A Walk Through Easter 2006 (4/16/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
No holiday changes meaning for us over our years as much as Easter. Even as adults we can barely look Easter straight in the eye, for fear of burning our spiritual retinas. This morning I thought we’d sort of walk through Easter as we have experienced it over the years.
When we were young children we loved Easter, because it meant we would be permitted to devour more candy in a single morning than was normally permitted over a period of several weeks. Easter and Halloween—those were the holidays when the usual dietary rules were thrown out the window
We knew Easter was a religious holiday and had something to do with Jesus, but much preferred the Easter Bunny side of the celebration. We couldn’t imagine why the day Jesus was killed was called “Good” Friday, but we understood it had something to do with the fact his body came back to life a few days later. And supposedly that’s what Easter was all about. We were too young to wrestle with matters of life and death, so we placed the story of Jesus in that little room in our minds where we kept great mysteries—the area of our youthful brains reserved for Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Jesus fit in there nicely, and the truth is we were more mystified by how the Easter Bunny got into our locked house to hide all those candy eggs than we were with how Jesus got out of that tomb. (We assumed, by the way, the Easter Bunny got in the same way Santa Clause did, but we never figured that out either!)
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As we matured, we slowly but surely came to realize the mysteries we had stashed away in that little room in our minds had to be discarded. Out with Santa, out with the Tooth Fairy, out with the Easter Bunny. But we were told to hang on to Jesus. It would be very bad if we booted him out with all the other mysteries, because of all the outrageous impossibilities our culture had instilled in our minds, it was essential that we keep the impossible mystery of Jesus in place, and believe it more strongly than ever, since unlike all those other outrageous stories we’d been told, that particular one was true.
Over time we learned a bit more about the way of the world. Through the painful loss of a few beloved relatives, we slowly came to grips with the fact that once somebody dies their spirit goes away. They leave behind a body, and there is nothing anybody can do to make that person get up and walk around, and talk, and laugh—they’re gone. But we learned that there was one exception to that rule: Easter. Evidently that’s what Easter was all about. Jesus was killed on that cross and he was as dead as a person could possibly be. But three days after he was laid to rest he was resurrected, which as nearly as we could tell meant he came back to life. He walked around and talked with the people he had loved, and then, after a time, he miraculously ascended through the sky to be with God.
We believed that story, that Jesus Christ walked out of that tomb as if nothing had happened, and some time later ascended through the sky to be with God. We found great comfort in that story.
Years later many of us went through the stage of life called the rebellious teen years—the phase where we figured we were about the smartest person in the universe, but if not that, at least the smartest person in our family. I’m reminded of the old story about the young man who said, “When I was sixteen I thought my Dad was the dumbest guy in the world. When I was twenty-two, I was amazed to see how much he had learned in only a few short years.”
A few things occurred to us. The laws of the natural world are not ours to play around with. It doesn’t matter how religious you are, if you try walking on water, you’re going to sink like a stone. We were pretty sure the laws of physics hadn’t gone through any major changes for several billion years. And finally, we came to believe that once a person is dead, well, that’s pretty much the end of that. And whether it happens today, two-thousand years ago in the time of Jesus, or a hundred thousand years before that, when a person stops breathing for three days you can pretty well take it to the bank they are gone for good.
And so Easter, for many of us, became a rather silly holiday, and the idea of the resurrected Jesus had about as much meaning as did the Easter Bunny. And that little room in our minds where we kept those mysteries—at last it was empty. Jesus took his place along with Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy in the scrap heap of useless childhood fantasies.
Through a variety of experiences and many different ways of reasoning, those of us gathered here this morning have come to the conclusion that there is room for mystery in this life. There is room for God. There is room, even, for Jesus.
What do you do when you come to believe there really is a God? Well, you search for the truth. I don’t claim to know much in this world, but one thing of which I feel confident is that we do not need to protect God from the truth. Big bang, evolution, chaos theory—go for it! We should look through our microscopes, look through our telescopes, bring every ounce of intellect and inspiration we possibly can to uncovering the truth about this world. God will always be waiting for us right in the middle of any truth we find.
Those who gather here each Sunday morning have made a remarkable discovery. Christianity is like a swimming pool—all the noise comes from the shallow end. There is two thousand years of amazing theological writing grounded in Christianity. And the Christian faith is not only intellectually challenging, for us it is the most spiritually fulfilling of all religions.
We’ve come to realize that the Christian faith is a very big tent. There are countless good Christians who embrace the divinity of Christ to the degree that ideas like the virgin birth are an integral part of their faith. Likewise, there are sincere Christians who have arrived at the conclusion that Jesus was a normal man who grew into a great moral teacher, and those people live faithful lives based on the power of his teachings. I’m happy to say both types of Christians worship at this place, side by side, with love and respect for one another.
We try not to worry too much about such things, and my personal theology is very simple. First, I believe that before God ever created anything, God’s perfect love was already in place, ready to forgive every wrong that would ever be committed, ready to overcome every evil the world would ever know. Second, I believe we can see God’s love in the person who most perfectly embodied it—Jesus of Nazareth.
Simple, huh! That’s pretty much the crux of things for me, and I believe it with all my heart. When people try to pin me down into more specific information about my theology, or try to get me to give rational explanations for my faith, I really identify with the once blind man Jesus heals in the Gospel of John. As the Pharisees push him into an intellectual corner, demanding he say who he thinks Jesus is and what power Jesus had used to heal him, the man simply says, “I don’t know. All I know is I was blind, and now I see.”
So to get back to the subject of Easter, how do we view this holiday today. After all, we’re the folks whose Easter journey began with the Easter Bunny, proceeded to the idea that Jesus walked around for several weeks after he was killed, and finally came to the conclusion Jesus had all the significance of the Tooth Fairy.
Well, I say we should reclaim Easter in all its glory, because we should believe in the resurrection. I don’t know if the physical body that carried Jesus of Nazareth through life two thousand years ago is still in existence somewhere in God’s universe, but I do believe that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, Jesus Christ is there among them; and not just in their memories, but truly present as a real and knowable spiritual reality.
Likewise, I don’t know if a blind man can miraculously regain his sight if he has enough faith, but I do believe that the person who opens himself to God’s love through Jesus Christ, though once blinded by pain and suffering, can see goodness shining through the darkness. I don’t know if the body of a person who dies can come back to life through an act of God, but I do believe that those who have fallen into a spiritual death can rise from the dead through God’s love, and that God will embrace them through eternity.
We have a God who loves us so much God went to extraordinary lengths to reveal that love to us. God’s redemptive love is in place. It has been in place since before creation, and it has been revealed to us—we see God’s love nailed to the cross on Good Friday. But we can’t get stuck on Good Friday!
It is true that even if we end the story there, we discover a love that is beyond the furthest reaches of our imaginations; but if the story stops there then we have to admit that the unfathomable love we find in Jesus was defeated by the corrupting powers of this world. If we end the story there, we see the one we call the Son of God nailed to a cross and dying in anguish as onlookers mock, laugh, and then go on about their business as if nothing significant had happened.
To plumb the depths of the Christian faith, we have to take the love we find on Good Friday’s cross and unite it with the power we find infused throughout all of creation on Easter morning. Because that is what Easter is all about. Not only is God’s love pure, and perfect, and holy; God’s love is the most powerful thing in the universe. God’s love conquers all evil. Christians don’t walk through life stooped over in the shadow of the cross. Christians walk in the light of the cross, knowing that the message of Easter is the good news of the ultimate triumph of hope over despair; of faith over doubt; of God’s love over every single thing in the universe that falls short of the glory of God.
I hope we will all seek ways to spiritually embrace Easter, to make it a part of our life, to re-open that little room in our minds where there is still a place for mystery.
A famous psychologist wrote, “Humans are the strangest of all God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.” When we find ourselves lost and running aimlessly, and finally realize we cannot run forever, the best place to stop is at the foot of the cross. What awaits us there is beyond the wildest limits of our imaginations. It’s a love that ends our need for running, because it is there at the cross that Good Friday turns into Easter. It is there at the cross that good conquers evil; that light overcomes darkness; that time and eternity intersect. And it is through the cross that we move from death to life, and into the heart of God.