Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
When I was a kid all of us cousins would hunt Easter Eggs at our grandparents’ on Easter day. It was what made Easter Easter. As we got older the hunting got more challenging and our parents got more creative. But the end game was always the same. Candy!
A few weeks ago Kara, my children’s ministry colleague, and I were sorting Easter eggs for the Easter Egg Hunt at the church. A number of people came through and assumed that were in the process of filling the eggs with candy. We, however, were not. The eggs were going to be hidden empty. The reason was practical. The empty eggs would then be traded in for a scoop or two of candy. We get the eggs back, and there is some candy-control.
But when tasked with doing an Easter theme for preschool chapel, my senior pastor and I used an empty Easter egg. In fact, we got a lot of traffic out of that empty Easter egg. We used it in a lot of places. When I used it for the children’s moment for Easter Sunday, I asked the children why did they think the egg was empty? One little four-year-old girl leaned in towards me, and loudly, but proudly, declared with great enthusiasm, “Because Jesus lives!”
It was, to say the least, a proud pastor moment.
These chapel/children’s moments with the empty Easter egg inspired this craft in one of the Peakland Preschool classrooms:
The empty Easter egg reminds us of the empty tomb. Though we don’t wear the empty tomb around our necks or on our lapels like we do the cross, the empty tomb says with all the mightiest of God that victory has been won. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us quite humbly, “It is not we who are victorious, but Jesus.”
This is why we sing old hymns like “Victory in Jesus,” because we acknowledge that Jesus has conquered death and lives! This past Sunday during my sermon, I asked the congregation to pay close attention and every time I would say, “He is Risen!” they would respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” It is an ancient practice of the church to acknowledge that the sting of death has no power over us. The sting of death – the wages of sin – are no longer capable of holding us captive. Jesus’ victory has rendered them powerless. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:
They are powerless; they still rage, like a mean dog on a chain, but they can do nothing against us, for Jesus holds them fast. He remains the victor.
And yet, we find ourselves living as if nothing has happened. We live as if grace is a license to sin. We take Jesus’ victory over death for granted. Instead of acknowledging the power of the empty tomb, we submit to fear and death. Maybe because it is easier. Maybe because the world’s voices are louder than the stillness of the empty tomb. Maybe because . . . . . you know we could do this all day. We could think of a billion reasons why we fail to acknowledge the power of the empty tomb.
But when we come to this table:
we accept the power of the empty tomb; we accept the victory over sin and death. And it is for you and me, whoever we are and whatever we have done. That’s how much God loves us. And so every time we come to this Table and break the bread and drink the wine, we remember the victory that has already been won, and all we have to say is:
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
The two travelers in our text were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the broad daylight of Sunday, yet they were still walking in the shadows of Friday. They were tangled up in disappointment, grief, fear, confusion, and the list could go on. The man they thought would redeem their people had been nailed to a cross. The man they thought would bring them a new way of life was sealed in a borrowed tomb. And now there was a rumor running around that the tomb was empty. All the hopes and all the dreams that they anchored in this man named Jesus, had come crashing down around them. Belief and hope had come to a dead end. They were walking somewhere between the grief and hopelessness of Friday and the joy and hope of the Resurrection.
In the midst of this walking a stranger joined them. We know that the stranger is Jesus only because Luke tells us so in his narrative. We find ourselves shouting to the story like we would to a game show or reality TV show, “Come on! Open your eyes! It’s Jesus!” But, if Luke hadn’t have told us that the stranger was Jesus, would we see Jesus? Would we recognize Jesus?
While their minds were occupied with their bitterness, grief, disappointments, and hopelessness, the unrecognized Christ was walking in the midst of their tangled lives.
This is not the only time we see the risen Christ as a stranger – a mere bystander in the Resurrection narrative. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Christ. She thinks he’s the gardener. Later in John’s gospel, Peter and others are in a boat fishing doing what they know best, and a stranger appears on the beach, asking if they have caught any fish. Here in Luke’s narrative of the two travelers, Jesus is walking with them and they don’t even know it.
