There is a way in which Easter holds attraction for everyoneI think it is because Easter translates into hope. There's a sense of hopelessness that we have created. If you look at the world we are in charge of, we have made a horrible situation. We have made enough nuclear bombs to obliterate mankind, and our leaders are now lobbying the religious institutions to support them in spending more money to make more bombs. We are quite effectively polluting our world; some of the pollutants we're using have a thousand years in which they will continue to be toxic.
It's a world of hunger and violence and war, and there are lots of people who don't even think about the larger dimensions of nuclear proliferation or hunger or war, but simply feel trapped by their routines and by the circumstances of life. And when we gather here on Easter Sunday, we gather to celebrate the fact that God, in raising Jesus Christ from the dead, is saying: There is still hope for mankind; there is still hope for individuals.
The living Christ tells us there is still hope.
James Stewart tells the story of a painting. It's a painting in which Faust is playing chess with the devil for his soul. Faust has only a few pieces left on the board and seems to be checkmated, and his countenance reveals his sense of doom. And the devil, who seems to be very much in charge of everything, has a kind of glee painted on his face.
Through the years, people come into the gallery where the picture is hung, look up at it, and see the hopelessness of the situation. They go away feeling, to some degree, that the artist has captured their own situation. And then one day, there comes into the gallery a great chess master who stands for hours and stares at the chessboard. Finally, with a shout that disturbs everyone, the chess master says: "It's a lie! The king and the knight still have moves left."
I think sometimes this is what Easter is for us. We stand and we look at our lives and we look at our civilization, and it looks like we are checkmated. And then Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised up from the dead, stands and looks at our same lives and says: It's a lie. You still have moves left.
I guess that's what we're here for this morning, to think about those moves, because Easter is a word of hope. It is a word with future in it, that life is not a dead-end street or a no-exit situation. It points to the future, a future of God's creation and not ours. There is, in the idea of Easter, a word of presence. He is risen becomes: He is here. He is present. And there is, in the Easter announcement, the need for response, because Easter announcements require Easter responses.
This is not just ordinary celebration. It calls you and me to a confession of faith that Jesus Christ truly is LordLord of heaven, Lord of earth, Lord of my life. It demands that we enter into a new way of life, not of our own strength, but in following him. And there's a sense in which this Easter Sunday could be, for each of us, a very special Easter.
Some of you who have been here a long time know that Easter is the most special Sunday for me in relationship to this church. Almost 20 years ago, when Dr. Westmorland was still more than a decade from retiring, he was felled with a critical heart attack. I was asked to come down from the seminary on Easter Sunday morning to preach. I remember that, because I prepared the typical Easter sermon. Which means, since I was a young seminary professor used to dealing with the questioning minds of students, that I was basically trying to prove something, rather than declare something.
At that time, when I came to Houston to preach, I always rode the Santa Fe down because they had a Saturday afternoon passenger train that still ran. And I remember sitting there, reading my notes over and over again, and coming to the end and saying: But what will this help us with this week? And going back and reworking that whole sermon to try and find in it the message of Easternot just something that points back to a historical event, but something that also brings the living presence of Christ to us.
There are some of you for whom this ought to be the day that you confess your faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes there is such a note of celebration at Easter that you wonder if it really is appropriate, that maybe it should happen at some less ostentatious time. Could there be a better time for a young man, or a young woman, or an adult who has been struggling for years with the decision, to walk down the aisle and to begin your confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord?
There are many in this congregation who have never gone public with their faith. I think there are some of you who are trying to live a Lone Ranger kind of Christian life, by yourself in a world that is pushing you in a different direction. You ought to use the occasion of this Easter to walk down the aisle and to say: I am a believer in Christ, whom God raised up from the dead. He is my Lord and I want to be a part of his body, this church. But in truth, the majority of us have already done both of those things. So this needs to be, for us, an Easter when there's a discovery of a whole new dimension for our lives.
The presence of the living Christ is life changing.
Let's look at the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central fact of the Christian faith. Each Sunday morning, I listen to Rabbi Chachtel and then to Bishop John McCarthy since I come in rather early. This morning, Bishop McCarthy was dealing with Easter and resurrection. I arrived here a little earlier this morning than usual. I didn't catch everything, but I heard him say about the resurrection, "It is that crisp, hard fact of the Christian faith." It is, because all the early Christians remembered about Christ was in the life of his resurrection. Had there been no resurrection from the dead, Christ as a mere historical person would have been forgotten. You would have never heard. His life would have been contradicted by his death.
The Christian faith always reads history backwards. The Christian faith starts with a Christ who is raised up from the dead, and then goes back to his birth and to his ministry and to his message and to his death, and everything about Jesus Christ is understood by the early church in the light of his resurrection.
