Sermons and Special Services
Our second lesson is Matthew’s account of the extraordinary experience of Jesus’ resurrection. Reading now from God’s holy word.
Let us prayer. Gracious God, we come before you with anxiety about the state of our souls, about the character of the maker we will meet someday and about the state of the world. Calm our anxiety and give us confidence in a future full of your love. In Christ, we pray. Amen.
Easter is a celebration of God’s love. A triumph of love over death. John writes that God is love. That love is from God. That Christ, who is close to the Father’s heart, makes God known.
Easter is our discovery that love doesn’t end with death. The ancient assumption was that the experience of love we feel in life would end with death. Easter shows otherwise.
Jesus lived a life of love. Welcoming children. Healing the sick. Yet he was unjustly put to death. For those who followed him, during his three days in a tomb, evil seemed to have won. Then on Easter, the tomb was empty. Jesus rose from the grave, appeared and continued to love those around him. Death could not stop God’s love.
When I worry about my hope for eternity, let me tell you what resurrects my belief that love is stronger than death. John’s Gospel tells us there were three people present around the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, Peter and an unnamed disciple. Their experience shows that God’s love can lead to belief, overcome sin and change our lives.
Nowhere in Scripture is the resurrection itself directly described. What we do have is the testimony of people around it and to whom Jesus appeared afterwards. The resurrection happened without video footage. God did it, but we have to internalize it. We must decide to believe it.
History suggests to me and others that the resurrection happened. As a recent CNN special indicates, there is a historical consensus that Jesus lived and died. People at the time saw the risen Lord and staked their lives on it. If the resurrection were made up they would not have chosen these witnesses. Homicide detective Warner Wallace, who had investigated many crimes in California and won awards for his work, began investigating the gospels as eyewitness accounts to Jesus. Wallace was an atheist and skeptic, but the more he studied the resurrection the more he concluded it was true. Wallace used the same rigorous methods on Jesus’ resurrection that he did on homicide cases. He concluded that based on the historical record, the resurrection of Jesus is a fact of history. He became a follower of Christ and regular church attender as a result.
At Easter, God gives us a glimpse of God’s attitude and the character of God’s transformative love in the world.
The presence of love in our world, in all its forms, despite our ills, love which scripture tells us is from God, helps me believe there is something after death.
People from Dorothy Day to Billy Graham have described the birth of babies as proof not only that God exists, but that a loving God exists. On Good Friday this year, we had a two-week-old join us for our afternoon service. What a reminder of new life in the midst of death.
Many have looked at the makeup of the universe to say science shows there must be a higher being. They ask, “Why would God create us for such a relatively short time on earth, unless that God had plans for us to be with God someday?” I don’t believe God would go to the trouble of creating us or allowing us to continue without being a loving God. Everything we know about Jesus, who talked frequently about the coming kingdom of God, tells us God wants us to continue our relationship with God’s love.
Think of our lesson. Who was the first disciple to believe the resurrection? It was the unnamed disciple, who is identified only as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Love is a key to belief.
Read the scriptures on your own. Explore the heart of God for yourself. Open your soul to God’s spirit. Think of the presence of love in our world. In our focusing on God’s love, we find belief and faith.
We might say, ok, maybe the resurrection could have happened, but God couldn’t possibly love someone like me. With all I’ve done? Resurrection couldn’t be for me, could it?
That was Mary Magdalene’s challenge too. Many theologians, like William Barclay, write that Mary Magdalene may have made some significant mistakes in life. Jesus could have condemned her. Instead he forgave her. He gave her a second chance. Jesus allowed Mary to be the first person at the empty tomb.
A 1000 years ago, a theologian named Anselm wrote a famous essay, “Why God Became a Man,” in which he argued that we humans disobey God and God’s justice requires that sin be punished. Yet in God’s grace, Jesus, God’s own son, substitutes for our punishment. Jesus paid the price on the cross. He got what we deserved.
Tim Keller puts it this way, “the Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, and yet I am so loved that he was glad to die for me.” Jesus not only died but was resurrected because God loves us. There is nothing we can do that is beyond the gracious love of God in Jesus Christ.
Ok, we might say, maybe the resurrection could have happened and maybe God is forgiving, but this can’t possibly matter now. The resurrection happened so long ago. It can’t impact my life? Love in our world may be more important now than ever.
This was Peter’s story. Peter, you may recall, had denied Jesus three times when things got tough. Peter hung his head in shame. He thought he was responsible for Jesus’ death. The resurrection gave him a second chance too. When Peter heard the news, he ran to the empty tomb. His believing that Jesus was alive changed his heart. It changed his life. Peter went from being a denier of Christ to being the leader who built the church.
God’s love can impact how we think about our lives and the state of the world. Our focusing on the resurrection can change our life and in doing so change the world. We all believing in love more than death has never been more important.
Leanne Van Dyk writes that while Anselm’s ideas shape classic Christian theology, the ideas of his contemporary named Peter, Peter Abelard, matter too. Abelard argued that Jesus’ death and resurrection are less about substitutionary justice than about love.
Abelard was a French priest at Notre Dame. He had a love affair. She became pregnant. He was captured and tortured. They were relegated, he to a monastery, she to a convent, where they wrote each other letters for the rest of their lives.
