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Faith Walk: Faith and Resurrection

April 24, 2011
 
Sermon:  Faith Walk:  Faith and Resurrection
Text:  I Corinthians 15:3-8, 12-14

Today we continue and conclude our series of sermons entitled Faith Walk, a series that has been meaningful in my own spiritual walk, especially during this rather difficult month of April.  My hope and prayer is that these sermons have been meaningful to you, too.

I invite your attention to a few verses from the Apostle Paul:  I Corinthians 15, beginning at Verse 3.  Hear now the Word of God.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born.

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

We gather to worship on this Easter morning to observe the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We look forward to this annual celebration and to your presence.  The truth is that some of you do not worship with us very often, but you are here today because you know that Easter is the very center of our faith.  Declaring that Jesus is the risen Lord is right at the center of all that we believe as Christians.    It is so easy for us to lose sight of the fact that Jesus is, indeed, the reason for this season.  Toward that end, I want to address several mistakes we often make regarding the celebration of Easter.

First, we often get preoccupied with the timing of the Easter season, with the timing of this holy day.  I do not know how many times I have heard people say, “Easter is late this year.”  Gardeners have said, “My…Easter comes late this year, and it has messed up my spring planting.”  I suppose farmers have said that the date of Easter this year somehow affects the milking of cows.

Sometimes conflicts arise between the dates selected for spring break in the school systems and the observance of Holy Week.  I remember one year in particular that Easter came toward the end of April.  Dr. Bill Scott, the former director of District 7 orchestras, scheduled his finale on Maundy Thursday.

I called Bill and said, “We have a real problem with this date for the finale.  Some of your students in the program actually have parents who will be serving in our church that evening.  Other families with students in the orchestra will also want to participate in Maundy Thursday services.”

He asked, “Why did they move Easter so late this year?”

Determining the date of Easter is tricky.  Easter is observed on the Sunday that follows the appearance of the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  This year, that full moon appeared last Monday.  You can write that information down and remember it for next year.  The earliest date on which Easter can occur is March 22.  Easter last occurred on that date in 1818.  Easter will occur again on March 22 in the year 2285.  The latest date on which Easter can occur is April 25.  That happened in 1943 and will occur again in the year 2038.  This year, Easter comes on April 24, which is the next to the latest date it can possibly occur.

Martin Luther King was assassinated during Holy Week of 1968.  Dr. Charles Bodie, the distinguished president of the Peabody Institute in Nashville, Tennessee, was the guest preacher during a series of Holy Week services at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.  On the night of King’s assassination, the church was filled to capacity with people wondering what this outstanding African-American preacher would say.  I shall never forget his opening words when he stepped into the pulpit: “This year, Easter comes just in the nick of time.”

Easter always comes right on time.  For my family, Easter is not one bit late this year.  We have been through a period of bereavement, and we need to celebrate the resurrection.

A second mistake we often make is that we fail to hear the Easter story.  We think that we know it.  Dr. Fred Craddock, a professor of homiletics, said that we have a bad habit of overhearing the gospel.  We hear the stories so many times that we do not hear them new and fresh anymore.  We need to hear this story of Easter with fresh ears.  We need to read this story with fresh eyes.  Maybe it would help if someone read the stories to us so that we could study them anew.

Through the season of Lent, our son Kris recently displayed fourteen paintings of the scriptural Stations of the Cross at the Oxford Chapel at Emory University.  Eight of those works were painted on canvas and six on lumber wraps, pieces of sheeting wrapped around lumber to keep it dry during its shipment from the west coast.    Kris and the chaplain of Oxford Chapel developed a guide for viewers, including references to Scriptures.

Kris learned that among the many viewers of his display were a woman, who was very sick, and her seventeen-year-old daughter.  For some time, the woman had wanted her daughter to become involved in a church and its youth group.  The girl was very resistant and did not want anything to do with church.  The mother had convinced her to view these paintings because of her interest in art.  This teenager slowly moved from station to station, stopping to read the guide and to look at each painting.

Noticing that the girl was crying when she reached the last station, the chaplain asked her, “Are you alright?  Is there anything I can do for you?”

She answered, “I just don’t know why nobody has ever told me this story.”

This seventeen-year-old girl was living in Atlanta, Georgia, and she had never heard the Easter story?  We need to make sure that our children and our grandchildren hear this story.  Read it to them around your table.  Do not just assume that you know this story.  Read it yourself from the Scriptures during your own time of devotion.

Third, we regard the resurrection as a mystery that must be solved.  You have heard people say, just as I have, “In Christianity I have trouble with the first and the last, with the incarnation – the idea that Jesus was somehow God, that there was a virgin birth – and trouble with the resurrection – the very idea that somebody can come back from the dead.”  In our western way of thinking, we look at the empty tomb as a crime scene – CSI: Jerusalem.  We want to gather all the evidence and understand what happened there.  We want to make sense out of this case of a missing body.