One of the real taunting "what ifs" in the Bible is in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, where he's dealing with the fact of the resurrection. He begins to talk about, "if Christ be not raised from the dead " and goes on to say that, if that's true, then our faith is in vain, the gospel is in vain, and those who've died in Christ are lost. I made my own "what if." If there is no resurrection from the dead, then there's no church, there's no Bible, there's no faith, and there's no hope. Paul ends that passage with the affirmation, "But now Christ is risen from the dead."
The risen Christ changed the lives of those to whom he appeared. This is a fact. If you want to read in the Scripture the earliest accounts of those appearances you would turnnot to the Gospelsbut to Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes:
I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve. After that he was seen of about 500 brethren at once of whom the greater part remain alive, although some have died. After that he was seen by James, then all of the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also as one born out of due time.
You may have felt that, since Matthew is the first book in your New Testament, then it contains the first account of the appearances. But it's not until almost two decades later that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John record these appearances.
If you sit down for about 15 minutes and read all of the accounts, it will make you very aware of certain aspects of these appearances. One of them is that the exact nature of the appearances is not clear. For instance, he didn't appear to everyone. With the exception of his appearance to the apostle Paul, who was fighting him, all of his appearances are to people who were believers.
Also, when he did appear he was not easily recognized. I buy a lot of little books at the Easter season and read them through as a part of my own devotional life. About three or four years ago, I bought a book called The Silences of Easter. I didn't know the author, but his style made me nervous. As he wrote up some of these appearances, he left out any sense of the supernatural. The end result is that Mary was just talking to a gardener, and the disciples who were fishing were just talking to some stranger on the bank. I found myself growing nervous. Sometimes, when I have a book that's mine and not the library's, if I don't like what they're saying I put little question marks along the side, and sometimes write no, no, no, no if I really don't like it. And in the margin of this book I have all of those questions marks and no, no, no, no.
But, sometimes, you need to come to the Bible and just read what it says. Mary actually went up to Jesus and didn't even know who he was. She thought he was the gardener, and said to him, "If you have hidden his body, tell me where you've hidden it." He was not easily recognized.
After the resurrection, his appearances didn't seem to be controlled by the same set of laws that they were controlled by before the crucifixion. He could be there and then not be there. They could be in a room with all the doors shut, and he was suddenly in the room with them or by the road with them or by the seaside with them. And if your sense of affirmation about the resurrection of Jesus Christ comes from having a very clear and concise understanding of the nature of his appearances, you're in trouble, because as you read the Gospels you don't have that.
What you do have is the undeniable fact that those appearances did something to those disciples. A change took place in them once Jesus Christ appeared to them. This change was not something that was just a part of self-hypnotism. It was not something that was a part of a growing situation.
In a period of less than 50 days, what had been a very confused and disoriented band of former disciples transformed into a group of people with an unshakable understanding of their message and their mission. What was once a small group of people, people so frightened for their physical safety that they holed up in a room, became a group of people so bold that they were willing to take on the very establishment that had orchestrated the crucifixion of Jesus.
What had been a group of people who were fairly insensitive to spiritual dimensionseven as Jesus was instituting the Lord's Supper they were jockeying for position in the Kingdom of Godbecame an unbelievably unselfish, giving kind of people. From a people who basically had been defeated and gone back home to what they had left, they became a movement that was to shape the worlda movement in which you and I have been caught up.
Every once in a while, there's a clever professor of sophomore psychology who comes up with all sorts of so-called rational explanations for the appearances. But the truth is, the transformation that happened to those who saw Jesus happened because of an appearance that they had not anticipated, were reluctant to believe, and did not ever completely understand.
The clever sophomore professor would like to paint a picture of a people who dwelt so much on what Jesus had promised that they created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But you cannot paint that picture. They had not remembered the promise. Even when people came and said, "He is alive," they did not believe it. Even after they had seen him they could not completely understand it. But one undeniable fact remainsthey were totally changed by it.
We must allow the living Christ to change us.
The risen Christ changed their lives. And the risen Christ can make your life and my life differentif we'll let him.
It is possible to believe in the doctrine of the risen Christ and not be affected by it, because the creed that we say on bended knee is said with our lips. We register with our head. "I believe that Christ died for the sins of the world. God raised him up." Who would come to church without that confession on his or her lips on Easter Sunday morning?
It is possible that the same life that stands in the hour of worship and confesses that he or she believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that same person can live a defeated life. They can be enslaved by littleness and lies, by lust, by selfish ambition, by materialism, by prejudice, by hatred, by compromise. So there is a need, not only for us to hear from those who have experienced the risen Christ, but also for us to experience the risen Christ ourselves.
The needs that you and I have are not all that different from those he appeared to in the Bible. We do have a historical perspective on the cross. We were introduced to the cross as empty, looking at it through the empty tomb. In other words, when we were introduced to the cross, we already knew that God raised Christ from the dead, so we don't have that need to validate the ministry of Christ. But our needs to be reassured, to be motivated, to be strengthened, and to be renewed, these are still very much the needs that Christ speaks to. The risen Christ is the same for us as for them.
It's rather interesting to me that, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says: He appeared to Peter and to the 500 and to James and the other disciples and last of all to me.
Paul did not feel there was any basic difference in the Christ who appeared to him and the Christ who appeared to Peter, yet years had elapsed. You see, we don't ever say this, but in the back of our mind we think: That was a different Jesus that was by the seashore. That was a different Christ that was dealing with Mary by the tomb. That was a different Jesus that met the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.
However, Paul did not feel that there was any difference. Maybe the purpose was differentvalidation for them and strength and encouragement for us. Maybe even the method was different, because while Paul saw light and heard a voice, Peter saw a stranger cooking fish. Mary saw a gardener. The two walking down the road to Emmaus just saw someone, and didn't recognize who.
Everywhere death is, the risen Christ comes and brings life.
What Easter says is that the risen Christ comes to you and me, not just in this world through the beautiful colors of springtime, not just in his word as it's preached to us or as we read it or study it, not just in the church as it meets to worship, but Christ actually comes to us with his living power and his living presence. He comes to all the places in our lives where death is, and brings life.
One of the permeating themes of Easter for me, ever since the first Easter I preached here, has been that there are more kinds of dying than physicaldeath to ideals, to hope, to integrity, to relationships, and death to believing. The good news of Easter is that, everywhere there is death, the risen Christ comes and brings life. So, this is one of those days in which you and I need to reach out to the living Christ, and say: Come into these lives of ours, so filled with death, and bring life. Come to us in all the circumstances of our liveswhen our hope has been crushed, when our routine is empty, when we are down and discouraged. He comes in every circumstance of life, and he comes to every kind of people.
It is true that he comes to people who love him, and that is good. Mary Magdalene was elated to see him living, and not dead like she thought he was. But he also comes to those who deny him with love. He comes to those who are paralyzed by fear. He comes to those who doubt him. There are some of you right now saying: I wish more than anything in the world that I could believe that Christ is risen. Oh, the implications of that for my life. He comes to you as he came to Thomas. He comes even to those who fight against him, as the apostle Paul experienced. And he can take from your life everything that will destroy youfear, anger, hatred, defensiveness, insecurity, all.
This has been a different kind of Easter season for me personally, because I've been in the process of dealing with many things. One of those things is that we as a church are moving in new directions, which has not been an easy time for either of us. But also, my life as a Christian has a number of areas in which I have felt hemmed in.
This week I came to each of the worship services at noon and read the Scriptures and sang the hymns and prayed. Then, when it was over on Friday, I took a 24-hour period by myself, just me and my Bible and God, and I studied and I prayed. I kept wanting God just to be present in a very special way in my life when I stood to preach the Easter sermon, and I kept feeling that he didn't understand how important this was to me. And finally, it dawned upon me that he wanted to relieve me of some things that were bogging me down. That's what he wants. That's how he brings life to us. He takes away things that bring death.
He said, "Kenneth, you're a little frightened; let me take your fear. Through the years, you've accumulated people that don't like you. You've let that bother you. Let me take that away from you. Let me take away your defensiveness and insecurity and bring to you a sense of peace, of boldness, of love, of forgiveness, of openness, and the willingness to risk."
So I said to him: This is what I want at Easter, for the living Christ to come and take out of me everything that's deadly; deadly to others and deadly to myself. You see, this is the kind of thing that Christ is trying to do in our lives, but sometimes we want to hold onto the things that are killing us and just want a feeling unrelated to the fact. Easter has God saying to you and me: "You still have another move. But that move is this: Take the move you have left and use it to embrace the living Christ and let him begin to dwell in you and bring into your life newness, real newness."
Often from this very microphone, you've heard someone from our church sing Francis of Assisi's beautiful poem "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace." If you have ever read his biography, you have been moved by this mana man of aristocracy, a man of breeding, education and great wealth who renounced everything and lived his whole life in service to others. Do you know why he did that? Do you know what the incident that precipitated that was?
Gay, young, debonair, riding down the middle of a road on a great beautiful horse, he saw standing in the middle of the road in front of him a leper whose skin was white with leprosy, and he was drawn like a moth to the flame. He sat there on his horse and looked down at this leper; he got down, went over, and embraced the leper. He pulled the leper to himself, and then he took money from his bag and gave it to the leper and got back on his horse. As he started to ride away, he looked back and the leper wasn't there. He concluded that he had met the risen Christ. And he was never the same after that. Don't fuss with this conclusion. Argue with his life. He was different.
Easter is when the church meets to celebrate the fact that we, too, can meet the risen Christ and our lives can be different. In the name of that Christ, I am pleading with all of you to use the move you have left, and move toward him.