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Good for him. This IS a yupper-dee-doodle day. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
A little boy was not exactly happy about going to church on Easter Sunday morning. His new shoes were too tight, his tie pinched his neck and the weather was just too beautiful to be cooped up inside. As he sulked in the back seat, his parents heard him mutter, "I don't know why we have to go to church on Easter, anyway; they keep telling the same old story and it always comes out the same in the end."(2) How true, how true!
We know it well. The arrest and trial of Jesus in the High Priest's kangaroo court. The visit with Pilate, the taunting and torture, finally the murder on Calvary. A few of Jesus' faithful friends had wanted to give him a proper burial, but they had not been able to complete the process before the Sabbath arrived. Now, in the early morning hours, the grim task would resume. Each of the gospels has different details but they all agree that the women who arrived first at the tomb were startled to find it empty and heard, "He is risen." They dashed back to tell the disciples. Peter and John come back to the garden in response and find that the women's report was accurate. No one is quite sure what to make of all this at the moment, but we know the rest. Yupper-dee-doodle!
Of course, there have been times when church folks have questioned the story, found it difficult to believe. In fact, within just a few years of Christ's death and resurrection, some in the church at Corinth expressed doubts about it which prompted the Apostle Paul to issue the stirring defense we read just a moment ago. For Paul, this is serious stuff. It is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. He writes, "I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures." He continues, for those who need more than just someone's word for it, "he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living...Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all...he appeared to me." Paul will brook no compromise on this issue. In fact, he goes on to insist, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." But he will not let it end there; he writes, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." The resurrection of Christ is a yupper-dee-doodle FACT, and you can take that to the bank.
Frederick Buechner, in his book The Magnificent Defeat(3) makes this statement:
We can say that the story of the resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say that the resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example.Do you believe it? Most of you gathered here on this Easter morning would happily say YES. But there are probably also some who are not quite sure. After all, we know a whole lot more about crucifixion in this world than we do about resurrection, especially in a post-9/11 world. And there are the day-to-day tragedies that never make the news. Yes, we know the horrors of life - crucifixion. But resurrection is unfamiliar territory. To wonder is perfectly normal.
In your travels, you may have heard some preacher from some pulpit mention the name of Karl Barth. Karl Barth was probably the very best theologian of the twentieth century - he was a deep thinker, but eminently down-to-earth. Barth once wrote that people come to church on Sunday with only one question in their minds: Is it true? The providence of God, the saving power of Jesus Christ, the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection - Is it true? Perhaps that is your question today. "I want to believe, but is it true?"
"I passed on to you as of FIRST IMPORTANCE" writes Paul, "that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures." First importance indeed. Right from the beginning, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was regarded as THE most central belief of the Christian Church. Christians deliberately chose to worship on Sunday rather than Saturday as a reminder that every Sunday is a mini-Easter, a celebration of Christ's resurrection.
When the leaders of the church began to formulate creeds to summarize the core teachings of our faith, they included Christ's resurrection and the hope of a bodily resurrection for Christians too. In the church's most familiar affirmation we repeat the ancient words: "The third day he rose again from the dead...I believe in...the resurrection of the body..."
Anyone who thinks that the world's great religions are somehow alike and merely different paths to the same destination need only compare the deaths of their leaders. Moses, Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad all died at a ripe, old age, successful despite many disappointments, in the midst of their disciples and supporters, their span of life completed. Moses died in sight of the promised land, 120 years old. Buddha died at the age of 80, peacefully, his disciples around him, after he had collected during his itinerant preaching a great community of monks, nuns and lay supporters. Confucius returned in old age to Lu after he had spent his last years in training a group of mainly noble disciples, to preserve and continue his work. Muhammad, after he had thoroughly enjoyed the last years of his life as the political ruler of Arabia, died in the midst of his harem in the arms of his favorite wife.(4)
Then we encounter Jesus. Only a bit over thirty years of age, expelled from society, betrayed, mocked and taunted, tortured and finally killed by the most atrocious method ever designed by humankind's ingenious cruelty. He was buried in a rock-hewn tomb which was sealed by a huge boulder and guarded by Roman legionnaires. But some 36 hours later, people started seeing Jesus alive again. WHOA!
Do you see how radically different is the life and death of Jesus? Do you understand the impact of his resurrection? It is the resurrection that transformed the disciples from cowering in the upper room to publically proclaiming Christ crucified and risen. It is the resurrection that empowered Christians to spread the news beyond Palestine. It is the resurrection that provided the power for a fragile church to move out and change the world.
It is the resurrection that sustains the church today. Ever wonder what is the #1 reason why visitors return and eventually become members of particular churches? A survey of twenty-six mainline congregations in the United States several years ago revealed that the #1 reason is..."the congregation acts like it really believes Jesus is alive through a 'collective effervescence' that pervades everything that is done."(5) Indeed.
In Eugene O'Neill's play Lazarus Laughed(6) we find not only the Biblical story of Jesus' restoring his friend to life after four days in the tomb(7) but the playwright's creative imagining of his subsequent years. O'Neill has Lazarus coming out of his grave laughing...not a scornful, bitter kind of laughter, but a soft, tender, all-embracing sort of sound that seems to well up from a deep, deep joy. There is a radiance about him that makes him look younger than when he died. He has a peace and serenity about him that is palpable. As soon as Lazarus gets home and emotions have calmed down a bit, his sisters Mary and Martha ask him the inevitable question: "What is it like beyond the grave? Tell us. What sort of existence lies beyond our physical dying?"
Once again Lazarus begins to laugh. He responds, "There is only life. There is only laughter...the laughter of God soaring into the heights and the depths. There is no death really. Death is not the end, it's not an abyss or the entrance into nothingness or chaos or punishment. Death is a portal, a passageway into deeper and brighter life. Eternal change, everlasting growth...that is what lies ahead. There is only life, sisters, nothing but life. The grave is not what you think it is. It is literally empty...a doorway, not destruction."
All these questions have the same answer:
Karl Barth's question comes again. Is it true? Is it true? The church insists ABSOLUTELY!
There is a story told over the past number of years of a young boy named Philip who was born with Down Syndrome.(8) Philip was a happy child, but he knew he was not the same as other children. He did not have many friends. Philip went to Church School every Sunday and was in a class with nine other 8-year- olds. At times the children teased Philip because he was different. Yet the teacher was very careful to include Philip in all the activities and, in time, the children too tried to include him in what they were doing, but Philip was not really part of the group. Philip did not want to be different, he just was.
On Easter Sunday the teacher had a great idea for a lesson. The teacher collected enough of the plastic containers pantyhose come in - the ones that look like big eggs - for each child to have one. It was a beautiful spring day and each youngster was asked to go outside on the church grounds and find a symbol for new life, put it in the plastic egg and bring it back into the classroom. Then they would open their egg and share the new life symbols one by one. As you can imagine there was quite a commotion as they leaped and jumped out the door into the yard. They ran all around gathering their symbols of new life and shortly they returned to the classroom.
They put the big eggs on a table and the teacher began to open them one by one. In the first one there was a flower and the children ooed and aahed. He opened another and there was a tiny pussy willow bud. He opened another and there was a small rock inside. Some of the children laughed and said, "That's crazy. How's a rock supposed to be new life?" The little girl whose egg it was spoke up, "I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and things like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different, and for me that's new life. The teacher went on opening eggs.
He opened the last egg, and there was nothing in it. Some children said, "That's silly. Somebody didn't do it right." The teacher felt a tug on his shirt and looked down. Philip was standing beside him. It was his. One of the children said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there!"
"I did so do it. It's empty. The tomb is empty." There was a silence in the room until one of the children said, "What a terrific idea. Philip had the best surprise." And all the children gathered around Philip. From that time on Philip became a real part of that group.
The next summer Philip died. His family had known since the time he was born he would not live out a full life span--there were many things wrong with his tiny body. Philip was buried from the church. And on that day at the funeral nine 8-year-old children processed right up to the casket, not with flowers, but with an empty plastic egg. They placed them in a basket in celebration of Philip's new life.
"Is it true?" some still ask. Yes, it is true. We KNOW with every fibre of our being that this life is not all there is. Resurrection awaits. And we proclaim that without hesitation to those who wonder, "Is it true."
Yes, praise God, it is true. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! And there is nothing better to say now than Yupper-dee-doodle! Happy Easter!
1. The Joyful Noiseletter, April, 2000, p. 4
2. James Harnish quoted in Homiletics, www.homileticsonline.com/apr0394.htm
3. New York : Seabury Press, 1966
4. Paul Kabo, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Sermons," #1766, 4/20/00
5. Ronald Scates, "Why They Come, Why They Stay," Reformed Worship, March 1996, 11-13.
6. 1928, included in Nine Plays, 1993 Random House Modern Library Edition.
7. John 11:1ff.
8. This is a story that comes from the curriculum, "The Whole People of God" (Unit 5,'93). It has appeared numerous other places as well.