought it all sounded like nonsense. Jesus began to appear, however, to followers on the road to Emmaus, to the core disciples as they continued to cower, and to many, many others.

He showed them his scars. He showed them the crucifixion was real—his death was real. But I have defeated death, he was saying with his presence.

Our text from Romans emphasizes this great truth. “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Think of it this way: We were born to sin. You may not like the idea—you might find it unfair—but if you believe God uses the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to reveal great truths, then you cannot deny it. Somehow, that first break with God, recounted in Genesis 3, broke all of us. If we live to an age where we become at all conscious of our actions, we cannot avoid offending God.

Because we were born to sin, we also were born to die. Paul seems to talk about death in a couple of ways. There is the death of the body, of course, a death that may come quickly because of our inherent fragility, or slowly because of inescapable decrepitude. But worse than that, there is a spiritual death, an inability to connect with God, to ever deserve God’s love, because our sin has made us unholy.

But don’t forget the key message today: He is risen! Paul presents Christ as victor, as the one who dove into death and defeated it from within. A righteous man dying not only destroys death, he makes possible eternal life.

This is relatively simple stuff. As church-going Christians, we can discuss ideas that are a lot more complicated. We’ve already had to do that some as we have made our way deeper into the book of Romans the past three months. But at its core, Christianity is simple.

The cross—it worked! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—it proves the cross worked! Believe, and the resurrection is yours!

There are two kinds of people in Easter Sunday worship. Many of you came because you believe, and you want to celebrate the great truth of Christianity, the truth that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death. Hallelujah! I pray your hearts are leaping!

Some of you are here reluctantly. You came to make someone happy; you came out of a sense of obligation, it being Easter Sunday. If that’s you, I need you to listen to me:

GOD LOVES YOU. He loves you so much that he walked among his creation in flesh and died on the cross for your sins. He loves you so much that he suffered as a human and died as a human, feeling everything we feel, so that sin has no hold on you and you can have eternal life with him.

My words alone may not be enough to convince you. But these stories, these very old stories, have very new life in them. You likely sense the life in them touching your soul right now.

Know that today, you can live the story. Know that today, Christ’s triumph is your triumph!

Seeing Christ in Full

This is the first in an Easter season series on Revelation.

Revelation 1:4-8

When I was in seminary, one of my pastoral duties was to provide support for a very large assisted-living apartment complex in Lexington, Ky.  A dozen ladies there asked if I would lead them in a Bible study focused on the Book of Revelation.

What surprised me was the reason they wanted to have the study. In short, they were afraid.

At the time, there was a lot of talk about Revelation, in particular because a set of books known as the “Left Behind” series had been getting a lot of attention. Not one of these ladies could have been younger than 80, and I’m sure most of them had been going to church most of their lives. But all of a sudden, what is essentially the end of the biblical story kept them awake at night.

That was when I first began to understand that teaching—or in this case, preaching—is a special case where Revelation is involved. A lot of Christians have poorly formed or misinformed ideas about the book, and I generally have to convince people to put their preconceived notions aside if we are going to travel to the place Revelation wants to take us.

The author’s name is John, a man we know to have been imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. He may or may not have been the Apostle John; that matter is highly debatable, although ultimately irrelevant to the message the book sends. John’s point in writing Revelation was to communicate a powerful vision he had to churches who apparently knew of him.

The first thing I want to note is how, in his greeting to the churches, he used a couple of important words to set the tone for his vision. “Grace to you,” he told them. “Peace.” And he rooted this greeting in the holy, loving nature of God, as expressed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

His greeting expressed freedom, particularly freedom from the power of sin. John spoke of power and hope for Christ’s followers, not punishment. Fear was not an emotion he seemed to be trying to elicit.

John’s greeting continues to remind us of where our story is headed. Christ will return in a most undeniable way. The “tribes of the earth” may wail, but only because they failed to acknowledge a great truth still serving as the core of our faith, the truth of Jesus Christ as savior for all of humanity.

These words of hope and peace make Revelation a wonderful way to explore the continuing Easter season. Christ’s resurrection was just a beginning, a promise of more to come. A remaking is underway, and it will continue until it ends with everything in heaven and earth conformed to the will of God, made holy by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.

I want you to keep that good news of the ultimate outcome in mind as we go through the next few weeks. Because, again, Revelation is a strange book, and it is easy to become confused.

Part of the problem arises because we have no other forms of literature like it. Westerners try to read it like a story, a standard kind of narrative familiar to our culture, but it was never intended to be read in such a way.

Instead, it is:

A special genre known as “apocalyptic.” Time flows differently than it does in a standard Western narrative. Viewpoints shift from heaven to earth with little warning. Reading Revelation as a straightforward narrative can generate some bad theology.

Highly symbolic. Very little of it is intended to be taken literally, but at the same time, there’s a deeper meaning communicated by the symbols. For example, after the text we’re hearing today, John launches into a vision of Christ in heaven. This description symbolically shows our Savior’s deeper nature—his purity, his all-knowing mind, and his uttered words as the purest truth, capable of cutting through worldly confusion.

An invitation to imagine. Apocalyptic literature was written for audiences facing persecution. They were being asked to see a better day, a great Day of the Lord promised since the Old Testament. We also are being invited to imagine and work toward the same dream.

Back to my ladies in Bible study: When we were finished studying Revelation, one of the oldest ones, a lady around 90, came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m not afraid any more. It’s about joy!” she said.

I pray that when we’re done with this series, we will all feel the same way.

What Perplexes Angels

Luke 24:1-12

In Luke’s version of the discovery of Christ’s resurrection, there are two “men” waiting at the tomb to announce that Christ has risen from the dead. I place “men” in quotation marks for a reason.

Luke also writes of their “dazzling” clothing and the stunned response of the women at the tomb. In describing their clothing, Luke uses the same Greek word here that he earlier used in 17:24 to describe a flash of lightning. Clearly, he wants us to understand that these “men” are angels.

When I hear this story, I wonder if angels find humans perplexing. Along with announcing the resurrection, these two angels find themselves called to restate what Jesus had already said several times. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

As the women ran back to tell the others, did one angel look at the other and say, “What did they expect?”

One of the angels could have noted the humans had hundreds of years of prophecy to guide them toward an understanding of what must happen to the Christ. For example, these Israelites would have repeatedly heard the words of Isaiah 53:10: “When his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”

And then there are all those Psalms—16:10, for example. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”

“But that prophecy stuff is pretty vague for sin-cloaked humans,” the second angel might have countered. “They don’t see God the way we do.”

“Okay,” I imagine the first angel saying. “But then Jesus came along and performed all those miracles to demonstrate who he is. And then he said who he is. And then he told them again and again that he must die in Jerusalem and be raised from the dead.

“What did they expect? Did they think they would actually find his decaying body this morning?”

I also wonder whether angels find us perplexing in our modern day. First of all, reports of Jesus’ resurrection are widely available, in all four gospels and other New Testament writings. His resurrection is the centerpiece of history, shaping Western civilization. The power of this truth to spread globally is evidence something miraculous is happening.

Second, Jesus made promises that go far beyond his personal resurrection. He has promised that a day is coming when he will return, and his resurrection will then be ours, leading to eternal life or eternal punishment. “Stay dressed for action,” Jesus says in Luke 12:35.

Angels certainly must expect those of us who call ourselves Christian to take such an admonition seriously. And when we lapse into the short-sighted lifestyles we often lead today—lifestyles of hoarding and self interest, of lewdness and meanness—we must seem strange to heaven.

Easter is our chance to adjust our perspective, to see the big picture and make the truth of the resurrection a part of everything we do. With the Holy Spirit’s help, perhaps we can even see the world with the eyes of the angels.

A Beach Moment

There are stories in the Bible so powerful that I find it daunting to elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing in a gallery before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite story in the Bible, the place I go for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.

—————–

Now that you’ve read it, let me share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation. It’s also nice if we respond to the gift as best we can.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in an indestructible state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transforming, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be relieved by an inner experience of God. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something more than the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

Forgetting Easter

Several years ago, back when I could easily call myself a young adult, I awoke after sleeping in one Sunday morning and went about my usual routine. I ate a late breakfast, watched television on the couch, and wandered through the day carrying out some other activities that must have been fairly mindless, as I cannot remember them now. It was only later in the day, prompted by an item on the evening news, that I discovered something: It was Easter Sunday.

Realizing I had let Easter go by almost unnoticed left me more aware than ever of a strange, empty feeling that had been within me for awhile. Partly, I was nostalgic, missing the childhood connection to the day. My parents had always made sure my little brother and I went through the rituals that made Easter fun—the coloring of the eggs, the basket with the hollow chocolate bunny (one year the basket itself was made out of candy), the afternoon trip to Granny’s house. In my memories, Easter always happened on a warm spring day, although that couldn’t have been true every Easter.

I also sensed, however, that my emptiness really had little to do with my need for a chocolate bunny. There were other pictures in my mind, too, glowing pictures full of stained glass and candles, reminders of the mystery of Easter Sundays in church. Smells and sounds from worship remained alive in my mind, too, and they all came back to me at once.

"Resurrection of Christ," Michelangelo, c. 1532

“Resurrection of Christ,” Michelangelo, c. 1532

Those images, sounds and smells existed to declare a powerful message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It’s a truth we should hear declared every Sunday, and it should be declared in an especially powerful way on Easter Sunday.

Yes, even for adults, the concept of the resurrection is a mystery. As a pastor, I try to explain as best I can that the resurrection is evidence sin and death have been defeated, and we have nothing to fear. But even the greatest theologians cannot fully explain the magnitude of what God is doing through the resurrection.

That’s a good thing; the mystery surrounding Christianity is evidence God, not humanity, is at work. We need to learn to revel in the fact God has done something inconceivably great and immeasurably loving through Jesus. Hey, that’s why we need the light, the smells and the music in worship. We’re trying to grasp a truth beyond words.

I say all of that to say this: Easter Sunday is April 5 this year. If you want to worship by coming to Luminary United Methodist Church, we’ll have a sunrise service outside (weather permitting) at 7 a.m., and worship services in the sanctuary at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. No special clothes or fancy hats required—just come expecting God to fill the emptiness.