The problem is that each of the four Gospels gives varying accounts of what the eyewitnesses saw.  One Gospel refers to two angels, but another mentions only one angel.  The Gospel of Luke tells a wonderful story about the road to Emmaus, but not one of the other Gospels mentions that episode.  The Gospel of John tells of Mary Magdalene’s coming to the tomb alone.  Other accounts differ.  Trying to synchronize all of these stories would drive a crime scene investigator absolutely crazy.  The point is not to make sense out of all the accounts and get the stories aligned.  The point is that the stories all agree that Jesus rose from the grave.  We serve a resurrected Christ, a living Savior.

The Gospel of Matthew reveals that some individuals questioned the resurrection experience.  They suggested the existence of a Passover plot, signifying that the disciples had concocted a story about this resurrection when they had actually removed the body of Jesus from the tomb and hidden it in another location.  When I was in seminary, the controversial book entitled The Passover Plot, by Hugh J. Schonfield, was actually published.

The very fact that the resurrection accounts all differ provide proof against a conspiracy.  If this resurrection account were a plot, these disciples would have sat down and said, “Let’s get our stories straight.  We cannot have any discrepancies here.”  They did not do that.  The single best evidence for the resurrection is what actually happened in the lives of these people.  We are not to solve the mystery.  If we do anything, we are to restore the mystery. We are to let it stand as a reason for awe, for reverence.

This is a joyous day.  We have had a joyous worship service, but another mistake we make is jumping too quickly to the joy associated with Easter.  I know that notion sounds strange.  I first came across this idea in Dr. Edmond Steimle’s Easter sermon “Disturbed by Joy.”  This distinguished Lutheran pastor says that we should pay close attention to the responses of those involved in the resurrection accounts.

My grandfather was finally convinced to go to a presentation of Handel’s Messiah.  I cannot imagine my grandfather, who never had a class in music appreciation, sitting through that lengthy oratorio.  He followed the composition all the way through, though,  striking out the lines as they were sung.  Mad because they sang the same line repeatedly, he intermittently leaned over to my grandmother and said, “This is the third time they have sung those words!”

My grandmother kept telling him, “Ed, just be calm.  We’re going to leave in a little while.”

Following the presentation, my grandfather lit up a Tampa Nugget cigar.  When somebody asked him what he thought about the Messiah, he responded, “It wouldn’t have taken so long if they had quit repeating themselves.”

Can we sing too many hallelujahs?  Can we be too overcome with joy during the Easter season?

Let’s consider those first Christians.  They should have been prepared for the resurrection, not surprised, because Jesus had told them what to expect.  When the resurrection actually happened, they were not jumping for joy.  The dead rising from the grave was somewhat spooky, and their emotions were more appropriate for Halloween.  We see that they are amazed, confused, baffled.  They are astounded and astonished.  I suggest to you that the word “fear,” which appears six times in the Gospel accounts, may not actually mean terror.  “Fear” suggests a feeling of complete respect, a holy awe, an experience of standing in deep reverence before God on a daily basis.

In the days and weeks that follow, these same Christians began to take in what had happened.  As we follow the story into the book of Acts, we see that their lives had changed in a remarkable way.  Instead of hiding in an upper room, they became empowered by the Spirit of God.  Acts 17 tells us that they had turned the world upside down, bringing many converts to Christianity.  They were convinced that with the resurrection of Christ, the vicious circle of sin and death had been destroyed.  The last enemy – death itself – had been put under the feet of Jesus.  He was victorious.

Another incorrect assumption is thinking that the resurrection is all about heaven, all about the hereafter.  I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has said, “I am so sorry you lost your dad.”  Dad is not lost at all.  I know where he is.  So many people have said, “We know he is in a good place.”  Yes, I do know that heaven is a wonderful place.  We have much to look forward to, but the resurrection is not all about heaven.

In the years I was at Croft Baptist Church, we sang old hymns.  I remember the words “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar,”  “By and by, when the morning comes, When the saints of God are carried home,” and “I’ll fly away, O Glory, I’ll fly away.”   We sang about Beulah Land.  Those words depict only a part of the meaning of resurrection.  A religion that looks only to heaven, only to a time beyond this “vale of tears” we live in now, is somewhat like slave religion.

I honestly did not fully understand the concept that resurrection requires some impact on life until I read Mill Hands and Preachers, by Liston Pope.  Though the book was written about religion in Gastonia, North Carolina, it helped me understand religion in Spartanburg, South Carolina, about as well as anything I have ever read.  The idea is that mill hill communities always had a church.  Often the mill owners selected the pastor of the church, who preached about faith in heaven, faith in the “sweet by and by,” faith beyond the oppression of this life.

