Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Forever (Luke 24:1-12)

Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus.  They didn’t know what to make of this.  Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in bright clothing.  The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words.  When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others.  It was Mary Magdelene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles.  Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.  But Peter ran to the tomb.  When he bent over to look inside, he saw only a linen cloth.  Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)  Today is Easter Sunday, the greatest, highest, holiest, most celebratory and defining day of our Christian faith, and we exchange the traditional Easter greeting with joyful confidence.  Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)

People of Christian faith take the resurrection of Jesus in such stride, almost for granted.  We all celebrate Easter, but it is a predictable and expected celebration.  No surprises.  The same story each year - a good one, but not a surprising one.

If we’re not careful, celebrating Easter takes on an almost perfunctory role - Easter baskets, check.  New clothes for the kids, check.  Bring flowers for the cross, check.  Have another family photo taken in front of it, check.  Sit through that boring Easter church service, check.  Go to Easter lunch at Grandma’s house, check.  Another Easter Sunday, in the books, thanks be to God.

It is easy for us to forget that the resurrection is a defining, earth-shattering, game-changing piece of good news, and we hear the good news itself that “He is not here, but has been raised,” without any surprise and gloss over the question that immediately precedes it - “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Honestly, where else should they have been looking for Jesus?  They had watched him suffer and die on a cruel Roman cross.  They had watched him taken down from that cross and placed in a garden tomb.  They were looking for him there because that’s where he should have been.  “Why are we looking for Jesus among the dead?  Because that’s where we last saw him.  Last we knew, he was dead.”  When someone dies, we expect them to stay dead.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the people, like me, who is following AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead.  Am I alone in that, or any other zombie watchers here today?  I’ll be honest, I have never been one to follow a television show.  I never got into Lost or Survivor, I don’t know who’s competing on American Idol  or Dancing with the Stars.  That’s just television, I don’t get caught up in that sort of stuff - and then The Walking Dead came on, and that thing just sucked me right in.  Sunday night at 9 o’clock, whatever I’m doing comes to a halt and it’s Walking Dead time, even during March Madness, and that is no small feat with two Duke alumni in the house.

For three seasons now, The Walking Dead has chronicled a small group of survivors’ struggle to stay alive in the midst of a zombie apocalypse - where the dead have come back to life, but only a half-life, if you will, where they essentially do two things - walk, and eat.

What is different about Jesus’ resurrection, however, is that his resurrection was not simply the re-animation of a dead corpse.  His resurrection was not a matter of the dead coming back to some sort of half- or partial-life that was only a shadow of previous life.  Rather, when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was a brand-new life, a new beginning, a fresh start.  What we realize is that life before the resurrection is dull and faded compared to life since the resurrection, where the dead places of our lives give way to the bright, technicolor radiance of the new life in Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus is not just new life for him, it is new life for all of us.  The resurrection of Jesus is a game-changer.  Everything is different now, because in his resurrection Jesus has declared unilateral victory over sin and death.  In his resurrection, Jesus has trampled down the forces of wickedness and darkness.  In his resurrection, Jesus has announced, “I live - and you shall live also.”  The resurrection is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  When Jesus said, “Behold, I am making all things new,” the resurrection demonstrates that what Jesus said, he meant.

In the transforming power of the resurrection, all things are being made new.  Friends, that’s what Jesus does - he makes things new, all things - your life, your heart, your relationships, your attitudes, your faith - Jesus makes it all new.  The good news of the resurrection is not only that it happened once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, no - far from it.  Resurrection, new life, happens again and again.  In the life of faith, every day is Easter.  Every day is an opportunity for God to do something new within us, to awaken something within us, every day is an opportunity for God to do the transformation within our hearts that only God can do.  Easter is happening all the time.

Do you have an Easter faith this morning?  Do you believe that, in Jesus, God is making all things new?  Are you an Easter person?  Or, like the first witnesses of the resurrection who scratched their heads in wonder outside an empty tomb, are you still looking for the living among the dead?  Are you actively living and experiencing a new life in Christ, or are you simply maintaining the cemetery?

There are many people of faith who are not living an Easter faith, who are hanging out in the hollow tomb of a faith they once had.  Friends, if you can’t remember the last time you discovered something new about God, had a life-giving encounter with Jesus, or felt your heart strangely-warmed by the Holy Spirit, then it’s time to update the program.  Sometimes we get so mired in the tomb, so mournful over what was, that we are self-selectively blind to the new thing God is doing now.

The transforming, life-giving, new-making Easter faith of Jesus is happening all around; it’s time to get out of the tomb and experience new life in Christ.

Easter is about experiencing new life in Christ, and one of the oldest traditions associated with Easter are Easter eggs.  I had to listen to someone this week, a very well-meaning Christian, go on a tirade about what in the world eggs and chicks had to do with the resurrection of Jesus.  I just thought, “Really?”  Have we lost so much of our imagination, have we become so literalistic that we can no longer understand symbols and how they communicate things about our faith?  Eggs, in general, have been a sign of rebirth and new life that even predates Christianity.  Just as a bird hatches to new life, so too does the egg symbolize the resurrection of Jesus to new life.

An egg contains all the promise, potential, and possibility of new life.  But, unless the shell is broken, all that potential for new life remains unrealized.  An unbroken shell becomes a tomb.  All that potential for new life, transformed instead into death, all for the want of a broken shell.  Everything may look fine and good on the outside, but the inner story reveals the truth.  Such was the case for the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, whom he described as whitewashed tombs, beautiful and gleaming on the outside, but inside they were full of filth and decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).  The potential for new life was there, but the shells around their hard hearts remained unbroken.

So it is for us, even today: unbroken shells turn into tombs.  But the good news of Easter is that there isn’t a tomb Jesus can’t overcome.  Jesus is in the business of vacating graves, so whatever is dead in your life can still be resurrected to new life, no matter what it is, no matter how long it’s been like that - surely the one who died and descended to the depths of hell and was raised to new life is able to redeem and transform whatever hell you find yourself walking through.  The tombs of life are emptying out because Jesus is alive - the living Lord is breaking shells everywhere he goes.

In Jerusalem, the massive Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over both the traditional crucifixion and burial sites of Jesus.  When I was there a few weeks ago, I stood in line to briefly touch the notch in the rock where the cross would have been placed.  We then wound our way through the church to the place over the burial site, the Holy Sepulchre itself, where a long line of pilgrims stood in line waiting for their chance to go down into the tomb.  Our guide said, “From here, it looks like the line is one and a half hours long.  But we are not going to be standing in line.  We, as Christians, are not going to go in - and do you know why?  ‘Cause there’s nothing in there.”

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has been raised.”  The tomb is empty and the shells are breaking - Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)   Easter is reality now - The transforming, life-giving, new-making Easter faith of Jesus is happening all the time - it’s time to leave the cemetery and experience new life in Christ.

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