Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8
Other options: Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18

Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever.

When we are preparing our activities for our churches, we often ask ourselves the question, “What are they looking for?” We want to know what our visitors are seeking so that we can provide them with the programs that will keep them coming back. Perhaps we should be asking this question, “For whom are you looking?” People may want Easter egg hunts and BBQs, basketball leagues and teen dances, but they will never be transformed by those things. The chances we have to reach those who do not believe are so rare, that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to catch them at those moments.

Sometimes we miss the point and we forget what really matters. They will never be truly satisfied until they encounter the living Christ. But we know they’ll never hear the message if they will not enter through the door, so we give them what they want. We give them a show. We give them activities. We give them excitement. In the process, we often forget to give them what God has given us: hope, peace, forgiveness. We forget to give them Jesus.

The story of Easter, the rising of Christ out of death into new life, is something that everyone should hear. It seems like in that day it would have been best for Jesus to appear to the entire city of Jerusalem at one time, to do something spectacular to ensure that the reality of His death and life was understood by all. As it happened, many people doubted the story they heard. The Romans thought the Jews had stolen the body. The Jews thought the disciples had stolen the body. Those who doubted would have been silenced quickly if only they’d seen Him with their own eyes.

But Paul tells us in the passage from 1 Corinthians that Jesus was very careful about those to whom He appeared. There is a list of witnesses, from Peter, to the disciples, to a gathering of faithful, to His half-brother James and then to the ones Jesus sent out to do the work He had begun. Each appearance had a purpose, about which we will hear in the coming weeks. Jesus didn’t appear at the top of the Temple where the entire city would see Him. He didn’t draw great crowds around Him. He didn’t perform incredible miracles so that the world would believe. He appeared to a few, taught them all they needed to believe and then left them to do the work He began.

Paul lists himself as the last and least of all the witnesses, because he saw Jesus much later and only after he had persecuted the believers. Paul tells us that his word can be believed because it had been given to him by Christ, just as it had been given to all those others who had been witnesses not only to the resurrection but also to the life of Jesus. He is also credible because the word Paul gave to the people was given first through the scriptures, in promises and prophecies sent by God. We follow in his footsteps, perhaps not meeting Jesus in such a dramatic way, but still called to take the message of forgiveness into the world.

The thing we celebrate this week is not some holiday that comes just one Sunday a year filled with candy and bunnies and eggs. It is the culmination of God speaking to His world, fulfilling His promises fully and faithfully.

Holy Week is an incredibly busy and stressful time for most churches. There are extra services with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and sometimes an Easter Vigil. Easter Sunday usually includes extra worship and some sort of breakfast. The church needs to be cleaned and decorated. We expect something spectacular on Easter Sunday, with flowers gracing the sanctuary and special music. The church pews will be overflowing with people, many of whom only see the inside of a church on Easter and Christmas. They go to church on Easter because they are tagging along with family or because they think it is their duty to be there that one time a year.

It is important that we give them the Good News, done well. I don’t want to say that it is about presenting an impressive show that will make them want to return, but it is the reality of the world in which we live. People want a good show and we want them to share in the faith that brings us peace and hope, so we give them what they want. It is stressful.

The first Easter morning was much different, but no less stressful. Imagine what it must have been like for those women. They’d seen Jesus suffer a horrific death just a few days before, leaving them alone. They were confused and scared. But they knew what they had to do. His body had to be laid in the tomb quickly so as not to make the most holy day of the Jewish year unclean. They were not able to do for Jesus’ body all that was their gift to do. Of all people, He deserved the physical anointing of those costly oils that would help stave off the odors of decomposition.

The anointing is not really that important for the dead, but it is vital for the living. I once heard a story about a person who died at home under the care of a hospice nurse. The family was nearby and when the person died the nurse took out some ointment and began to prepare the body. She asked the family if they wanted to help and showed them how to carefully rub the oil into the body. The family members were unsure at first, but eventually moved to the bedside and began the task. They were amazed at how soothing and comforting it was to do this for their loved one. In anointing the body, they were able to share in that last moment and say good-bye in a most beautiful way. The smell and feel of the oils calmed them in this moment when their world seemed to end.

In the stress of Holy Week, it is almost shocking to read the scripture from Mark for Easter Sunday. This passage is a dramatic moment in time, when Jesus’ followers first discovered that His body was no longer in the tomb. But we are not given drama in Mark’s story. Instead, we are given a glimpse of normal people attending to the normal tasks of life and death. They are talking amongst themselves as they approach the tomb, asking a simple question about how they’ll get the stone moved so they can do their work. There is nothing special or hurried about the moment.

