RSS

Category Archives: Easter

For Whom Is Christ Risen Today?

(a meditation for Easter Sunrise 2019, based on John 20:1-18)

“Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!” 

Friends, that is the ancient greeting of this day, the clarion call and response of our Easter celebration.  Moreover, in one single proclamation, it encompasses the incredible, earth shaking good news that brings people of faith the world over together in triumph and victory: from small clusters of people sharing the chill of early morning on hillsides and shorelines to the multitudes who even now are gathering in sanctuaries and cathedrals filled with flowers and song.  It’s  the curious, the seeking and the believing together as one, all seeking out an empty tomb and a word of rejoicing from angels in dazzling white.  This is the “Day of Resurrection, “ and it truly unites us: for no matter our background, nationality, language, politics, tradition or even our denominational affiliation (!), as Christians we share at least this much in common:  the liberating and unifying gift of divine redemption in which we gladly proclaim, “Christ is risen–he is risen indeed!”

It’s a proclamation borne out of a singular moment: a happening, a one of a kind event and an old and familiar story in which we know the “where and when” so well, and yet never fails to stir our hearts in the retelling.  Mary Magdalene approaching the tomb “while it was still dark,” coming to this place that didn’t simply represent death, it epitomized the loss of any kind of hope; her discovery that the stone that sealed the tomb had been rolled away: Peter and John literally racing to the tomb so to investigate, only to find it empty, save for the burial linens, and then – almost inexplicably – going back home, presumably to ponder what might just have happened (!); and then there’s Mary, all alone and weeping outside the tomb encountering someone she assumed to be the gardener but then realizing (when he called her by name!) that this was, in fact, Jesus himself, risen from death!

“I have seen the Lord!”  says Mary to the disciples, and as we tell her story once again this morning it is as though we have seen him as well.  Yes, we know very well what happened on that day so long ago; even the smallest of details in this story resonate with us.  The fact is, we know how to tell the story; after all, as Christians this is the culmination of our Lenten journey to the cross and beyond!  So we know all about Easter; and we do know that “Christ is Risen Indeed…”

…but the harder thing for us to understand is why.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to confess that even as we’re out here “in the wee hours” shouting our alleluias and sharing ancient greetings I’m, well… humbled.  I mean, we’re singing songs of praise and giving prayerful thanks for love and light and life, but even in all of that I find myself wondering how, in the face of the most indescribably wondrous and miraculous event in all of human history, God saw fit to make it happen; how God would sacrifice Jesus on the cross and then raise him up in Easter glory.  What did it mean to do that… truly, what does it mean?

Truly, we know that Christ the Lord is risen today – Aleluia! – but perhaps the bigger question is why, and for whom?  For whom is Christ risen today?

It would be easy for me to proclaim that Christ is risen for you and for me who are seeking to be faithful and live life with integrity and purpose and love… Christ is risen indeed for those who seek to live in the light!  But… can the same be said for those struggling in the darkness of life… and the darkness of the soul?  Is Christ risen for the prisoner alone in her cell trying to find some kind of way to put her life back together?  Is Christ risen for children born the midst of poverty, or who live in fear of violence every single day of their lives?  Is Christ risen for the one who’s suddenly facing the loss of a cherished relationship or the destruction of a home?  Is Christ risen for those who struggle with disease, for those who grieve, for those who are lost or confused about their lives, for those who have felt every day and in every way judged and marginalized and disenfranchised?  Is Christ risen for those for whom death, in all of its many guises, is a way of life?

And the answer is… yes!

For those, as scripture might put it,  who are “dwelling in deep darkness,” it is hard to conceive that Christ is risen, that death has been defeated and that life is new; but it is precisely these for whom Christ has most surely risen.  Beloved, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead for all those who dwell in the darkness that they might have the light of life!

