Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
April 5, 2015
“Easter in the Twenty-First Century”
“Our Scripture lesson this morning comes to us from the Gospel According to Mark, chapter one, verses one through eleven.
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
“God has blessed our hearing and understanding of these ancient and holy words.”
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I love Easter, don’t you?! It is the greatest celebration within Christianity! As children we were taught that excitement of newness of life, re-birth and the reawakening of new hope. At Church the pastor would endeavor to make his point by talking about fuzzy caterpillars and how they would die, so to speak, into their cocoons only to be born again, reborn so to speak, given new life and be born from their cocoons into beautiful butterflies! In Sunday school we were told about the Easter Bunny as a way to get us to fully embrace and understand the whole concept surrounding the new beginnings and the new life coming forth from a full belief in Easter! We hunted for Easter Eggs, colorful beautiful Easter Eggs. Eggs that our sisters and brothers had decorated the day before, eggs that our mothers had hardboiled and our fathers had collected fresh from the hen house! Oh yes, the tradition in our family, our church, was too boldly and openly and with great passion to publicly celebrate Easter!
The ladies and young women of our church family all wore decorative hats and, when they could, their hats were brand new and so were their entire Easter outfits! Us guys got new ties, new shirts and were admonished to polish our shoes! There was no question about it – we went to church on Easter morning! Everyone went to church on Easter!
At least everyone we knew did! Oh yes, Easter was always a joyful and special occasion. I don’t remember what was served for dinner when we got home from church back in those early years of my youth, yet, I am certain it was the best of the best that my mom and my grandmothers, aunts and such could put together! What great and wonderful traditions my family and the church family of my youth had to ‘raise-up’ and celebrate this annual remembrance of that first Easter morning!
This morning I want to contrast the very first Easter with the Easter that we are experiencing today, here in the Twenty-First Century. As we do this, I invite you to also keep in mind the many wonderful and varying ways you and your families have celebrated since the earliest memories you can conjure up, and breathe the breath of life into them. No matter what we say today, nothing can alter the historical facts of the past traditions of our heritage and faith. Precious gifts that have been passed on to us, so that we could nurture and hold them close to our hearts, even as we move and sway with the changes we have experienced along the way, as we have journeyed our individual pathways to this point in time, to this moment in Christian history!
Way back then, in the year 33 AD, during the First-Century, way back then the ‘leader’ of what we now refer to as the ‘Christian Movement,’ had been executed and buried in a tomb. Then on that first Easter morning, according to our lesson today, it was Mary Magdalene who first discovered that the tomb where Jesus had been laid was empty. Her accounting of that morning is literally, “unbelievable!” When she told his closest followers, the disciples, or Apostles as we now refer to them, they didn’t even believe her. It is easy to contrast this to modern Christians and followers of Jesus. Yes, it is! Most Christians don’t accept this story of Mary Magdalene when they first read it! It is unbelievable! Yet, for some reason, the early Christians came to believe that The Son of God, The Messiah, Christ, had and has risen. As Christians we believe in the resurrection and that is the essence of belief by millions of Christians today. It is certainly my belief. The reappearance of the risen Christ has been reported numerous times, and we shall talk about this more in the weeks to come. The question that needs answering today, is why so many and for so long, why do we believe in the resurrection?
When I first entered seminary, I was told that there are four avenues that we need to use in order to properly fuel our journeys of faith. These are the Bible, our Traditions, our Personal Experiences, and our Cognizant Reasoning. (This concept or understanding has been well documented by the Methodist as a methodology for theological reflection that is credited to John Wesley, the leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th Century.) /Wikipedia/ My understanding as it was taught and explained to me is that when we utilize only one of these avenues alone, our understanding of God will be slanted or bias and not a valid reflection of the living God in our lives today. The Easter story is part of our traditions and is found in the Bible, but it has not always been my personal experience. Thus, as my ‘cognizant’ reasoning capabilities developed… my mind began to methodically and carefully reject this whole notion. I am not unlike many I have met along the way. In fact a great many well-meaning, well-education, righteous good folks, are skeptics about much of the ‘hard to believe’ verses contained in our Christian Bible, especially the New Testament! Only small percentages, of these good folks, have taken the leap of faith, and now follow the teachings of Jesus.
What has occurred since that time; what has caused me and others, as adults, to come to believe in the resurrection? What has been the course of action that has brought even skeptics like me to come full circle?
What causes any of us to not only ‘believe’ in the ‘resurrection’ of Christ; but also has caused many to pursue a “calling” from Christ to follow him and become ordained Christian pastors, and true ‘disciples’ serving and working in local churches? To answer these questions we will need to go back to the time of Jesus, and ‘raise up’ the high points as we have come to understand their importance.
Reflect for a moment with me. Jesus was a Charismatic new leader who was giving people new hope and new promise for their futures and was bringing compassion and healing into their lives! However, he was also teaching a new message that was not fully understood because it was so different than what they had come to believe the ‘Holy One’ the ‘Messiah’ would bring to them. We all know how difficult it is to accept new ways of doing things, or new ways to think about an old problem or even begin to accept a new approach to a new idea. Just as a simple example, every time a new version of a hymn is published there are many that want the old hymn brought back. Yet, hymnody has always been modified and changed over the course of time. And yes, when we merged from two worship services to one on Sundays, I saw many of you struggle with having to sit somewhere different than you had before. So, we cannot easily dismiss how ‘hard it was’ for the people at the time of Jesus to ‘accept’ his new message about how the Messiah had come to ‘save’ them.
Then, that which Jesus had taught and alluded to, throughout his teachings, came to be. The trial, the death sentence and yes, the sacrifice of Jesus, devastated and totally confused those that followed his teachings. Yet, the miracles, the compassion, and the healings had made a tremendous impact on the lives of so many, and it was impossible to ignore. After his execution, stories began to be told of the ‘empty tomb’ and ‘appearances’ of Jesus to those closest to him in life. Though it is hard to believe, these events and accountings are what give so many so much hope, even in the Twenty-First century. Surely, the Living Spirit of Christ is in the hearts and lives of countless Christians throughout the world.
As I live my life today as an ordained clergy person, I see and feel the longing of those around me. I feel the fear – fear that leads to pain and even anger for so many. The Easter story, the Easter message gives me hope that these human failings can be overcome. Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels gives me an example of how I might strive to relate to other people. The teachings of Jesus as written in scripture gives me a guidepost as to how to improve my relationship with God, and also improve my relationship with humankind.
The ‘rock’ of the Christian Church was to be established on the foundation of the man Simon Peter. We know that Peter doubted and questioned Jesus all the way, even to the point of denying him three times on the night of his arrest. The testimony of Peter’s disbelief, his fear and his human failings give hope to all who find their faith weak at times, and gives credibility that our doubts and skepticism can be tolerated and even overcome, if we give faith a chance; even to the point of forgiving ourselves our own human failings – just as Jesus forgave us. God was able to work with this man Peter, this gave me and others hope that God could perhaps work with us, even with doubts like ours. Let me assure you God has made a difference and has helped me overcome my doubts, and many of my fears. Yes, God through Jesus Christ and The Holy Spirit was able to turn Peter into a useful leader in the beginning movement of the Christian Church! Peter’s ministry made a difference and his humanness, as recorded in scripture, gave and still gives hope to many who have and who still stumble over their own doubts!
Our church has a rich history spanning over a long period of time. In the not too distant past, expectations of large growth caused changes that have set the course for this – our current church. This growth did not occur. Large changes in the financial life of this community have left doubt alive and well. The Easter story offers New Life, New Opportunities and New avenues of growth! We can grow our faith and our trust in a God that still loves us. A God that is willing to be with us in life and in death! This Easter message is vital to the vitality of this community of faith as we look to ‘New Ideas’ and ‘New Members’ to bring ‘The Living Spirit’ of Christ back into our personal and communal lives!
There is a need to help the Christian of today to go back to basics: The Bible is still central and relevant to our faith. The traditions that have been passed on to us are crucial to understanding how others have experienced God. It is vital that the modern seeker know that it is ok to use their sense of conscious reasoning to come to know God, Jesus and the Holy. People need to know they need not fear the truth! And most importantly, we must stay open to the experience of God in our lives today. In every situation we ought to ask ourselves: how was God in this event? Or how would the man Jesus respond to this situation? And yes, be willing to allow the Spirit of God to help us as we continue our journeys of faith!
OK, so some of our customs and traditions around Easter won’t or don’t pass the test of knowledge and enlightenment. I ask you, who cares if the Easter Bunny has pink ears or blue ones? What does it matter if we call Christ a King or a Lord? If we get hung up on technical details we will surely miss the whole point of Easter. Our God has offered us everything and sent Jesus to clarify an eternal commitment, and is willing to forgive each and every one of us our mistakes and wrongs. What a bold and passionate gift God gives to us! So have a little faith; don’t trip over the details. Eat some chocolate Easter Eggs. Enjoy a good meal with family and friends. When you go to bed tonight thank God for Easter; without it you and me, we would be lost and those that look to us for direction would be lost as well.
In honor of Easter try something new. Don’t complain about it either. Trust that the Bible and the traditions of our faith offer us a clear view into the Heart of God. Don’t over think this just experience the love and the hope that the Easter story, the Easter message offers.