03-27-16 EASTER: AN IDLE TALE

Please scroll below for the audio and text of Rev. Dr. Sumner’s Easter Sermon, but, first, here’s two videos from our Easter Service we thought we’d share 🙂 …

EASTER: AN IDLE TALE?

Luke 24: 1-12

 

Thomas Cahill is an author I’ve come to admire and enjoy. He is skilled at bringing history to life. He has written a series of books that he calls “The Hinges of History.”  It includes How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, and three other books. One of the other ones is called Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. That book, perhaps more than all the others, rightly describes the major hinge of our history: that is, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Without the last piece—the resurrection piece; the Easter piece—Jesus might have been known as just a loving man, or even a failed messiah. But on this morning ages ago, Easter made Jesus the hinge of history. Our calendars are organized around him with dates that are listed as either B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini: the year of OUR Lord!) What an honor for the risen Lord! Some have renamed the years before Christ as BCE or Before Common Era, and the years after Jesus as CE, or Common Era, but the hinge is still Jesus. What a tribute.

 

People through the ages have given testimony to the power of this day and to this man Jesus. Methodist minister and author Leslie Weatherhead, for example, wrote: “’Did the resurrection really happen?’ you ask. It was a long time ago, and the accounts vary. I am not going to attempt, this morning, to answer the question ‘How did it happen?’ I’ve attempted that in my book The Christian Agnostic, but in my mind I am certain that Christ survived death, proving his survival to his followers, [and] appearing to them repeatedly in ‘another form.’ And the fact that accounts differ seems to me to authenticate the story. Streamlined identity of story would make one suspicious of collusion.”  [“The Sunday After Easter,” sermon by Weatherhead]  Days before Jesus’ crucifixion, when he was gathered with his disciples, Jesus comforted them with these words according to John’s Gospel: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” The preacher Henry Sloan Coffin commented on this text, juxtaposing it with Jesus words from the cross. Coffin said: “Suppose when Jesus cried, ‘Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit’ there was no Father there, but an impersonal Force—the uncaring, unfeeling Order of Things—His life and death [would be  considered as] a ghastly blunder. ]That] he was pitiably deluded; and with the best of intentions he deluded others. He would then have been considered by] history as the supreme Charlatan.” Preachers today may be considering the Case for Easter from their pulpits, as a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney may argue the merits of case before a judge. But on Easter, preachers do not consider the merits of the Easter event before a judge; they do it for congregations, where some are doubters; some are seekers; and some are followers. And some are just bystanders with cheerful clothes! But what have others said about this Hinge of History event, this Easter event? Is it, indeed, an idle tale? Twentieth Century English Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers once wrote: “[This] is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to conditions he had laid down, and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. Is this the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero? If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy of being called exciting? The people who hanged Jesus [on a cross] never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe.” {“The Greatest Drama’]

 

Years of paintings, stories, and Sunday School classes may have watered-down, or made us paint pictures of Jesus with a soft brush. Instead, the one who shook the foundations of the world urged listeners to see the world as it might be, not the way it was. He urged people to love those who hate them; he told people not to retaliate, but to turn the other cheek. He talked about a world where everyone would have enough, in part because people shared with others.  He challenged human authority when it didn’t line up with Divine authority. But when it came to his Heavenly Father, he submitted, and listened and carried out Heaven’s plan.  This extraordinary man was not an earthly king, nor a prince, nor an elected leader. He was a carpenter from Nazareth who wanted people to think and feel on a higher plane. He asked the world to change when it was not ready to do so.  Is it ready now? Is the world ready to set aside vengeance for kindness? Hardly. How long will it take? Who can bring this message if not this King of kings and his bride, the church?

 

People throughout history have tried to describe Jesus’ impact on the earth, but few have done it as well as the anonymous person who wrote these words:

He was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman.

He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he became a wandering preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of those things one usually associates with greatness.

He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mockery of a trial. He was executed by the state. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.

 

Who is Jesus to you: an historical figure; a religious leader; a Savior? Your answer matters, especially to God. If Jesus was just a Charlatan, as Leslie Weatherhead mused, or a scam; then 2000 years of faithful people have been fooled. But if we let the testimony of countless men, countless women, countless youth and children through the ages count for anything, we have a legacy of testimonies to the power of God, made most evident in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “He saved others; he could not save himself.” But God could save him; and did! And God, through Christ can save you too. You too can have everlasting life! Honor him; follow him; and learn from him. That can make all the difference.

 

It is Easter! We have followers here; seekers here; doubters here; and indifferent people here. Without lining up miles of people to testify to you, I hope you might consider Easter as nothing like an idle tale. It is the event around which our calendars are ordered.

 

Let me close with these words. The author of books like The Chronicles of Narnia, and Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, started life as a non-believer. He became a Christian, convinced of the things about which we speak on Easter. That is quite a change in worldview! In his essay “The Strangest Story of All,” he writes this:

We come to the strangest story of all, the story of the Resurrection. It is very necessary to get the story clear…. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had, for the very first time, been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean they disbelieved in ghost survival. On the contrary, they believe in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that he was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival, they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection [reports] are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being had arisen in the Universe. Something new had appeared in the Universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse.” A new mode of being had arisen.

 

May the resurrected life, today, be more than a theory for you, from this day forward. May it be your reality with Jesus in the next life; in that Holy City.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 27, 2016

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