For me, one of the most powerful elements of the Easter story is how it happens “while it was still dark,” the time that’s no longer night but yet morning.  Darkness, by its very nature, is the time for grief and hopelessness, but Christ arose to banish that darkness forever; because of the resurrection the light of a new day shone forth and life began anew with infinite possibilities; resurrection is the the only way it could have happened!

Truly, the risen Christ comes to us in risen glory to banish our darkness, yours and mine; he comes in the middle of our sin, our pain, our regret and our grieving for all that has been lost in the midst of it all.  Jesus Christ is risen to assure us once and for all that we need not fear, because now, at last, darkness is done and the day has come!  The power of death has been defeated forever, and life has prevailed; and you and I and everyone who dwells in the deep darkness can now rejoice in the light; for a new day has dawned, a day of resurrection alive with the power of divine and limitless HOPE!

For whom is Christ risen today?  Quite simply, Christ is risen for all those who need to experience that divine rebirth of heart and spirit.  Christ is risen for all those who know deep within their souls that the night, as dark and horrible as it has been, is now over, and a new day ripe with joy and celebration is about to begin.  For all the hymns sung today, for all the lilies blooming in our sanctuaries, for all the fellowship that’s to be shared amongst families and friends it can scarcely begin to express the true scope of Easter joy that comes in the resurrection.  Ultimately, it’s a gift that we’ve neither earned nor deserve, and yet it’s ours by the grace of an infinitely loving God.

And what can you say to this, except that… “Christ is risen… he is risen indeed!”

This is a great and glorious morning, beloved…  and the wondrous good news of Christ’s resurrection is ours to proclaim! So let us go forth today doing just that in our worship, our celebration and the opportunity we have here, now and in every new day from now on, to live in the light of life we’ve been given.  We have seen the Lord, beloved, so let us not be reluctant, but bold to share that news to all the world, and for the sake of all who are still mired in darkness and who need to know what light and life and resurrection truly is.

One more time, then…  Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed!

Alleulia, and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

Advertisements
 
1 Comment

Posted by on April 23, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

Tags: , , , ,

From Perplexed to Amazed

(a sermon for April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, based on Luke 24:1-12)

Whatever else one can say about Easter, it’s to say the least – the very least (!) – it’s perplexing.

Or maybe not; you see, you and I have the advantage of, as Philip Yancey has put it, “reading the Gospels from the other side of Easter;” that is, we’ve come here this morning well aware of how the story turns out.  The moment those women discover the empty tomb, we already know what’s happened; such is our familiarity with the story that we don’t think twice at the thought of angels “in dazzling clothes” suddenly standing there beside them, nor do we feel the women’s terror at their question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”   We’re not even particularly concerned as to what Peter might find when finally he runs to the tomb and stoops down to look inside, because – spoiler alert (!) – Jesus isn’t there, but has risen!

We’ve heard the good news and it’s that God has raised Jesus from the dead; and that not only sets the stage for the whole rest of the Gospel story – the two men on the Road to Emmaus who encounter the Risen Lord, the utter stubbornness of one “Doubting Thomas” because he hasn’t, the disciples’ grilled fish breakfast with Jesus on the beach, Peter pleading with Jesus three times over(!),“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”  (John 21:16) – not only all that and more, but there’s also the aptly named “Great Commission,” Jesus’ command to his disciples, and us, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19).  We know what happened there at early dawn on the first day of the week: Jesus is alive, and that says everything about who we are as believers and it’s the central truth of faith that makes us who we are as the church.  Because of the resurrection this is us, beloved, and that’s what we’ve come here on this Easter Sunday to celebrate and for which we give our God thanks and praise!

