Saturday, 20 May 2017

Easter



It's hard for us to understand how low the disciples must have felt after Jesus' Crucifixion. Just a week earlier Jesus was riding into Jerusalem. He came as their king. The people were singing and shouting, “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!”. Those who had been with Jesus for the last 3 years had been hoping and waiting for this day. Finally, Jesus will take his place as the people's true king- the Messiah. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? What was it like to be with Jesus entering the city, believing that this will change everything? Justice. Peace. A good King. No wonder they were waving branches and singing and laying their coats down on the road.

Suddenly things change. Jesus is betrayed. He is arrested. His followers are frightened. Jesus stands before the authorities under the weight of heavy accusations. Suddenly the man they had put their hopes in is being made to look like a criminal. The injustice, and cruelty, and corruption Jesus was to defeat as King, now have Jesus in their sights. The goodness of Jesus is being overshadowed by accusations of heresy, blasphemy, and treason. The true King is being mistreated by cruel leaders and a corrupt system. The sunny day has become dark. Jesus is whipped bloody and is nailed to a cross as an example to those who think there is hope against the powers. His bloody body is hung like a flag, as a signal, against all hope of God bringing justice.

The few disciples who haven't scattered and hid watch the strongest, and greatest man they have ever known die slowly and painfully- as a symbol of criminality. With him dies their hopes. With him dies their dreams. With him dies their future. …

And that is where we meet Mary Magdalene. She is crushed. She goes to his tomb because... what else are you going to do? The choices are to sit and cry at home, or sit and cry at his tomb. When she gets there she sees that his body is gone. It is one more insult. It is salt in the wound. They can't even let him be dead in peace. They need to pull him out of his tomb and humiliate his memory even more. She goes for help and Peter and John come to investigate, but all they find is the burial shroud his body was wrapped in. They go back home, but Mary stays at the tomb. Cry at home or cry by the tomb. What difference does it make?

Mary's tears drench her face. There is no consolation- seeing two angels doesn't seem to console her. "They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him". Put away all your images of Stoic grief. There is no stiff upper lip here. This is wailing- deep, profound, bottomless weeping. …

A mysterious thing happens. She doesn't register the angels in her grief. And now suddenly Jesus is standing in front of her and for some reason she doesn't see that it is him. Maybe it is the grief. Maybe it is that there is something about resurrection that transforms the body of Jesus. She doesn't see him until he says her name... "Mary". Then she sees him.

Can you see her eyes- squinted, red, and puffy from crying for three days? Can you see the wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes? Suddenly she hears her name and she sees that it is him and her eyes widen in amazement. Her mouth transforms into a smile. Can you imagine a greater emotion than the one she was feeling? Do you think you have ever felt anything as amazing as what Mary was feeling the moment she saw Jesus alive? Do you have anything in your life that can compare to what she was feeling?

It's amazing. Jesus is alive. He is well. He hasn't just survived. He is not hobbling on crutches, or pulling himself along the ground. He is well. He has gone through death and has come out the other side. He is more alive than ever. The story hasn't ended. Her hopes and dreams for the future that died with Jesus, have now been resurrected with Jesus. …

Before Mary saw Jesus resurrected the cross looked horrible. Could she even look at it without becoming angry? Or without tears welling up in her eyes? The cross was evil. It was horrible and ugly. It was created by a cruel empire that was very good at killing and humiliating. It was created as a torture device to show the people what happens if you don't behave and kneel before your Roman rulers. It was the most horrible and shameful thing they could think up. The Cross was a symbol of brutality, evil, and shame. It was a symbol of power and if you were on the cross that power wasn't yours.

Something amazing happens on Easter morning. Despite expectations, the tomb is found empty. Despite it not fitting their worldview, people start saying that they have seen Jesus. We sometimes think that because they lived a long time ago that they are more likely to believe unbelievable things. These are not stupid people. They know that people don't just come back from the dead. ... They say they have conversations with him, and eat with him, and touch him. Large groups see him. Small groups see him. Individuals see him. Enemies see him. And suddenly instead of being scattered and scared the followers of Jesus become bold and confident. They go public saying that 'Jesus is alive'. The reply from the hostile authorities isn't to exhume Jesus' body for everyone to see and to disprove the claim. They can't find his body. They actually accuse the disciples of stealing the body. However, the followers of Jesus continue to build in their boldness and confidence that Jesus really and truly is alive. Their fear and horror is transformed into joy.

Have you ever wondered how strange it is that we wear crosses around our necks, and put them on our walls? Have you ever considered wearing a gold electric chair around you neck? Or maybe a gold hangman's noose? Or, maybe a little silver guillotine? We have made an instrument of torture into jewelry. How did that happen? How did a symbol of death and shame become a symbol of hope and comfort? ... It is because of the resurrection.

From the point of view of Good Friday the cross is brutal and horrible, but after the resurrection the cross becomes a symbol of Jesus' victory. In that act Jesus took on the world's evil. He took on the corrupt political system. He took on the injustice and cruelty. He took on evil itself. He took on death... and he won. He defeated it all. He took it all on and he won. After the resurrection the cross becomes a symbol of hope. It becomes a symbol we can wear around our necks to remember the victory of Christ over evil and death. The cross becomes a symbol to remind us that no matter how bad things seem, God will have the last word- and that last word will look like resurrection.

Incredibly, Jesus has invited us into his resurrection life. He has invited us to be a part of his story. In Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians (ch15) he says "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." Paul is saying that part of being wrapped up in Jesus' life and story means that you will have a resurrection like his. Jesus' resurrection is like the first apple of the season. It is a sign that more apples are to follow.

There is something amazing and mysterious about the resurrection life that Jesus invites us into. Imagine the most horribly painful thing that has ever happened to you. What in your life symbolizes pain, shame, and cruelty? ... From the point of view of our resurrection we will look back on those things as symbols of our victory as children of God. Just as Jesus and his followers can look back on the cross as a symbol of victory and hope, so those hurtful events in our lives will become symbols of victory for us. Just as Mary's tears at the tomb are transformed into joy by Jesus' resurrection, so our horrors will be transformed into symbols of our victory.

The incredible thing about this is that we don't have to wait until our resurrection to look at these moments with a sense of victory. Because of Jesus' resurrection we can approach those difficult times in our lives and have a sense of hope and victory as we are facing them. ...

Some of you are thinking that this all sounds good but terribly impractical. Let me give you an example. Athanasius lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He lived while Christians were being persecuted. So you might have heard about Christians being thrown to the lions to be devoured for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds. This is when Athanasius lived. This is what he says of Christ's victory over death, "...it is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into Hades, but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power. (on the Incarnation, xxix.3-5) ... So weak has [death] become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed." (xxvii.3) "For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2).

Athanasius is speaking about Christians who were tortured and killed because they were Jesus followers. These Jesus followers laughed at death. These people were not suicidal. They did not hate their lives, but they no longer feared death. Even their children didn't fear death and would make fun of the lions that were about to kill them. Athanasius is saying that this is another evidence that Jesus has defeated death- his followers no longer fear it.

We might make another mistake and think that these Christians were all about going to heaven when they die, but no. Their lack of fear meant that when a plague hit a city, instead of fleeing, many of them stayed to help the sick, even if that meant getting sick and dying themselves. It meant that they were willing to stand up for what was right and just even in the face of cruel kings and rulers. They knew that whatever they threw at them would become their cross and because of Jesus' resurrection, their torture - their very death- would become a symbol of their victory. (They symbol of a saint is sometimes a representation of the way they were martyred). Jesus' resurrection allowed them to live amazing lives free from fear. These Christians saw the resurrection as having very real day to day application for how they lived their lives. They were able to live their lives free from fear.
We don't face lions, or persecution at the hands of cruel kings. Some Christians do face horrible deaths even now because of their belief in Jesus. (Just look at our brothers and sisters that suffer under ISIS.) There are places in our world where what we are doing right now is illegal, or even if it isn't illegal we might still worry about our safety being gathered together like this (How comfortable would you feel coming to church in Egypt after the bombings we heard about there?) We might not face persecution like this, but we have our own worries and fears. We fear cancer. We have disease. We have abuse and betrayal. We have the death of a loved one to face. We have financial issues to face. Some of us fear commitment, or rejection. ... What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Or maybe you're facing it right now. Could it be that when you look back on this from the point of view of your future resurrection that this moment will be a symbol of victory in your life? ... Could you live believing that victory even now? Even in the midst of your pain? We need to celebrate every year, every Sunday even, because we need to be reminded that we don't have to be afraid. God will have the last word in our lives, and if we are followers of Jesus, that will be a word of victory. We know this isn't just wishful thinking because we have seen it happen to Jesus.



Mary's tears on that Easter morning were transformed. Her grief was transformed at the sight of Jesus. Her fear was released and replaced with joy. Jesus offers the same to us. Jesus asks us to be his followers. He asks us to give our lives over to him and truly find life. We are invited into a life free of fear- free of anxiety. We are invited into a life where our worst horrors are transformed into symbols of victory over evil, sin, and death. We are invited to look upon the cross and know that Christ invites us into his victory.

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