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Sermon for Sunday 31 March 2013

FIRST READING Acts 10:34–43

34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

PSALM Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for the LORD is good; God’s mercy endures forever. 2 Let Israel now declare, “God’s mercy endures forever.”
14 The LORD is my strength and my song, and has become my salvation. 15 Shouts of rejoicing and salvation echo in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the LORD acts valiantly! 16 The right hand of the LORD is exalted! The right hand of the LORD acts valiantly!” 17 I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD. 18 The LORD indeed punished me sorely, but did not hand me over to death. 19 Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and give thanks to the LORD. 20 “This is the gate of the LORD; here the righteous may enter.” 21 I give thanks to you, for you have answered me and you have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 By the LORD has this been done; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 15:19–26

19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

GOSPEL Luke 24:1–12

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Surprise in the Graveyard

I read a story the other day about a two year old girl who could hardly wait for Easter to come. She had a new dress to wear and new shoes to go with it, but her father wondered whether she knew the true meaning of Easter. “Kara,” he asked, “do you know what Easter means?” “Yes, I do,” she smiled. “What does it mean then?” her father asked. With a smile on her face and her arms raised, she cried, “Surprise!” When you think about it, it’s a pretty good answer. I don’t think there’s a better word for Easter. “Surprise!” That was the clear reaction of Christ’s disciples and closest friends that first Easter day.
In Luke we read that Jesus’ disciples were distraught after His crucifixion. Early on Sunday morning, some of the women took spices to the tomb. Upon arrival, they found the stone rolled away from the mouth. When they went inside Christ’s body wasn’t there. At this point John tells us that, suddenly two men in gleaming white clothes stood beside them. The women bowed down their faces with fright, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He’s not here; He has risen! Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered Christ’s words. With this news, they hurried to tell the disciples what had happened. But the disciples wouldn’t believe them. Their words seemed like nonsense. Surprise!
John, in his telling of the story, focuses on Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene. Mary comes to the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away. So she runs to Simon Peter and John, and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Evidently the thought hadn’t occurred to Mary that Christ could be resurrected from the grave.
Peter and John run to the tomb. When they, too, find it empty, what do they do? They simply go back to the house where they were staying. There was no celebration, no cries of, “He’s alive. He’s alive.” You might expect those who knew Christ best, to be bubbling over with excitement that first Easter Sunday morning, because He’d been delivered from the tomb, just as He said. Instead, they were totally mystified that His body was gone. They didn’t expect Him to be alive.
As for Mary, she stands outside the tomb crying. She bends over to look into the tomb and sees two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They ask her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she explains, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turns around and sees Jesus standing there, but she doesn’t recognize Him. “Woman,” he says, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking He’s the gardener, she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Then Jesus calls her name, “Mary.” Surprise!
The story of Easter isn’t some carefully contrived story designed by Jesus’ followers to convince us of something that isn’t true. The story of Easter is the honest reporting of baffled believers who had no idea where Christ was leading them until He appeared to them beyond the grave. Easter is by all accounts an extraordinary day. This is why people gather in such numbers all over the world to celebrate the event of the resurrection. Jesus Christ who was dead, is alive!
Pastor Michael Slaughter tells of traveling to Moscow with a group of church leaders in 1992 just as the Cold War was ending. These Christian leaders were there to celebrate Russia’s first Easter after the fall of the Iron Curtain. A large banner proclaiming “Christ has risen” loomed over Red Square. Slaughter says he couldn’t help noticing that less than twenty-five yards away stood the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Soviet Revolution. It struck him as ironic that the banner with “Christ has risen” on it overshadowed the tomb of the Communist leader who had once proclaimed that God was dead. It also struck Slaughter, that Lenin lay entombed in a granite and marble mausoleum, his body sealed in a glass sarcophagus, while Christ’s tomb was empty. Surprise! Lenin is dead. Stalin is dead. But Christ lives on!
Chuck Colson, in his book The Good Life, tells us of one man who believed strongly in Christ’s resurrection. His name was Edward Bennett Williams. Williams, now deceased, was one of the great lawyers and Washington power brokers of our age, an extraordinarily gifted man. “For one full generation, he was the man to go to, if your life was on the line. His client list reads like a who’s who of American celebrities over a thirty or forty year period, starting with Joe McCarthy and Jimmy Hoffa, through Frank Sinatra, and a series of senators and high government officials.
“Although Williams was quiet about it,” says Colson, “he was a deeply religious man, a daily communicant in the Roman Catholic Church. He fought a long and valiant fight against cancer. As he struggled on his deathbed and as it became clear that he was losing the battle, his son showed him an article that named him one of the most powerful men in Washing¬ton. The Washington Post, for whom Williams was counsel, wrote that he ‘waved the magazine away.’ He then said, ‘They don’t realize what power really is . . . I’m about to see true power. Fighting death is selfish. It’s time to let go and see what real power is.’ Williams died peace¬fully,” notes Colson, “as unshakable in his conviction about the resurrection as he had ever been in the cases he argued so brilliantly in court.”
Christ is risen; He’s alive. A few verses earlier in our epistle reading the Apostle Paul wrote, “For what I received 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, and that He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles . . .” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) Consider what Paul is saying here; Paul was telling about a shared experience of the Christian community.
The risen Christ had appeared to more than five hundred believers, most of whom were still alive when Paul was writing. All it would have taken to shake Paul’s witness would have been for one of those 500 who had encountered the risen Christ to refute his testimony, but none of them did. To their minds, there was no doubt. Christ is alive. Nothing in the ancient world refutes that testimony. The tomb was empty. The body was missing. Even more importantly, hundreds of lives were changed by the appearance of Jesus after His death.
Nothing in the ancient world refutes that testimony; nor does anything in the modern world either. It’s always been fashionable, in some circles, to doubt Christ’s resurrection. The critical mind it seems cannot accept what can’t be proved or, at least, that’s what we say. And yet we seem to be more resistant to alternative ideas than we think. We accept many things that cannot yet be proved.
If I were to tell you, for example, that some scientists entertain the hope that someday it might be possible to take a strand of DNA and recreate, or reformulate, or resurrect, if you will, a living human being in a laboratory, would you agree that such a thing might indeed be reasonable? I’m not saying that it’s possible. But imagine it were true. If you were to read such a statement in tomorrow’s newspaper, I’m thinking that many of you would turn to your spouse and say, “listen to this hon, scientists are telling us that they’ll one day resurrect people using only their DNA.” Many of us would have no problem accepting the possibility that science might indeed perform such a miracle. After all, modern science is producing miracles all the time.
The extraordinary question is, how can we possibly believe that scientists are capable of such miracles, while our rational, critical mind supposedly tells us that God is incapable of resurrecting His Son? Isn’t there something demonic about that? Science is capable, but the God that created science isn’t? That’s absurd. Christ is alive. Nothing in the modern world refutes that testimony. Science does more to reinforce our faith, than refute it.
For example, science has been telling us for some time that nothing in this world is really ever lost. It’s only transformed into something else. This pulpit for example looks solid. If I pound it, it feels solid, too. If I pound it hard enough, I could bruise my hand. Our ancestors would have laughed at us, if we told them that this pulpit isn’t as solid as it looks. Science tells us that what we call matter is actually made up of whirling centers of energy; nothing is static; all we encounter, including ourselves is constantly in motion.
Scientists also tell us that everything is powered and transformed by energy; light becomes heat, heat becomes motion, but in all these changes of form, nothing is ever lost, it’s simply transformed. It’s interesting to read that scientists are looking for what they call the God-particle that supposedly will explain how it all began in the first place. I can tell you how it all began and I don’t need to spend billions of dollars building a laboratory under the Swiss Alps to do it. “In the beginning God created the earth and all that is in it . . .” I’m not one who appreciates bumper stickers but the best one I ever saw said, “I believe in the Big Bang. God’s said it and BANG, it happened!”
And I can also tell you what evolution is all about. It’s about creating the only being who is conscious of being part of this magnificent creation and who can interact with his Creator, a being created in the image of God. Now I ask you, if the universe is so constructed that no form of energy is ever lost, doesn’t it make sense that nature’s greatest creation, the human spirit, with its ability to think and love and will, will also be preserved? When the evolutionary process reaches its apex, does it suddenly reverse itself and begin to destroy that for which it was engineered in the first place? The answer is, of course not! The universe conserves energy and it also conserves spirit. Christ is alive. Honestly, what does your heart and mind tell you? Christ is alive, let Christians sing! Deep within our souls the very spirit of God testifies with our spirit, He is alive!
A man named Robert E. Smith once told of hearing the “Hallelujah Chorus” sung by five hundred trained voices. The “Hallelujah Chorus,” of course, is the triumphant part of Handel’s Messiah that he composed after he was stricken with blindness in 1751. Handel claimed he had a vision and that this chorus is that vision set to music. Smith wrote that he couldn’t, for an instant, doubt Handel’s claim, not after having his soul lifted into paradise by those 500 inspiring voices.
The “Hallelujah Chorus,” said Smith, is a magnificent expression of two thoughts: first that Christ reigns over all, and second that His reign is eternal. About the middle of the chorus the bass voices begin singing, “And He shall reign for ever and ever.” Then the tenor voices join, “And He shall reign for ever and ever.” Then the alto voices follow with, “And He shall reign for ever and ever.” Then, still higher, the soprano voices add, “And He shall reign for ever and ever.” Then all four parts unite, and in a burst of melody, which seems to come from heaven itself, they blend in the grandest of all refrains, “And He shall reign for ever and ever, King of kings and Lord of lords! Hallelujah, hallelujah!”
Here’s how Bob Smith expressed the experience of being swept up by the sound of those 500 voices: “I frankly confess that my soul was stirred profoundly, my mind was quickened spiritually and my imagination carried me beyond things earthly, beyond the stars, into the very midst of the paradise of God. I saw a great chorus, which no [person] could number, assembled before the shining white throne. Most intently I listen to the song which they sang. It was a song of triumph to the King of kings, telling of his wondrous achievements and of the universality and permanency of His reign. In the midst of their song, I heard the voices of the patriarchs peal forth, ‘For He shall reign for ever and ever.’ Then I heard the voices of the prophets add, ‘For He shall reign for ever and ever.’ Then the voices of the apostles and church fathers followed, ‘For He shall reign for ever and ever.’ Then the voices of the martyrs triumphantly sang, ‘For He shall reign for ever and ever’ . . . Then the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, church fathers, martyrs . . . with the angels of God and all the redeemed of the ages, joined in one grand chorus, and my spirit was lifted to supernal bliss, to ecstasy supreme, as they pealed forth the blessed, the glorious, the triumphant strain, ‘For He shall reign for ever and ever, King of kings! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’”
Most of us couldn’t express it that well, but we’ve experienced that same emotion. It’s the music of Easter. It’s the joyous surprise of Mary, and Peter and those other 500 believers to whom the risen Christ appeared. And it’s the song that rings in our hearts this day, “For He shall reign for ever and ever, King of kings! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Surprise! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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