But as I said before, we know and understand this because we know the story inside and out; but what about those who were there on the day itself?  David Lose points out that despite all the variables on how the story gets told in scripture, “one of the common elements of the resurrection stories across the gospels is that no one expects the resurrection… and no one, quite frankly, believes it at first.”  It’s true; no matter our familiarity with the story or how much of centuries’ worth of faith and tradition has been layered upon the gospel accounts, the fact remains that Easter begins not with loud praises and triumphant songs of “hallelujah,” but  rather with some women bringing spices to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ dead body; these caring, grieving friends of the deceased seeking to do what needed to be done and have it be finished, only to encounter something unexpected, something unsettling, something terrifying, amazing and even hopeful all at once; but ultimately something that’s altogether impossible and utterly… perplexing.

And why wouldn’t it be?  I mean, the very thought that someone who was dead – three days dead, mind you – could have possibly risen to life; well, that’s just not possible, that’s against the laws of nature, because death is irreversible!  Dead is dead; and in a wonderful quote I read this week from Anna Carter Florence, “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Indeed, the logical response to anyone suggesting otherwise is disbelief!  So it’s no wonder at all that the rest of the disciples quite literally dismissed this news brought forth by the women as “an idle tale,” which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious,” and was understood by the people of that time as something akin to crazy talk; in other words, what these women were saying was nothing more or less than utter nonsense!

And as Luke tells the story, at least, that’s pretty much the end of it!  We do read about how Peter was moved to run and go check out the empty tomb for himself, stooping in to look inside at the grave clothes that were there, but even then we’re told he left wondering what might have happened; as The Message translates it, “He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”  That’s it; Peter just goes home and nothing else happens!  You know, I have to confess that as someone who likes his stories to come to a clear, definitive, and triumphant conclusion, that’s kind of disappointing! I mean, I really want to have that scene from John’s gospel with Mary weeping outside of the tomb and mistaking the Risen Christ for the gardener (!); or at the very least, I want to hear Matthew’s account of a great earthquake and how “the angel rolled the stone away!” (As the song goes, “Alleluia, what a happy day!”)  Even in Mark we get the image of the women having “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (16:8)  But in Luke, all we’re left with is a not-so idle tale and unbelieving disciples; all in all an Easter story without much of any real, first hand evidence of the resurrection whatsoever!

Like I said, it’s perplexing, to say the least…but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Perhaps our being perplexed is in fact the first step toward… amazement… and even believing!

It should be said here that the lack of, shall we say, empirical proof as to Jesus having risen from the dead is nothing new. In fact, for over 2,000 years now, thinkers and teachers and scientists and theologians have discussed, debated and literally fought over seeking to provide some sort of historical “proof” of the resurrection; from the very beginning there has been skepticism as to the truth of what is the core belief of our Christian faith!  And yet, despite the lack of any kind of real physical evidence, we do believe in the Risen Christ!  We know in our heart of hearts that’s it true, to the point that our very lives both now and eternally are brokered upon it; indeed, the proclamation that we make as Christians that God is even now bringing forth his kingdom into the world is all because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

We believe, you see… even though we weren’t there to see it happen, we still know it’s true; and we know it is because we’ve experienced it.

Ultimately Easter is more than a mere moment in history that took place just outside of Jerusalem two millennia ago on a morning not unlike this one; there is more to the resurrection than historical fact and empirical data and our understanding of what happened amounts to more than simply finding agreement in the differing accounts of the four gospel writers.  Easter, you see, is about what God has done in declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love is more enduring than tragedy.  Easter is all about the overwhelming effect of God’s love to the world; a loved offered without partiality and in more abundance than the world had ever known can ever begin to comprehend.

Easter is the inevitable result of God reaching out to the whole world through Jesus, who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love to those who don’t know about it and can’t begin to understand it because they’ve never really felt it as their own.   Easter is about love unwarranted and love undeserved but love that’s wholly offered; it’s about love extended, but not merely to the righteous uprights and those who already believe they’ve already proven themselves, but also and especially to those who believe themselves to be devoid of life and without any hope of redemption.  Easter says to each and every one of us that there is life for all from the Lord of all, demonstrated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior who has given us his victory over sin and death forever!