Jim Palmer, in his book Divine Nobodies talks about how religion almost destroyed him. After a hard childhood, Palmer went to college and got involved in campus ministry. This led to a calling which took Palmer to seminary and put him on a fast track to a booming ministry. He would become a part of the ministry staff at a large North American church, become front-page news in the local newspapers when he started his first church on his own, and was on his way to becoming one of those Christian gurus you spend lots of money to go listen to.
But Palmer was tangled up. Listen to what he writes:
Like Jesus, I began in humble circumstances, but unlike him, I rode high on the palm branches of people’s praise. I’m sure that was where my addiction to becoming a mega-something (anything) was born.
So Palmer began a journey down a road to his Emmaus. He left the ministry and began working any job he could find. And on this journey of rediscovering his faith, he met various strangers.
This is what Palmer says about the experience:
On this journey God has provided the necessary epiphanies to save me from complete self-destruction and has opened my eyes to deeper realities. With a seminary degree under my belt, you could think those epiphanies would have come when caught up in a deep theological treatise – Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Ethics. But that’s not what happened. . . God opened my eyes . . . through the unlikeliest people – people I, well, just kind of ran into along the way. The cast of characters includes a Waffle House waitress, a tire salesman, a hip-hop artist, and a swim teacher.
Each of these strangers that Palmer encounters becomes a Christ –figure, teaching him something else about his faith and through these various encounters with strangers, Palmer began to slowly be untangled.
This story of the two travelers, on a deeper level, is the transcript of human experience: a history of God’s gracious dealing with the human soul. Jesus doesn’t make a big deal that the two traveling believers didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t make a big deal that Mary thinks he’s a gardener or that Peter and the others think he’s some random guy on the shore. Jesus sees what we sometimes cannot see – that we are tangled up in our fears, our doubts, our anxieties, our disappointments, and our addictions. That’s because Jesus is grace, mercy, and love walking beside us. Jesus is healing through the hurting we cannot understand. Jesus is a risen Savior that could not be killed, a risen Savior that is always with us.
We cannot forget that these two travelers, for the most part, are unknown. Luke reminds us that Jesus did not appear just to the cast of characters in the Gospel narrative that we’ve learned to love. Jesus appears to the unknown believers as well. And I can’t help but wonder if Luke wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of these two travelers. When considering the narrative of the road to Emmaus, James Hastings writes: “Here is the Master of all those obscure lives that are yet precious in the sight of heaven.”
Here in the midst of two obscure, unknown lives, the Risen Christ is in their midst, walking right beside them. Our lives for the most part are obscure lives. We go to school, we go to work, we go to the movies, we go to the park, we go to the grocery store. For the most part, there is nothing extraordinary about our lives. And yet, the Risen Christ is walking in the midst of our tangled lives as well.
“But, go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)
A few weeks ago my friend Jennifer posted on Facebook a quote from her daughter. The three year old had placed two Easter eggs on her feet and declared, “Look, Mommy! I have Easter feet!”
So adorable and innocent. And theological.
Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, in Mark’s Gospel, are commissioned to go and tell the others that the Christ is Risen, Risen Indeed! The command to go and tell is not unlike other times in the Gospels when the followers of Christ are told to go and tell. After Jesus had healed lepers in Luke 7, he tells the followers to go and tell John the Baptist about the things they had seen. Mark and Matthew record Jesus telling the disciples and go and tell (preach) the good news.
Go and tell.
That is what it means to have Easter Feet. To walk or run with our Easter Feet is to go and tell. Mary and the other women were a sent people with a mission.
We, too, are people who are sent. We are sent out beyond the boundaries of our church walls to share the gospel message – a message filled with love, grace, and hope. The church is an important and vital place for the believer. Christians gather together at the church on Sundays and throughout the week for worship, studying the scriptures, prayer, and participation in the sacraments. Then, followers of Christ are sent to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, to love others as Christ has loved them.
We gather with other people of faith to engage in works of piety so that we can be sent to engage in works of mercy.
We are sent out on our Easter Feet.
