After more than thirty years in the ministry, you would think that I would have no problem writing a newsletter article for the month in which Easter falls. The trick is not to sound like I am merely quoting from my Easter sermons which I am writing around the same time. I could fill pages with the same Easter platitudes, but it would not satisfy me, even if you might prefer it.
On the one hand, Easter is the most common of holidays. We celebrate it every week. That is why we gather for worship on Sundays. Jesus rose from the grave on a Sunday, declaring in the most dramatic fashion that our sins were atoned for and that we are forgiven. On Good Friday, Jesus said, "It is finished!" On Easter, God the Father said (by raising Jesus), "It is sufficient, the debt of sin is cancelled, and you are forgiven!" What other day could we then take for worship? All of them were available, and perfectly serviceable, but Sunday was the day of our Justification, both the first day of the week, and the eighth day. So we celebrate Easter every week. Or at least we should.
In some churches, they never quite make it past Good Friday, and they don't even go to the end of the crucifixion. They get hung up in the Law and in sin and shame and guilt. They are the modern church of the Judaizers. They have the whole story down pat, but they cling to the need to do something, usually a list of things, in order to consider yourself "saved". Jesus just opened the door, but you must choose to walk through, and you had better stay on the "straight and narrow" while you do! [Kind of interesting that the word "straight" in the phrase, was believed to have come from a misspelling of the word "strait", from Matthew 7:14 "The strait gate" which meant something very much like "narrow".] Anyhow, there are rules, and you must learn them and keep yourself holy or you cannot enter. Even though Jesus made it possible, He left you your part to do, too - or so they say.
By the way, the "strait" gate is Jesus. Jesus said it Himself, "I am the Way the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but through Me." It is narrow because it is Him and Him alone. It is not straight by reason of how you must behave and lead an adequately holy life in order to arrive at eternal life. Jesus already did that. It is a gift to you, not based in your qualifications, decisions, prayers, or conduct at all. He just pours out His grace on you, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The broad way - or the wide gate, which is wide and easy - is everything else. It is broad enough for anyone and everyone to walk on it, and it is easy, because you make up the rules, and you decide how it will be played, and you choose to be on it or not as you wish. The only problem with the wide and easy road is the destination to which it leads, which is eternal death and destruction. But while you are on the road, you are perfectly free to make up any rules you want to try to keep. You can set up any hurdle you wish to jump. You can scold others for being so exclusive and particular, because you can claim anyone for that wide and easy road that you wish. Anyone but those stubborn "Narrow Gate People". Jews, Moslems, Hindu's, the Ba'hai. It doesn't matter. They all worship the same God, and they are all working to get to the same place, and they will get precisely what they deserve, what their works merit. Until you die, it is the perfect religion, the easy road. No one misses it, except those few on the narrow road, heading for the "strait gate".
The wide and easy crowd probably don't celebrate Easter on Sunday, or whenever they gather for their religious assemblies. They come to church to feel good and to do something impressive for their god. Sometimes, what they do is not all that impressive or demanding of them, but hey!, that is the point of the wide and easy road. Their god seems to be pleased with any attention at all! They can sing silly ditties, the 7-11 type (you know, seven words repeated eleven times?), and dance around with their hands over their heads to catch all those blessings, dwell on how their leaders have discovered the seven rules to prosperity, the ten behaviors of the successful man or woman, the five steps to a more positive self-esteem, or the purpose to drive their lives and discover the abundant blessings of true and faithful obedience to the four fundamental principles to being an authentic man or woman. That God doesn't seem to care much about them knowing him, their deity is all about them, and their happiness right here and now, and, of course, he is interested in their tithe. It must be sacrificial, and it must be given with a truly spiritual attitude, and it often comes with a guaranteed return, usually about ten-to-one.
Of course, some people like it painful and demanding, like Islam. Others want to block out the ugly realities of their lives and lose a sense of themselves in physically taxing meditation. For some the goal is heaven, or Nirvana, or joining with the great one-ness and losing all individuality and never having to think or sense anything again. For others, the goal is simply to get through this life without losing one's sense of balance and find a blessed unconsciousness or a grave which ends all existence. For a select few, the atheists, the goal appears to be to live this life as though there was nothing more, and to convince as many others that there is nothing more to life than the present moment - in aggregate - and to experience a sense of intellectual superiority over everyone else.
But they are still on that wide and easy road that allows them to go where they wish and do what they want right up to the closing bell. They don't celebrate Easter either. Sunday is just another day, and if God wanted them to think differently, He would come down and talk to them personally, and do some rather impressive tricks to persuade them. Don't talk to them about how God has all those voices speaking for Him to them. They see them as just "other people". Don't mention the resurrection of Jesus, one of the most powerfully attested historical realities of all time, by any standard of historical verification used by historians. They just can't feature it really happening, so it is impossible. Those are the rules of the 'Wide and Easy Way'. And the sacraments? Pulease! There is no scientific test that verifies them. You need faith, and the point of their "way" is to avoid that.
On the other hand, Easter is the rarest and most wonderful, the Holiest of all the holidays! It is actually the first day of the last day - our resurrection began on that day, with Jesus! How do you know that you will rise from the dead on the last day? Jesus did! His resurrection and ours are the same resurrection in every way except time. He was first, but we follow, for the same reasons and by the same power! Jesus said it, "Because I live, you shall live also!" Easter proclaims the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of our own, and demonstrates the power of God to accomplish it.
Easter proclaims our forgiveness. Since the wages of sin is death, and Jesus took all our sins on Himself in order to atone for them and pay our penalty, if He had not paid for sins completely, He would have remained in the tomb, dead. No other holiday has this focus. Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, that God took on human flesh and blood and human nature. The Ascension celebrates the removing of the visible presence of Jesus from among us. Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and the formal start of the Christian Church on earth. All of them are celebrated in the light of the resurrection, and each brings with it the good news of forgiveness, but those two things are not central to those holidays. They are central to the celebration of Easter and to the Christian faith and hope. Without the resurrection, your Easter hymns are just a lot of snappy music, and humming.
The Gospel without the forgiveness of sins and the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life ceases to make sense, or bring any comfort. That could be why the church bodies that have turned away from these teachings are so big into anything else that makes them feel good. Without the resurrection unto life eternal, the "faith" is turned into something for this world only. It easily becomes a moral platform, or the search for "justice" in this world, because it has to be something for the here and now, and doesn't even speak about the hereafter. Without the resurrection, such "churches" know nothing about a hereafter, because they don't expect (or teach anyone about) a life outside of this present one. Their goal simply has to be about this world, and so it is.
They also quickly lose the message of forgiveness because they have no belief in a concept of life - or judgment - after death. As happened with Robert Schuller, their message quickly devolves into happy talk about a positive self-esteem, and "sin" changes into a bad self-image, or a self-limiting attitude in an individual. The focus becomes something eminently marketable like "The Power of Positive (or Possibility) Thinking". It worked for Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and now Joel Osteen is making a killing at it. Such churches may make a big deal out of Easter, but it appears to be more for the lilies and the drama, and because of the ingrained expectation of Easter being something big in the minds of many worshipers who have since lost their faith in the central message of Christianity.
Many of the teachers of these churches do not actually believe in the historical nature of the events which underlie the holidays. Mind you, the Apostle Paul dealt with that sort of unbelief already in his day. That is the message of 1 Corinthians 15. If there is no reality to the resurrection (which unfortunately many teachers in the "church" believe and proclaim today) then there is no salvation, no forgiveness, and no hope beyond this life. "If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE." That means that if there is no resurrection, of Christ or of us, then we might as well party hardy and go for the gusto and forget about religion, because all that awaits us is the grave.
Easter is our celebration of the Gospel truths, particularly in the face of the unbelief of the world. It is our way of celebrating the truth that Paul stated, also in 1 Corinthians, "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.
Nothing expresses our faith like Easter. The death of the Son of God for us, and on our behalf, which concludes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, ending the power of death to keep anyone dead fills the believer with holy joy. My sins are forgiven (and yours too!). God is now on our side, that is, He loves us and has our well-being and life in mind whenever He deals with us. The resurrection of Jesus proves my resurrection before I get to it, and actually is the catalyst for my resurrection. Jesus has taken the Law with all of its demands out of the way and off of our shoulders, and simply poured out life everlasting upon us all. The God-ordained organ for grasping and receiving the forgiveness and life is faith. "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved."
The fact that the Christian walks by faith and not by sight (or any sensory experience) is probably why we don't so often feel that "holy joy". It is like forgiveness in that aspect. We have no nerve endings designed to sense it. It comes as the often quiet realization that death cannot touch me. I will recover from even death. My sins, of which I feel ashamed at times and afraid at others, cannot hurt me because they have already done all the hurt they can do - to Christ on the Cross. I am free, and I will live in eternity beyond sickness, sorrow, pain, and death! Some moments are giddy with joy at that thought, but, like everything in this sin-twisted world, the feeling is transitory. The reality of the good news, and of its import, is not. But the joy is there, holding me up when life is trying to beat me down.
After thirty years in the parish, you would think I could come up with something snappy and cheerful, or at least say something sort-of profound. But, no. I just draw a blank this year, so I guess I will just leave you with a heartfelt wish for you to have a happy and blessed Easter this year - and that you carry it with you all year long. Oh, yes, bring it to church with you each Sunday. We could really use some of that Easter cheer when we gather for worship!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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