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Worship and Sermons
April 16, 2017

 

“The Triumph of Love” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / Easter - Jeremiah 31:1-6  •  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  •  Colossians 3:1-4  •  Matthew 28:1-10

THEME:  Seek the higher things  

 

          One of our country’s presidents had a birthday this past week.  Do you know which one?   [Thomas Jefferson]   On Thursday he would have been 274 years old. 

          I’ve always thought Thomas Jefferson gets a raw deal.  We celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday, but nobody makes a peep about poor old Tom Jefferson, despite the fact that he’s consistently ranked among our very best Presidents.

          I thought about him this week, not just because it was his birthday, but because of how he regarded this morning’s gospel story of the resurrection.

          It’s a familiar story that gets slightly different treatment in each of the four gospels.  In Matthew’s gospel, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and John go to the tomb on the morning of the third day after the tumultuous events of Good Friday.

          That day, while the other disciples were scattered and hiding, these two were among the crowd of women who witnessed Jesus’ death two days earlier. 

          When you read this passage a second or third time, something begins to stand out.  Did you notice that the two Mary’s have come to see “the tomb”?  They’ve brought with them no ointment or spices to embalm Jesus’ body, as was the Jewish custom. 

          The reason is simple.  They’re not expecting to find a corpse. They’re expecting to find the risen Christ.

          We remember that three times they heard him say he’d be raised on the third day.  Unlike the other disciples, they understood him and they believed him. 

          As a result, these two faithful women are the very first to lay eyes on the risen Christ.  They’re greeted by an angel.  The angel gives them a mission, and then they’re greeted by Christ himself.  So, not only are they the bearers of the Angel’s good news, but they’re the first eyewitnesses to Christ’s victory over death.

          They’ve done exactly what the apostle Paul commands the church at Colossae in our Epistle reading:  they’ve come to this tomb, this place below, seeking things that are above.  They’re expecting the miracle of new life among the dead.         

          This loving, hopeful and expectant way of living and thinking has been the hallmark of the Christian faith for almost 2,000 years.  But in more recent times, it’s met some real resistance.

          As far back as the 14th century, with the artistic and scientific blossoming of the Italian Renaissance, the resurrection has been subjected to scrutiny and skepticism that say far more about humanity and our hubris than they do about the reality of the risen Christ.

          By the time of the Reformation a century or two later, this rising tide of secular humanism was already creating intellectual and rational objections to Christian faith in general, and specifically to the miracle of the resurrection itself. 

          Martin Luther himself felt compelled to address these cultural challenges.  On Easter in 1529 he said “Most people [perceive] the resurrection of Christ as if it were … like a picture on the wall . . .  But it must be better than that . . .  We must look at the resurrection not merely with physical eyes, otherwise we will derive no comfort from it.”

          In other words, we also need to see it through the eyes of faith.  But, seeing by faith became even harder in the Age of Enlightenment that followed.

          The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the Enlightenment ethos like this, "Dare to know!” he said, “Have courage to use your own reason!"  It was the Age of Reason.

          The great thinkers of the Enlightenment and their modern day successors have had a huge influence on our lives.  The vast majority of it has been good and beneficial.  It’s been the source of stunning progress in science, politics, philosophy, art, architecture and culture.  

          The problem is that it encourages you and me to trust our own reason and judgment not only above all else, but to the exclusion of all else.  In effect, it encourages us to make ourselves God.

          When we make human reason supreme, there is no more room for God or a life of faith. I can think of no better example of this hubris than Thomas Jefferson and the so-called Jefferson Bible. 

          In 1803, the same year he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France, President Jefferson began a private project that would express his view of the “Christian System.”  What he proposed was to strip away from the gospels all the miracles and supernatural events that could not be explained by science or reason.  What would be left was his view of the pure teaching of Jesus, uncorrupted by superstition and legend, as he saw it.

          So, using a razor and glue he went to work on his King James Bible.  He cut out and pasted into a new 64-page booklet only those verses that he thought expressed Christ’s true teaching.

          He entitled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”  He called it “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

          No miraculous visitations by angels, no virgin birth, no Trinity, no transfiguration, no miraculous healings or bodily resurrections.  Sorry, Lazarus!  All of these he judged to be contrary to reason. 

          As you might imagine, none of the gospel accounts of the resurrection made his cut.  I think we can understand why. 

          I’ve never witnessed a resurrection.  I’m betting you probably haven’t either.  Certainly, none of us were there to witness Jesus’ resurrection.  By definition, it was a one-time event so we wouldn’t be able to repeat it.  That’s what any good scientist would want to do in order to even consider that it might have been possible.

          The only proof we have that Jesus’ resurrection was real is the result.  That proof is indisputable:  love triumphs over all.  Despite the very worst humanity could muster – the betrayal and desertion of friends, the scheming and false witness of enemies, and the violence and cruelty of the most humiliating death we could devise – God’s love, embodied in Jesus Christ, won. 

          It defeated hatred.  It defeated ignorance and fear.  It defeated apathy, self-interest, and greed.  God took onto himself the very worst we could dish out – and then overcame it all when Christ took that first breath and stretched his arms on Easter morning. 

          A love that deep – a love so powerful it makes one person give his or her life for others – can only have one origin, and it’s certainly not human.  It is divine. 

          That’s how much God loves you and me and this whole world he created.  So much that he gave himself up to die so you and I could live a life oriented to faith, hope and love.  That’s what new life in Christ looks like.

          It’s the essence of those higher things Paul’s trying to convince the Colossians to focus on.  It’s what drove the two Mary’s to go to the tomb on that very first Easter morning – and it’s what they found there. 

          The power of Christ’s sacrificial love is the reason the Church spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire. 

          It’s the engine that turned a few dozen believers gathered in an upper room on a backstreet of Jerusalem into a worldwide movement.  It’s the reason there are over two billion Christians today on every continent and in every corner of the globe.  

          Maybe you’re somebody who’s not so sure about this new life of faith. Maybe you’re not entirely convinced of the reality of the resurrection and the myriad other miracles sprinkled throughout scripture.  Maybe you’re wondering whether you can even believe in Christ at all.

          If so, what you need to know is this:  Christianity isn't just another idea, belief system, or philosophy.  It's about a relationship:  It’s about getting to know God better and better, allowing ourselves to become infused with his love so that, gradually, bit by bit, day by day, and year by year, more and more of what we do, what we think and what say becomes a witness to that life-giving love. 

          Whether you’re a lifelong believer or someone who’s wrestling with the notion of becoming a believer, I guarantee you the Spirit is working in you.  That’s how it works in all our lives, regardless of our doubts and our unbelief.   

          It was at work in Thomas Jefferson’s life.  As much energy and time as he spent trying to purge all those miracles from his own hyper-rationalistic version of faith, even he left room for Christ’s second coming. 

          The question for all of us is where is that love visible in our lives?  Where are we feeling the joy of being loved?  And where are we experiencing the joy of sharing love?

          Those are the telltale signs of God’s presence.  They’re not just random impulses – they’re the result of God working in us, bringing us to faith.

          Wherever and whenever you feel the joy of that selfless, life-giving love in your life, remember this: 

          You’re experiencing the reality of the risen Christ.  

          There is nothing more powerful in this world than that. 

Amen. 

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:27 AM
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