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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THE ROAD TO HELL

PythonI don’t want Satan to outwit us. After all, we are not ignorant about Satan’s scheming. [2 Corinthians 2:11 (GW)]

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, is a series of letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, a demon-in-training. Screwtape, acting as Wormwood’s mentor, advises the novice tempter on ways to acquire the soul of a nameless young man known as “the patient.” Wormwood, like many young people, is both enthusiastic and impatient. He hopes to win the man’s soul quickly by having him sin on a grand scale with an act of deplorable wickedness. Screwtape, however, points out that the patient succumbing to the many little temptations of life are what will eventually corrupt him. The experienced demon points out that evil on a petty scale will seep into the man’s relationships, prayer life, and view of the church and that, says Screwtape, is the way to capture a soul.

Lewis’ book reminds us to keep alert regarding Satan’s plots. It’s easy to be confident about not becoming terrorists, murderers, blackmailers, bank robbers or kidnappers because we’d see those satanic schemes a mile away. It’s the little things like pique, exhaustion, fear, disillusionment, annoyance, disappointment, over-confidence, or boredom that can give Satan a foothold in our lives and blind us to his presence. Once he’s gotten in the door, he provides us with temptations to gossip, bicker, ridicule, lie, cheat or covet and nudges us with discontent, restlessness, and a dash of envy so we want bigger, better and more than our neighbor. He encourages unforgiveness, self-importance, jealousy, and intolerance and then tells us we’re not being boastful, selfish, petty, hypocritical, greedy, self-righteous or vain. He tells us what we want to hear—that the end justifies the means, the crowd can’t be wrong, or that no one will know! He subtly encourages us to put other activities before prayer or Bible study and to put other relationships before our relationship with God.

Make no mistake about it—Satan and his forces are out and about and we must never forget it. He knows our weaknesses, doesn’t play fair, and won’t announce his presence or tell us his plans. Whether the enemy crushes us with one blow from a wrecking ball, a few swings of a sledge hammer or patiently chips away at us with a chisel makes no difference to him; he just wants to defeat us.

You will say these are very small sins … The only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. [Screwtape to Wormwood, from “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis]

So place yourselves under God’s authority. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come close to God, and he will come close to you. Clean up your lives, you sinners, and clear your minds, you doubters. [James 4:7-8 (GW)]

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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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DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

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)]

For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]

grey catbirdWe recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.

Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.

Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”

While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.

While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. [Matthew 5:38-42 (NLT)]

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