A WEEK OF RESURRECTION SUNDAYS

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. [John 11:25 (NLT)]

rabbitWhen I walked into Bible study last Tuesday, I was greeted with “Happy Easter.” The woman wasn’t late; in fact, she was right on time! Although the candy is gone, the baskets stowed away, and the hard boiled eggs eaten, it is still Easter. On the church calendar, the season of Eastertide (“tide” just being an old-fashioned word for “season” or “time”) lasts fifty days. With seven Sundays, that means we have a week’s worth of Sundays in which to celebrate Easter (and sing the beautiful “alleluias” in Christ the Lord is Risen Today). Eastertide will end on Pentecost (the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church).

The celebration of Easter, Christmas and other Christian holy days or seasons are not mandated in Scripture. Although Acts 7:20 tells us that the early church chose to gather together on the first day of the week (Sunday) for the Lord’s Supper, it was not until 321 AD that Constantine proclaimed Sunday as the official day of worship. In 325 AD, in the hope of unifying the early church, the Council at Nicaea affirmed Scripture’s truths with the Nicene Creed and set Easter’s date as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21.

Remembering that, in the Old Testament, God ordained the regular celebration of events in the history of the Israelites, the early church fathers made a liturgical calendar to help Christians remember the acts of God in the history of their redemption. People didn’t have ready access to Bibles and the regular celebration of these events in the life of Christ and the early church helped them both to understand and remember them. We could say that Jesus laid down the essentials and the church fathers handled the details.

Not sacred, the church calendar didn’t come by divine revelation but was developed by tradition and church law. While liturgical churches such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic still observe the seasons of the church, most other Protestant churches do not. Perhaps as a way of combating the secular commercialization of our religious holidays, however, some non-liturgical churches are beginning to return to the traditional calendar. Last year, a non-denominational mega-church near our northern home announced, “This year we’re going to observe Lent!” as if it were a new idea rather than one centuries old.

While one of my friends went out and purchased half-price candy on Monday, we don’t want to spend the next seven weeks consuming jelly beans or Peeps. Coloring eggs once a year is more than enough mess for me and, while I admit to finding well-hidden Easter eggs several weeks after the grands have departed, I’m not suggesting that we repeat those secular traditions every Sunday until Pentecost on June 9. Instead, for the next several weeks, we could spend as much time pondering the meaning of Jesus’s resurrection as we did pondering the meaning of His birth last December. Easter, after all, was the whole reason for Christmas and, without His resurrection on Easter, we just would have a good man who said some wonderful wise things and was killed for his words.

The promise of our salvation doesn’t disappear when the last chocolate bunny is eaten. The glorious Easter message is everlasting. Christ’s resurrection brings us love, grace, peace, forgiveness, and redemption, not just on Easter, but on every day of our lives. One day is hardly enough time to celebrate a risen Christ; let us be Easter people all year long.

The resurrection gives my life meaning and direction and the opportunity to start over no matter what my circumstances. [Robert Flatt]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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THE BURDEN

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

First published in 1678, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is the second best-selling book of all time (the first being the Bible). In this religious allegory, the reader follows the adventures and trials of Christian (Part I) and his wife Christiana and their children (Part II) as they journey from the City of Destruction toward the Celestial City.

The iconic picture of the pilgrim Christian is that of a man bent over with a heavy pack strapped to his back. From that illustration, many assume that means Christians must carry a heavy burden, which is anything but the truth. Although Bunyan’s allegory opens with the man saddled with that pack on his back, he is free of its enormous weight for most of the story.

At the book’s start, the burdened man is crying while reading the Bible. Realizing that death is followed by judgment, he fears that his heavy load of sin will condemn him to Hell. The troubled man asks, “What must I do to be saved?” When the Evangelist tells him to follow the light to the Narrow Gate, Christian leaves on his pilgrim’s journey. He still carries that pack laden with the weight and shame of his sins; it is a burden that he can’t remove by himself.

Even after Christian enters the Gate, that heavy load remains. Goodwill tells him to be content carrying it until he comes to the Place of Deliverance.  Upon getting there, Christian sees a cross at the top of the hill and a tomb at the bottom. As he approaches the Cross, the straps on his pack loosen from his shoulders. The burden drops to the ground, tumbles down the hill, and disappears into the mouth of the sepulcher. Christian’s burden has been transferred to Jesus who, while on that cross, atoned for all of his sins. When the empty tomb receives his sins, they are gone forever.

It’s no surprise that Charles Spurgeon’s favorite book (after the Bible) was The Pilgrim’s Progress, that this man known as the “Prince of Preachers” read it at least one hundred times, or that Bunyan’s allegory has been used by Christian missionaries for centuries. As with the parables of Jesus, the book’s powerful visual images skillfully illuminate gospel truths. Christian’s burden falling at the cross is what Good Friday was all about. We are rid of the weight of sin and the burden of trying to earn our way into God’s good graces. Released from guilt and condemnation, we are free of sin’s penalty because Jesus paid that price for us. That Christian will eventually reach the Celestial City is what Easter was about!

We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. [Romans 6:6-8 (NLT)]

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. [Matthew 11:28 (NLT)]

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EASTER: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!

monarch butterfliesThe next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. [Matthew 27:62-65 (NLT)]

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia! [Charles Wesley]

Billy Graham told of when an entertainment network was doing a story on highlights of Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered a point of interest, the Billy Graham Library was visited by the show’s co-host, Kristy Villa, and her film crew. Seeing the many crosses displayed throughout the property, Villa asked, “I see all the crosses, but where is Jesus?” Her library guide replied, “He’s in Heaven, and He is also present in the lives of those who believe in Him and follow Him as their personal Lord and Savior.” Villa exclaimed, “Oh, that’s right! Some worship a crucifix, but Christians worship a risen Christ.” The journalist added, “I have been in church my whole life, but I have never heard the emphasis put on an empty cross.” Our emphasis is on the empty tomb, as well!

