Easter Sunday - "The Greatest News Ever"
Today is Resurrection Sunday. Today all over the world Christians will be pouring into churches to celebrate what is easily the highest and holiest of all of the high, holy days in the Christian tradition. And many of them will say, shout, sing or otherwise exclaim these words: "Jesus is Risen!"
We say these words with a great deal of joy and gusto on Easter Sunday, don't we? And in the Presbyterian tradition we often accompany them with a response, "He is risen indeed!" But what do these words really mean? When we say them, do we truly believe them? What exactly are we proclaiming when we say that Jesus is risen?
Well, for starters, we might simply be proclaiming something that we've always proclaimed. We say "Jesus is risen," because we've always said that Jesus is risen. We do it without a lot of thought, without really pondering what it is that we are saying even as we say it. Because to not say it would somehow violate some unwritten rule that has been imprinted on us since the time that we were small.
Or we might be saying it because everyone around us is saying it, and we don't really want to upset anyone. But maybe deep down inside we're wondering if we can really believe what we're saying. We think about the idea of a person rising from the dead, and it sounds crazy--impossible. So we figure it must be a metaphor for something, a story passed down that maybe people can use to help them get through the hardships of life.
Here's the thing, we cheapen the Resurrection when we speak of it as metaphor. To relegate it to a feeling that the disciples felt after Jesus' death waters down the power of the Resurrection and leaves no room for the miraculous.
On the other hand, we diminish the Resurrection when we focus on proving it. If I stood up here today and spent the entire hour telling you all of the reasons I think we can prove that the Resurrection happened, we are basically operating from the same playbook as those who would call it a metaphor. We're watering it down to a set or propositions, facts and provable theories rather than a life-changing, world-altering event.
Listen, Mystery is all around us. Miracles happen every day. We're just not paying attention. And even the things that we think we can figure out seem to be unraveling right in front of us. Scientists can't explain all of the things that are happening at a quantum level of the universe, for example. It's a mystery and somewhat miraculous, to be honest.
Here is what Easter helps us to see more clearly, however. Easter, and more specifically, the Resurrection helps us to see clearly how central to the Christian faith the story of the Resurrection truly is. Without the Resurrection, as the Apostle Paul wrote, there literally isn't any point to Christianity that is different or special apart from any other religion or set of beliefs.
But what makes Christianity special is the Resurrection which helps us to know without a doubt that we are not trapped by our past, or defined by our mistakes. Because of the Resurrection we have the kind of defiant hope that comes with the knowledge that we aren't marked for life because we mess up.
And that leads us to another very important thing that the Resurrection helps us to see clearly--Because of the Resurrection, we are changed forever. We don't have to be the people we used to be, we can be the people that God has always dreamed for us to be, full of purpose, joy and hope for the future.
In fact, this leads me to the one thing that I want everyone to remember today: THE RESURRECTION MEANS THAT NOTHING EVER HAS TO BE THE WAY IT ALWAYS WAS.
Our guide today will be the Apostle Peter, whose sermon in Acts chapter 10:34-43 served to open the door of eternal life in Jesus for people who had never before heard such good news. The context of this sermon is a visit that Peter made to a Roman centurion's house--a visit that he would have never made had God not led him to do so.
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Think about something for a moment with me. This guy Peter who is delivering this sermon about the transforming power of the Resurrection to a Roman centurion is the same guy who was transformed by the power of the Resurrection. He denied Jesus not once, not twice but three times before Jesus was crucified, and then came face to face with the risen Jesus three days later. His story helped him to see the true power of the Resurrection to convey God's true intentions for the world--to restore, reconcile and resurrect all of Creation--to make all things new.
Everything Peter had been taught at the moment he delivered that sermon was called into question. He had been taught not to eat unclean food, to hang out with Gentiles (and a Roman centurion definitely qualified as a Gentile) and worse he had been taught never, ever to step foot into the home of a Gentile if he wanted to be pure, and righteous in the eyes of God.
But after he had a vision from God right before he met this Roman centurion, and realizes God's intentions to spread the good news of the Resurrection to the whole world, Peter begins to also realize that because Jesus is risen, nothing has to be the same. There is a new freedom that permeates his very being, a new freedom that brushes aside all of the old ways he thought and felt. And he knows... that there is a new freedom in the Resurrection that permeates all of Creation.
THE RESURRECTION MEANS THAT NOTHING EVER HAS TO BE THE WAY IT ALWAYS WAS.
This is why, as Christians, we affirm the Resurrection. The Resurrection sets us free.
It sets us free first of all from an exclusive Christianity. What Peter came to understand was that the message of grace, forgiveness and transformation that Jesus taught, lived and affirmed with his life, death, burial and resurrection--that message was for everyone. It wasn't just for a privileged few. It wasn't for people who had the life together. It wasn't for people who knew their Bible. It was for everyone--in every place--in every time.
There is so much division among Christians right now. It grieves me more than I can say. I know that many of us who are gathered here today feel the same way. I have had people look me in the eye and tell me that they can no longer be in fellowship with me as a Christian because they don't agree with me on debatable issues of theology, interpretation of the Bible and the like.
Jesus did not rise from the dead so his followers would waste the rest of history arguing with each other about the correct way to baptize, or who gets to be an ordained minister, or whether this way of interpreting the Bible is the correct way as opposed to that other way. The Resurrection sets us free from this and calls us into deeper relationship with God and one another.
Secondly, the Resurrection frees us from guilt and despair. I meet so many Christians who walk around carrying so much guilt over the things that they've done, or said in the past. They might give lip service to God's forgiving and loving grace, but they don't live like they've received it. And sometimes that guilt can lead to despair.
We don't have to be imprisoned by guilt. Jesus rose again to demonstrate that sin and death have no power over him, and they have no power of those who embrace a life following Jesus. "For God did not come into the world to condemn the world," Jesus told his followers, "but that the world through him might be saved."
The Resurrection also frees us from a fear of the future. Jesus' rising from the grave means that even the worst that the world can throw at you, doesn't have the power to keep you down. Not even death can defeat you if you are living a life immersed in the way of Jesus.
I have so many awesome friends in my life, but there is one in particular that always gives me joy when I talk to him. I will ask him how he is doing, and he will say, "Living life one day at a time." he'll reply. This guy has seen some serious hardships in life, but he's reached this point where he is filled with peace about tomorrow. Because he has no fear of the future, he is able to be fully present in the present.
Along those lines, the Resurrection also frees us to dream of a new day. When you don't fear the future, you find the creative energy to dream of tomorrow. The great big problems and challenges of our lives can be transformed. The evil that seems to be permeating our world with all of the violence, terrorism, hatred and fanaticism that goes along with it can be transformed. We no longer have to sigh and say things like, "Well, that's just the way things are, we can't do anything about it."
The Resurrection sets us free--free to new life, to new courage, to new ways of living, loving and being in the world.
Listen, you can waste your time wrestling with the facts of the Resurrection. Or you can let the truth of it fall on you, change your life and set you free. It's your choice.
Jesus is risen, beloved. Because Jesus is risen, you have been set free. Live in that freedom. Live in the hope that your freedom brings. Live and live and live forever because the freedom of the Resurrection is eternal life that starts now and never ends.
The Resurrection means that nothing ever has to be the way it always was.