One Sermon Above All
Luke 24:1-5; 1 Cor. 15:13-19
At Easter we get to the heart of our faith and we lay it all on the table. We proclaim to the world the same Jesus who died on a cross, rose from the dead on the third day. These are not symbolic words or metaphorical words – they are literal words of the Christian faith, memorialized in the earliest creeds of the Church. Later in the service we will be joining in The Apostles’ Creed, the oldest creed of the church; these words come from the second oldest, the Nicene Creed, from the fourth century: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ … For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Have you ever been involved in a sport or some other competition and been told you achieved a great moral victory? What does that mean? If we are talking about the Colts, we might say they played hard, left it all on the field, the score was closer than we expected it to be, but they didn’t win. Or in our personal lives, perhaps it was that job you applied for that you really wanted. They liked your resume, called you in for an initial interview, maybe even a follow-up interview, but then came the letter, email, or phone call: “We were very impressed. It was close. But we decided to go in a different direction.” We can all relate: the part we tried out for in school but didn’t get, the acceptance letter that didn’t come, the competition that was so close but…, the job rejection, the failed relationships. Over the course of a lifetime, disappointments hit all of us. We can put a spin on it, call our losses moral victories, repeat time-honored platitudes like the score didn’t show what really happened. it’s not important whether we won or lost, it’s how we played the game; or we’re not about winning trophies, we’re about building character. We also have our rationalizations: the refs blew a call that would’ve changed the outcome, the company doesn’t know what a mistake they made, the outcome was rigged from the beginning. But deep down the truth hits us: we failed. Someday we may learn from our failure, but not today. Today it hurts too much.
I find it interesting that the Bible, as a whole, has far more stories of failure than of success. Take Moses, for example. Raised as an Egyptian in the palace he was a poster child for success: he had status, wealth, and comfort. Life was great. Until he found out he wasn’t Egyptian, he was a Hebrew, a child of the people enslaved by Egypt. Then one night, in a fit of rage, he murdered an Egyptian and was forced to flee Egypt. In one night, he lost everything: failure. Decades later, God comes to Moses and tells him to return to Egypt, confront Pharoah, and demand that the Hebrew people be set free. Moses doesn’t jump to accept God’s challenge. He asks: “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah?” Moses wasn’t being humble; he was being realistic. His failures had taught him to be cautious, play it safe, don’t attempt anything too great. Small successes are better than big failures. Right?
But God isn’t limited by how Moses views himself. “Go,” God says, “I’ll be with you.” So, Moses went. But if you’re ready the story from the Book of Exodus, Moses didn’t find immediate success. Pharoah was stubborn and for a time things got worse. In anger, Moses has some harsh words for God. Why did you send me? Better that the hopes of the people were never raised. Moses couldn’t yet see the parting of the Red Sea, God’s deliverance, or the Promised Land. Moses, in the moment, only saw his failure. God’s failure. Hope is gone.
Then, thousands of years later another comes promising freedom. Jesus is born into the world to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of equality, peace, and love. But look around. Where is the peace? Where is the justice over oppression? Where is love? To our questions Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” What good is that? The disciples kept following Jesus thinking things would get better for themselves and for their people now oppressed, not by Egypt but by Rome. Suddenly, it’s Friday afternoon and Jesus is hanging on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. He says the words, “It is finished,” and it sure seems that way. His lifeless body is taken down to be placed in a tomb: death laughs and they have failed. Jesus has failed. God has failed. Hope is gone. It’s time to face facts. Death is final, the dead stay dead. The disciples might as well go back home; they can assure themselves that they gave their best. If it hadn’t been for Judas; if Jesus had done what they expected, what they wanted; if the people shouting “Hosanna to the king” just a week before had stayed strong and not backed down. But what happens next confirms this is no moral victory. You see, Easter morning happens and Easter is about God. On Easter, God intervenes and changes the world. Death doesn’t have the last word. God gets our attention.
There is nothing subtle about Easter. It begins with an earthquake, followed by the sudden appearance of angels, and an empty tomb. Nature is defeated and the Christian faith takes off with a bang. The disciples needed that. And so do we. Sometimes it takes an earthquake – or two – to move us out of our tired, worn down, worn out, attitudes. In the time of Moses, God declared, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” That story continues today. It’s what the risen Christ does. He comes back to us – again and again. He appears to us, seeks us, pursues us, nags at us, and grabs us in an embrace. His story, over 2,000 years later, is still compelling. For the men and women of that first Easter, the Resurrection empowered and transformed them. Life began for them when they stopped being afraid. Life began for them when they stopped worrying about failure. Life began for them when they believed Jesus to be alive, even if they could neither explain it or understand it.
But Easter isn’t something that happened one Sunday morning years ago. Easter isn’t over until God says it’s over. Easter is the promise that someday – a day in the future whether it’s tomorrow or in another 2,000 years – God will triumph over all the forces of evil and death. The last Easter will be God’s justice accomplished. God’s kingdom come and God’s will finally done. But in the meantime, Easter is in our care. Life begins for us when we realize that by removing the fear of failure and death, God has given us life. Not just the promise of eternal life, but the promise of a life free from fear. “Do not be afraid,” were among the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples. They were so important that he repeated them several times. Like the first disciples, Easter empowers and transforms us.
Easter is Jesus’ way of getting our attention. He wants us to celebrate Easter, but more than that, he wants us to live the message of Easter. When meeting with his disciples after his resurrection, Jesus said three times, “love me, feed my sheep.” More repetition – just to be sure they got it. He told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” But Jesus knew we would need details, need to know where we’re being sent and who we are to love and feed. Just as God led Moses and the people of Israel through the wilderness to the promised land, Jesus leads us. “He goes before you,” says Matthew. We follow the path Christ has taken before us. Our task on earth is to love God and love others. If we follow Jesus we love the sinner, the poor, the oppressed, the rich, the oppressor, those who love us and those who hate us. In other words, no one is excluded. Christianity, it seems, is not so much what you feel about Jesus … it’s about what Jesus does to you, in you. Jesus invades our thoughts. Interrupts our plans. Makes us uncomfortable. Because once he died, but now he’s alive. And he’s loose in the world.
The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Paul is saying that if you remove the resurrection of Jesus Christ from Christianity, you don’t have Christianity. You literally take the heart out of it. Then he follows with these words: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” As Ethan read for us: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but if he died and was not raised, then his death would have had no power over sin and death. His death would have had no saving value. If Jesus was never raised and if he didn’t conquer death, then we have no hope of conquering death. We have the promise: “Because I live you shall live also.” If Jesus isn’t alive, he can’t give us life. The Resurrection is the hope and promise of our faith. That’s why one sermon is so important. As the song says: “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future. Life is worth the living, just because he lives.” I don’t just believe in the resurrection; I’m counting on it. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!