Easter

Empty tomb

One of the best things about what I do as a Pastor and a Chaplain is that I hear lots of stories.  As I sojourn in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and churches, the many rich accounts of people’s lives continue to amaze me.  Some are profoundly sad, some are incredibly joyous, all include relationships of love and some of hate.  The narratives underlying the daily existence of many people is often an alchemical mix of genuine altruism and mindless neglect.  Since we live on this fallen planet with its strange combination of amazing beauty and severe conditions, it only makes sense that the people of the earth experience the wide range of emotions and experiences from grief to joy.  No matter who I speak with, wherever they are from, we all need hope.

Earl (not his real name) had brain surgery.  It effected his speech.  Earl labors to speak and communicate.  Indeed, he struggles so much to do so that I can only pick out bits and pieces of what he is trying to say to me.  The work of talking is made even more frustrating with the fact that Earl was once an extroverted pastor who made his living talking and speaking and offering words of hope.  Now he can barely get a sentence out his mouth.

Punctuated throughout most of our conversation were swear words of which he apologized.  Instead of poo-pooing this wonderful older minister for his imprecations, I invited us to swear together.  For several minutes, what must have looked kooky crazy to any angels looking on, we sat and swore.  Earl and I expressed our anger, disappointment, and tears over the loss of a precious gift.

Then, after we had a good session of lament, I read the timeless story of a person who conquered everything that is wrong and unjust in this world.  Jesus suffered like no other before or since.  He felt loss.  He knew grief firsthand.  He died.

But death could not hold him in the grave.  The power of God raised Christ the Lord to new life.  Now, the life of Jesus is my life, and Earl’s life.  I didn’t read the glorious story of Jesus to change Earl’s feelings or even to try and make him feel better.  I read the story because its real, its true, and it is the Christian’s hope.

I believe the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20 are right:

“Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life.”

Every hope, each promise, and all expectations for Christians everywhere are completely and totally realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Easter, or more aptly, Resurrection Day, is the highest holy day of the entire year for followers of Jesus.  One of the great things about Easter is that it is not only one day in the Christian Year – it comprises 40 days leading to the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit.  That means we celebrate the truth “Jesus is alive!” for six wonderful Spring weeks.  We purposefully take a good look at our hope.

The somber reflection of Lent with its emphasis on confession of sin and repentance now flowers into the exultant joy and celebration of new life.  The call and response of Christians in the glorious season of Easter is “He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”

If there ever was a time for the church to give testimony to the redeeming and saving work of Jesus, it is on Resurrection Day and throughout the Easter season (often referred to as “Eastertide”).  Now is the appropriate time for fellow believers to hear from their brothers and sisters in Christ, how he has brought them renewal – a new outlook and perspective; a new way of relating to others; a new purpose; a completely new life.  We are so tied and in union with Jesus that his resurrection is our resurrection.  Christ’s rising to new life gives us hope.

Earl has hope.  I have hope.  You have hope.  The effects of the fallen world will not always have its way on the earth.  Christ is crucified.  Christ is risen.  Christ is coming again.

Eastertide

 
 
            It could very well be that you have never heard of the word “Eastertide,” and maybe not even in your church.  In my judgment, that is quite unfortunate because Eastertide is a significant season in the Christian Year.  It spans fifty days until Pentecost.  Yep, that is seven weeks of bringing the new life we enjoy to the forefront.  Eastertide’s intentional focus is to recognize and celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and, thus, exulting in our own new life in him.
 
            Now, you might be saying to yourself something like this: “Why do we need to have some liturgical season about Christ’s resurrection?  Shouldn’t we be living like we recognize this every day?”  Yes, of course we should.  But consider this:  If you only sing songs of resurrection on Easter Sunday in your church; only occasionally, at best, think of Christ’s resurrection outside of Easter Sunday; then, perhaps it is wise to bring a highlighted focus to the resurrection in a special season.  Just as we would likely not think of taking only one vacation day in the year for renewal, so it is necessary to take more than one day to enjoy Easter.  If nothing else, Eastertide gives believers an opportunity to let Christ’s resurrection percolate in our hearts so that we end up becoming people in real life who exhibit an alive-spirit.  And God knows we could use much more of that in our congregations!
 
            If life, eternal life, and the necessity of being alive are all needs we have within particular congregations, then it only makes sense that we would want to take advantage of what Eastertide has to offer us:  a deliberate look at Christ’s resurrection, exploring its implications and impact for us and our churches.  Simply assuming that we all know about the resurrection will not do, any more than my wife simply assuming I love her without looking her straight in the eye and telling her so.  
 
            If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17) and we can only expect a sin-as-usual kind of approach to life with a sort of shoulder shrug that says, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?”  But, instead, we have the hope of life everlasting because Christ has risen from death.  We have the hope of individual renewal and corporate revitalization since we serve a risen Savior.
 
            Therefore this is the perfect time of year to engage in some renewal practices or even make a few simple changes that show signs of life within the congregation.  Here are just a few ideas for lifting Christ’s resurrection into the next few months:
 
Pray for revival.  Wherever there is deadness there is no Jesus.  Christ brings life, so praying to God for revival is a deliberate way of connecting with the Lord.
 
Squarely address things in the church which are death-dealing.  Gossip, back-biting, slander, and an entire host of sins of the tongue kill and murder people.  It brings death.  Simply sluffing-off someone’s acerbic speech as “that’s just the way they are” will not do in the church, unless you want Jesus at arms-length.
 
Promote things which are life-giving.  If sins of the tongue bring death, using our speech for encouragement, love, mercy, forgiveness, and building up one another in the church promotes growth, health, and life.
 
Preach a sermon series on new life.  The church is the hope of the world because Christ is the risen Lord.  Boldly proclaim the truth of the resurrected Christ and how it works in reaching the world.
 
Start that new ministry that you always believed would make a difference.  It is the season to take a risk.  After all, if you have eternal life can you really fail?  Host a new small group in your home.  Transform that unused space in the church building.  If you are a layperson, blow away your pastor by asking him/her in what ways you can bring life to your church (believe me, your pastor will have ideas for you!).
 
Focus on daily habits of spiritual health and life.  If you would not think of skipping meals for days at a time, then think about the erosion to your church that occurs when many individual parishioners do not read their Bibles on a regular basis or pray with any kind of consistency.  Make a plan and stick to it.  It will not only bring growth to your own life, but will impact those around you.
 

 

            Just keeping the word “Eastertide” in front of you for the next few months can be a simple yet powerful way of reminding us that God has called us to new life.  Let the reality of Christ’s resurrection take root in your heart to such an extent that Jesus becomes the greatest influence to all your thinking, speaking, and acting.

Revelation 1:9-20

            Easter Sunday may have come and gone, but the church remains in the season called “Eastertide,” which is the forty days until celebrating Christ’s ascension to heaven.  This means that Easter is not just a one day affair; it is a joyous time of focusing on new life and exulting in our resurrected Lord.  The Apostle John had a vision of the resurrected Jesus in his glory.  Although John was quivering in his sandals, the Lord said to him: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.”
 
            Jesus is alive!  Since Christ is risen, God’s people are united with him in his resurrection.  That means the church is alive.  Yes, the church is a-l-i-v-e, alive!  The term “dead church” gets bantered around quite a bit these days.  But that is really an oxymoron; a genuine Christ redeemed Body of believers cannot possibly be dead; they are alive!  If a church is dead, it is not a church.  It could be a country club, a benevolent organization, and even a moral institution, but a church is not a church if it is dead because Jesus is alive and his body is not dead.
 
            Christians have life in Jesus Christ.  We are alive forevermore because Jesus will never again die.  So, then, we are to live as vigorous and vibrant believers.  What things will you do differently since you know you cannot die?  How will the knowledge of your eternal alive-ness impact you today and every day?  The truth is:  we have been raised with Christ to new life; we cannot die because death no longer has mastery over us.  We can now live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
 

 

            Living Lord, I give you thanks for the gift of life.  Help me to live, really live, in the light of your resurrection so that I can glorify your Name with everything I am.  Amen.

Suffering and Joy

Easter is not only one Sunday on the calendar, but is a season in the Christian Year spanning seven weeks, or fifty days, until Pentecost.  In the Easter season the church explores the theme of resurrection and new life in Jesus.  Our Lord Christ did not only die so that we might have forgiveness of sins; He also died so that we might live a new life with a clean slate to follow him daily.  God saves us and forgives us, regenerates us, in order that we will live a new life in Christ.  This regenerated life is not really a matter of making new resolutions or turning over a new leaf – it is a faith response to the grace of God displayed in Christ by dying on the cross and rising from the dead for us.
 
            One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It is primarily a story of grace and new life.  The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man.  By the time he is released, he is hard and angry at life.  Since ex-convicts were not treated well in 19thcentury France, he had nowhere to go.  In desperation he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit.  In the middle of the night he steals the bishop’s silver, but is caught by the police.  When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, they are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, and says, “You forgot these.”  After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.”  In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.
 
 
 
            But that is only a small part of the story; his forgiveness is the beginning of a new life.  The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a regenerated and redeemed life.  Jean Valjean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done.  Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life.  There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way, but what keeps him pursuing his new life is mercy.  Whereas before being shown mercy Valjean responded with a brooding melancholy and inner anger.  Now, after being shown grace, Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.
 
            Suffering and joy.  They seem to be opposed to each other.  And, if we conform to this world’s thinking, they are taken as opposites.  Only Christianity has the worldview perspective that sees suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just senseless, random, and empty grief.  Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior in going in the way of suffering.  We are told in Scripture that these sufferings are trials to our faith, that is, they are the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened.  Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles.  Walking in the way of our Lord Jesus, adversity is our teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great salvation we possess in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-9).
 
            The most miserable people I know are those who do not know grace, have not been taught by mercy, and, therefore, do not know the joy of extending grace and mercy to others.  There is a tendency for many Christians today towards being stoic through the trials of life.  We try and keep a stiff upper lip and simply endure.  Taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long.  Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a more appropriate response to trouble. But it is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice, even though the rejoicing is through tears, in the living hope that is kept for us and not by us. This spiritual inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer, and not add to the weight of our troubles by blaming the failure of faith.   
        
            Our goal in this life is not to escape the world because at the end of time when our salvation is completely consummated, heaven comes down to earth and both are joined together.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of god is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).  This is our inheritance in Christ.  But we must come prepared for this encounter with God by presently undergoing grief in all kinds of sufferings; these trials to our faith are the pre-marital sessions that prepare us for our marriage with Jesus.
 

 

            Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever.  Until that day, however, let us not hunker down and stay in the garage of life.  Let us explore the open road that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith.  Let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.  Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today.  And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of loving the world.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.