A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 8, 2012 (Easter Sunday)
What is it about Easter anyway? That makes it such an important day on the Christian calendar, I mean? That makes it the most attended church service of the year? Easter, or the resurrection, you realize, was celebrated by the followers of Jesus long before Christmas, Jesus’ birth, was. Hundreds of years earlier, in fact. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus was celebrated just days after his crucifixion. That little group of close followers believed that their teacher, healer, and spiritual leader had come back to life—in some form, at least—after having been killed on a Roman cross. Since they believed that Jesus had been raised back to life on a Sunday, every Sunday for Jesus’ followers came to be looked upon as a little resurrection day. Whenever they gathered to worship and fellowship together on “the Lord’s Day,” as they came to call Sunday, they celebrated the fact that Jesus lived. But again I pose the question, “What is it about Easter that makes it such a special day for those who claim the name Christian today?”
Now, I don’t want to rock anyone’s spiritual boat, but most of you probably are aware that Jesus was not the first religious figure said to have been resurrected back to life. And Christians were not the first to celebrate that fact. And, truth be told, if the world continues to stand a few more thousand years, Christians may not be the last to celebrate a leader believed to have been resurrected from the dead.
Which reminds me of a cute story. Some years ago, the child of some acquaintances of ours had invited a little friend for a sleepover on the Saturday night of Easter weekend. On Easter morning, the family got up and informed the little friend that she needed to get ready to go to church. Well, the little friend’s family did not attend church, so this was something new and foreign to her. So the little girl said, “Why are we going to church?” And the mother replied, “Today is Easter. We’re going to church to celebrate the King who died but came back to life.” And the little girl exclaimed, “Elvis is alive?!” Yes, there are those who follow the Elvis cult and who probably believe that even he is alive. But I digress just a little bit.
The point I was making is Jesus was not the first who was said to come back to life. Numerous cultures of the world—including Canaanite, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and many others—have honored resurrection deities, gods who died but were believed to have been resurrected or reborn. So, when the early followers of Jesus contended that he had been resurrected from the dead, it was not really a new idea. Yet, the resurrection of Jesus was different, in a class all by itself. In the religion that rose up around Jesus of Nazareth, resurrection took on a whole new meaning as it became the zenith, the pinnacle, the perfection, shall we say, of resurrection belief.
As theologian Marcus Borg points out, had it not been for the reports of and belief in his resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth likely would have been a forgotten figure in the history books of the world. His teachings, though enlightening and instructive that they were and are, probably would not have been written down and preserved. And the fact that he was condemned and died on a Roman cross was not significant in itself, as the Romans crucified hundreds, possibly thousands. No, it was that Sunday morning and the reports of the empty tomb and the experiences of those who were close to Jesus that made them feel like he was in some form or fashion still alive that caused the world to remember Jesus and made him the most pivotal figure in the history of the world. And it was the reports of Jesus’ resurrection that made it so.
And accompanying that, there is at the heart of the idea of the resurrection and Easter observance something that satisfies a universal longing that resides deep in the soul. Of all creatures on the earth, humans are the only ones, perhaps, who know that we are destined to die and who think about life after death. I doubt very seriously that Rover, the family dog, or Fluffy, the family cat, lie around and worry about dying and whether or not there will be life after death. But we humans do. We spend a good deal of time thinking about the afterlife and wondering what it will be like. Most of us don’t want to entertain the thought that this life is all there is. We may get depressed over the idea that life does not continue beyond death. We want our lives—in some fashion—to continue beyond the grave. Many hold to the belief that when we die we will be reunited with family and friends who went before, as well as family and friends who will cross over after us. Yes, many of us long for some hope, some assurance, that there is some form of life after death. And for that reason, I postulate, Easter becomes for us such an important day of the year, since Easter speaks to us of life, especially life after death.
But beliefs about life after death vary greatly. The four gospels contain a wide variety of resurrection accounts. And beliefs about the resurrection vary widely today. However, whether one chooses to interpret the resurrection stories quite literally (Jesus was bodily resurrected); or somewhat more middle-of-the-road philosophically (Jesus continues to live as a spirit); or quite metaphorically and symbolically (Jesus lives on in name and posthumous influence); there is something in the Easter resurrection narratives for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are a fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative, or liberal. You can still say—from your own worldview and belief frame of reference—Jesus lives! It matters not what our religious perspective, Easter speaks to the heart and soul of every one of us.
Because Easter also says the wrong shall fail, and the right shall prevail. The power of Good will eventually win over the powers of evil and injustice that are responsible for the unjust crosses of the world. Light will penetrate the darkness. Life shall prevail over death. Such are the messages that Easter represents to us. And that is what it is about Easter that makes it such an important day for all of us. And these are at least some of the reasons that we are all here today.
Several years ago, when we were living in Denton, Texas, I drove to Bethel College (now Bethel University) in northwest, Tennessee, to a minister’s conference. I had left Denton about 7 p.m. the night before and made it to Little Rock, Arkansas, about midnight. I checked into a motel and lay down to try to get a few hours of sleep. But being quite restless, I arose about 4 a.m., took a quick shower, and hit the road again, as I wanted to arrive at the conference by the time it started at 9 a.m. Just as I was getting ready to leave the state of Arkansas and cross the Mississippi River into Tennessee, the sun was starting to come up over the river in front of me. That proved to be a spiritual experience for me. An experience that sort of flooded my soul with light and joy. The light penetrating the darkness at the break of dawn as I crossed the mighty Mississippi River.
I am inclined to think that is sort of what that Sunday morning long ago did for those early followers of Jesus, in a much more profound way, of course. The experiences they had that Sunday morning—the reports of the empty tomb at sunrise, the feeling that Jesus who had been crucified was in some spiritual fashion still alive in their midst, the spiritual peace and joy that they experienced whenever they came together to break bread and fellowship in Jesus’ name—all of that was like a wonderful Light that dispelled the horrible darkness they had experienced three days earlier. And such is the experience of joy, peace, hope, and soul-flooding light that Easter brings to us. Easter speaks to us of life. Easter is the Light that penetrates the darkness of life. Amen.