The bodies of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of Bahá’í faith, and Báb, a central figure in Bahá’í and the founder of Bábisma, are buried in Israel. The grave of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, is in his home town of Qufu in China and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is buried in the Mosque of the Prophet in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. The body of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was cremated and his remains were sent to eight different royal families. The Patna Museum in India displays a casket containing his sacred ashes and a temple in Sri Lanka possesses what is said to be his right tooth. When he failed to resurrect, the body of Cyrus Teed, founder of Koreshanity was buried on Estero Island; two years later a hurricane washed his tomb out to sea. As for Jesus? His grave was empty!

Let us never forget that the story didn’t end with the crucified Christ! The cross couldn’t stop Jesus and the tomb couldn’t contain Him. Pilate’s best efforts to secure the tomb were worthless. A Roman seal, large boulder and a sixteen-man Roman guard were not enough to keep Jesus shut in His tomb! Both cross and grave are empty! With His death and resurrection, Christ triumphed over both sin and death! Alleluia!

Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there. [Anne Lamott]

But the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” [Mark 16:6 (NLT)]

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GOOD FRIDAY: ON THIS HOLY DAY

Simeon…took the child [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, “I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” Jesus’s parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” [Luke 2:28,31-35 (NLT)]

Munster - Bern CathedralAs Mary stood in the shadow of the cross, did she recall Simeon’s words when he held the infant Jesus in his arms? His prophecy came true that day at Calvary; as she watched her son endure such torture, it truly must have felt as if a sword had pierced her very soul. Jesus was supposed to be the glory of His nation but there He was—dying the death of a criminal. Mary didn’t understand why her beloved boy had to perish and she certainly didn’t know that He’d be back in three days. Imagine her sorrow and the emptiness in her heart as she witnessed her son’s agony.

Mary knew she loved her son but I wonder if that day she questioned God’s love for Him. She didn’t know that from the moment Jesus was planted in her womb her boy was headed to Calvary or that His death on the cross was all part of God’s perfect plan. How could she understand that her Son’s death was a deliberate choice: that He was dying for the very people who had placed Him on that cross? How could she know that His death proved the enormity of God’s love for all of humanity?

Like Mary, we don’t know the reason why our loved ones suffer or what will result from their suffering. Unlike Mary, however, we do know the rest of the story. Without the crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. But, because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, there is another life waiting for us in God’s heavenly kingdom. Jesus’s resurrection means that hope overpowered desperation, love claimed victory over hate, forgiveness prevailed over condemnation, joy conquered despair, and life triumphed over death.

Jesus, the Son of God, was ignored, denied, betrayed, falsely accused, demeaned, scorned and scourged, and finally crucified on a cross. He suffered and died like a common criminal and was buried in a borrowed tomb like a vagrant. The sinless One paid the sinners’ debts. He didn’t have to, but he did. Thank you, God, for your loving redemption.

…death was not Jesus’ penalty; it was His destiny. It was not His lot in life; it was His mission. It was not His unavoidable fate; it was His purpose statement for coming to earth that first Christmas: “Born to die.” [Bill Crowder, from“The Path of His Passion”]

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. [Isaiah 53:5-6 (NLT)]

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THE SA MEETING

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:15-16 (RSV)]

Canada geeseReading Paul’s words acknowledging his sinfulness makes me picture a meeting of the Pearly Gates chapter of a 12-step support program called Sinners Anonymous (SA for short). The meeting would be well attended simply because sinfulness is an undisputed characteristic of all mankind and we are all guilty before God.

Paul would get the meeting started by introducing himself and claiming to be the worst sinner of them all: “I’m the sinner once known as Saul. I persecuted Christians and stood by while people stoned Stephen.” The hymn writer might disagree. “I’m the wretched sinner John Newton. Blind and lost, an ‘infidel and libertine,’ I was a slave trader.” Then the disciple would rise and introduce himself: “Hello, my name is Thomas and I’m a sinner. I abandoned the Lord when he was arrested and then doubted his resurrection.” A nameless man from the back of the room might speak: “I was there at His crucifixion but I, too, am a sinner. My life was spent in crime.” Perhaps the gospel writer would speak next: “I’m the sinner Matthew; as a greedy tax-collector, I was both traitor and thief.” The priest would introduce himself: “I’m Augustine: a sinner who once abandoned the faith for paganism, used and abandoned women, and lived a life of debauchery.”  A matronly woman would announce, “I’m Martha and a sinner who often became so busy with life’s mundane details that I failed to put our Lord first.” Peter would jump up and say, “I’m worse! I’m such a sinner that I denied our Lord, not once, but three times!”

If there were a heavenly SA group, however, it wouldn’t be called Sinners Anonymous; it would be Saints Anonymous! The same people would be there and the same sins would have been committed but the introductions would be quite different from the ones I presented. While all those at that SA gathering were sinners, their sins were forgiven and their faith in Jesus would have made them saints. Instead of identifying themselves as sinners and listing their sordid transgressions, the attendees would introduce themselves as the redeemed children of God whose sins had been forgiven and forgotten. As members of the body of Christ, they’d introduce themselves as saints, not sinners!

Like Paul, we’re all sinners but, like Paul, through our faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve been reborn. We may be sinners but we’re also saints. Thank you, God!

There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. [Augustine of Hippo]

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1:11-14 (RSV)]

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