Love changed Abelard’s view of the resurrection. The resurrection changed his view of love. He concluded the problem in Jesus death, and indeed our harsh world, was not too much sin, but too little love. Abelard wrote that Jesus came to show God’s love and thus to awaken our love. He wrote, Jesus “bound us to himself in love, with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by a gift of grace.” The power of Christ is to change the human heart.[i] Max Lucado defined grace as God as a heart surgeon, cracking open our chest, removing our heart - poisoned with pain - and replacing it with God’s own. Such love is our hope for our world.
52 years ago yesterday Hal David and Burt Bacharach released a song called “What the World Needs Now.” Maybe you know it. It’s been recorded by many artists and been in several movies. Hal David shared that he composed during his daily drive into Manhattan[ii] He remained stuck on this song though. Then one day he had an insight, “Everything I thought about had nothing to do with the person I was talking to as I composed– God.” David started writing about the things “God gives us.” The words came to him and the rest is history. The most memorable lines of the song, about what God most desires to give us, are, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the one thing that there’s just too little of.” Abelard would have agreed.
The song emerged from a challenging time. Vietnam. Protests. In 1968, after Bobby Kennedy was shot, radio stations began playing the song over and over. They needed love.
We need it now too. Someone asked me recently, “Is love dead?” Rising global nationalism and domestic polarization. School shootings. The same Congress concerned about weapons of mass destruction on the Korean peninsula launching a nuclear option here. Terrorism in Sweden. Children gassed in Syria. Military tensions with Russia at new highs. Egyptian worshipers bombed in church on Palm Sunday. This very weekend, very serious concerns about potential conflict with North Korea. What the world needs now is hearts transformed by love. The fate of our world may rest on our all believing that love is stronger than death.
The Apostle Paul famously wrote that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not parish but have eternal life.”
Easter reminds us that God’s love for the world is not dead. It’s connected to God’s promise that death is not the end. I was sitting with a member of our congregation in the hospital last year. It was a challenging time. As we sat, we prayed Romans 8: 38-39, where Paul, who had faced death, concludes, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
As I have had the privilege of being with people at the end of life, as they talk about people they loved and miss and look forward to seeing, my belief in the resurrection has increased. For even when the body fades, love remains. As we grieve for someone, our love for them continues. Nothing, not even death, separates us from God’s love. That is why Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 13, that love never ends.
This is the 30th anniversary of the Film, The Princess Bride. Maybe you’ve seen it. I love that film. In it, Princess Buttercup thinks her love Wesley has died and so she becomes engaged to be married to someone she doesn’t love. Wesley reappears and after Wesley and Buttercup roll down a bumpy hill, their identities are revealed, and Buttercup exclaims, “Wesley, you're alive! Wesley says, “I told you I would always come for you. Why didn’t you wait for me?” Then Buttercup very reasonably answers, “Well, you were dead.” To which Wesley responds, “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”
In September 2006, Michael Stepien was walking home from his job as chef at a restaurant near Pittsburgh. Cutting through an alley he was robbed at gunpoint, and shot in the head. His daughter Jeni rushed to find him in the hospital. As her father lay dying, Jeni and her family faced the inevitable and decided to donate Michael’s organs to the Center for Organ Recovery.
At the same time a man named Arthur Thomas, a father of four, who happened to have been my own sister’s high school guidance counselor, lay dying from congestive heart failure in a New Jersey hospital. Word arrived that his doctors had found a heart from the Center for Organ Recovery. It was Michael Stepien’s. Michael’s heart was rushed to New Jersey. It was placed in Arthur’s body and it and Arthur’s body took. The transplant was successful.
Out of the hospital, Arthur Thomas wrote a thank you note to the Stepien family. A relationship grew into emails and phone calls over the next decade.
Last year, Jeni Stepien became engaged to be married. How she wished her father was still alive, still here to walk her down the aisle. How she wished his love could be present at her most special day. He was dead though.
But then, does love really end with death? Maybe it only delays it for a while. Jeni Stepien called Arthur Thomas, who she had never met, but the man whose life was saved by her own father’s heart, and asked him to come to Pittsburgh.
Last August, Arthur Thomas walked Jeni Stepien down the aisle at her wedding.
I have officiated dozens of weddings, and one of the most frequently asked questions at rehearsals is with which arm the ushers should use to walk attendees to their seats. I always say it’s derivative of whichever side of her father the bride is walking on. Then they ask me which side of her father the bride should walk. I say that all things being equal, the bride usually walks on the left side of her father, the side closest to her father’s heart.
At the end of the procession, often there is a moment where a bride will turn and hug her father or parents before joining her fiancé.
Jeni Stepien’s wedding took place three blocks from where her father had been killed. Yet on her wedding day, his love was there.
At the end of her procession, before joining her fiancé, Jeni Stepien turned, hugged her escort and then reached up and touched Arthur Thomas’ chest, to feel the beat of her own father’s heart.
Friends, we are saved by our own heavenly father’s heart. The triumph of Easter is that death cannot stop love. Whether its three blocks or three days in a tomb, eventually love prevails.
Like the unnamed disciple, we can believe. Like Mary, we are forgiven. Like Peter, the resurrection can change our lives too.
For Jesus rose on Easter to shower us with grace. To save our eternal souls. To give us our lives new meaning. To transplant joy into our hearts. To bring hope to our world. To resurrect love for you and for me.
Let us pray. Loving God, help us believe. Give us a second chance. Change our lives, with Easter love. In Christ, we pray. Amen.