Actually, you know, at the end of the day this movement from being perplexed to feeling utter amazement comes down to a distance of precisely 18 inches!  That’s right, eighteen inches; that is, the distance from here, the head which insists on facts and evidence and provable data, to here, the heart, which knows the love of Christ and the truth of the resurrection.  Those eighteen inches are the difference between Easter being merely an interesting story and an intriguing possibility, and it being the key to our faith and hope in Jesus and his kingdom as well as our very lives as his disciples.

It was, after all, those eighteen inches that moved Mary and the other women from confusion to fear to utter amazement.  It was those 18 inches that compelled Peter to leave the other disciples behind, so to run to the tomb to look inside for himself, and led him to be “wondering to himself what had [actually] happened,” which turned out to be the first steps of a far greater journey of discipleship.  It was 18 inches that opened the eyes of two travelers on the road to Emmaus so that they could actually see the Risen Christ who’d been walking with them all along; and it was 18 inches that a week later led Thomas to no longer doubt but believe, confessing from his heart that right before his eyes stood his Lord and his God!

And it’s the same 18 inches that will move you and me today from perplexed to amazed.  The good news of this day  and every day is that resurrection was not just some one-time-only event breaking of the laws of nature as we know them.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an on-going gift of grace that is fresh and brand new with every heart that is transformed and every life that is made into something glorious by virtue of his victory over death.  That’s how, as Craig Barnes has written, that despite the world’s constant attempts to make it into something else, Easter can never really be about bunnies, springtime or girls in cute new dresses.  Easter, he says, is “about more hope than we can handle,” because first, last and always it’s about our encounter with the risen Christ here and now and how Jesus is ever and always in our midst and in our hearts; ever present in the words we speak, in the love we show, even in our questions and our doubts.  Christ is risen, and he is here now to share his power – his truth, his love, his strength, his faithfulness, his glory, his victory over death and the grave – with you and me and all those who would receive it.

This is the gospel that we proclaim and  that we believe.  We may not fully grasp the depth of his Passion, or fathom the meaning of the empty tomb; but we stand amazed at it, shouting in wonder and amazement at his glory and embracing his love; rejoicing in the truth that whether we live or we die, we belong to Christ!

So let us rejoice, beloved, in the power of the risen Christ and in the power of transforming hope; let us proclaim the truth of how death has indeed been swallowed up in victory, to the praise of our brother, our teacher, our friend, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen!

Christ is risen, beloved…. He is Risen Indeed!

Alleluia!  And AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 21, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Joy, Life, Sermon

 

Tags: , ,

Jesus Who Prays For Me

(a sermon for May 13, 2018, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on  John 17:6-21)

What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for.

It’s been almost 20 years now, but as you can imagine, the events surrounding our oldest son’s first surgery for the removal of a pituitary tumor are still indelibly etched in our family’s collective memory.  All of it: from the discovery, after a long search, of the tumor itself and the decision that something akin to brain surgery (the first of what turned out to be four such procedures over the next ten years or so) would be necessary to remove it; through the countless doctors’ appointments, consultations and follow-up visits; and leading up to all those horrible hours spent in hospital waiting rooms waiting for news.  It was a difficult situation, to say the very least; and this is to say nothing of the hard realization that all the medical advances in the world mean nothing when it’s your kid being wheeled into the operating room!

But that said I also have to say that what I also remember about that time was being awed, amazed and utterly humbled by the prayers being prayed for our son.  Now, we knew that our families and our friends would be praying for Jake as he was going through this, and that of course meant everything; and given not only that we were members of a close-knit church family but also that I was pastor of that congregation, we were very grateful to know that the church would be praying as well!  But I guess what was surprising was the depth, intensity and the utter expanse of that prayerfulness; as revealed by the women who gathered in the sanctuary on the morning of the surgery so that they could pray together at the exact moment the doctors were operating; or as evidenced by the prayers coming from the people in other churches in town, as well as from those at Jake’s school, others throughout the community and even from perfect strangers (!) who would came up to us in the supermarket to embrace us and let us know in a variety of ways that they’d been praying for us.

