Understanding Easter

I didn’t get Easter for a long time.

Sure, I spent plenty of Easter mornings at the church as a kid and even went once to the Sunrise Service over my parents’ sleep-deprived wishes. The Youth Director told me she needed me there and when she said you needed to be somewhere, it really wasn’t a request.

But I don’t think I ever really got it until seminary. It wasn’t because I had learned some new theology that straightened out all the questions Resurrection demands. It was something more basic. When it came to the promise of new life, it was there I found myself in need of one.

It had been one of those weeks, actually this week had been a few weeks coming. Holy Week – the first one and every one since – exposes things, and in my experience, it exposes people, too.

The light of this Holy Week’s dark exposure was brighter than I could handle. It was showing me, maybe for the first time, what I didn’t want to face. And what I was facing was what other people, friends who cared for me and loved me even though they hadn’t known me that long, had been trying to tell me for some time.

My life had become uprooted, I was barely holding it together and I was a long way away from living a life any preacher would call abundant.

For The People

And so, the alarm went off on Easter morning and I made my way to the chapel, hoping that some how or some way, the Easter Gospel could find its way in and begin to clean up the mess I had made.  In all honesty, I probably chose to worship there because of the guest preacher. But, to my credit, if you are in search of Resurrection, there are few preachers with a better chance of helping you find it than Barbara Brown Taylor.

Mark’s Gospel, she announced, ends suddenly. The Gospel has two endings – and the short one ends with a messenger telling the women to go back to the disciples. Go back, he tells them, and tell the disciples to head to Galilee and wait for Jesus.

Wait for him there. On Easter morning, God’s messenger tells the first witnesses to go back into the world because that is where Jesus is headed. Resurrection isn’t over and done with at the empty tomb. No, Resurrection will be experienced and realized in the world, the world God loves and with the people who need it the most.

Just Getting Started

Easter is both a declaration and an anticipation of life. That’s what I learned that Sunday. The empty tomb declares that life is stronger than death and it anticipates love heading back into the world to give life to people who know all too well the power of death. The Easter witness of “I have seen the Lord” is the confident declaration of those who know that God’s redemption is on the way.

That confidence comes from knowing that Resurrection is the guarantee of the promise God made in a covenant with Abraham. It’s the joy that comes from learning to trust the word of the God who promises that nothing can separate us from Love – not even death. The liberation of Easter comes from a God who led a captive people through the water in the Exodus and has promised to rescue all of us us from the people and the systems that hold us captive.

And so, the good news of Easter isn’t just about a party in a graveyard. It is found in the promise of a God who is coming again for those who desperately need to find salvation – or for salvation to find them.

It is good news for the family on the edge of breaking apart because the God of Easter is the God who heals what is broken. And it is good news for the victims of repeated racism and systemic sexism because the God who made the empty tomb possible is the God of the oppressed.  Easter is good news for those who have been beaten down because the God of the Resurrection is the God who inspired Mary to sing praise to the One who lifts up the lowly and smashes the thrones of the arrogant.

If you had a hard time celebrating on Sunday, don’t worry. You aren’t alone and you didn’t miss it.

You just might be waiting for Resurrection to appear where you live. But Jesus is coming to Galilee, and according to the Gospel of Resurrection, that’s where we all live.

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Beyond Fear: The Shove of Resurrection

For some people the Resurrection stories are some of the hardest in all of the Bible to believe. After all, it’s never been easy to make sense of Resurrection. But in some ways they are among the easiest to believe, because it doesn’t take too much imagination to identify with what we read there – people overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed by worry and struggling to find a clear idea of what it all means.

It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read, because this is what we encounter in almost every story that involves Jesus appearing after Easter morning. It is probably most vivid, however, in Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb.

We don’t find her laughing or celebrating, but instead John tells us that she was weeping. She didn’t know what to believe. She didn’t know what had happened. She assumed the worst – that someone had stolen his body – maybe the one thing that could make a terrible week even worse. The event that gives us hope and faith had reduced her to fear and anguish.

And yet, that’s not how she left the tomb. Because Jesus was there and he helped her make sense of it all. He showed her that there was more to this story – and hers. Because she had a role to play – go and tell your friends what you have seen and what you have heard.

At the tomb on Easter morning Mary experienced a journey from fear to mission – from where have you taken him to I have seen the Lord.

Mary isn’t the only one to experience the Resurrection in this way. In Luke 24 we read how a walking Bible Study with Jesus helped two men get to a place where they too could say we have seen the Lord. It was on a beach that Peter had the conversation and received the forgiveness he desperately needed.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, once for each time Peter had betrayed him, of course. This is the moment Peter received the forgiveness he needed and this is the moment Peter discovered the purpose and mission Jesus has for his life.

Because in a post-Resurrection world, forgiveness always leads to discovering your purpose and receiving your mission.

