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The Easter Story: Joy and Courage
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 27, 2016
Luke 24:13-53 Psalm 136
The Easter story is a story of joy and courage. Good Friday is a story of sadness and weakness. But it is followed with the joy of the resurrection and the courage of the early Christian church.
Just three short days ago we reflected on humanity at its worst. The intimate friends of Jesus betrayed Him and denied knowing Him. These are examples of human weakness and fallenness. And in them, Jesus remained with the Apostles, even in their fallen condition. So God remains with each one of us in our fallen condition.
But in three short days, all that changes. The Apostles and the women following Jesus see Him resurrected. Paul tells us that in addition to the Twelve Apostles, five hundred people at once saw the risen Christ. At first the Apostles react with disbelief, so profound is their joy.
The Apostles must have been as confused as they were overjoyed to see the risen Jesus Christ. Let’s look at the way events unfolded. First there was Jesus, and the power of His personality and the healings and miracles and the wonder of His teachings. Jesus attracted a large following and He was critical of the religious orthodoxy and the powerful Jewish authorities. Jesus grew to such proportions that it looked like His ministry would continue through years and years. Then there was the notion of the Messiah. And if Jesus were the Messiah, He might live on a purified earth forever as a divine king. Then all this came to a screeching halt when Jesus was arrested. Jesus did not put up a fight. He was thrown into prison, flogged by Pilate, and finally crucified like a common criminal. None of all this made any sense. We have the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus that tells us they were confused, sad, and trying to make sense of it all. Finally, Jesus appears to them in the flesh, raised from the dead. Fear, joy, and wonder now overwhelm the Apostles. But Jesus opens their minds to the scriptures so that they can understand the complete story of Jesus. Now we have the beginnings of Christianity. We have the full account of Jesus—His life, His death, and His resurrection.
With the resurrection we are dealing with the very beginnings of the Christian church. At this point we might call it the Christian movement instead of church. Christianity began with few and grew over the millennia. It began with the Jews in the Holy Land and through the work of Paul and other Apostles, spread through the Gentile population.
What made Christianity prosper so? I ask that question because I think it is one we can ask of ourselves? When we ask what it was that started up the early Christian church and kept it going and growing, we are asking ourselves what it is that appeals to us in Christianity.
First, I think that Jesus is a God for the people. The Roman gods lived on Mount Olympus way far above humanity. They intervened in human affairs on a whim and their power was absolute. Jesus, on the other hand, walked on the dust of Palestine along with the people. His teachings and stories were often taken from earthy affairs, like farming, or family life, or business. And Jesus cared about humanity. Much of the Jesus story is about healing the sick and driving out demons. Jesus teaches that even the hairs on our head are numbered by a caring God and when a sparrow falls, the least of common birds, it is known and provided for by God. In Classical mythology, the god Prometheus cares about humanity and brings us fire. For this, the gods punish Prometheus. Not so with Jesus. The Father God is known through the Human Jesus and cares about us as much as does the gentle God Jesus.
Another factor in the success of early Christianity is community. Christians cared for one another and provided for burial rites as a burial society, for instance. Christians shared common meals together. They would eat together, sing hymns and tell stories about Jesus. These were called love feasts. This must have meant a lot in a cold, heartless world in which there were more slaves than free men. Christians cared for one another in the difficult times in the Roman world. These were times when people were forced out of house and home due to economic causes. Christian communities gave shelter to the economically displaced. And Jesus’ teachings took away the shame of poverty—“Blessed are you poor.”
I like to think that Jesus’ teachings are the real substance of Christianity. All the time I hear people say that they like Jesus’ teachings, even if they are not believers. Our world is becoming as uncaring and cold as was the Roman Empire. I fear we are losing a sense of community. My parents and grandparents told me about the depression days. Hard as those times were, my grandparents said that people helped each other out. Now, though, families are spread all over the globe at best, broken and scattered at worst. I’m not sure people care for one another as they grapple against their neighbor to obtain the BMW and find elite singles on dating sites.
Now, as much as ever, perhaps more, Jesus’ teachings are needed. Jesus teaches that we are to love the neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus teaches that we are to forgive our neighbor the wrongs we perceive. These are community-building teachings. And Jesus teaches us to honor God. We are to recognize that before God, no one can stand perfectly clean. But Jesus does hold out the challenge for us to clean up our act. “Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And Jesus teaches us to thank God for all the good things we have been given. We didn’t get them by our own power, but by God’s grace. These are humble-building teachings. These teachings put humanity in its place. These teachings remind us that even if we have the BMW and an elite partner from the dating site, we stand under an infinite Being and all our accomplishments are essentially equal to that of our brothers and sisters, our fellows. God is the great relativizer.
The complete Jesus story is not just about the early Christian church, the love feasts of early Christians, Christian love and community, and Jesus’ social and theological teachings and His emphasis on God. It is not even about the wonder of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. That takes up only a few chapters in all the Gospels. I think that the complete Jesus story is about the life Jesus. Early Christianity is about telling the life of Jesus at the suppers they held with one another. For it is the life of Jesus that exemplifies the Christian way. The teachings of Jesus may explain why Jesus did what He did. The teachings of Jesus may serve as ethical rules we can govern our lives with. The teachings of Jesus may tell us where we fit into the picture of the universe, heaven and earth. But we learn all this by studying how Jesus lived.
Remembering the stories of Jesus’ life are the best examples of how we Christians are to govern our lives. Jesus’ teachings go so far. He couldn’t say everything. But when we see how Jesus reacted to different things, we can extrapolate how we can and should react to challenges and celebrations in our lives. “What would Jesus do,” people say. And the more we know about the life of Jesus, the better we can guess how Jesus would respond to a given situation.
And the life of Jesus brings in a final point. That is the power of Jesus’ personality, His presence. There was something about Jesus that attracted multitudes. There was some power in Jesus that made people want to talk about Jesus years after His resurrection. There was something about Jesus that invoked people’s worship. I have to think that the power of Jesus’ presence is still with us in His resurrected and glorified Humanity. I feel Jesus’ presence when I read the Gospels. I feel Jesus’ presence when I pray, or in church. Jesus is a living being to me, still, 2,000 years after His resurrection.
In many ways we are like the early Christian church today. The great Christian institutions are fading. Sure, it’s going to take a long time for denominations like Catholicism to fade from the world, if it even will. But many mainline churches are consolidating their members and closing doors—even Catholic churches. We are losing the momentum of the Christian institution. People are turning to the church, when they do turn back, for similar reasons as early Christians found in it. They are coming back to church for community. They are coming back to church from humility and the worldly shocks that teach us we are not all-powerful. They are coming back to church because the words and the example of that one extraordinary life 2,000 years ago still have meaning today.
Lord, we come to you this Easter morning filled with joy. As the season begins to renew itself with warming weather, so we come before you with renewed hearts. We have lived through the times of penitence that Lent brings, and now we come to you ready for a new beginning. We pray this morning that you fill us with spiritual light and warmth. We pray this morning that you give us strength to begin spiritual life anew. We pray this morning that you inspire us with the will and power to reach for heaven once again, now and ever.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.