Billy Sunday, a former baseball player who became an evangelist, was well known for his “sawdust trail” campaigns or revivals which ended with an altar call.  In his sermon “The Ideal Christian Life,” Sunday said that the ideal Christian life would consist of walking down this sawdust trail, getting on one’s knees to repent and accept Jesus Christ as Lord, walking back up the sawdust trail, stepping out into the street, getting run over by a Mack truck, and going straight to heaven.

Is that the “ideal Christian life”?  It seems to me that something must happen between accepting Christ and going to heaven.  That “something” is this life we live.  Resurrection is about this life.  Our faith walk is about living the resurrection now.

This morning during the early service when we baptized a number of people, I spoke these words from Romans 6:4:  “Buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in new life.”  That new life in which we walk is the resurrected life.  Eternal life is not just what happens after death.  It is life with an eternal quality.  It is life that is qualitatively different than the life we lived before we knew Christ Jesus.  Eternal life, the resurrected life, is life here on earth now.  It is not yet complete, but it will be complete in “the sweet by and by.”  We are raised to walk in new life, new life that is ours through Christ.  Jesus called it the abundant life:  “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Eugene Peterson’s book entitled The Resurrected Life has been a great help to me on this point.  Peterson points out that if we believe we can consign what happens on Easter Sunday to one day out of the year, then we have terribly missed the point.  When we live the resurrected life, every single day becomes a new experience of resurrection.  Each morning we get out of the bed, we experience the wonderful glory of God, even when life is difficult.  The key is to look back at these stories in the Gospels, look at the way these people responded, live the resurrected life by paying attention to what is happening around us, be willing to be surprised, to be astonished, even bewildered by what we see.  We must learn to be surprised, even on the Monday after Easter.

What is going to happen tomorrow after Easter Sunday has ended?  Is it going to be the same-ole-same-ole?  Are we to go back to the ordinary, or will we understand that this resurrected Christ makes a difference not just one day a year but every single day?  If we believe that and if we take this faith walk with the resurrected Christ, then we understand that he is always with us.  He is here right now in this room, and he will be with us no less tomorrow.  We do not have to be in this place to experience him.  We can experience him while sitting on our back porch, drinking a cup of coffee and listening to a mockingbird sing.  We can experience this new life, this presence of the risen Savior, every single day.

If we believe that, then life itself will find a rhythm that includes Sabbath time.  If we believe we are living the resurrection life, we will make time to worship.  We will take the opportunity to pay attention to the stories in the Gospels and listen with fresh ears.  We will see there stories about ordinary people, about people like you and me.  Mary Magdalene was at best a marginal person, a woman for whom Jesus had cast seven demons.  I do not know whether that meant that she had a terrible mental illness or whether it meant that her life was pock-marked by sin upon sin.  Regardless, Mary had been redeemed.  The Gospel of John tells that she came to the tomb and recognized that Jesus was the resurrected Christ.

If we believe we are living the resurrection life, we will also listen to the stories of people around us.  When we do that, we understand that everybody makes a difference.  On Friday afternoon, I went to see Jim Smith, who, as some of you will remember, was at one time the director this orchestra.  Jim now has Stage 4 cancer.  He said to me, “Kirk, I am at peace.”

I have listened to many prayers in my time.  I listen to the way people pray.  Some good, hardworking people begin their prayers with words like “Lord, I thank you for waking me up this morning.”  These people do not just jump right in with a lot of praise.  They do not jump right in with a wish list.  “Lord, I thank you for waking me up this morning.”  Isn’t simply waking up, greeting a new day, seeing the many possibilities that God has for us, and remembering that God’s tender mercies are new every morning a resurrection experience?

Maybe you have seen the YouTube clip of people eating their lunch at a food court.  Someone stands up and starts singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from the Messiah. Soon afterwards, another person joins in, also singing the chorus, and then another and another.  That seemingly spontaneous presentation had been planned, but the people in the food court are absolutely surprised.  I like to think that God surprises us with these breakthroughs of the sacred in the course of the ordinary, in the course of the mundane, in the course of our secular lives.  For people who live the resurrection faith, what is sacred and what is secular differs very little.  All of life becomes sacred when we sense the presence of the living Christ.

My hope and prayer is that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior.  If not, could I invite you to make that decision?  What better day than this, to accept Christ Jesus as the Lord of your life?  I want you to start living this resurrection life, this journey of faith, now.  Others of you have other decisions to make.  We invite you to respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2011
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