"The Ultimate Level Playing Field"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 23, 2008
Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
This week I was asked, “What are you going to talk about on Easter Sunday?” I enjoy presenting myself with a touch of mystery so I responded, “Why don’t you come to St. Matthew’s and find out.” She said, “I can’t. I’m going to our early service, teach my Sunday school class and then run home to get dinner started.” She rolled her eyes and said, “We are hosting the family this year.”
She went on to tell me that her husband was not planning to come to church with her. She said, “He does not like large crowds of people who do not appear to care about the church during the rest of the year. He talked about the parking challenges and said, >I’ll return to church when everyone else gets their Christian fix for the year and are gone. Besides, I know the story. Judas betrayed Jesus to his enemies. Jesus was tried, convicted and crucified. Three days later he came out of the tomb and showed himself to his followers.’” I smiled and said, “Well, at least he knows the story.”
Knowing the story, however, is not the same as living the message. Personalizing the story’s essence so that it becomes the major frame of reference, orientation or a vantage point changes everything we experience. We may know how to read, but if we never take the time to do so, we find ourselves in the same category as those who can’t. We may know how to exercise, but if we never develop a routine, five months of food from Nutrisystem will not make us look like Dan Marino. What we do not use, we lose.
Apparently what the followers of Jesus experienced on that first Easter morning would be quite typical of what most people would experience. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and noticed that the stone had been rolled away from its entrance, she ran and told Peter and John. The two ran to the tomb and found the scene as Mary had described it. The Scriptures tell us that they knew nothing about Jesus’ resurrection. They went back home, probably wondering why anyone would want to steal Jesus’ body. (John 20:9-10) Why would we believe this testimony over the stories found in the other Gospels?
What is most intriguing about John’s Gospel is that it is different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the other Gospels, the resurrection sequences are varied and inconsistent because they were gathered stories circulating in various faith communities. John’s Gospel appears to be an eyewitness account. John’s words provide precise information that could only come from someone who was there. One of the signatures of John’s authorship is that his name never appears in the Gospel.
For example, John was the only writer who knew there were six stone water jugs at the wedding in Cana. (2:6) He was the only writer during the loaves and fish story to record that the loaves were made of barley. (6:9) While in Bethany, when a woman was anointing Jesus with ointment, John wrote that the smell of the perfume “filled the room.” (19:39) He was the only writer to mention the crown of thorns. (19:5) John was the only writer to know the exact number of fish Peter brought ashore after Jesus instructed him to throw the nets on the other side of the boat -- 153 fish. (21:11)
There are scores of facts that no other Gospel mentions. John was there. He was with Peter when they ran to the empty tomb. He knew nothing about the resurrection of Jesus. It was not until Mary Magdalene shared her experience of seeing Jesus alive that the disciples had the choice of believing her or doubting. One tradition says, “When they heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe her.” (Mark 16:11)
It was what John reported next in his Gospel that changed the chemistry of the disciple’s consciousness. John wrote, “It was late that Sunday evening. The disciples were gathered behind locked doors because of their fear of the authorities. Jesus came and stood among them. (John 20:19) We can know the story and miss living the message.
When I was attending Wesley Theological Seminary, Professor L. Harold DeWolf, was teaching our theology class. During our consideration of Jesus’ resurrection, he told us of his experience with a couple whose only child had terminal leukemia. In those days there was little hope for patients with this disease of the blood.
What the parents of this young boy experienced completely changed this couple’s lives just as meeting Jesus behind closed doors had changed the consciousness of the disciples. Everything the disciples understood about life and death changed in that moment.
Dr. DeWolf was a young pastor at the time who felt very challenged by the couple’s faith questions. They wanted to know why they should continue believing that God is a compassionate, kind and merciful creator and yet allows leukemia to destroy the lives of children. Scriptural references, logic and emotional support will not answer such a timeless question. They were in pain and deep mourning. They were confused by a reality with which they could not easily cope.
The couple brought their son home from the hospital to die. He had lost a lot of weight and he was so weak he could not lift his head. They had not heard him speak for weeks. He could only take liquid from small bits of crushed ice given to him on a teaspoon. In time the ten year old died. Their pastor dreaded facing the couple again, but he went immediately upon receiving the news.
The couple greeted their pastor with tears and embraces. He noticed that something was very different about them. They were carrying themselves with a peace, an acceptance as though their prior confusion had been overcome and released. He inquired, “Has something happened to both of you?”
The couple related what had happened much earlier that morning. It was near 2:00 a.m. when they heard their son cry out in a firm, very audible voice. “Mom, Dad -- come quickly!” Both of them raced to his bedroom. He had propped himself up on his arm as he spoke to them.
He said, “I wanted you to see the beautiful angel standing at the foot of my bed. He told me that he has come to take me with him. I asked him if I could first say good-bye to you. He said I could. Isn’t he beautiful? I am not afraid. Mom and Dad, I love you.” His parents could not speak as tears streamed down their faces. They saw nothing at the foot of his bed.
They watched as their son turned away from them. His eyes began to follow something that appeared to be coming around the side of his bed. With an ease that the boy simply did not have for months, he reached out with both arms as though someone was about to pick him up. His lifeless body fell back on the pillow. His parents said, “It is because of our experience that we know Timmy is with God. We have not slept. We have been talking about what Timmy was seeing that we could not. His death was peaceful. To hear him calling us to be with him one last time was such a gift.”
Whatever you have been taught, whatever you think you know, or whatever you claim to believe B not one of you will ever experience death. What you think about that process has no bearing on the reality that exists. The orientation of knowing that we do not die, however, gives all of us a level playing field.
Each of us has so many years to create anything we wish with our thoughts, emotions and spirit. All of us do that whether or not we label our activities as such. We are creators. Our journey through the Lenten season has caused us to focus on the question, “How are we doing?” What loving possibilities have we been creating with our words, our talents and abilities?
From this perspective, attitude is everything. From this perspective, the spirit we use to engage life is everything. From this perspective, the energy patterns we give away are everything. From this perspective, the fears and worries that no longer visit our minds are everything. We are not our bodies. We are spirits encapsulated in a physical form.
This is the Easter message. Jesus overcame one of the world’s cruelest forms of killing people. Not only did he ask God to forgive the ignorance of those standing at the foot of his cross, but he also came back to those who would understand and who would tell the good news that life continues.
Remember, knowing the story is not enough. Only living the message can lift us from the strong gravitational pull of the material world, a world filled with everything that is always changing. Only then will we become observers of life who have learned how to give a different vision of life to those who cannot see. Happy Easter!
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
How easy it is, O God, to rise above the gloom of Good Friday when we know how the story of tragedy and injustice ends. We confess that when reversals come to us where the outcome remains uncertain, the shadows crossing our path often evoke worry, anxiety and stress. Inspire us, O God, to etch into our spirits the permanent understanding of our eternal nature. Enable us to separate ourselves from thought and emotional patterns that replace your reality with ones that our fears create. Teach us that the more we carry our life challenges with an attitude that, “This too shall pass,” we are experiencing the fruits of our trust in you. Just as Jesus had confidence that a cross would become a doorway to eternal life, so may we remain resolute in our faith when we transition from our physical forms. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, what a joy it is to be here today amid the beauty of our sanctuary. Many of us are surrounded by loved ones and friends, and even if we are among those who do not know anyone, there is a wondrous quality about Easter morning that unites us as your children.
When we dwell on the resurrection of Jesus, we ponder the mystery of what waits for each of us when we transition from our solid forms. We stand in awe of an existence where there are no words that could describe what we are returning to when we leave our physical world. We only know of peace, serenity, tranquility, creativity and the promise that more adventures await. What an opportunity we have while living here to give form to what our understanding of love looks like.
Inspire our flow of energy to give for the sake of giving, to nurture others with encouragement, to communicate our spirit enthusiastically, to model stability to others through our presence and to radiate to others confidence that allows all outcomes to be opportunities to let our lights shine. Enable us to be instruments of healing in a world filled with people who are weary of seeing the results of hatred and fear. Inspire the spirit of love to fill us so that every doubting Thomas may learn that to be at peace is the pearl of great price.
We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .