(a sermon for April 8, 2018, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on Romans 8:28-39 and John 20:19-31)
I have always found it interesting and a bit ironic that most years Easter Sunday tends to fall around the same time as income taxes come due.
Granted, this year was a bit of an exception, what with still another week to go before Tax Day (!), but generally speaking, it seems as though every year just about the time we in the church are gathering to shout our alleluias and sing songs of triumph, outside these doors there’s that other, not-so-triumphant day on the horizon!
Frankly, for me that’s always been a bitter pill to swallow! After all, Easter is the day of excitement, celebration and victory in the church of Jesus Christ! For me, it doesn’t get any better than Easter Sunday worship; and wasn’t it great around here last Sunday? I mean, all of it – the hymns, the flowers, all the children running around and most especially the glorious message of hope that’s contained in the gospel story – it’s the culmination of this fateful and faithful journey we’ve taken from palms to the cross to the empty tomb; and for us to discover, yet again, that Christ has risen indeed and to realize what that means for each of us… well, I don’t know about you, but for me that just stirs the soul in a way unlike during any other service of the year! So it’s a great and wonderful day; it always is!
But then after this shining Sunday always, always comes… Monday… and Tuesday… and inevitably and inescapably Tax Day! And with it, at least for some stragglers among us, comes that nagging stack of forms, receipts and worksheets that serves to remind us that we can no longer afford the luxury of procrastination, for despite whatever excuses we might have to offer there is no real glory in being a “last-minute filer!” So, yes, there may still well be Easter “alleluias” ringing in our ears after Sunday has come and gone, and the good news of new life is still very fresh in our hearts, but as Monday morning dawns, it soon becomes clear that life as we’ve known it still goes on, and there’s no avoiding the fact that tax returns need to be finished before the filing deadline on April 17th!
Of course, for you, it might have been something different that made for a burdensome and stressful “Easter Monday” morning last week. Maybe, like for us, it was going to the mechanic and finding out that the problems with your car were more serious than you thought! Or perhaps it had to do with contending with an ongoing illness or that of a loved one; or dealing with chronic and debilitating pain. Or maybe it was having to cope with huge changes looming in your life: the loss of a job, the disintegration of a marriage, the struggle amid rapidly changing circumstances beyond your control to care for yourself and your family with integrity, vision and compassion. Or maybe you woke up still stinging from that same hurt that’s always been there; the lingering grief, the unresolved anger, the old regrets, the deeply held bitterness and fear; all those unresolved feelings of weakness, guilt, despondency and utter defeat.
Whatever it was, or is, it’s a stark reminder of how quickly things do return to whatever the “normal” happens to be in our lives, even amidst the continuing good news of the resurrection. In fact, if we’re being honest, sometimes after the Sunday celebration is over and our Monday morning woes return, we might at times wonder what, if any, difference the resurrection makes in our lives; or for that matter, if any of what we proclaimed so fervently and joyously as true was even real! Like “Doubting Thomas” of our Gospel reading this morning we do at times find ourselves wanting empirical proof that all the alleluia shouting of last Sunday morning was not some sort of cruel, cosmic joke. But even then, in the words of Charles Henderson, a Presbyterian pastor and author, “even if [we] could, like Thomas, reach in and touch the wounds in his body… even if [we] had solid, certifiable evidence that the resurrection was real, there would still be the bills to pay, the meals to plan, the problems of life to solve.”
Henderson is right about that; we do proclaim, rightfully, that Christ is risen indeed, but the fact remains that while death has been defeated forever, life does go on; and moreover, so many of the struggles and sufferings of life in this world go on. And so the question becomes, what happens now because of the resurrection? What does the truth of Jesus’ rising mean for all those who have been caught up in the destructive whirlwind of all of the worst that life and an unjust world dishes out? What does the risen Jesus’ blessing of peace mean for those who feel battered, beaten, overwhelmed and worn out from the struggle? How is it that any of us can claim, as Paul does so eloquently in our reading this morning, that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us?”
It’s really the eternal question, isn’t it? Life’s sufferings would seem to overtake us, but our answer comes in knowing that even though there is so much against us in this world and in this life, the abiding, redeeming and liberating truth remains that in the Risen Christ we are assured that God is for us today, tomorrow, and forever. And “if God is for us,” says Paul, “who is against us?”
There is so much to love about this passage from Romans that we’ve shared this morning; but what I think I love the most is how Paul literally unpacks our Christian hope piece by piece by piece. In fact, I’ve heard it said that in these few verses we’ve read this morning, Paul “is trying to drain every ounce of fear from our lives.” Listen to how he lays it out: What do we have to be afraid of, he asks, “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (By the way… just for good measure, The Message adds to that list other things; like trouble, hard times, hatred, homelessness, even “bullying threats [and] backstabbing!”) So will any of this “drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us?” No, Paul goes on to say, for “in all these things we are conquerors through him who loved us.” Here’s a little bit of Biblical trivia for you this morning: the Greek word that’s translated as “conquerors” here is hupernikos, which literally means “super conquerors” and in fact is where we get the brand name for, of all things, Nike running shoes! So what Paul is saying is that through the God who loves us we are more than conquerors in life, we are… super conquerors, able to stand up to all the struggles of life with unending strength!
But here’s the thing; Paul makes clear that such strength doesn’t come out of nowhere but comes from the same God who gave up his own Son for us all; and (and this is important!), if God would do that, “will he not with him also give us everything else?” Given the sacrifice already made on our behalf, why would our God ever withhold any good thing from us; most especially his strength and his presence now and eternally?
In the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are shown once and for all that God loves us and that God wishes never, ever to be apart from us. Because of the resurrection, we can be assured – “convinced,” it says in the NIV – that “neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What that means, friends is that because of the resurrection, in whatever comes we hang on… we go on and we prevail, because in the resurrection we are more than conquerors in this life that so often tries to conquer us! As Benjamin Reaves has put it, “in the face of every possible development, situation, circumstance, diagnosis, or disaster… [we are not merely] being delivered from all these things, but [we are] being triumphant in all these things… it is the action of a divine defender, a divine attorney, a divine love that will not let [us] go… for as we in faith cling to God, we find he has a stronger hold on us.”
Monday mornings might still hold for us all the difficult struggles of life: there still is the doctor’s appointment that awaits us; still the chemo treatment to contend with; still the broken relationships to suffer through; still the utter uncertainty of what the day’s events will bring. But now, because of the resurrection, we proceed with hope; light shines into our darkness, and we begin, perhaps for the first time to truly see for ourselves “that in all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Maybe at last, because of the resurrection, we are strengthened with the hope that we can move beyond living solely as victims but as people of faith for whom suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. Maybe now, because of the resurrection, because Jesus lives and we live, we will know the love that is poured out in our hearts by God’s Spirit; enabled and empowered to rejoice in hope even amidst suffering.
In the 1870’s a man by the name of Horatio Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer, and a close friend of the renowned evangelist of that era Dwight L. Moody. Spafford was also a huge investor in real estate, but the story goes that the great Chicago fire of 1871 wiped out his holdings; a disaster that was compounded by the fact that Spafford’s son had just died as well. In the aftermath of all of this, Spafford decided that he and his family desperately needed to get away; and so in 1873 he planned a trip to Europe with his wife Anna and four daughters.
As it happened, however, last minute business caused Spafford to delay his departure, and he sent his wife and daughters on ahead to Great Britain, aboard the S.S. Ville Du Havre, promising to follow in a few days. But tragedy struck yet again, for on November 22, their vessel was struck by the English ship Lochearn, and quite literally, within twelve minutes sank in the cold waters of the north Atlantic. Two hundred and twenty-six lives were lost; Spafford’s wife Anna miraculously survived the accident, but their four little daughters drowned in the tragedy. On reaching Great Britain, she sent a telegram to her husband with the sad news, writing simply, “Saved alone.”
It’s said that a few days later when Horatio Spafford himself made the ocean crossing to meet his grieving wife, his ship reached the spot where the tragedy had taken place. And as they were directly over the sunken ship where his daughters had perished, there, surrounded by the vast expanse and depth of the ocean and the even greater depth of his sorrow, he began to write some words that have since brought solace to so many in grief:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let his blessed assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Despite his anguish, Horatio Spafford could say that because of the resurrection, “it is well with my soul.” And we can say the same, beloved; because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, we are given a lasting hope that is ours for life; life as it is, life as it will be, life as it continues to amaze us, confuse us, challenge us, embolden us, and sometimes discourage us. But whatever life brings, because of the resurrection, we hang on, we go on… and we prevail.
May each one of us live as “more than conquerors” through him who loves us.
Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ!
Amen and AMEN!
c, 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry