"Eternity Was Here All Along"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 15, 2001 

Acts 10:34-43; I Corinthians 15:19-26;  John 20:1-18


EASTER SUNDAY


     Have you ever wondered why Easter Sunday brings a large number of people to church? Basically, it is a nice thing to do. I do not say that facetiously! There are flowers, music and a message about eternal life. In addition there is the element of Spring fashions. The colors turn brighter. Afterwards, friends and family gather for a meal and then life drifts back into our normal routines.

     Other faith traditions experience the same thing. Recently, we were approached by one of our Jewish congregations in Bowie to use our church facilities for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The large number of people who attend services during those Holy days in September cannot fit into their building. Where are the people on the Sabbath Days throughout the year?

     Like many of us, they get busy with life's daily events. And while we do set goals for ourselves that include more involvement with our church family and faith traditions, so often it does not happen. When Jesus found his disciples sleeping in the garden he said, "Can you not stay awake with me for even one hour? The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

     With all that is going on in our lives, Sundays quickly become one of those days when we can relax and prepare for the week that lies ahead. And it is a day when we do not have to dress up and go anywhere. It is easy to stay home. It is very easy to neglect an aspect of our lives that frequently our parents found important for their spiritual health.

     We have to admit that we have grown used to the day-to-day issues. They are constant and never ending. Days melt into weeks and weeks merge into months. But as most of us know, life has a way of bringing us to our knees. Marriages crumble, children die, cancer shows up, we lose our jobs, we get caught doing something that reveals a weakness we have, or our car driven less than 200 miles is totaled by a 1974 rust-bucket driven by an uninsured motorist. During these times we need to tap our spiritual reserves when perhaps we have not spent a lot of time making deposits.

     Actually, the disciples were right where many of us are in their spiritual awareness and development. Jesus had been the source of their strength. They were somebody when he was with them. He settled their arguments. He confronted the authorities. He drew crowds when he preached. He had all been the centerpiece of a well attended Palm Sunday event just a week earlier. Nothing was wrong with anything until that which gave them security and identity was taken away.

     Now they were on stage without Jesus and they were not doing well. They were hiding.

     Their beliefs were shattered. How could God have permitted such a thing? How could such a travesty of justice go unpunished? How could something that was going so well, in the blink of an eye suddenly become the end of a movement that promised such great things? Where was God? Have you ever asked such questions during one of life's disappointing moments?

     The disciples should have been far more informed than we are. They had walked with Jesus. They had listened to him personally. They had witnessed his power. Why were they now huddled together as if none of that mattered? What would it take to connect them to a surging power supply that would start a tidal wave of spiritual energy, a wave that would not stop until it had reached around the world?

     Bill McArdle was a captain in the Prince George's County police department while I still in training at another church in another time. His spiritual beliefs were marginal, i.e., he had thoughts in his mind but none of them energized him on a daily basis. His personality carried him. And his responses reflected what was visible in his environment. His only connection to me was that I performed the wedding ceremony that united him and his wife, Barbara.

     He called me one day from Prince George's Hospital and said he needed to speak to me immediately. Once I arrived, I sat down next to him. We had a very interesting discussion. In quiet tones he described an incident that inspired his curiosity.

     He was being taken for a catheterization to check for possible blockages in his coronary arteries. He said I was fully awake when he saw a gorgeous nurse coming down the hallway of CCU. "You know the kind," he said, "who wear the near transparent white uniforms." He got up on his elbows and spoke to her in a flirtatious manner, when she started screaming, "This patient is coding!" He said to her, "What's the matter with you? Are you crazy?" People came running with a crash cart and surrounded his gurney. He yelled, "What is the matter with you people?" He turned to look at the people behind him and saw his body still on the table. By now he was sitting up in complete disbelief at what his eyes were seeing. Then he watched as someone reached through his chest with paddles and yelled "clear." The last thing Bill remembered was seeing the acoustical tiles in the ceiling as he laid down in his body.

     No one could have taken that experience away from him. He now had personal evidence of a truth that has been around since the beginning of time -- we do not die when we leave our bodies. That one piece of information presented Bill with the opportunity to change the entire framework of his life and he seized the moment.

     When Bill eventually left his physical body many years later, I officiated at his memorial service. His wife told me that he left behind a very extensive library that contained everything from A to Z on spirituality and afterlife. She told me that whatever happened to him on that table completely changed his life. He left the surface issues that had dominated his daily routines and began seeking answers to life's more substantive issues. He became a sponge for anything and everything that had to do with God and God's creative energy that we call "love."

     It is a shame that so many of us live in this movie that we call life, and it takes a near catastrophe before we give serious consideration to who we are, and what it is we came here to do. We can be asleep because our spirits are willing but our flesh is weak.

     The disciples were not sure at all what to do next. Their Master had been killed. It was not until they learned that Jesus had not died, that they knew they were witnessing something that would change forever their consciousness, their awareness, and their resolve.

     Today we celebrate that truth. When we realize that there is more to life than what our senses tell us, we can begin living as eternal beings now. There is no reason to wait. After all, the same movie has played for thousands of years. We are merely the newest characters to be reading scripts that are equally as old. The circumstances are different, but the life-themes are not. Is it not time to break out of these roles? Is it not time to do what Jesus said, "Follow me?" The disciples did. And because they did, we are here today. How about the rest of us?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     O God, this morning we come into our church with a great sense of humility. When we were at our worst, your love was undisturbed. When we drove nails into your son, your understanding was beyond measure. When fear drove us into hiding, you sent those who encouraged us. And when we were convinced that darkness had put out his light, you gave us an empty tomb. We thank you for giving us a glimpse of eternity. Your mercy and patience with us are infinite. Inspire us now to remain Easter people, who have learned to put away our childish ways. The night is gone and the bright morning light has come at last. Thank you for giving us a gift that never ends. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Loving God, most of us are not able to understand eternity, let alone comprehend its implications for our day-to-day living. We occasionally wear our faith as if it were a garment that is reserved for Sundays. For the most part, we have not changed from our descendants who lived when Jesus roamed the earth. Yet every now and then, we catch glimpses of what eternity must be like.

     What would life be like if kindness were normal, if anger, rudeness and despondency were outgrowths of fear that no longer existed? We wait for the day to dawn when people of every continent, of every race and every faith-orientation will experience the universe together and sing one song, a song of mutual understanding and love.

     Thank you for sending us Jesus who tried to teach his listeners that such a day is now here. Teach us, O God, that each of us can live that way now, in spite of being with others who have not yet learned how. Help us seize the moment and experience resurrection today. May we so live that tomorrow our world will be a little closer to where your kingdom will come, as a place where your will is done. We pray these thoughts through Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .