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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

 Celebrating the Resurrection

The Christmas Preference

Have you ever noticed the difference between our celebrations of Christmas and Easter? The organized begin their preparations for the winter festival in September. The first week after Labor Day they are making their Christmas gift list and heading out to the stores throughout the fall, intent on beating the holiday crowds. Even for us mere 'disorganized' mortals, who do not get started until the day after Thanksgiving, or later, we spend more time shopping, decorating, and socializing at Christmas than at Easter. Easter does not require hanging any outside lights, making special cookies, or attending school concerts to hear our little darlings play their instrument in the orchestra or sing with the choir. And decorating the Christmas tree requires much more time than coloring two dozen eggs.

The business community has done its best to provide more of a balance to our lopsided celebrations by introducing their spring fashions and commercializing the Easter festival as much as possible. But even then Easter just does not hold the same charm as the winter holiday. This was evident in an ad published in the USAWeekend weekly that comes with the volume of newspaper advertisements. Drawing upon the religious sentiments generated by Good Friday and Easter Sunday, StudioHummel offered for the very first time a beautiful wreath with 12 porcelain nativity figurines, twinkling lights and a radiant, illuminated star. Ironically, on the back of the page was an article entitled, “What would Jesus do—in his day?”

 The differences between the two holidays are understandable. The smile of a new born baby melts the heart of even the staunchest Scrooge but what do you do with an empty tomb. There are a number of ways to sketch it but final results are its still an open cave. You may hold a replica of the robe left in the tomb by the Risen Lord but it certainly is not going to generate the warm feelings of a cooing baby. Recreating a pastoral manger scene on a shelf over the fireplace is sentimental. Reconstructing Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, or a graveyard on your coffee table borders on the macabre. However, the real problem is not with the holiday per se but with our understanding of it.

We prefer Christmas because its symbols are more sentimental and attractive to our senses. We create objects that we admire and possess and control. We are like Mary in the garden after she sees Jesus. We want to wrap our arms around him. We want to hold onto our religion. It is easier to predict what God will do in our lives if we can hold him in our arms. It is easier to limit the expectations of our religion if we can contain it. In contrast, we cannot control the message of Easter. How do you take hold of a dead man walking? At Easter we exchange the smiling baby for an empty tomb. Babies we can understand but how do you explain nothingness. The miracle of birth gives us something we can hold in our hands. The miracle of resurrection gives us nothing but strips of linen and a slightly used burial cloth neatly folded on a slab of stone.

Confronted by Easter

Christmas also receives more attention because it is a holiday of past traditions. It does not make any new demands; relatives and in-laws sometimes do, but the holiday itself does not. We can nearly celebrate it blindfolded. All we must do is repeat the past. We do not have to think. We are not responsible for producing anything new. We do not have to change anything. We simply reenact the traditions that we have always done. It allows us to live in the past and ignore the present and avoid the future. But Easter confronts us in the present. We try to avoid this by talking about a future resurrection but the message of Easter is in the present. It challenges us. It demands a decision. It requires a response. Will we believe that which took place in the past can take place in the present as well as the future? Will we believe that God can produce resurrection in our lives?

Christmas does not confront us with the same challenge that Mary, John who is referred to as the other disciple in our passage, and Peter faced on that fateful Easter morning. Each person took a different route to the grave. Each person had a different experience. Mary thought she saw a vandalized grave. John paused and stood at the doorway of an empty tomb but Peter immersed himself into the moment. Three people, three ways of approaching the unknown and unexplainable but each person was faced with the same challenge. Will you believe and how will you respond.

The challenge of resurrection is the same challenge that Jesus issued throughout his ministry. Matthew summarized Jesus preaching with these words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.” The description begins with a call to respond. Do something; repent, because here is what God is doing. The emphasis on doing is uncomfortable. We would prefer a God who would gently rub our backs and tell us that everything is going to be ok. We would prefer a God who is available when the doctor informs us that our arteries are 98% clogged and unless something is done soon then we may suffer a severe stroke or heart attack. That's what God is supposed to do, right, He is suppose to be there for us! When we need him.

This may appear to be a dramatic twist on the theme of resurrection for some us. We normally limit our thinking of the resurrection to something that happens in the future; that grand finale that comes after we have exhausted all our possibilities, explored all our options, and taken our last breath. We do not usually think of resurrection in the present. Neither did Mary, Peter or John. After the disciples left the graveyard, Mary fell to the ground crying, crushed by the thought that someone had taken the body. Were the Jewish authorities inflicting further punishment? Had some ghoulish, twisted mind taken it for a ransom? Mary could only think the worst because she never even considered the idea of resurrection.

The text tells us that Peter and John returned to their homes. The narrative indicates that Peter still had doubts but John, the other disciple, believed but he still did not understand. He still did not know what it would mean for his life. He still did not know what to do. What impact would this incredible news have on his life? Would Jesus now pick up the sword to defeat the Romans? Would he return to the Temple courts and triumph over his enemies? Or did it mean something altogether different?

The disciples had just as must difficulty believing and understanding the resurrection as we do. It was beyond just their reality. They had nothing with which to compare it. Their lack of scientific instruments, their lack of knowledge, their lack of enlightened skepticism did not make it any easier to believe but eventually they came to believe. They came to put their trust in the emptiness of that grave. It took more than the resurrection appearances. In the first chapter of Acts, Luke mentions that even after seeing Jesus alive, many disciples still did not believe. I can understand their doubt. It is easier to doubt than to believe. Skepticism is less threatening then faith. Skepticism requires nothing. Faith requires a response. Faith requires resurrection living.

Resurrection Living

What is resurrection living? It is living the reality of Easter morning each and every day. It’s enjoying our freedom from the guilt of sin. Each of us has haunting memories of mistakes that we have made. We remember the pain that we inflicted on others by our self centered behavior. We remember the people that we disappointed by our irresponsible behavior. We remember the haunting failures that were nobody's fault but our own. Those memories can be overwhelming. They are a major source of depression. Maturity and aging may actually increase the intensity of the guilt that we feel. Yet, resurrection living knows that those memories have been crucified with Christ. They were nailed to a Cross and buried in a tomb.

The woman who was caught in adultery received a taste of resurrection living when she knelt before Jesus. The religious leaders were about to execute her for sleeping with a man who was not her husband but Jesus turned away their judgemental wrath when he invited the man who was without sin to cast the first stone. To the woman's amazement they all dropped their rocks and walked away. Then Jesus said to her “Woman is there no one to condemn you...then neither do I...go and sin no more.” At that moment the woman knew the joy of resurrection. She had been buried and she now could leave as a free woman.

Resurrection living also liberates us to enjoy freedom from despair. Even with all of our modern luxuries, depression and despair are common aliments of our culture. Despair is a conscious giving up, as though we've become the victim of a black widow spider: We've been given such a severe dose of reality, we find ourselves experiencing painful abdominal cramping, accompanied by severe hypertension. We want to just curl up into a ball and die. Despair has become so prevalent that a new medication has been developed for children-SSRI. Over 750,000 children are taking the medication. Some doctors call this a dangerous experiment while others applaud the trend as our best hope of saving our children from despair. The resurrection is God's response to a world that is without hope. When Jesus stepped from grave, God announced to humanity that not even death was powerful enough to thwart his plans.[i] 

Resurrection living also enables us to live in freedom from the anxiety of worldly cares. The Heidelberg Catechism opens with wonderful question: What is your only comfort in life? The answer; ‘that I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ’. By comfort the framers were not thinking of life in the 21st century. When we think of comfort we think of sitting in our family room with a warm fire blazing in the fireplace, watching TV. For those early Reformers comfort meant strength, stalwartness, stamina, perseverance. The question reminded them that no matter what happened in this world, nothing could separate them from God's love and grace and nothing else mattered. Their property could be destroyed by flood, their life savings could be lost through speculating in the stock market or tulip bulbs, or their country could be conquered by a ruthless enemy, through every difficulty, through every set back they would not lose heart. They would persevere and continue to serve their God with joy and thanksgiving.

Resurrection living is not based in lifeless creeds, intellectual arguments, or tedious rules. It is living in freedom from the evil powers that seek to destroy us through guilt, despair and anxiety. Resurrection living requires the faith to believe that what took place over 2000 years ago can take place in the here and n2ow. Resurrection living is not reserved exclusively for the future but brings in the present. It is not for the skeptic but is reserved only for the believer.

A family was watching a movie of the life of Jesus on television. Their 6-year-old daughter was deeply moved as the moviemaker realistically portrayed Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Tears ran down the little girl’s face as they took him from the cross and lay him in a borrowed tomb. She watched as a guard was placed outside the tomb. And then suddenly a big smile broke on her face. She bounced up on the arm of the chair and said with great anticipation, “Now comes the good part!”[ii]

Resurrection living believes that Friday was not the end of the story but that the good part has come, is coming each and every day and will one day come for all eternity.

[i]    Homiletics Online, Homestyle Godliness,” January 10, 1999, [online] available from www.homileticsoneline.

[ii]   Kent C. Miller, “Living the resurrection life,” Trinity Presbyterian Church Web Site, Retrieved October 23, 2003.

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