(Preached at Alger First UMC on Easter Sunday, 2015)
Easter B-Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
That story there, that is what we are celebrating today. Those 18 verses the climax of our faith, they are the reason we are here, this story is what we believe, what we preach, what we count on, what we proclaim. This is what makes us Christians. This story about Jesus rising from the dead, Jesus’ resurrection, tells us what brings us salvation and atonement.
Now atonement is an interesting word, it’s kind of old but it’s a popular church word. We throw it around a lot, but I want to make sure we know what it means. Atonement is basically how Jesus fixes things. We have been separated from God in some way, there is a divide between us humans and God, but Jesus fixed the relationship between God and humans through his death and resurrection. That is atonement-Jesus fixing us and bringing us back to God.
Now, I realize that you all have heard this story before. You all know this story, this is not news. But the question I think we have to ask ourselves every year is, “How does it work?” We can’t just settle for the statement “Jesus’ death and resurrection brought us back to God.” We have to ask “how?” We can’t just leave it at the proclamation-we were created with rational minds that naturally want to get to the why and how of everything. How does Christ dying on the cross and rising from the dead still affect our world today? What does that do for us? Why does that affect us today?
I want to give you a lens to look through to see the resurrection, Jesus’ rising from the dead. I want to give you a way to look at the resurrection that gives it meaning for us today. This isn’t the only way to interpret and understand the resurrection, this is just one lens, there are many others. But I think this can really help us.
The early mothers and fathers of the church, back in the first few centuries after Christ died, the people who were closest in time to the actual event you just heard about, had a different way of looking at the resurrection then a lot of us do today. Let me give you an overview of how they understood the resurrection. As the early church saw it, there was a divine drama going on. There is a cosmic battle being fought between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the forces of evil, for control of the universe. I realize that sounds a little crazy, but let me explain. See, because of sin, humanity is captive to the power of Satan. We are slaves to evil and darkness, and what I mean by that is that we all have a tendency to do bad things, we are enslaved to it. But God sent Jesus right into the middle of this battle to take creation upon himself. Jesus Christ shared in our suffering and even in our death. And in that, it looked like Satan had won. But Christ rose from the dead and defeated Satan. And through the gift of the Holy Spirit, this victory over Satan, sin and death, we are freed from the clutches of Satan and delivered from death.
Now, that sounds like the plot of a movie, right? That could be the next summer blockbuster right there. But I think there’s a lot of truth in this story. This story goes all the way back to the beginning of time. After God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the land, the birds and the fish and the land animals, God created a man and a woman, right? What did he name them? Adam and Eve. And God placed them in a garden called Eden. Adam and Eve were in a perfect relationship with God-they knew and loved God and God knew and loved them. There was no separation or sin or brokenness or disobedience. There was one rule-don’t eat from the tree in the center of the garden. At first, it was fine. But then the snake came and suggested that Eve eat a fruit from that tree that God told them to not go near to. And Eve listened to the snake and disobeyed God.
Adam and Eve let the suggestion of that snake take control of their lives and ruin them. We do the same thing. We know how to live, right? We know what right and wrong are and we know that we should do the right things and not do the wrong things, right? But we still do the wrong things, we still hurt people, break laws, and do bad things. We still let the bad things rule our lives and take control of us. Our lives are ruled by sin and darkness, we are slaves to the powers of darkness. Is this making sense?
Now, fast forward to Christ’s birth. I know it’s not Christmas, but let me start here because this is where the story picks up. When Jesus was born, his mom Mary sang a song praising God for the birth of Jesus that we now call the Magnificat. And in this song, Mary sings these lines from Luke 1: “God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from the thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” This kind of gives us a glimpse of what Christ’s life is going to be about. And we see that it’s going to be about confrontation. Mary sees that her son Jesus’ life is going to be about confronting the powers of the world that keep humanity captive, the same power that ruled Adam and Eve’s lives after they ate the fruit and the same powers that rule our lives.
In Christ’s life, this theme is even more apparent. If you read through Jesus’ ministry, you’ll see that Jesus was all about getting rid of everything that oppresses and enslaves us. Those who are blind, he made them see. Those who were sick, he made them healthy. Those who were forgotten about, he made them see that they are loved. Those who were unworthy, he made them worthy. And because of this, Jesus directly challenged the powers of the world. The priests, the religious authorities, the Jewish ruling council, he challenged all of them by loving the least and the lost and paying attention to and blessing those whom the powerful deemed unworthy.
Because Jesus challenged them, they killed him. The powerful in the world, those who were keeping the people enslaved to sin and death, saw that Jesus was challenging them-and they couldn’t have that. So they arrested, tortured and killed Jesus.
Now, we do remember that it wasn’t just the literal rulers of the temple and the city that crucified Jesus. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul says “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities and forces of cosmic darkness, and the spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.” The force and power that crucified Jesus was the same force and power that ruled Adam and Eve’s lives after they ate the fruit and the same powers that rule our lives and the same forces and powers that kept the people who Jesus reached out to enslaved and captive in sin and darkness. Those are the powers that crucified Jesus, and Paul paints them in a vivid picture. These aren’t human enemies. It might look like it, but these are cosmic, spiritual enemies. They are the spiritual powers of evil in the heavens, the forces that bring darkness on the whole world.
Now, I know that this seems a little crazy since we do live in the modern world. Stuff like this seems to be relegated to horror movies, right? But we have to remember that this is how the people saw the world in Jesus’ day. We see the spiritual world as completely separate from the natural world, and there’s not much crossing over. But in Jesus’ time, the common view was that this natural world and the spiritual world are mixed together and interact.
