Good morning. Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. This means that today we are exactly halfway through the Easter season. I don’t know what that really means to you and your everyday life. To the average person… to be honest, it probably doesn’t mean all that much, right? Great, it’s the 4th Sunday of the Easter season. Most of the time, I’m pretty sure that when it comes to Easter, we don’t really think of it at as season at all… we think of it as a day – a day on our calendars in late March or early April, when families get all dressed up, go to church, maybe cook a ham or hunt for Easter eggs and then share a meal together. Well for sure it’s a day when the church gathers and holds probably the biggest celebration of the entire year. Easter is that Sunday every year where you know that no matter what else happens at church that day, you know the story of Jesus’ resurrection is going to be told. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! But seriously, how long does it take to tell that part of the story? I think we’ve managed very well to neatly package it into a one to two hour celebration each Easter Sunday. But that begs the question then: “Why does the church traditionally take seven Sundays to celebrate Easter?”
Helen Cepero actually just had an article published in The Covenant Companion where she basically asked this question. She says, “Is there anything more to be said? We already know and celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death. Why do we need a whole Easter season after the celebration of Easter Sunday?” In her article, she makes an argument that just like the disciples, we need a season between Easter and Pentecost in which to allow the hope of the resurrection to enter into our everyday lives.
And that’s why we find it so easy to boil Easter down to a single-Sunday celebration in early spring. We don’t really think very hard about what difference it makes in our everyday lives. For the most part, we have taken the single greatest event in human history and boiled it down to something that has nothing to do with human history at all, but only with what happens after that. Let me explain. We, who live in time, have concerned ourselves so much with what happens after time exists – we ask questions of heaven and hell and where will we spend eternity – but in doing so, we neglect the importance of the present and how the fact that Jesus is alive right now makes a difference in this world and in our families and in our lives – here and now.
Maybe one of the better ways we have of seeing how this is true is by taking a look that the kinds of songs that we sing. Especially, the songs that WE sing together – here at First Covenant. We are a part of a wider church and state where the kind of music we sing varies a whole lot. But without question, one of the music styles that we really value here is the southern gospel hymn and other songs that can be sung in that vain – songs like In the Sweet By and By, Because He Lives, Victory In Jesus, I’ll Fly Away, I Saw The Light, and so on. These songs, and so many others like them have become some of the classic hymns of the church, but I’d like to take a minute to think about the message that they send. And now, it feels like I’m going to harsh or critical of something that we value here, so while I may point out some shortcomings of these songs that we love… bear with me – I promise to stick up for them in the end.
And the truth is, my criticism of these songs doesn’t even apply in every case. But my criticism is simply this. Many of these gospel songs are mainly concerned with escaping this world and being in heaven with Jesus some day… and they are explicitly so at the expense of the hope of the resurrection in the present. Here’s just a few quick examples…
Ø Some glad morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away
Ø There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar, for the Father waits over the way, to prepare us a dwelling place there – In the Sweet by and by we shall meet on that beautiful shore.
Ø When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, My God how great thou art!
These hymns and songs have a less than subtle message that the present is not what we should be concerned about. This world and all therein is just something we have to survive, because someday it won’t matter – it’ll be over and we can live with God in heaven. But friends, the Christian hope is more than that. If it’s only about the future and heaven, then what happens in the present doesn’t really matter. We just have to get through it. It wouldn’t matter how we lived or what we did with our earthly lives – except maybe that we’d be constantly worried about if we were living well enough to actually make sure we get to heaven. But that’s it – life on earth wouldn’t be about life on earth at all… it’d be about getting into heaven. And that is a message that just isn’t consistent with the message of Jesus found in our scriptures.
Now, I did say I’d stick up for those songs. Let me do that, especially since many of them have become some of my own favorites. I think the reason that so many of our classic hymns are focused on heaven more than earth has a lot to do with the context in which those songs were born. Take for example a song like I’ll Fly Away. That’s an old spiritual song that hearkens back to the days of slavery and the oppression of an entire people group. When life is so hard and so difficult, it is incredibly appropriate to sing of one’s hope of abundant life with God in eternity. And many of the gospel songs that came out in the last 50 years are songs that were a part of en evangelistic movement in the church. These were songs that were sung at things like Billy Graham crusades and during altar calls. The message of that movement is a message of the hope of eternal salvation. And the promise of life in heaven is a very inspirational thing – it’s motivational too… it leads people to make decisions to give their lives to Christ and it is very appropriate to sing those sorts of songs – especially in those instances.
