The sermon today begins with a brief recap of the Easter story. If you’ve never heard it before, this one’s for you. And if you’ve heard it hundreds of times before, well, this one’s for you too!
Jesus was arrested on a Thursday night. He’d just celebrated Passover with his disciples in the Upper Room. Afterward, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray. There alone, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked God to take this cup – this fate of death – from him.
“Nevertheless,” he prayed, “not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
He had no more than finished praying than he heard the footsteps of the soldiers and saw the light of their torches. They arrested him and took him before Caiaphas, then held him in a dungeon overnight.
The next day he was taken before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, where he was condemned and sent to Pontius Pilate. Pilate had him scourged, then he gave the people a choice. He said, “Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the multitude one prisoner, whom they desired…Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus, who is called Christ?”
The crowd shouted, “Barabbas!” “What then shall I do to Jesus, who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. And the crowd shouted, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22)
And so, Jesus was crucified on a hill called Golgatha, just outside the city wall. He was hanged between two thieves, one on his left and one on his right. About three o’clock in the afternoon, the sky turned black, the earth began to shake, and Jesus lifted up his head to God and said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46) And then he said, “It is finished,” and bowed his head and died. (John 19:30)
Now, the Jewish Sabbath began at sundown, and so, his body was quickly removed from the cross, wrapped in a linen burial shroud and placed in a freshly hewn tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jewish Council. This is where the scripture lesson for today picks up.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to the tomb at daybreak Sunday morning. When they got there, they found that the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled away. They looked inside and saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of where the body of Jesus had lain. He told them not to be afraid, that Jesus was not there, that he had risen and would meet them in Galilee. They were so overcome with emotion that they ran away and said nothing to anyone.
Well, in a nutshell, that’s the story. The question is so what? What’s so special about this celebration we call Easter? The truth is the story of Easter little more than that – a story – until you experience the miracle of the resurrection for yourself.
As some of you know, in my former life I was a United Methodist minister. I switched over to the Presbyterian Church in 1991. Once a year we’d get together for a meeting of the Annual Conference, and every year at our opening worship service, we’d all stand and sing the words of this great, old Charles Wesley hymn:
“And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give for His almighty grace.”
And are we yet alive? That’s the question I’d like for us to think about this morning.
Have we come to new life in Christ, or are we still groping in the darkness of our old sinful and selfish ways?
In 1997, I took a seminar called, Transforming the Church into the Future. It was led by Dr. Ed White of the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C. I’ll never forget our opening session, as Dr. White described the changing landscape of American society on the threshold of the 21st Century and its effect on the church. He talked about “Postmodernism” and how the church is no longer the center of community life, no longer the respected authority on moral and ethical matters it once was. He pointed out that, in many ways, the church is but one of many competing voices in the world today. “Post-modernism.” I think that was the first time I’d ever heard that term. Then he introduced us to a second term, one that’s haunted me ever since. He said that many Christians in the world today are “functional atheists.”
Functional atheists, according to Ed White, are those folks who, if asked about their religious beliefs, would be quick to say they believed in God. They might go so far as to say they had accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. If pushed, they’d say that believing in God and following the teachings of Jesus Christ are important. No question about it. And yet – and this was the point he was trying to get across – when it comes down to the important decisions of life – and the crises we face from time to time – there is little evidence that their faith has anything to do with it. For example,
• A prominent businessman makes a series of bad investments. Before he knows it, his business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and he’s facing financial ruin. Without saying a word to anyone, he straightens his desk, takes a stiff drink and blows his brains out.
• A young man and woman fall in love and decide to get married. They stand at the altar and promise to make God the center of their lives and of their home. But in less than a year they’re strapped with a hefty mortgage, two car payments, endless living expenses and mounting credit card debt. They’re so overworked and strung out, they barely have time for each other, much less God.
These are not hypotheticals. They’re the stuff of real life. And they’re only the tip of the iceberg. More and more it’s common to find people who sincerely profess faith in God but live as if God didn’t exist.
And so, Ed White calls them functional atheists. Oh, they’d never be willing to say there’s no God; it’s just that, judging from their everyday lives, you’d be hard pressed to find a correlation between what they believe and what they say and do.
They’re like the question one of my elders in Odessa used to love to ask: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” That’s what Ed White was getting at when he talked about functional atheists.
