Easter Sunday Sermon
Rev. Kit Billings
April 11, 2004
In his book, THERE I GO AGAIN, Steven Moseley tells about Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballet superstar of the early 1900s. Ms. Pavlova has been acclaimed as the greatest ballerina of all time. Her most memorable performance, however, took place after her death. Anna was to play the role she made famous, the Dying Swan, at the Apollo Theatre in London. Tragically, she succumbed to pneumonia and died two days before the event. Still, on the appointed night, a crowd of her fans packed the Apollo Theatre.
The orchestra began playing, the curtain rose, a spotlight flashed through the dark, and the entire audience rose to its feet. They all stood gazing at a pool of light wandering around the stage, accompanied by the orchestral theme. As the light danced and the orchestra played, they remembered Anna Pavlova. In their hearts they could see her on stage, dressed in white with flashing dark eyes. And when the music stopped at last, they gave the vanished Anna a thunderous ovation that echoed on and on into the night. An empty stage with only a spotlight, but in their hearts she was alive!
For some, this is their experience of Easter. Although we may not see Jesus Christ walking and talking and blessing the world with our natural or physical eyes, we see and feel Him with our spiritual eyes…we sense His power and His glory permeating the very fabric of life.
The story I just shared with you about Anna Pavlova is, in a sense, a vignette about life in general, would you agree? Some unseen Force has placed us here for a time on planet Earth, and we each hold enormous potential within us. Many of us achieve greatness in some unique way, even if it's as simple as learning how to write a terrific term paper or clean one's kitchen so that it truly starts to shine! At certain times along the way crisis, pain or even tragedy strike us, and then we are left with a profound choice: to open my eyes to the truth of Jesus my Lord standing with me through my days, bringing the greatest gift I could ever hope or pray for, none other than God's infinite Love and connection, based faithfully within the Resurrection, which opens my mind and heart to the power of Christian positivity (which the truth of Easter literally creates)? Or instead, turn my gaze downward, away from the One who gave His life for me, who rose from the grave, lifting my life sunward?
How are things going in your world, in your spiritual life, these days? What are the possible heartaches, crises, or painful inner struggles you've faced in recent days, the ones which may have your spirit wondering…confused…saddened in a deep and troubled way?
If you've encountered such troubled times, which may be associated in part with the unfortunate and deeply troubling things going on in Iraq these days, then in a real sense you are in really good company. For indeed, the beginning of Easter Sunday starts out in the darkness created by the natural events of Good Friday, as Jesus' disciples watched their more natural vision of the Lord (their Master) and His mission crumble terribly around them.
The Gospels paint a very gloomy beginning to Easter Sunday when viewed in the perspective of the eleven male disciples and those faithful women disciples who loved the Lord perhaps more than any. Indeed, the Gospel picture painted before us shows a heartbroken, sad, forlorn Mary Magdalene on her way to Jesus' tomb while it was still dark, before Easter sunrise was breaking into glory and chasing the darkness away. The intensity of this drama rises clearly to achieve a “ten!” For although Jesus had been telling His followers that after three days He would rise again, His human followers still held fast to a natural and worldly vision of who Jesus was and what His presence on earth meant. Mary and the eleven, until Easter Sunday morning, were fixated upon a very physical presence of Jesus on earth, which is why we see Mary reaching out in earnest to hold the risen Jesus by the feet.
The vision of life Christ brings is a beautiful one really, although one very open to the realness of deep growth struggles, tinged by painful temptations. Jesus' vision is one of successful spiritual transformation, represented marvelously in Himself rising from His grave. Easter reminds us each year that if we choose to live and grow in God's love and wisdom, then a finite-degree of spiritual victory will be ours one day, as we individually rise to future angelhood, shedding our engrossment in lower attitudes and perspectives. The Lord's earliest followers, however, were not centered in the Lord as a Divine and omnipresent Being before Easter—this truth had missed their understanding. He tried to teach them that He was “God with us,” and that we are truly spiritual beings living a worldly life for now, imbued with an inheritance of Kingdom of God within us. He tried to teach them (and now us through His holy Word) that in death there is newness of life, the joy of spiritual resurrection. Yet they truly missed it, just as we too can seriously MISS IT! That boat of living spiritual truth never landed at the shores of their minds. And the eleven living disciples are found hold up in a secret room, terrified to even show their faces, afraid that they too may meet the doom and gloom their Master did dying in agony upon a Roman cross.
In a little while Mary Magdalene would be weeping, grieved that her dead Master's body had been stolen, and she had no idea where His body could be found. Yet little did Mary and her companion, nor the eleven men headed by Peter hold up in fear and disbelief, realize but already Jesus was awake again, now fully glorified and Divine, ready to begin to unleash the greatest news and power of Divinely spiritual Love ever known in history. The truth that turned Mary and Peter and John (and many others too) into believers!, people on fire with the central meaning of Easter—that Jesus Christ rose triumphantly over the powers of death and evil, which made God-in-Christ to be steadfastly with us, every day and every night. The Lord wanted to appear before His followers to help them learn that He is here, always, perhaps knocking patiently upon the doorway of your mind, hoping you will open up and sup with Him.
And it is the same with you and I, isn't it? We often go through similar experiences as Mary and Peter and John. We get caught up in pulling down a higher vision of life, just as they did. And then one day our unrealistic, worldly-centered vision and hopes in life get torn away too, don't they? And then, when we are lost and lonely, reeling perhaps from yet another tough chapter in the journey of life on earth, perhaps in a period of falling prey to the promptings and magnetism of the natural degree of our humanity, how closely the words of Isaiah 54:11 resonate within us, which reads: “O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted….” Or as King David once expressed it: “…trouble is near and there is no one to help. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.” (Ps. 22:11,14)
It is ever so true that we humans lean so easily toward a vision of life, a perspective of living and concern, that is centered in lower issues—putting worldly interests and needs above spiritual ones. It's as if God has given us the wonderful power to use our eyesight to look far out into the glory of life's horizon, but instead we often choose to look below this gorgeous and golden horizon, focusing rather on my own two feet…each moving in a direction which is overly concerned with my fears, my anxiety and doubt. No wonder “doubting Thomas” was mentioned so poignantly in the verses just after those we read this morning in John's Gospel, reminding us of a real dampening inclination we each will likely be dealing with, as we journey onward through life. It's not that physical well-being, worldly goals and material possessions are inherently bad…the big problem comes when our love and desire for them take over our love and devotion to God, when my philosophy for success takes over the wisdom and truth of the Ten Commandments.
It cannot be found in the scriptures, but one story has it that upon His resurrection, the Lord appeared to a certain fisherman. “I am Jesus - My death has redeemed all of humanity, and I am returned to show my Divine Love and power.” “No, you're not Jesus, so bug off, you're scaring all the fish,” answered the old fisherman. “I see thou art full of doubt. What would thee have me do to show who I am?” “Walk across the river,” he tells Jesus. So Jesus starts walking across the river. Next thing, the Lord sinks and disappears under the water. After He swims back to shore, the old man says to Him, “There you are, see, you're not Jesus, you can't walk across water.” And Christ responds, “Well, I used to be able to do it until I got these darned holes in my feet!”
While this fictional story reads more like a cartoon rather than history, it illustrates a useful point I feel. How easy it can be to disbelieve in the real, shining Spirit and power of the Lord risen and glorified. How easy it is that we let the blinders of our natural-mindedness create some reason for believing Jesus would sink, rather than walk as usual over the world's water.