The place where I struggle is when we, who have already given our lives to Christ, who live comfortable lives and don’t often experience genuine suffering or injustice, stand together to sing of escaping earth and flying off to some other spiritual reality. We can sing those songs, but we should do so alongside of those who suffer and we don’t sing only those songs… we also need to sing about how we surrender and commit ourselves to the way of Jesus here and now as well.
So, I’m not suggesting that we throw out any of them… in fact, I suggest we keep them and cherish them, but let’s tell the whole story and not just a part of it. But the point here is just that the songs we sing are a good indication of what we believe and it is very easy for us to try to boil the Easter message – that Jesus rose from the dead – into a message only about God creating a way for us to get to heaven someday. And as good as that message is, it’s even bigger news than even that. And because it’s so much bigger than that, that’s cause for celebration – like seven weeks of Easter kind of celebration. Think something more like the biblical feasts and festivals practiced by the Israelites in the Old Testament. When it was time for a major remembrance or celebration, they really knew how to throw a party. We’re talking about parties with food and drink, music and dancing, sacrifices… parties that lasted for days and weeks at a time.
But great… so it’s a big deal. But how is it a big deal and why? I’m very comfortable and I think most of us are pretty comfortable with the message that Jesus’ resurrection means that he has overcome sin and death and made it possible for us to live for eternity in heaven with him someday. But when faced with the question, what difference does Jesus’ resurrection make in your day-to-day, everyday life, what sorts of answers do we come up with? I asked this question on facebook the other day and I got a little bit of a mixed bag of answers and I want to take just a minute right now and ask the same question together. But I want to do so in this way. I’d like to ask you to talk to each other. Turn to your neighbor or neighbors, and if you don’t know them briefly introduce yourself and then answer this question. What difference does the fact that Jesus is alive make in your day-to-day life? Some real quick instructions first though… Try to answer it in a short sentence or two, but try not to talk about salvation or heaven. It is absolutely true that Jesus’ death and resurrection made salvation and heaven possible, but for this next minute or so, try to consider what, if any, effects it has here and now. Okay… go ahead…
Alright, let’s briefly try to see what a few people came up with. If you are willing to share what you came up with, just raise your hand and I’ll call on a couple of people to share their answers. Anybody willing?
Okay, just in case nobody wanted to share their answers, I came prepared with a few of the answers I got when I asked people this question on facebook. Here’s just a couple of those examples too:
Ø it means no fear
Ø it means I’m set free and can live a victorious life
Ø I can’t put into words what it means to me… I am sinful and wretched and if there is any good in me it is because of Jesus. (11-12 minutes)
I don’t have any major problems with any of these answers because I know the people who gave them and I understand that there is more behind each of their words, but when I stop and think about what difference does Jesus’ resurrection make in my day-to-day living, my first inclination is to talk about heaven and not about the what he wants for his people today. And when I think about that, I think we’ve erred and only told a part of the story… and it seems oddly convenient which part of the story we’ve forgotten to tell…
In an effort to tell this other part of the story, I’d like to turn our attention to the passage read earlier from the book of John. John 10:22-30…
It’s not too hard to picture what’s happening in this passage. It’s winter… its during one of the Jewish the festivals and Jesus is walking around, perhaps pacing in Solomon’s porch when he is surrounded by some of the Jews and they come to question him and get him to answer them plainly and openly – “Are you the Messiah or not?” they ask. And their not asking because they’re excited to finally find the Messiah… their asking him if he’s really claiming to be the One… their question is more like “Are you really so blasphemous as to say that you are the Messiah sent from God!?!” And while Jesus’ answer seems to imply that yes he is, he doesn’t just come out and say it plainly. Instead he responds with “eipon humin” – these two words are probably the most important part of this whole passage. When translated, they mean, “I did tell you” or “I have told you”. He says, the works that I do in my Father’s name testify for me.
When questioned about whether he is the Messiah, Jesus responds with, I’ve been telling you all along who I am. Are you still unable to hear me? Have you not seen all the things I’ve done in my Father’s name? You’ve been watching me so meticulously and carefully to try to catch me in a trap and yet, you haven’t stopped to take in the big picture yet? You’ve seen the miracles I’ve performed and yet you are more concerned with whether or not I did it on the Sabbath or whose fault it was that the man was born blind in the first place. Have you not seen a thing I’ve done or heard a thing I’ve said?
The context is different, but this passage is really reminiscent of the time in Matthew 11:3, when the John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Are you the expected one?” Jesus didn’t answer them with a simple yes or no either. Jesus’ answer was this: Go to John and tell him what you see and hear. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news in proclaimed to the poor”. The obvious implication is… uh, yeah, that’s me. So, Jesus says “I did tell you” but you didn’t believe… he says my sheep recognize my voice and they follow me… and he’s implying here that his accusers do not know his voice… Those who are his sheep, he says, “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand”. Jesus is clearly alluding to the promise of resurrection life.
But when exactly does this resurrection life begin? I think that’s very much a question worth considering. The promise of resurrection life is something that isn’t only reserved for heaven and life after death. In each of the other lectionary texts for today, we got glimpses of what resurrection life – life with God, life in Christ – we got glimpses of what that life looks like…
Psalm 23 is probably the most read chapter in our Bibles and the place it gets read most often is almost certainly at funerals. It is a strong and vivid picture of God tending and caring for his people – his sheep – like the perfect shepherd. And it’s probably read at funerals so often because it’s the kind of life that we envision in heaven… where God provides for our every need. But when this was written, David said, “the Lord IS my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures”. This was a picture of David’s present reality and his understanding of life with God, not his hope of a someday event. He obviously thought that this sort of life was possible in the present.
In the story from Acts, we read about a real-life resurrection. In this story, a woman, Tabitha is raised from the dead… not forever… all assumptions with her are that she dies again someday, but it’s probably no accident that this was the woman who was brought back to live even longer. The text says in verse 36 that she was “always doing good and helping the poor”. So when she died, the people there called Peter to come and do something about it. It says that the widows there were weeping and crying and that they showed Peter the different tunics that Tabitha had made for them. The passage itself does not say why they did this but it’s pretty easy to imagine that this may have been a case where the community really couldn’t afford to lose her. Tabitha was obviously devoted to caring for the poor and for the widows in this community – her life was all about living out the kingdom of God and, if nothing else, the fact that God through Peter raised her from the dead was at the very least a validation of her way of life. If nothing else, it was deemed worthwhile to God’s purposes for their present reality that this woman Tabitha, get to live for a little longer.
Now, this doesn’t mean necessarily that God chose to heal or raise only those whose lives were devoted to the kingdom… that would imply that they – or we – could somehow earn that privilege by just living right or something. This is not about Tabitha and how she earned the right to be raised to new life… not at all… it is about God and his finding ways to reveal himself and his kingdom to his people. I don’t have good answers about why some people are healed, some receive sight, some are raised from the dead and others are not. But in this account from Acts, we see that it is possible. We see that God doesn’t have to wait until we’re in heaven to let us experience life in his kingdom. We see that he is faithful to make sure his kingdom continues in the here and now and in order to make sure that happened, he gave Tabitha back to the community in Joppa.
And if the resurrection of Tabitha has anything to do with her participation in the kingdom of God, how much more so does the resurrection of Jesus validate his way of living. Jesus wasn’t shy one bit about saying “I am the way the truth and the life”. He wanted people to see his way of living and follow suit. He called each of his disciples to follow him and spent years showing them the kind life God wants for us.
Before Jesus, God gave his people the Torah – the Law. In a lot of Christian churches, the Law gets a bad rap because we think of it as rules and legalism, but Deuteronomy 30, especially verses15-20 remind us that the Torah was not law like we think of law – it was life. It was to be followed so that the people of God would
experience the life God designed for them… abundant life… Psalm 23 kind of life.
Well, Jesus told his followers in Matthew 5:17-20 that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In other words, everything that the law was supposed to be – Jesus was… only better. If the law was meant to give life, to instruct God’s people how to live, to reveal God and his nature to people, to give God’s children a picture of what life with God could really look like… if the law was meant to do that (and I would argue that it did), well Jesus did so even more. He was the epitome of all that the law was at it’s best. He was the giver and revealer of true life, much more so than the Law ever was.
And his resurrection – the fact that he was raised from the dead – accomplished much… certainly, atonement – the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of reunification between God and His people. But Jesus’ resurrection also validates the fact that he didn’t deserve to die. His life was lived the way life is supposed to be lived. He literally lived out the kingdom of God (what we probably think of as heaven) here on earth. Remember, he taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. Well, that’s what Jesus did and it is what he calls us to do.
When he is questioned in the temple courts about whether or not he’s the Messiah in John 10, he doesn’t just say yes or no. He says, “I’ve been telling you all along”. My sheep hear my voice and they follow me. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to literally exchange our life for His. In Luke 9, Jesus put it this way: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it”. How do we experience the resurrection of Jesus in our daily lives – by continuing to live out our baptism – by giving ourselves to what Paul talks about in Romans 6 and Ephesians 2… dying and rising with Christ.
