Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
Luke 24:1-12 or John 20:1-18

Why seek ye the living among the dead?

Easter Sunday gives us a little taste of what heaven might be: churches overflowing with believers, altars covered with fresh blooming lilies and all of creation singing Alleluia again. The sorrow of Good Friday has passed and the people are overflowing with joy and peace. The congregation is crammed with every type: the long standing member, the C & E Christian (Christmas and Easter) and even a few who are just curious about what we are celebrating. They are looking for answers to their questions: what is Easter? Who is this Christ? More than Christmas, Easter provides us an opportunity to share the Gospel message: that Jesus Christ was raised so that we all might have new life in Him.

In Easter, we see the fulfilling of the promise made through Isaiah the prophet: that God will create new heavens and a new earth, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb. As we catch a glimpse of that promise being fulfilled, we feel a longing for the time when we will not experience hurt or destruction. This is especially true in those times when we are facing difficulty in our world. As people are still suffering from disappointment and defeat in the world, they need to know that God is doing something about it.

Yet, even as we know God is faithful, we still see suffering and pain all around us. People are still hungry. Enemies still wage war. Leaders still let us down. We still sin. In our hearts we believe that God is doing this new thing, creating this new world, bringing reconciliation and peace to His creation. But in our minds and through our experiences we know that the promise has yet to be fulfilled. Even though we are filled with joy on Easter, we wake up Monday morning to the reality of our lives. We look forward to heaven, but we live in this world now. And in this world, the lion eats the lamb.

Yet, the promise in Isaiah is not just for some far off place, but for a renewing of our world here today. God is not concerned only for where we will be for eternity, but how we live in the here and now. Heaven is something to look forward to, but it is also something to be experienced now. While we do still experience hardship and death, has not the world become a better place? Though children still die much too young, have we not been able to save the lives of infants that once never stood a chance? Though men and women do not always make it to old age, are we not living longer? Though some have had economic difficulty, are there not more people who dwell in homes of their own? We can focus on the pain and the things that have gone wrong, or we can realize how much we have been blessed and then join God in recreating the world into the place He means it to be.

It won’t be perfect. We’ll still fail. Paul tells us that Christ must rule until He puts all His enemies under His feet. He rules now; we see this to be true on Easter Sunday, as we gather together to celebrate His resurrection. He was the first. We look forward to the day when He will come again. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the hope for our Christian faith. One by one the enemies of Christ are being defeated, even as each person’s heart is melted by God’s grace. It seems like it will never end, because just as one ruler is changed, another rises to fight against God. As one person comes to a lifesaving faith in Christ, it seems others are born to reject Him. But God is working. He is creating new heavens and a new earth. He is changing the world, one heart at a time.

But even as Isaiah tells us that the earth is being transformed as we dwell in it, Paul reminds us that our hope is for something beyond this world. If not, then our faith is pointless. If Jesus had not been raised and if we do not share in that new life, then we are to be pitied. But Jesus has been raised and we who believe will follow Him into the eternal life that God has promised. Heaven is our reality even as the earth is our reality. We live on the cusp of both worlds.

We are blessed to have moments when the veil between the two worlds seems to disappear for a time. I remember a visit we made to York Minster Abbey in York, England a few years ago. It was a cold and rainy day, and those ancient cathedrals are dark and cold anyway since they are made with stone with few windows. We attended the early evening worship, the evensong service, along with a few dozen other Christians. The boys’ choir was present to sing the psalms and we gathered in the intimacy of the quire. The light was dim, but there was a warm glow from the candles burning. Carvings of angels graced the walls. I got lost in the worship and for a moment I truly felt like I was in the throne room of God.

How must it have seemed for Jesus’ friends on that horrifying and confusing morning so long ago? They had left their master and friend lying in a tomb behind a heavy stone. They were prepared to complete the burial process once the religious day was over, but when they returned to the tomb they discovered that His body was missing.

We have a choice of two different versions of this story, one from Luke the physician and the other from John the Evangelist. The differences between these encounters can be troublesome to some, but we have to understand that John and Luke have different purposes and points of view. John’s Gospel has been written to prove that Jesus is the reality that was first seen in the Temple. He is the light, the bread, the priest and the sacrifice.

John describes the scene as it is witnessed by Mary. “But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” The Ark of the Covenant—which was the mercy seat of God where the blood of the sacrifice was poured—had two angels, one at each end. It is as if Mary was in the Holy of Holies, in the very presence of God, seeing the mercy seat of God after He accepted the sacrifice. In that scene, we see the reality of God’s forgiveness and the promise that “the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.”

Luke shows us the same scene as a miraculous moment, unexplainable by human experience. When the angels reminded them of Jesus’ words, it made sense, but it was still an incredible event. How could this be? What did it mean? Why has this happened? The angels asked a simple question, but one we can ask every day. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

Let me share another experience from England. We were visiting Westminster Abbey in London, the place where kings are crowned and princesses get married. The cathedral is filled with tombs and plaques honoring the rich, famous and powerful people of England. The tombs are spectacular, with gold leaf and important marble. Poetry corner is dedicated to those who throughout history have created some of the most beloved works of art and literature. The crowds line up to wander through the chapels, looking at memories of people who have long since died.

We were able halfway through our tour when we heard on the loudspeaker that the church would be holding a mid-day communion service. We found a staff member and asked how to get to the worship. He helped us jump over ropes and sneak through the lines of people who continued to look at the tombs. The service was held at the altar in the middle of the cathedral and we were surrounded by the crowds as we worshipped the living God. Are those visitors seeking the living among the dead? If they were, they missed Him, even though He was right under their noses.

The witnesses in both stories shared what they saw with their friends, but we are left with the question of whether or not they believed. John, ‘the other disciple,’ seems to have believed what he saw, but did he believe that Jesus had been raised? The men didn’t believe the women. Peter ran to the tomb in Luke’s story, but went home scratching his head. We are left wondering about the rest of the story.

Yet, we know they went on to tell the story. They continued to share the Good News of Jesus. Peter even took the story outside his community of faith, to Gentiles. He realizes in the story from Acts that God has no favorites. Christ was first, the Jews were next, and then the Good News was taken into the world. They believed and they shared their faith with others. We do so, too, especially on Easter Sunday. The crowds in this case are coming because they know that there is something spectacular about this story. God has done something new. God’s promises are being fulfilled. They were His witnesses and now we are called to be the same. They were commanded to preach to the people and testify, and now it is our turn.

We have life, new life in Christ, the new life that became a reality on that first Easter Sunday. We share in His resurrection and we will not die. The psalmist signs, “Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever.” On Easter we see the reality of this promise. His mercy is eternal. The old things are forgotten. He is making a new creation. We will live and are called to continue to tell the story.

Just as there were those who did not believe in Jesus in His day, before and after the resurrection, there are still those who have rejected Him. These are those whom He defeats, one by one, heart by heart. His Word breaks the hardness in their hearts until they too see the reality of God’s grace. How can we not give thanks and praise Him as we recount the good things He has done. How can we be silent? How can we not share this Good News with others?

I am reminded of the beloved hymn that many churches might sing during worship on this Easter Sunday: I love to tell the story. In the song, the singer talks of telling the story of Jesus, because the more it is told and the more it is heard, the more wonderful it is. The singer is so grateful for what God has done, that he or she can’t help but tell it to others. It doesn’t matter who is listening: it is sweet to tell the story to those who have never heard the message of God’s salvation, but even those who know it need to hear it again and again.

So, let’s gather together this Easter Sunday to worship the risen Lord, telling the story of His mercy for all to hear!

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