We must be on guard for the pull of our lower-nature, which enjoys closing our ears to the inner meaning of the Bible, which Jesus clearly wanted His followers to perceive…which we see vividly shown in His statements about the many books of Scripture teaching about and telling of Him. How easy it is to not hear the empowering truth, given by Jesus in the Gospels, that the entire Bible speaks of the spiritual footprints of the Savior, of the One who lived within His own heart, will and mind every “up and down,” every triumph and victory in growth expressed in nearly every book of the Bible. As Christ said Himself, the books of Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets speak of Him, which our teachings help us to learn also means that every passage in them reveal the mind and spiritual journey of Jesus Christ. They reveal the Lord's growth in glorification as we read these books symbolically. They express Christ's willingness to go through the lowest hell to maintain His connection with every one of you, overcoming the demoralizing, hopeless states of being fostered by the evil spirits of hell. The Word reveals too God's zeal against injustice, and the Lord's own compassion upon the poor and downtrodden. Oh how easy it was for His disciples to ignore the prophetic words of the prophets, which told of the necessary suffering and death that Jesus the Messiah had to endure, in order that He attain full Divinity, transforming even His very natural body into Divine Life and power.
There is a higher, more noble spiritual nature within us as well, and it can wonderfully hear and rejoice in the truth of Easter. Christ sparked that deeper level of Mary's spirituality, which felt the truth that Christ's Divine power brings growth and renewal out of loss, pain and despair—she GOT IT that God's Love and Wisdom rules the universe. Jesus Christ is King of heaven and earth, and His core mission that first Easter morning was to show those who misunderstood who He truly was, that being fully glorified He had become more powerful and alive than ever in His ministry with the twelve before His crucifixion.
We all have, you see, an inclination to replace Christ's positive, infinitely hopeful vision of life with one that is vulnerable to temptation, centered in a demand for this or for that natural or physical thing, as opposed to God's vision of life focused intently upon Him and the deep, unwavering reality that the Lord and His Kingdom are supremely real, ever-present… HERE! For true the Lord's vision of life, which has His Divine and all-powerful Love, His Spirit you might say as the very core and engine that runs at the heart of everything in our universe, is what Christ our Lord came to bear witness to…to bear witness to the truth. The truth which cannot be beaten to death by whips, nor killed horribly upon a cross. And more than the might of the United States Army, more than the pleasure the U.S. dollar does bring, we are born to enjoy FAITH…A PROFOUND FEELING OF TRUST…in the Lord God Himself, and the glorious and wonderful Love that makes up His very Being. For this incredible and beautiful Energy of compassion and wisdom, which is so very active and “on the go” in the world (also known as the Holy Spirit), is who and what God really is. We hear this great truth pulsing through the heart of the Bible, such as in the key passages in Isaiah's prophetic words we read this morning together: God says, “`So now I swear never to be angry with you and never to rebuke you again. For the mountains may go away and the hills may totter, but My steadfast love will never leave you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed,' says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”
Indeed, those who choose to open their eyes, as Mary, Peter and John did, to the warm, infinitely loving Presence of God in His Divine-Humanity, brought into the world through the glorified Christ our Lord, open themselves to the positive bent of life Christ creates. The Lord has a positive vision and bent to life—depicted in part by the peaceful presence of angels glowing in white light, seated near the deathbed of the Lord. Yet it is a given that we must go through so many varieties of spiritual struggle, testing and trial, symbolically shown in the whole drama of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in order that we can be made strong, as a bar of steel is made strong within the hot, fiery furnace on its way to becoming tempered and ready for action.
May your own deeply important, and yet at times excruciatingly difficult, spiritual and emotional trials and temptations continue to bring you to the doorway of seeing and feeling the risen Lord as well. May your mourning and tears bring you toward deep, spiritual joy in hearing the Lord calling your name too. May you welcome God in Christ through the locked doorways of doubt and fear within you, allowing Jesus to show you personally that He is alive and by your side.
And may Easter joy and peace live and thrive even more in our world as we celebrate the glory of Easter morning, as our world longs for growth and healing…in Jesus Christ our Lord…amen.