Well, he’s not the first to make this observation. Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, one of the great preachers of the early 20th Century, said virtually the same thing years ago. He wrote a little book about it entitled, The Christian Agnostic. In a word, he says there are those who profess faith in Jesus Christ but live as if he never died for our sins and was never raised from the dead that we might have the promise of new life.
So, let’s go back to where we started: You’ve heard the story of the resurrection. The question is so what? What difference does it make?
The Apostle Paul would be quick to say, “Everything!” The resurrection of Jesus makes all the difference in the world. In his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, he says,
“If Christ has not been raised,
then our preaching is in vain,
and your faith also is in vain…
For if the dead aren’t raised,
neither has Christ been raised.
If Christ has not been raised,
your faith is vain; you are still in your sins…
If we have only hoped in Christ in this life,
we are of all men most pitiable.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. It’s what separates us from all the other religions of the world. It’s what gives us purpose and direction when we’re perplexed, confidence when the storms of life threaten to overpower us, hope when all seems to be lost. And that’s why Paul is quick to go on and say,
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead.
He became the first fruits of those who are asleep.
For since death came by man,
the resurrection of the dead also came by man.
For as in Adam all die,
so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22)
If you’re keeping notes, write this down: Christ has died, once and for all. Christ is risen, and we are invited to experience the promise of new life in his name.
That’s the heart of the gospel. And the question is has it soaked in? Has the full impact of Jesus’ resurrection taken root in your heart? Has it transformed your life and become for you the basis of all that you think and say and do? Are you yet alive?
Let me see if I can make this a little more concrete; or, as my friend, Jesse Truvillion, would say, let me see if I can bring it on home for you.
First, there’s the issue of insecurity. Insecurity is the root of fear and anxiety and the need we have to accumulate stuff and seek to be in control. Insecurity is part of the human condition. It starts way back in infancy. Everybody is insecure, to one degree or another. Yet, as the resurrection takes hold in our lives, our insecurity gives way to a growing confidence in God’s power and love. Martin Luther said it best:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper, he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
Then there are the issues of bitterness and anger, resentment and rage; and along with them, the desire to get back at those who’ve wronged us in some way. Such negative emotions have no place in the hearts and minds of those who’ve experienced the resurrection. And, sure enough, as God’s love transforms our lives, the old hostility gives way to peace and reconciliation.
Oh, you’ll still get angry. Everyone gets angry from time to time. It’s just that once the resurrection takes hold and you’re filled with the love of Christ, your anger will no longer have control over you. You’ll be able to express it in constructive ways, then let it go and not keep it bottled up inside.
And along with releasing your anger you’ll be able to forgive. Forgiveness is one of the best indications I know that you’ve come to embody the Easter message.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I would just like to say that the three of us make a good team: You with your expertise and resources, me with my speaking and creative ability, and God who puts it all together and blesses both of us as his instruments. Again, Dick, I say a big thank you!”
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It’s not easy to forgive. Something within us wants to hold on to old grievances and to nurse old wounds. Yet, Jesus taught his disciples to forgive – not just once or twice – but as many times as it takes. Humanly speaking, that’s all but impossible. This is where the resurrection comes in: Once you know that Christ died for the forgiveness of your sins, the door is open for you to be just as forgiving of others.
Finally, there’s the issue of hopelessness and despair. Simply put, there’s no way you can experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and not have hope for the future. This is why, when I hear someone spouting off a message of doom and gloom, I know that person has yet to experience the resurrection, because, if the resurrection means anything, it means that the future is in God’s hands, and if the future is in God’s hands, the best is yet to come. Jeremiah said it best:
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says Yahweh,
thoughts of peace, and not of evil,
to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 28:11)
Let’s wrap it up. The Good News is Christ is risen. God has proved his love for us in the most dramatic way. In the resurrection of Jesus we are set free from the bondage of sin and death that we might lay claim to the promise of eternal life, both this day and forever more.
The bad news is a lot of folks still don’t get it. Instead of living in the light of God’s grace and love, they’re still living in the darkness of their old selfish and sinful ways.
Don’t be one of them. Let the power of Jesus’ resurrection overcome your doubt and fear, your insecurity and anger, your hopelessness and despair. Then you, too, will sing with the saints,
“I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today,
I know that he is living, whatever men may say.
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
And just the time I need him, he’s always near.
He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today.
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.