FIRST LESSON: Luke 24:1-12
EPISTLE LESSON Romans 6:3-11
SERMON: “When Death Died”
My friend Pat called me yesterday afternoon just as I was finishing this message, and asked me if I was ready for today. When I said something about the task of finding fresh, meaningful ways to talk about the importance of Easter, she said, “Helen, it’s all just one great big Ta Da!” There is a B.C . cartoon that shows the entrance to the empty tomb, and the caption is “Ta Da!” It is done. God’s will is accomplished.
When we come to the Table, we remember the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Even people who claim not to be Christians, people who claim to be of other faiths or even atheists will affirm a belief that a man named Jesus lived about 2,000 years ago, that he taught amazing truths, appeared to do some miraculous things and that he was put to a most horrible death by crucifixion. Christian doctrine and the Confessions affirm that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, equal with God and the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of John affirms that:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Barely three months ago we celebrated his birth. Luke gives the most detailed account of the Messiah’s birth. We hear very little of his childhood, but all four gospels tell us of his ministry of teaching and healing. In the 16th chapter Matthew’s gospel goes to the heart of the matter when Jesus asked his disciples who the people thought he was. Some thought John the Baptist, other Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Speaking directly to Peter, Jesus asks, “But what about you? Who do you say I am.” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
At some point each and every one of us must ask ourselves that same question. Who do you think Jesus is? Today there are a great many people who accept that Jesus lived, that he taught amazing truths and that he healed many people, but stop short of believing he is the Son of God, uniquely human and divine.
Josh McDowell deals with this by quoting C. S. Lewis:
“C.S. Lewis, who was a professor at Cambridge University and once an agnostic, understood the issue clearly [and wrote in his book Mere Christianity], “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘ I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
“Then Lewis adds: You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about Him being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Ask yourself who you believe Jesus is – a liar? A lunatic? Or the Son of God, Lord of Life?
Why ask that question? Because if Jesus was just an ordinary man, who happened to teach some profound stuff, then his crucifixion means nothing more than the crucifixion of any other criminal. But Christians declare that Jesus of Nazareth is uniquely fully God and fully human, that in Jesus Christ God took responsibility for human sin.
The prophet Isaiah sums up the work of the Savior this way:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:3-5
So the second question then is what does Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection mean for you and me? The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, that in our baptism we are united with Christ, and “if we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. . . . Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
In our faith and in our baptism we have a promise that means everything: eternal life. Death itself has died.
We know we have a promise of eternal life in the presence of a loving God. So the final question today is this: Does that make any difference for you today and tomorrow, for this life?
Father Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, tells of an encounter he once had with a teacher of Zen. Pennington was at a retreat. As part of the retreat, each person met privately with this Zen teacher. Pennington says that at his meeting the Zen teacher sat there before him smiling from ear to ear and rocking gleefully back and forth. Finally the teacher said: "I like Christianity. But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!"
Pennington notes that, "With his directness, the teacher was saying what everyone else implicitly says to Christians: You are a Christian. You are risen with Christ. Show me (what this means for you in your life) and I will believe." That is how people know if the resurrection is true or not. Does it affect how we live?
The amazing thing is that every one of Jesus’ disciples passed this test. Their lives were dramatically turned upside down by their encounter with Christ. How would you ever make something like this up and stick to it when stones were piercing your flesh as did Stephen, the first Christian martyr? Or as you were being crucified upside down like Simon Peter? It is hard to dispute the testimony of someone who is so convinced of what they have experienced that they are willing to suffer and die to tell the story.
Who do you say that Jesus is? What do his suffering, death and resurrection mean to you, personally? And can the people you encounter in daily living see the resurrection in you?