Friends, over the course of several months we got cards and letters from people we hadn’t heard from in forever or barely knew at all; and not only that, but also notes from churches out of town (and even out of state!) who wished us well and who wanted us to know that Jake’s name had been brought up in prayer concerns during morning worship!  I think my favorite, however, were the cards and pictures that came to us from an anonymous someone in Connecticut – we never did find out exactly who – but which was always signed by their cat, “Mittens;” as in, “Mittens is praying that Jake feels “purr-fect” very soon!”

It was amazing, it was uplifting… and it mattered.  It not only offered up to us a large measure of comfort and encouragement at a time when it was sorely needed, it also revealed something to us of the love of Christ in the midst of all our worry and stress.  All those prayers, no matter what their shape or form, made a real difference in our lives; it was such an incredible feeling, and so very important for us to know that our son was being prayed for; that Lisa and I and our whole family was being prayed for; and that there those out there who cared about us and who loved us and, moreover, who trusted God to hear them and respond to them as they prayed for us!

Those who have been there know what I mean when I say that this was life-affirming and in many ways, life-changing; and that’s why we should never underestimate the meaning of what we do together in our prayer time every Sunday morning.  There is power in prayer, and there is love expressed in the act of prayer; which is what makes it all the more remarkable to discover through our text for this morning that in the midst of those final moments just before the events of his crucifixion begin to unfold; even as, as David Lose puts it, he is “anticipating an immediate future that will include betrayal, trial, condemnation, beating, and execution,” Jesus stops everything to pray or those he loves… for his disciples… for those closest to him… and for you and me.

This passage from John’s gospel we’ve shared this morning continues on with what’s referred to as Jesus’ “farewell discourses,” but biblical scholars and church theologians often talk about these verses from the 17th chapter as being Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  This is a reference to Old Testament tradition, in which the temple priest would go into the “Holy of Holies,” which was the central-most part of the temple, so to offer up prayers of the people and bring a sacrifice as a payment for their sins.  In our Christian faith, of course, we understand that Jesus stands as a mediator between God and ourselves; offering up the one, true sacrifice – himself – as the final and complete payment for our sin before God.  So… the tradition of the church has always held that this prayer of Jesus in John’s gospel represents Jesus acting as our temple priest; quite literally standing before the throne of grace offering up prayers for his people in preparation for the sacrifice that’s to be made.

And that’s certainly true; in fact, these are verses central to our whole understanding of Christian theology; in particular the idea of Christ’s atonement for our sin, all for the sake of our salvation before God!  But I also have to say that because of how incredibly rich and dense the language in John can sometimes be, we can easily miss how very personal a prayer this is.  I mean, think of it; Jesus is speaking these words to his heavenly Father just prior to that moment in the garden when Judas and the soldiers come to arrest him.  Jesus knows that his hour is nigh, that very soon now he’s going to have to leave his disciples; and so he wants them to be prepared for what’s going to happen next.  Actually, you know, if you read all through these “farewell discourses” in John, you realize that up till this point, Jesus has been giving his disciples a whole series of last minute teachings – about his nature, about the sure and certain hope of life eternal, about peace that the world can’t give nor take away, and about the disciples’ own mission of love moving forward; three chapters’ worth of these teachings in John’s gospel (!) – but now, the lessons are done and in these last few moments before what’s destined to happen happens Jesus needs to pray for them!

And it makes sense; after all, these are the ones who have been the ones closest to Jesus, and these are the ones – whether they understand it or not at this point – who will carry on his ministry! Certainly Jesus wanted his disciples to have the protection and the assurance of God the Father in every uncertain moment that was to come to them, in the days and years to come.  So yes, he would pray for them, which in and of itself is an act of great love and affection; but – and this is important – it turns out that it’s not just the disciples that he’s praying for… Jesus is praying “not only on behalf of these” but also “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” (vs. 20)   and that includes you and me, “that they may all be one.”