It brings us back to what I said a little bit ago. We might not come out and say this, but we believe that there is good and there is bad, right? And we know the right way to behave, right? That’s what a conscience is for, to tell us the right way to behave, to tell us whether or not we should cut off that guy on the highway or not. But we still do the bad thing, right? For some reason, we don’t do the right thing. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. That’s where guilt comes from-we know the right thing to do, but we don’t do it. There’s some force that’s holding us captive, keeping us enslaved. And it’s not a good force. It’s the same destructive force that is within us all, the same destructive force that brings about all the suffering and pain and destruction and brokenness that is within us and infects the whole world. We have a name for this force, and we’ve talked about it before. In Greek, it’s called orge. In modern Christian thought, it’s called a sinful nature. This is the force that killed Jesus.
But we know that Jesus’ death wasn’t the end, right? That’s what we celebrate today. See, the powers that enslaved the world tried to kill Jesus, but in doing that, they exposed themselves for the sham that they are. In Romans 6:9-12, Paul says “We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants.”
This is the victory that Jesus has over death. This is the victory that we talk about when we say that Jesus defeated the powers of this world. In Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus pronounced the doom of sin. Sin has been deposed of its power. It has been removed from its throne. The powers of sin and death and darkness are still in the world, but in Jesus’ resurrection, they are defeated and their power is taken away. They’re like a king whose people have obviously deserted him for someone else and don’t listen to him anymore, but they still sit on their throne, acting like they have power and send out decrees, thinking that the people will still play by their rules.
The power of this whole idea of what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean can be summed up in one word: Hope. What is hope? The dictionary defines hope as the feeling that what is wanted can be had. Hope is the feeling we get when we want something and we realize that there is a real possibility of us getting it. As a senior in college, hope is what I feel when I realize that there are only 5 weeks until I graduate and receive the degree for which I’ve been working my butt off for the past 4 years-I want a Bachelor’s Degree, and I’m seeing now that I can actually have it. Hope is what my parents are also feeling right now when they realize that they’ll soon have one less kid to put through college.
Hope is what hostages feel when they hear that the ransom has been paid and the person who captured them is actually letting them go. Hope is what prisoners feel when they hear the footsteps of someone coming to their cell to let them out. They want to be free, and now they realize that it’s very possible for them to get that freedom.
I think we all want someone to come and repair all of our broken lives and this whole broken world. Look around you at people broken by addiction, homes and communities broken by violence and drugs and; cities broken by crime and racism and; countries broken by debt and corruption; the world broken by global warming and pollution and all of the other ways humans damage the environment-we are surrounded by brokenness, and we want out. We want someone to come in and repair it all, to make each of us, our families, our communities, our countries, and the whole world new, pick up all the broken pieces and bind them back together. I know that’s what I want. Because I’m just as broken as anyone else here.
Christ’s death and resurrection gives us hope in all of this because the object of our deepest desire, the fixing of our brokenness, can now be had. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power of sin and death is broken. Satan and sin and death are still there, but Jesus’ resurrection pronounced their doom. They don’t have to have power over us and this world. It’s through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we can join with Paul when he says in 1 Corinthians 15, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”
A theologian I like, Frederick Buechner, has a great quote for this. He said “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” What resurrection means is that Jesus Christ now has the last word on everything, nothing else. If we believe that Christ won victory over the powers of sin and death, then nothing that we are afraid of, nothing that could possibly hurt us, has the last word. Not global warming, not terrorism, not economy. The death of a family member or friend is not the last word. Losing a job is not the last word. A spouse leaving you is not the last word. High medical bills are not the last word. Injury or sickness do not have the last word, none of that will have the last word in our lives because Christ has won victory over those dark and depressing powers.
The great thing about this view of Christ’s resurrection is that this is not passive. We are not just bystanders, watching God’s grace do its work. We are not just watching a kind of legal transaction where the debt we owe to God because of our sin is being paid for us by Christ’s death. We are not just watching this divine drama-we are actors and actresses in it. See, the atonement, the moment that our relationship with God was repaired, the atonement is the full immersion of Jesus Christ into the fullness of human experience. Christ fully entered into our experience. Jesus Christ became fully human and shared our struggles and lived our lives. Jesus lived it so fully that he also experienced our death. But Jesus was God in the flesh, fully God and fully man-death couldn’t possibly keep him down. It’s through that experience that he offers us victory. The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ not only proclaims an otherworldly cosmic victory over death, it proclaims a victory that is extended into our everyday lives.
This is not just what Jesus does for us, it’s also what Jesus does within Through Christ’s resurrection, you can experience the same victory over sin and death in your own life. Not only that, by being a part of the body of Christ, the church, and sharing in that victory, you are called to extend that victory over sin and death out into the rest of the world. And it all starts by what Christ does within us.
One of the traditions of the ancient church was to baptize new believers into the church on Easter Sunday. Our Methodist heritage gives us a great way to participate in that-through remembering our baptism. By remembering our baptism, I don’t mean literally remembering the moment when you were baptized. If you’re like me, that happened when you were a baby and you can’t hope to remember that. But by remembering your baptism, I mean remembering that you are baptized-you are a baptized child of God, a member of the church, the bride of Christ, and you have this victory in Jesus Christ. When we remember our baptism, we remember that Jesus Christ has won victory over the power of Satan, sin and death in our lives and through the gift of the Holy Spirit that is received at baptism, this victory is extended to our lives as well. So what I want to do today is give you a chance to experience that. (We proceeded to remember our baptisms through the liturgy given to us in the United Methodist Book of Worship)