The outcome in Mark’s story is not what we would expect. In this text we are left dazed and confused. The women are not excited about the words they hear from the man in the tomb, they are frightened. They do not go immediately to the disciples and tell them what they found, they stayed quiet. Thankfully we have other accounts which tell us the rest of the story. If we were only given this passage, we would not think Easter Sunday is such an important day. So, the body is gone. What does that mean? The cynics said the disciples had stolen the body, giving the impression of a risen lord.

During a recent news story, I heard a reporter describe Easter Sunday worship as solemn and holy. Defined properly, this is very true. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the reporter was using the terms in a particularly valuable way. I interpreted her statement to mean that Easter worship is sober, somber, and grave with serious formality. It is a holy day, set aside for us to celebrate something incredible and special, and yet the reporter made it sound like it was all too good and extraordinary for ordinary people. What average person can stand amidst the holy and who wants to be grave and serious on a day filled with chocolate bunnies and Peeps?

It is true that Easter Sunday is a solemn and holy day, but not because it is formal, somber and untouchable. It is sacred because it is God’s incredible gift for His people. It is the celebration that everything holy has been made accessible. It is joyous because there is no longer a wall between God and His people. Jesus broke the barrier between humankind and the divine. He restored our relationship with God and we mark that reconciliation with a party. Actually, we mark that reconciliation every Sunday as we remember and celebrate the risen Lord every week, but we have set aside Easter as a special festival day as we complete the story begun on Palm Sunday.

I suppose in some ways the world sees our Easter worship as opposite the image we have of Easter ‘out here.’ They have Easter bunnies and eggs, chocolate and jelly beans. They have egg hunts and carnivals, feasts of ham and buffets with champagne. They have joy and happiness, we have church. What the world misses is that we have joy, but it isn’t from a sugar high or a belly full of good food. We go to church on Easter Sunday to rejoice in the fulfillment of His promises and to thank Him. It is a much more real joy than that found in Easter baskets and egg hunts. It is the joy of knowing that the world has been made new by the most incredible act of God. The world has been changed forever, and we are called to live as Easter people from this day on. As we live as Easter people, the world will see that it isn’t about somberness and perfection. It is about living in the forgiveness of God’s grace forever.

Why would the reporter think that Easter Sunday worship is solemn and holy? Perhaps the better question is: why did she interpret that to mean it is somber and beyond the reach of the normal person? I don’t know. Maybe it is the lilies that many churches use to decorate on Easter Sunday which are beautiful but make the sanctuary smell like a funeral parlor. Perhaps it is the incredible nature of the Easter story—a guy died and rose again. For the rational mind this is beyond the possibility of reality. Perhaps it has to do with the expectation that everyone will arrive in brand new dresses and starched suits, as happy families gathered together for once in a year. Maybe the impression of the reporter comes from the idea that Christians are ‘better’ than others: after all, many gave up something they loved for seven weeks. Most people struggle to get through one day without falling into the temptations of those things they desire. To them, the end to our fast must be some solemn and holy event. Perhaps they think we are hypocrites pretending perfection on such a solemn and holy day when they know we fail to be righteous every day.

I don’t know. I guess I’m just letting my mind wander as I consider what the world thinks of all our preparation. I had to laugh the other day as I scanned through the television listings. As is typical of this time of year, the line-up is filled with documentaries that question our understanding of Christ and His work. One show, about the lost gospels, set out to prove what Jesus really meant and did. Other shows are designed to bring doubt to the crucifixion and the resurrection. People today are still cynical about what was reported in the days of those first disciples. No wonder the women were afraid. It is no wonder that we are afraid. The world does not understand faith and they think that Christianity is foolishness. They define us by the way they see us, without really knowing who we are or what we’ve been called to do.

The reporter and those television shows are just trying to put a twinge of doubt into our hearts, to turn us away from our God. Yet, we know that the message is not about perfection but about forgiveness and that Easter is the day we know God’s faithfulness to be true.

The Easter story is both the easiest message to preach and the hardest. For those who have heard the story a hundred times before, the words “He is risen” deepens the hope we have as we wait in expectation for the fulfillment of all God’s promises. However, when we gather on Easter Day, there are also many who only know part of the story. They know that Jesus Christ is Lord, but they don't quite understand why. They know they are seeking something, but they can’t define their need. They want to be fed, inspired and to learn, but what they really need is to be transformed. They need to meet Jesus.