And I don’t know about you, but the very idea of it fills me with awe: that the very same Jesus who in his moment of deepest despair would seize that time to pray for his disciples is also the Jesus who prays for me!

And what a prayer it is!   It’s certainly not a prayer that all will go easily for his disciples, because Jesus knew it wouldn’t; that it couldn’t!  It’s interesting to note that all throughout this prayer, Jesus talks about how the “world” that hated him would also hate his disciples “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  The Greek word that’s used here for “world” is kosmos, which more than just suggesting the physical nature of the earth, really means that which is totally alien and hostile to God’s intention to love and redeem all; in other words, Jesus knows that there will always be that “dark side” of humanity who will hate them simply because of who – and whose – they are!

So Jesus doesn’t pray that all will go along without incident, devoid of any difficulty or conflict in their lives ahead;  but rather that they, and we, might always be protected by the power of God’s name, “so they can be of one heart and mind” just as Jesus and his heavenly father were of one heart and mind.  And his prayers of intercession build from there: praying that more than simply having protection from their troubles, “they may have [his] joy made complete in themselves,” as they go forth with God’s word on their tongues and in their lives; praying that because of this they not be lost as Judas had been “so that scripture would be fulfilled;”   and praying finally, and above all, that they may be sanctified – that is, consecrated, made holy“in the truth;” which is God’s word.

And that’s important, too.

For what Jesus understood would be true for his first disciples would also be true for any of us who are followers of Christ: that the very nature of being his disciples, of adhering to the Word they’d received from him, would mean living their lives as outsiders, living “in the world but not of the world,” and yet because of this, having a clear purpose and mission for life itself; to be made holy for what we do, or as the word from the original Greek, hagios, suggests, to be “set apart for sacred use.”  Jesus – the Jesus who prays for me and for you – prays that in and through all our journeys and all our trials and all of our crises of life and even faith we might be set apart by God himself for sacred use!

It’s a big prayer; really, there’s no other way to describe it.  But in the end, you see, what it all comes down to is while that life is difficult, full of the unexpected, the unimaginable and very often the unmanageable, our Lord, in infinite love and care, has prayed – and is still praying – for us: that we might find the strength we need to get through; that we might glean joy in the midst of sorrow; and that we will be made aware in ways both large and small that we are not, and have never been alone in the struggle.  Jesus prays for us with the same constancy of care and compassion as that of the one who knows us the best; he shows us the deep and abiding love of God who brings to us life both abundant and eternal; and he assures us that even right here and right now, in the midst of it all, we’ve been set aside for a sacred purpose.

What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for. 

I wonder what Jesus is praying for in us today.  Maybe that we find the strength, the encouragement or the patience to get through the stress and uncertainty of whatever it is we’re having to face at this moment; a medical issue, perhaps; or a “rough patch” in a relationship with a loved one, a friend or co-worker?  It could be that Jesus is praying that we find the courage we need to stand up in the face of injustice (both personal and societal), or that we might we finally get some sense of healing of mind, body, spirit… or all three at once.  Maybe he’s praying that we have the grace to receive and accept the forgiveness we’ve needed for so long; or else that we figure out that what we really need to do is to be more forgiving of others!  Maybe Jesus is simply praying that we’ll stop for a moment, and pay attention… pay attention to God’s presence and power, and remember how much we’re loved.

Whatever the need happens to be today, friends; know that Jesus already knows, and that he’s praying for you and for me; and that we are the recipients and the stewards of that truly amazing grace.

There is power in his prayer; there is power to comfort us, to strengthen us, and to move us through the joys and struggles of this life… and I pray that each one of us here today might be strengthened and renewed by the power of that prayer.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

Tags: , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: