(Easter 2002) The Easter Journey (3/31/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
I wrestled with how to deliver an appropriate Easter sermon this morning. I know for sure that the subject of this message should be God’s love, and the ultimate expression of that love—Jesus Christ. Like most men and women who dare to stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, I have to be careful not to spend too much time talking about myself. But for me, Easter has become a very personal issue. I don’t know how to speak about what this day means, other than by going into the depths of my soul and telling you what I find there, and what it means to me.
I decided that the best way to do this is to go back in time, and explain the ways I’ve viewed Easter over the course of my life. My hope, of course, is that the reflections from my faith journey resonate with each of you; that you too will have wrestled with the same doubts, the same questions, and, I pray, ultimately stumbled across similar answers.
When I was a young child I loved Easter, because it meant I was going to be allowed to devour more candy in one morning than I was normally permitted to eat over several weeks. Thanks to the generous sweet tooth of the Easter Bunny, Easter ranked right up there with Halloween as one of those special days when the normal dietary rules around the Cox household were temporarily relaxed to an amazing degree.
Still, I knew that Easter was considered a religious holiday, and I knew some things about Jesus, even back then. I certainly couldn’t imagine why they called the day he was killed “Good” Friday, but I 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. I was much to young to wrestle with matters of life and death, so I placed the story of Jesus in that little room in my mind where I kept great mysteries—the area of my youthful brain reserved for Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Jesus fit in there nicely, and the truth is I was much more concerned with how the Easter Bunny got into our locked house to hide all those candy eggs than I was with how Jesus got out of that tomb. (I assumed, by the way, the Easter Bunny got in the same way Santa Clause did, but I never figured that out either!)
As I matured, I slowly but surely I came to realize the mysteries I had stashed away in that little room in my mind had to be discarded. Out with Santa, out with the Tooth Fairy, out with the Easter Bunny. But I was told to hang on to Jesus. It would be very bad if I booted him out with all the other mysteries, because of all the outrageous impossibilities our culture had instilled in my mind, it was essential that I keep the impossible mystery of Jesus in place, and believe it more strongly than ever, since unlike all those other outrageous stories I’d been told, that particular one was true.
By that time I had learned a bit more about the way of the world. Through the painful loss of a few beloved relatives, I 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 I 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 a dead as a person could possibly be. But three days after he was laid to rest he was resurrected, which as nearly as I 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.
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I believed that story. From the time I was in grammar school until I was in my late teens, I believed 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. I found great comfort in that story.
Many years later I went through the stage many teenagers go through—the phase where I figured I was about the smartest guy in the universe, but if not that, at least the smartest person in my 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.”
Well, my parents never tried to shove religion down my throat, a fact for which I am very grateful. But as I developed into my own person, and as I learned more and more, a few things occurred to me. First, regardless of those stories about Jesus’ birth and in spite of all the lawn ornaments that decorated my neighborhood around Christmas, people are not conceived miraculously. When a woman gets pregnant, there’s no great mystery about how it happened. And while a lot of things may have changed over the last couple of thousand years, that was one I felt confident had stayed pretty much the same.
Another thing I came to believe was that the laws of the natural world are not ours to play around with. I don’t care how religious you are, if you try walking on water, you’re going to sink like a stone. Again, I was pretty sure the laws of physics hadn’t gone through any major changes for several billion years. And finally, I 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 me, became a rather silly holiday, and the idea of the resurrected Jesus had about as much meaning to me as did the Easter Bunny. And that little room in my mind where I 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.
Well, I have no intention of turning this morning’s sermon into a testimonial, but as you can imagine, something changed along the way, or I wouldn’t be standing here today. I will simply say that on more than one occasion I have called upon God, and God’s presence has become known to me. There have been no burning bushes, no parting of the seas, no literal raisings from the dead. But all of my doubts regarding the existence of God have been washed away.
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.
My search for truth became a religious quest. Believing so strongly in the reality of God, I read everything I could find on humanity’s spiritual quest for religious truth. I fell in love with the texts of the great Eastern religions—the Rig Veda, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Dharmapada. Those writings continue to inspire me. I found large parts of the New Age movement inspiring and helpful. But I didn’t really give Christianity much thought, and for a couple of reasons. First, I thought it made some demands on my reason that I found unreasonable—I still had a problem with virgin births and physical resurrections; and I didn’t want to be associated in any way with the people who were loudly and publicly proclaiming the Christian faith—neither the people I saw and heard on radio and television, nor the men and women I occasionally ran into who wanted to know if I’d been saved.
And then one day I was listening to the radio, and a radio preacher came on the air. Before I had a chance to change the station, this guy started to make sense. In fact, this guy was preaching a form of the Christian faith that I did not know existed. That radio preacher, by the way, was named Robin Meyers. He is the son of our own Robert Meyers. Leigh and I started attending Robin’s church in Oklahoma City, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I made a startling discovery in those years. 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 me it became the most spiritually fulfilling of all religions.
Best of all, I came 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.
As for me, I no longer worry myself over such things. And you know, it’s really ironic: it was the more intellectual aspects of Christianity that drew me into the heart of the faith; but after all those years of mental gymnastics, wading through all those books on theology, I’ve developed a very simple faith. In fact, my whole theology can be boiled down to a couple of sentences. 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! Some of you are probably thinking I wasted a lot of time and money at seminary! But 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 does a person with such a simple faith view Easter? Remember, I’m the guy 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’ve reclaimed Easter in all its glory, because I’ve come to 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.
Well, that’s my Easter journey. I hope some of you found parts of my journey that are similar to your own. It’s tempting on Easter morning to hide behind the beautiful dresses and the Easter egg hunts, both of which, by the way, are parts of Easter that I personally enjoy. But I hope you will all seek ways to spiritually embrace Easter, to make it a part of your life.
I would never tell you exactly what you should think about Easter. I would only ask you to open up that little room in your mind that is reserved for mystery, and give Easter a chance. 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.