Eugene Peterson just had a book published called “Practice Resurrection”. It’s a book about growing up in Christ and it walks you through the book of Ephesians. But the main point, which the title clearly alludes to, is that we don’t grow in Christ unless we give ourselves fully to that. Jesus said to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him; Paul said that we die to our sinful nature and are raised to new life in Christ; Peterson looks at these scriptures and says the way we do this is we practice resurrection. First, I think he’s right. But second, that sounds really nice and kinda churchy if you don’t read the book. It sounds great to “practice resurrection”, but if you stop and consider what that means, it doesn’t necessarily keep its appeal for everyone.
Resurrection means to come back to life… and the obvious implication then is…? In order to experience resurrection, we have to experience death. You can’t be brought back to life if you don’t die first. So, the call to discipleship by Jesus and the carriers of his gospel is not just a nice message about how God wants to get us to heaven someday. The truth is that it is still a great message, but it’s not easy for us to swallow if we happen to live somewhat comfortably and are at all attached to the way of living that we experience right now. So, we try to boil it down into something we can swallow… we try to think of ways to “die to self” that we think we can handle. I’ll give up my coffee budget so that I can be more generous with people in need. I’ll spend one Saturday afternoon each month serving my community at the soup kitchen. Each of us has a line I think… there is so far that we are willing to go in service to our King. But we need to continue to hold out that question… “Just how far am I willing to let God call me?” At what point will I become like the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to enter the kingdom, but walked away because Jesus told him he needed to give up everything?
Thankfully, God is a God of grace and he will take everything that we are willing to give to him, but his call remains the same. “I want all of you”, he says. Let your life die… completely… that’s hard… that means all my hopes and dreams – everything I want for my family… those have to die. They don’t just become secondary to what God wants… they die completely. They are no longer valid at all… but remember Jesus’ words…. “whoever loses his life for me will save it”… maybe not save those hopes and dreams… but on the other side of this death is REAL LIFE… it’s Jesus’ life. We don’t get it. We don’t see how much more valuable that life really is most of the time… but it is. It is better than we could ever know. Every time I give myself to that life, I do so in trust and in faith that God really does value things differently than I do and that he will transform the way I see things so that I will understand the gift that a life surrounded by his grace and mercy really is.
When Eugene Peterson talks about practicing resurrection he says, “Resurrection life, as defined by Jesus’ resurrection, is totally different from what we are used to – as different as death is from life… resurrection is not something we add on to everything we are already accustomed to; it makes alive what has been ‘dead through… trespasses and sins.” Later, he says “When we squander life on anything less than the God revealed in Jesus and made present in the Spirit, we miss out on life itself… when we segregate life into secular and sacred, we confine the so-called sacred into what happens on Sundays and in heaven. And when we do that, we are crippled, prevented from enjoying the glory of God that pulsates in the so-called secular. This accounts for the considerable sadness that lies in a blanket like smog over our world… The Christian life was never intended to be a conventional, cautious, careful, tiptoeing through the tulips way of life, avoiding mud puddles, staying out of trouble, and hopefully accumulating enough for good behavior to insure us a happy hereafter. And the church was never intended to be a subculture specializing in holiness… or perfection.”
So what was is intended to be? What does resurrection look like in everyday life? It looks like complete surrender and a constant willingness to listen to God’s leading and a willingness to improvise in any given situation. It looks like dropping off food at the food bank; it looks like listening to someone who has no one to talk to; it looks like praying for your enemies, or sponsoring immigrants, or housing people in tough times; it looks like making meals for people who are hungry, adopting children without families, interceding for God to heal the broken and the sick, becoming peacemakers and entering into conflicts seeking God’s resolution, sharing from what God has given us with those who are less fortunate, advocating for those who are powerless… it looks a lot like Jesus’ life. Because that’s what we are called to be, right? The Body of Christ… enabled by his Spirit, we are his people carrying out his life and ministry in this world.
Who does it look like? How about Mother Theresa? You may say, well that’s too much. I can’t do that. That’s over the top… Well… I think it’s true. Not that we all have to pack up and move across the world to serve lepers in Calcutta… but even if Anchorage were to become your Calcutta, how do you give your life to live like a Mother Theresa here? God calls us all to different things; we have different passions and strengths. But there is no doubt in my mind that he calls us all to resurrection living… dying and rising. I can’t tell you where God is calling you… but he can. The question each of us has to answer is, will we surrender to him? If so, on the other side of this death is life – REAL LIFE – the abundant life Jesus talks about in John 10.
And we take seven weeks to celebrate Easter because the good news that Jesus is alive makes all the difference in the world around us. It’s the message of hope no matter how dark our world or individual situations may be. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed and brought back to new life through him. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. May we come to not only a new knowledge of the significance of the fact that he is alive – may we enter more and more into his way of living. And may you come to know the joy of what it means to practice resurrection.