Perhaps that reporter’s experience in Easter worship was a somber and untouchable ritual. Perhaps she did see it as serious and formal. Perhaps she felt uncomfortable and uncertain. If so, then she would never have met Jesus. I’m not saying that He was not present in the worship, but she could not see Him. The Good News is so odd. A good man, Jesus of Nazareth, on whom God had showered His power and who did good works in His name, was killed on a cross. And then three days later He was reported raised from the dead. It is no wonder that strangers find it difficult to believe our story.

The psalmist writes, “The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.” This refers to Jesus Christ, but it is such an odd image for us to see. How can something that isn’t worthy to be put into the building be set aside for such an important task? Yet, we have to remember that God sees strength were we see weakness. He sees faith where we see doubt. He sees hope where we see nothing but despair. Jesus was strong, even though He died on the cross. He was strong because He rejected the temptations to go against God’s will. He was faithful because He did not allow His flesh to overrule His spirit. He brought hope because he died on the cross and was raised again, so we have nothing to despair. By grace we can sing this hymn of thanksgiving because we have seen the salvation that God promised. We have seen it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the cornerstone, thanks be to God.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the very present Christ who was raised and who chose to be seen by certain people. He chose His witnesses, just as He chose Cornelius to hear the Good News and to become yet another witness of God’s grace. Not only did the crowd in Cornelius’ house hear the story of Jesus, they received the Holy Spirit, a powerful moment of Pentecost for the Gentiles. The Jews who had traveled with Peter were amazed that God would do such a thing. Peter reminded them, though, that God chooses who is clean and unclean. “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” God had already done the work, so Peter welcomed them into their fellowship by baptizing them in the name of Jesus.

I wonder if we sometimes we are afraid to tell strangers the whole story, to give them the entire Gospel. Do we, like Peter, have biases that keep us from sharing the message with the world? Peter lived according to the strict code of his religion. He ate with the right people and did the right things. He kept himself separated from those who did not belong to the faith of his fathers. This was as it should be, because for Peter and the other Jews, the people of other nations were different, unclean. I don’t think that Peter considered them evil, after all, he saw Jesus minister to many outside the Jewish faith. Jesus healed sick Gentiles and raised up as virtuous those whom the Jews held in contempt. Peter simply knew that God’s chosen people had been called to live separate for a purpose and he obeyed the rules that kept them separate.

Cornelius was a good guy. The writer of Acts says that he was “devout and God-fearing” and that he was generous to the poor. Yet, something was missing from his life. An angel of God appeared to Cornelius in a dream, telling him to call Peter to his home. Peter had a special message to give to Cornelius.

Yet, Peter would not have been comfortable with this situation. So, God sent him a vision. It was a shocking revelation to someone like Peter who lived according to the Law. A sheet filled with unclean animals appeared before him on the roof of his house. “Kill and eat” a voice told him. Peter could not eat the food on the sheet; it was against the law of his faith. Those things were unclean. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” the voice told Peter. God chooses what is clean and unclean and he would not command His people to do what is wrong. This was a lesson to Peter that the day would come when he would have to speak the grace of God to people whom the law said was unclean. He would be put to the test soon after his vision.

Peter was still not entirely comfortable with the situation he faced. How could he reject the call of God to go to Cornelius’ house? So, he invited the Gentiles into his home and then went with them to Cornelius the next day. He is clear to state the law by which he lives, that a Jew should not associate with Gentiles. But he also tells the crowd of people that God had shown him that he should not call any man clean or unclean. In response to the story Cornelius told of the angel’s visit, Peter shared with him the Good News of Christ.

The world does not know what to expect when they walk through the doors of our church. We spend a great deal of time asking, “What are they looking for?” But we need to remember that they are not looking for the things we can offer them. They are looking for Jesus. We can fill our time with a bunch of exciting activities and try to overcome the misunderstanding about our faith, but we must not forget the center of our worship life: Jesus. Let us always remember that egg hunts and pancake breakfasts are fun and they might bring people to the pews of our churches, but they will never save a soul. Only Jesus can do that. Let’s design our worship so that He will shine in glory and be accessible to all those who are seeking the source of peace and joy.

Easter Day is a time to be thankful, to live in praise and worship, for He has indeed done incredible things. Allelujah.

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