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Making the Most of the Time: A Time For Hope (Easter Sunday Service)
John 20:1 - 20:18
April 12, 2020
Reverend Jason Harris
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The question that is on everyone’s mind is: How do we celebrate Easter in New York City at a time like this?
It doesn’t quite feel like Easter. Where are the white lilies? Where are the resounding trumpets? Where are the festive parades and the thronging crowds piling into packed—out churches? Few of us have probably ever had an Easter like this one.
How can we celebrate Easter in the midst of so much disruption and disorientation? How do we maintain our joy in the face of so much physical death and economic devastation? What songs can we sing above the din of ambulance sirens? How can we celebrate when we know that we need to say goodbye to someone we love—but we’re not allowed to even hold them. Or how can this be Easter when we are all alone?
Easter has been stripped down to the bare minimum. But in some ways, this Sunday may be much more similar to that first Easter morning than we have ever experienced. On that original Resurrection Day, there were no lilies, or trumpets, or parades. There was just a small handful of people living under the shadow of a painful and tragic death—fearing for their lives. Grief and uncertainty hung in the air like thick clouds. The disciples were forced to go into lock-down. They sheltered in place and kept their distance from others, because they were terrified of who death might come for next.
And then there’s Mary Magdalene. On that first Easter morning, she is not part of a celebratory crowd. She’s overwhelmed with grief, and she goes to the tomb not expecting to find a risen Jesus but a very dead Jesus in need of a proper burial. But when she arrives at the tomb, she finds the stone has been rolled away, and she assumes the worst. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Jesus was brutally murdered, she fears someone has now desecrated his body. She runs back to tell Peter and John.
After inspecting the tomb for themselves, the other disciples go away, and Mary is left all alone. Her primary emotion is not one of exuberant joy, but of deep sorrow. And yet it is in between her sobs and tears that she becomes the first person to encounter the risen Jesus. She hears Jesus say her name and that’s all it takes. Everything changes. But even then, when she reaches out to embrace him—she is told like so many of us—you cannot hold on to me right now.
So if you are crushed with sorrow, reeling from death, and all alone—well then this may be your most authentic Easter yet. Your emotions and frame of mind may be most similar to those of the first eyewitness. What is it that we need right now?
What we need is hope. I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the Christian hope—hope for the world to come as well as for the world that is now. Let’s consider this hope together.
Hope For The World To Come
The central claim of Easter is that Jesus of Nazareth was mocked, tortured and executed on a Roman cross at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and then buried in a tomb sealed by armed guards. Early the following Sunday morning, Jesus was raised from the dead. He was not merely resuscitated after what we might call a “near death experience,” nor was he simply “living-on” in the memory of his followers. But he was raised from the dead with a new physical body and entered into a completely new mode of existence.
Not only that, Jesus assures his followers that this is just a preview of what’s to come. God has promised to do for us at the end of human history what he did for Jesus in the middle of human history. All those who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected with a new physical body to live in the new creation that Jesus will usher into existence. This is the core conviction of Christianity.
For millennia, this truth has been referred to as the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. This is not a vain and idle wish that somehow things will turn out all right in the end. For the Christian this is not just a possibly helpful idea—No, it is rock-bottom reality.
But, of course, this is hard for us to accept because we all know that dead people do not normally rise from the dead. On Easter, I like to illustrate this point with a story from my own life. When I was three and a half years old, I tripped and fell off a balcony and fractured my skull. So if you have ever spent some time with me and wondered if I was all right in the head—now you have your answer. I was rushed to the hospital and I was in and out of consciousness for about three days, but I eventually recovered. Not long afterwards, I attended Sunday School at our church where my teachers explained the story of the resurrection. They told me that Jesus died on the cross, but then three days later he rose again. Upon hearing this, I got very excited and blurted out: The same exact thing happened to me! Well, we all know the same exact thing did not happen to me. We all know that dead people say dead.
But that is not an argument against Christianity. That is the whole point of Christianity. Christians believe that Jesus did what no one else has done or could ever do, and that is why we worship Jesus as God rather than a mere human being like the rest of us. If resurrections happened everyday—Jesus would have been forgotten long ago.
Even if we find this hard to believe—we should want this to be true. Why is that?
One of the authors I have benefitted from is an atheist philosopher who poses the question: What are we permitted to hope for? Do our former sins and the finality of death form an impenetrable barrier that no one—not even God—can cross? He puts this starkly:
“If you believe in God, what may you hope for? Everything, or at least everything that really matters: the ultimate triumph of life over death, justice over injustice, peace over war, love over hate and happiness over unhappiness…
What can people hope for who have never believed in God or who have ceased believing in him? Nothing—that is, nothing absolute or eternal, nothing beyond the ‘darkest reaches of death’…which means that all our hopes for this life, no matter how legitimate (less war, less suffering, less injustice) run up against that ultimate nothingness; it engulfs all, joy and misery alike…Nature is blind; our desires insatiable; only death is immortal. This by no means prevents us from struggling for justice, but it does prevent us from believing in it completely or believing that its triumph can be permanent. In a word, Pascal, Kant and Kierkegaard were right: There is no way for a lucid atheist to avoid despair.”
If we are really honest: those are the only two options open to us: Hope or Despair. That is why even if we struggle to believe it, we should want the resurrection to be true.
I would like to share a story with you that I think is particularly appropriate for this moment given our battle with the coronavirus.
In the middle of his life, the novelist Peter DeVries wrote a book entitled The Blood of the Lamb. DeVries was a prolific author, best known for his comedy, who spent most of his career as an editor and writer at the New Yorker. The Blood of the Lamb is perhaps his most autobiographical novel because it is based on his young daughter’s battle with leukemia.
The main character’s name is—appropriately enough—Don Wanderhope who gets to know some of the other parents at the children’s pavilion at New York Presbyterian hospital who are going through similar ordeals. On his visits to the hospital, Wanderhope will occasionally stop at the church of St. Catherine located around the corner on 68th street in order to gather himself together or perhaps to pray. On one occasion, he doesn’t presume to pray that everything will be all right again. He simply prays for one more year with his daughter Carol. He rehearses in his mind all that they would do together with just a little more time. At last the day comes when the news is good. The marrow report comes back. It is down to 6 percent. Practically normal. Carol is in remission.
The next day Wanderhope purchases a cake with Carol’s name written on it in blue icing to celebrate. Before heading to the hospital he stops at St. Catherine’s. He places the cake on the pew to offer a prayer of thanks. But then he runs into the night nurse who informs him that an infection is ripping through the ward like wildfire. Half of the immuno—compromised kids are in oxygen tents. He asks if Carol is one of them, and she nods.
The story continues all the more tragically—especially when we remember that it is based on DeVries’ own daughter.
“I hurried into the hospital. One look at Carol and I knew it was time to say good—bye. The invading germ, or germs, had not only ravaged her bloodstream by now, but had broken out on her body surface in septicemic discolorations. Her foul enemy had his will of her well at last. One of the blotches covered where they were trying to insert a catheter, and spread down along a thigh. By afternoon it had traveled to the knee, and by the next, gangrened.”
The nurse whispered that it was only a matter of hours now, and she will slip away quietly. For a moment, Wanderhope pictures Carol in his mind’s eye. He remembers how little labor the sprite had put her mother through, so eager was she simply to be born. He sees Carol on her bicycle, the sun in her hair and twinkling on the spokes, as she rides past him on her first successful solo around the yard. He sees her practicing the piano, playing a piece with a smile of satisfaction on her face when she got it just right. There were so many things to do and so little time to do them in. But now he knows that none of these things will ever be again.
“The nurse stepped outside a moment, and I moved quickly from the foot of the bed around to the side, whispering rapidly in our moment alone:
“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
“Then I touched the stigmata one by one: the prints of the needles, the wound in the breast that had for so many months now scarcely ever closed. I caressed the perfectly shaped head. I bent to kiss the cheeks… ‘Oh, my lamb.’”
“She went her way in the middle of the afternoon…In that fathomless and timeless silence one does look rather wildly about for a clock, in a last attempt to fix the lost spirit in time. I had guessed what the hands would say. Three o’clock.”
After taking care of some legal formalities, Wanderhope goes to a bar to have a drink. After six or seven, he suddenly remembers the cake and goes back to St. Catherine’s to pick it up. This is where tragedy meets comedy. On his way out, Wanderhope pauses on the steps and looks up at the crucifix over the central doorway where Jesus hangs with outstretched arms.
“I took the cake out of the box and balanced it a moment on the palm of my hand…Then my arm drew back and let fly with all the strength within me. Before the mind snaps, or the heart breaks, it gathers itself like a clock about to strike. It might even be said one pulls himself together to disintegrate…It was miracle enough that the pastry should reach its target at all, at that height from the sidewalk. The more so that it should land squarely, just beneath the crown of thorns. Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped from the eyes and flung away; I could see it fall in clumps to the porch steps. Then the cheeks were wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual, with all the kind sobriety of one — whose voice could be heard saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”
Then the scene dissolved in a mist and Wanderhope, no longer able to stand, sank down to sit on the worn steps of the church.
DeVries concludes: “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which…was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of a pistol: the foot of the Cross.”
Do you see that we really only have two choices: Despair or Hope. When a little germ can take away all that we most love in the world—the only alternative to the barrel of a gun is the foot of the cross.
The problem is that we modern people, in some ways, may be more prone to despair in the face of death. We may have given up belief in God or perhaps we never believed in the first place. As a result, we place all our hopes for meaning and significance in our love relationships—with parents, a spouse, a lover, a child. That’s why death shatters us. It’s not just that our loved ones mean a lot to us or their passing leaves a grievous hole in our lives. Rather, our love relationships seem to demand eternity. We feel like they are not allowed to ever leave us because we have made them central to our meaning in life.
But without God, what can you do? There is no real consolation. The best you can do is experience a faint sense of relief at the thought that at least that person you love is no longer suffering. But—let’s face it—that is rather cold comfort.
People may try to cheer us by saying that death is nothing to be frightened of—it is simply a transition to a state of nothingness. When you die you lose your personal identity and individual consciousness—and therefore there is no you left to think about it. But if that is the case, then everything you have ever accomplished and everyone you have ever loved will fade away in a cosmic abyss. If that’s true—then the philosophers are right—there is no way for a lucid atheist to avoid despair.
But Christianity offers us something better. Christianity proclaims that Jesus not only died but he was resurrected from the grave with a real physical body which was the sign that he would usher in a whole new creation. The gospel tells us that those who are united in love to God—who trust that Jesus lived, died and rose for them—will be raised to new life as well.
You will not be reduced to stardust. You will get your body back—only better than before! Even better—because this time your body can’t be taken down by a little germ.
And better still, you need not be separated from those you love the most.
If you’ve ever lost someone, wouldn’t you jump at the chance to get them back even for a moment? Wouldn’t you do just about anything to read one more story, to play one more game, to go on one more walk, to enjoy one more meal, to have one more conversation, to share one last kiss
The message of the resurrection is you can. Those who are united to Jesus in love will be together with the Lord. Through your common union with Jesus, you can see that beautiful smile, you can hear that silly laugh, you can breathe in that familiar scent, you can feel that strong embrace.
For the Christian, this is not just wishful thinking. This hope is the center upon which everything else depends. Despite the efforts of so many over the centuries to shoot it down, as another prominent contemporary philosopher concedes: “This promise is not superficial: on the contrary it is part of a coherent intellectual framework…of extraordinary profundity—[based on] a concept of love and the resurrection of the body.”
Hope For This World
Jesus gives us hope for the future. But I want you to see that this promise not only gives us Hope for the world to come, it also gives us Hope for this world in which we now live. The sure and certain hope of the resurrection is what gives meaning to everything the Christian does now.
Marx was wrong. The Christian hope is not an opiate that lulls us into sleep, but rather a jolt of electricity that propels us into action. God’s goal is not to remove us from this world in order to enjoy some ethereal existence beyond the clouds, but to restore this world. He’s not going to abandon his creation. He is going to renew it. All four gospels emphasize the same point: Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week. Why do they all underscore this same little detail? Because they want us to understand that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead represents the first day of the new creation. What God has done for Jesus he is going to do for the whole world. This is just the beginning.
God has promised to bring about a new world in which there will be no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain and no more death. Jesus will personally wipe the tears from our eyes. He will heal our suffering and establish true justice. He will make everything right.
Some people accuse Christians of secretly hoping for the destruction of the world. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Christians do not hope for the destruction of the world but the renewal of the world. That’s why Christians do not simply sit idly by and wait for this old world to rot. No, in light of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, we fight with renewed energy to anticipate what that new world will look like through our actions now.
We know that we cannot usher in the new creation. Only Jesus can do that. But our actions form a kind of enacted prayer that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Through our actions now we provide something like a preview of coming attractions. A movie preview doesn’t tell you the whole story, but it provides you with a glimpse of what is to come. Through our actions, we provide the people around us with a glimpse of what the world will be like when Jesus makes all things new. It’s a sign of our hope.
Let me tell you one more story about Tom Holland—not to be confused with the actor. Rather I’m talking about the Tom Holland who is an English writer and historian who has written several best-selling books on the classical world. He is an exceptionally good story-teller, and his most recent book, Dominion, recounts the history of Christianity and its impact on the world. In a number of places, including the Preface, Holland describes the influence of Christianity on his own life and the process that led him to write this book.
Holland describes how he grew up attending church with his mother and solemnly said his prayers at night, but the first seeds of doubt about Christianity were sown when he was a child. He still remembers the shock of opening a children’s Bible and finding an illustration on the first page of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur. As a young boy, Holland says he was respectful of Bible stories, but of one thing he was rock-solid certain: No human being had ever seen a sauropod. From that moment on a faint shadow of doubt had fallen over what he had been taught about Christianity. With time, it darkened still. As he aged, his obsession with dinosaurs—glamorous, ferocious and extinct—evolved seamlessly into an obsession with ancient empires.
When he read the Bible as an older person, he was less interested in the people of Israel or Jesus and his disciples. Instead he became fascinated with their adversaries: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans. Although he may have vaguely continued to believe in God, he found the God of the Bible infinitely less charismatic than the gods of the Greeks. He liked that Apollo, Athena and Dionysus did not lay down laws or condemn other deities. He liked their rock-star glamour. And so, by the time he read Edward Gibbon’s great history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he was more than ready to accept Gibbon’s interpretation of the history and triumph of Christianity—that it had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity.” He dismissed the biblical God as the enemy of liberty and fun. But then something began to shift in his thinking. He writes:
“Over the course of the past two decades, my perspective has changed. When I came to write my first works of history, I chose as my themes the two periods that had always stirred and moved me as a child: the Persian invasions of Greece and the last decades of the Roman Republic. The years I spent writing these twin studies of the classical world…only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome…Even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, [the Spartans and Romans] retained their glamour as apex predators. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done: like a great white shark, like a tiger, like a tyrannosaur.
“Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The more years I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, so the more alien I increasingly found it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics…were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value. Why did I find this disturbing? Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all.
“‘We preach Christ crucified,’ St Paul declared, ‘a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks.’ He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries—Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment—not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two—millennia—old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post—Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.”
Dominion is Holland’s book-length explanation of why. Do you hear what he is saying? So many of us in the West reject Christianity without realizing how profoundly it has shaped us.
Where do you think we got the idea that every human life is of equal value and that all human beings without exception possess an intrinsic right to be treated in accordance with their worth?
Where do you think we got the idea that we should love the poor and provide support for the most vulnerable members of our society rather than letting them succumb to their own fate?
Where do you think we got the idea that it is nobler to absorb suffering than to inflict it and that we should wield power in order to protect the weak rather than watch them get trampled by the strong?
Who do you think inspired the idea of creating hospitals and that we should care for the sick and dying rather than abandoning them to their plight—especially during epidemics?
Now of course you could also point out the dark stains on Christian history. There’s no question that there are terrible blots in our past that should make us all shudder, but those are all simply examples of human beings failing to live in line with their highest values. And who of us is not guilty of that on some level? But the point is: Where did these higher values come from? They didn’t come from Sparta or Rome, they came from Jesus.
That’s why Christians act with all the energy God’s Spirit can inspire within us to help make our little corner of the world a place where there is—no hunger or thirst—no injustice or oppression—no prisoners or slavery—no poverty or pain—no darkness or despair—no disease or death.
We do the good that we can with whatever we’ve got—knowing that everything we do now in service to Jesus matters. Everything counts. Nothing will be lost. Everything will be preserved—if nothing else it will be preserved in the mind of God and find its rightful place in the future that God has promised.
That’s why if you look down through the centuries, it is precisely the Christians who were most passionate about the world to come who did the most to improve the world as it is now.
So what are we allowed to hope for? Everything! Everything that really matters: the ultimate triumph of life over death, justice over injustice, peace over war, love over hate and happiness over unhappiness…And above all else—we are allowed to hope that we will be with Jesus forever.
What the world needs now is Hope. Hope for this world and the next. That is precisely what Jesus offers, and it is yours for the taking.