That’s why this story matters so much.  We know, with Mary at the tomb, what it is like to be assaulted by grief. We know, with the men on the road to Emmaus, what it is like to walk away in despair. We know, with Peter on the beach, what it is to desperately need forgiveness.

And so we rejoice after Easter that the worries that threaten to stop us in our tracks don’t. We celebrate in the light of Sunday the possibilities for new life that come when we begin to understand how God’s story is still unfolding in us, even now. We experience joy in Resurrection when we realize the purpose and mission for our lives that comes from receiving and experiencing God’s forgiveness and grace.

The Resurrection matters because we have become convinced that there is a power within us that is strong enough to break the bonds of fear. We live by the grace that is stronger than judgement and rest in the forgiveness that frees us from anything that would prevent us from living in the light of God’s love. We cling with everything we have to the promise of Romans 8 that because of all that has happened we trust that there is absolutely nothing with the power to separate us from God’s love.

Resurrection matters when it becomes the reality that lingers every day of our lives as we live into the new mission we have been given. God’s victory over death invites us to tell when and where we have seen the Lord. The light that shines out of the empty tomb calls us to bear witness to God’s love in a world that desperately needs a glimpse of it any way it can get it. We experience the joy of new life by getting to participate in the new thing God is doing in redeeming and restoring the world.

A journey that begins in fear ends in becoming partners with God to change the world.

That’s why Easter matters.

 

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Finding Light: Cooking a Meal, Trying Something New and Eight More Ways to Experience Easter

One of my favorite posts of the year is creating a list of ideas that I hope will help people experience Lent as a season of grace.  (You can this year’s version here.)

It’s always one of the most popular posts as well, which reminds me that no matter where we worship or how long we’ve been doing this we’re all in this together, strugglers on the way trying our best to stay as close as we can to Jesus.

But Easter is a season, too, and I know how much I would love to experience and practice Resurrection not just on Easter Sunday but on every day of this season. I want to find a way to discover how to commit to practices that ground me in the truth of the Easter Gospel that love is stronger than death, that hope triumphs over fear and that life is more powerful than death. Just like Lent, I want my life to look differently after Easter than it did before. I want to be able to look back from the other side of Pentecost and be able to celebrate the ways I experienced love and hope and life in the power of the Risen Lord during these fifty days.

So, with that in mind, here are ten ways that might help you – and me – live in the light and hope and love of Easter right now.

 

Read the Story: Experience again the Resurrection on Easter morning and the many times and ways Jesus appears after the Resurrection to the disciples and to others. Passages to begin with include  Luke 24:13-35, Luke 24:36-53, John 29:19-31, John 21:1-23, Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 9:1-19.

Take A Breath, Pray a Prayer: A friend of mine recently invited me to a challenge of praying the same phrase 1,000 times a day. It was a great gift and reminded me of the power of breath prayer, not just to help us connect with God but also to change the way we think and how we approach our lives.  You might pray the same phrase for the whole season or you might try several out a week at a time. Phrases that might work well include – Christ is Risen, Love is Alive, Blessed Are Those Who Believe, God Makes All Things – Even Me – New. I’d love to hear phrases that you found helpful.

Celebrate God’s Presence: – The Resurrection declares once and for all that God does care and is involved in our lives and our world. Take time to reflect, maybe once a day if you can remember, about how you experienced God that day. The Examen, a spiritual practice I enjoyed during Lent, is a great way to become aware of  all the ways God is at work in your life. Committing to this made me so much more aware of the ways God was at work in the ordinary course of my days. Our days are full of opportunities to glimpse and celebrate the light of God’s love in our lives.

Begin A Different Way: My friend Tish has written a beautiful book called Liturgy of the Ordinary (You should buy it here). One of my favorite parts of the book is when she talks about the spiritual practice of making her bed. Instead of beginning her day by checking her phone or email or getting updated on the latest thing to be outraged by, for Lent one year she decided to begin the day by making her bed and then spending a few moments of silence and solitude with God. How many ways might we experience Resurrection if instead of sprinting out of bed to accomplish all of our to-dos, we found some way, if only or a moment, to begin our day in gratitude for all God has given us? You might pray the Lord’s Prayer. You might read the Beatitudes. You might just say thank you for the gift of another day. This is one of the ways I’m going to try to celebrate Resurrection this Easter season.

Bring People To the Table: A good number of the Resurrection appearances remind us that Jesus likes to show up just in time for a meal. There’s just something about the way that grace is especially present at the table. So cook a meal and invite some friends over. Between dinner and dessert you might find a time to share about the places you and your friends are seeing and experiencing new life.

Try Something New: One of the most significant claims the Resurrection makes is that in Christ God is doing something new. So take a bold step and try something new in response to the truth that God is not done with you. We are launching a couple of new initiatives in our church right now, but it isn’t just for churches. Maybe now is the time to try out a new class at the gym, take an art or photography class, or recommit to writing that book that you know is inside of you. Whatever it is, just know that God is making all things, even you, new again.

Make Room: We all have issues and topics and people who take up too much space in our hearts and our minds. We spend more time and emotional energy than we would like to admit worrying about things we can’t change and situations we can’t control. One way to more fully experience Christ’s Resurrection is to be intentional about limiting the time we give to these concerns. Clearing out space from worry and creating room to celebrate God’s gifts and to give thanks for people and places that help you experience Resurrection can be a great gift this season.  Bonus: Praying the Serenity Prayer can be a great daily practice to help you do this.

Stop Looking For The Living Among the Dead: It is easy for us, just like the women at the tomb, to search for life in places that only lead to death. That’s why Easter matters again and again – because we know too well the disappointment and heartbreak that comes from looking for life where it can’t be found. Take a good look at your life and try to give up something that is leading you away from the life God wants to give you. It might be that this Easter is the time to begin a program of recovery. Or it might be to step back from social media if that isn’t life giving for you. It might be time to take a break from a relationship or friendship that has grown toxic. I’ll bet it won’t take you long to figure out one thing in your life you could do without.

Proclaim Light  in the Dark Places: We all know people who are struggling and having a hard time. Find a way to offer the hope and light of the Easter Gospel. It might be writing a card or making a phone call to someone you’ve meant to call for a long time. Visiting and connecting with friends and family who are homebound or in nursing homes is a great opportunity to celebrate God’s new life. Sometimes a 10-minute visit will do more than you can imagine – and not just for the person you are visiting.

Bless Places That Give New Life: There are organizations and groups all around us that are shining light in the darkness and helping people discover new life and live in hope. Pick one of them and make a donation to help them shine more light for more people.  A few places in Knoxville and around us that my family and I believe in are Emerald Youth Foundation, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Volunteer Ministry Center, and Thistle Farms. But there are so many others. Find a cause near and dear to your heart and make a gift of light.

 

There are plenty more ways to watch for the light this Easter. These are just a few that came to my mind. I’d love to hear how you are celebrating and experiencing Resurrection this Easter.

 

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More Than A Day

I was driving to meet some friends the other morning when a sign at a nearby church almost sent my car into the ditch – “Easter is over, but its rewards are eternal”.

I consider it a sign of Christian maturity that I didn’t immediately stop the car, whip into the parking lot, and offer these brothers and sisters in Christ some serious high-brow liturgical correction. I am in the process of becoming a recovering know-it-all, and you know, those of us in recovery have to claim the little victories.

The truth is that Easter isn’t over, because Easter is so much more than a day.  The church I lead, like most churches, had a great time celebrating Resurrection day – we sang and we baptized and we proclaimed that the Lord is Risen and we went forth living into the new hope of the Easter Gospel.

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As beautiful as Easter Sunday was and is, more beautiful is the truth that it can’t be contained in a single day. The church has long celebrated Easter as a 50-day season of hope and Resurrection-inspired possibility.  For as long as there have been communities of Resurrection faith, there have been the great fifty days between Resurrection Day and Pentecost, fifty days of shouting and living into the truth that Christ is Risen.

We rejoice in a great fifty days – a great fifty days of celebrating, a great fifty days of resting and feasting, a great fifty days of living and hoping in the power of Resurrection, a great fifty days of reminding ourselves that with God all things are possible, a great fifty days of remembering the beauty of light shimmering and shining through the darkness, a great fifty days of rejoicing that death doesn’t get the life-destroying last word but that with Christ new life isn’t a dream but a God-given gift.

Easter is more than a day because one day isn’t enough to contain the promises of the empty tomb.  The Easter Gospel life cycle is much longer than 24 hours – and always has been.

We remember that it took more than a day for Thomas to wrestle with his doubts and questions.  We remember that it took more than a day for Peter to experience the forgiveness he craved to be the leader God had called him and the church needed him to be.  Scripture reminds us again and again that the power of Resurrection unfolds and reveals itself long after Easter Sunday turned to Monday morning.

You and I, too, need Easter to be more than a day because the places in our lives where we need Resurrection take longer than a day to fix. We need more than a one-day blast of Resurrection because brokenness and despair require more than a 24-hour dose. We need more than a day to heal what ails us, we need more than a day to bind up our wounds and we need more than a day to repair the wreckage this lives within us and all around us.

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And so for fifty days we proclaim that Christ is Risen and rejoice that there is a power greater than the powers that threaten to destroy us.

We proclaim that Christ is Risen and rejoice that the power that God has placed in us can break the bonds of addiction, can loosen the despair of anxiety and can free us from the prisons and walls we know by heart.

We proclaim that Christ is risen and rejoice that Resurrection means that there is a power that can break the systems of greed and exploitation and oppression that hold back our neighbors and prevent our friends from becoming all that God made them to be.

We proclaim that Christ is Risen because we all need to know the power of forgiveness and we need to be reminded that redemption is more than an idea but instead is a reality that God is bringing forth every single day.

Easter is more than a day.  It is a revolution that is still unfolding, because the God of the empty tomb isn’t a god of one-offs. Light is still shining and love is still winning.

And for that, we will rejoice and give thanks.

 

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Got To Get You Into My Life: New Life When You Need It Most

Iphone TableThis year’s sermon focus during Lent in our church centered on “The God We Want You to Know”.  The idea being that many of us, particularly those who have had our faith shaped in the Bible Belt, have developed some convictions about God that are both Unbiblical and untrue. These ideas that many of us have somehow come to believe – beliefs like God is vengeful, not forgiving and God is aloof and removed, not involved in our lives – can become destructive forces in our lives, in the lives of our families, and in our relationship with God.  And so throughout this holy season, we explored several of these ideas and tried to present a more faithful picture of the God that we see and experience in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And if we are going to get Easter and Resurrection right, one of the things we have to get into our heads and our hearts and our souls is this – resurrection starts now.  One of those beliefs that a lot of people have picked up over the years is that resurrection is about what happens after you die.  Of course, Christians do believe in the resurrection of the dead and that the Cross-Resurrection event fundamentally changes the dynamic about what happens when you die.

After all, as Paul wrote, “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (I Corinthians 15:16-19).

Resurrection is fundamentally life-changing, it shapes the tough end of life conversations that we have to have and gives us hope in some of the most difficult moments of our lives.

The Gospels, however, bear witness to an even more powerful truth – that resurrection isn’t about delayed gratification. Believers don’t have to wait to experience the transformational power of resurrection. Instead, the disciples experience enlightenment and assurance of God’s presence on the road to Emmaus. Thomas doesn’t have to wait to have his questions about how God works answered. No instead, Jesus allows him to touch the wounds of the one who was crucified for his sake, and ours. In an even more dramatic moment, Peter doesn’t have to wait forever to experience forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration after his Holy Week failures. No, resurrection changes things for the better – right here and right now.

And that’s why it is such a big deal. That’s probably why we see so many visitors on Easter Sunday.  Part of it, of course, is cultural and that the Easter proclamation has become the precursor to the Easter lunch. But there’s something else at work, too. Our guests on Easter Sunday want the same thing to be true that we do, they need the same things to be true that we do – that God isn’t distant, that we aren’t on our own, and that resurrection hope isn’t reserved just for the hospital room or the graveside.

We need to know the truth of the empty tomb – that there is hope beyond what is holding us down.  We need to know the truth that our past doesn’t determine our future.  We need to know that the sin we see all around us isn’t definitive, that somehow there is hope in the midst of violence and fear and hatred and division and destruction within our cities and our nation and our world, and our hearts and our families too.

We need to know, like Peter, that relationships can be restored, no matter how broken they seem and how finished they feel.  We need to know that when our marriages don’t look like the dreams we had for them.  We need to know that when friendships fade away and betrayals and sin distort and destroy the beautiful connection God dreams for us.

43e39040We need to know, like Thomas, that our doubts aren’t fatal and that our questions can be answered by the real presence of Christ.  We need to know that when we feel like we’ve missed out on the good life.  We need to know that when the hopes we had and the ones we believe God had for our life have vanished into what feels like thin air.

We need to know, like the disciples, that God can feed and nourish us and send us on to do great things.  We need to know that just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen.  We need to know that despite the despair and depression that the long loneliness isn’t our story.  We need to know that despite how dark it feels, that God can create beauty and hope in my story, in your story and in all of our stories.

Ultimately we need to know, like generations of people who have looked to the empty tomb for hope, that despite the struggles and the sin and the pain and the hurt that we experience in the ordinary things we know as life – like work and friendships and family and church and vocation – that Jesus is alive. And that that somehow makes a difference.

This past Sunday we sang that truth together in the words of Brian Wren’s beautiful hymn, Christ is Alive.  He writes elsewhere that to sing is to pray twice.  As we sang, we prayed these words: “Christ is alive!  No longer bound to distant years in Palestine But saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”

Because Jesus is alive, God can do a new thing. Because Jesus is alive, God is doing a new thing. Because Jesus is alive and God is doing a new thing, hope isn’t lost.  It isn’t just a hope that comes in the future or is something that is stuck in a far-away land in the history books. No, hope is here, right now, in our real life, in the real stuff of the real existence you and I are trying to hold together right now.

Hope isn’t lost, we just have to go find it. Seek, he once said, and you shall find.

Not someday, but right here and right now.

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