The mission of the sent is to continue the work of making God and God’s ways known to the world. In this sense, the world needs the Church. It is through the Church that the world responds to Christ in faith and accepts the grace that has been given to the world. All of this is made possible by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
But, there are days when it is not easy to walk on Easter Feet. There are days when it would be so easy to act like all those other people who are rude and just plain mean. We are assaulted by this meanness at work, at school, in our communities and yes, even in our churches.
Recently, a minister in town attended a children’s ministry event at our church. He took issue with the children’s moment that we had, where we shared the Easter story. About 80% of the children were not part of our church, and were 3 and 4-year-olds. The children’s moment presented the story using language that was age appropriate and focused on the meaning of Easter – a risen Jesus!
This visiting pastor, who was present with his children, took to Facebook to share three or four theological points that he considered were left out of this outreach event. He did not come to talk to any of the clergy. He did not write an email. He did not place a phone call. He took to Facebook and shared very publicly that our church was leaving out the truth of the Gospel. Some members who knew him took him to task for his actions. He later edited his Facebook post deleting the rude statement and replacing it with scripture. The meaning, however, was the same.
There are times when people will assault us with meanness and they think they are doing the right thing. They think they are being faithful to their God. They use their Bibles, quoting scripture to put others down.
Friends, this is not what it means to stand on Easter Feet.
We can stand on Easter Feet and be in dialogue with those that we disagree with. We can stand on Easter Feet and walk in grace, showing the grace that Christ extended to us to others. We can stand on Easter Feet and use the word of God to build up instead of tear down.
Jesus did not say, “Go and tell others all the ways in which they are wrong.” Jesus said, “Go and tell that I have risen!”
How are you walking on Easter Feet?
Easter will forever be a deeply personal day for me. Thirteen years ago on Easter Sunday, I was congregated in the choir loft of the small United Methodist Church I grew up in. I had promised my Aunt Polly that though I was starting a new job that week at another church, I would sing Easter Sunday in the choir.
It was in that choir loft that had an encounter with Jesus that gave me new eyes.
For the previous seven months my Dad was fighting prostate cancer. After being misdiagnosed with a pinched nerve, a new doctor found the tumor. It was a large and fast moving tumor. After rounds of chemo and radiation, surgery, and pints and pints of morphine, Dad was getting weaker and weaker.
I’ve shared before how hard it was to watch Dad get to so weak. Everything about this experience went against what was suppose to be.
In fact, on that Easter Sunday, as the choir and the congregation sang the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” I was filled with fear. I was filled with so much fear that I was not able to move, to speak, or to sing. I wasn’t even able to cry I was so overwhelmed with fear.
What had paralyzed me? A “What if?” thought had creeped into my mind. What if Dad dies before we get home? What if we miss saying good-bye? What if . . . . what if . . . . ?
But, then, I was filled with a peace that I had never felt before. I had an encounter with Jesus standing there, wordless, motionless, and tearless. As the church sang about the resurrection, I suddenly felt an assurance that Dad was going to be okay. I no longer feared Dad’s death. I no longer worried about what would happen to him. I no longer had fear or doubt.
It was a peace that passes all understanding. It was a peace that calmed the storm in my heart. It was a peace that assured me that even though I don’t have all the answers, I know Christ and all is well with my soul.
I imagine that this is how Mary must have felt on that first Easter morning. Her heart having been filled with fear and doubt because of the last few days’ events. And then, there in the garden facing fear once again, she is filled with a peace when the Risen Christ calls her name.
It is a peace that gives birth to a hope. A hope that assures us that we have victory over sin in and through Jesus. A hope that assures us that in and through Christ, death has no sting; death is not final; and with resurrection comes new life.
On that Easter Sunday, thirteen years ago, I came home from church slightly anxious, but relieved when I saw Dad still in his hospital bed awake and alert. He was getting weaker by the minute. It was later in the evening, while he was sitting with my PaPa, his father, talking, that Dad claimed the promise of the resurrection.
And I knew – I knew – because of the peace that had settled over me that Easter morning, that Dad had indeed claimed that promise. And I know, without a doubt, that that same promise is there for us to claim as well.