An Easter Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Easter Sunday, 11:00 a.m., April 11, 2004, dedicated to Tom Brownfield who gave me the "good book," Al Waddell as he experiences "renewed life" today, Julia Myers and Samantha, as they share "new birth" & Matt and Miriam as they await together the Easter arrival of daughter and sister, and always to the glory of God!
(Part VIII of VIII in the sermon series, "The Heart of Christianity")
I Corinthians 15; Luke 24:1-12
Today, we come to the end of this eight-part sermon series, "The Heart of Christianity." We began this journey on a cold Ash Wednesday, looking at emerging paradigms in our Christian faith. Through the weeks, I have addressed growing biblical and theological understandings of Faith, The Bible, The Kingdom of God, God, Jesus, Sin and Salvation, and the Passion of the Christ (which was not a movie review). The inspiration and often, the material contained herein, I owe to Marcus Borg and his excellent new book, The Heart of Christianity. I commend the book to everyone present.
Today, I look at Christ's resurrection and the meaning of being born again. Today, my question is: At the heart of Christianity, do we need the resurrection of Christ?
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
"Yes!" At the heart of Christianity, we need the resurrection of Christ! In the 1930's, in this pulpit, The Rev. Dr. Lichliter would begin his Easter sermons, "I do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ." I have often thought those words bold for a preacher of his generation. And he drew a crowd who agreed with him. But, I could not disagree with him more. Before I reflect on the question, "Do we need a resurrection?" I feel a need to say: I do believe in the physical resurrection on Jesus Christ! I believe the broken and dead body of Jesus was knit together by God. I believe after three days in the tomb, our Risen Savior walked out into the bright morning sunshine of Easter and commenced with His Resurrection Project!
Every bone in my body, every nerve, every sinew, every cell, and every atom, in me believes in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. I come to this belief over a lifetime of study, experience, and prayer. In fact, I believe this so strongly, that if I did not believe it to be so, I tell you now - I would leave this pulpit, walk east on Broad Street to Congregation Tiffereth Israel and join their Shul. I would study Torah and worship Yahweh as a devout Jew. With my friends and colleagues Rabbi Berman and Cantor Chomsky, I would find a home. Because, for me, if the resurrection did not happen, none of what you and I believe and do makes any sense. Judaism offers us a beautiful and blessed way to the One God. There you would find me, if I did not believe in the physical (not just the spiritual) resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But, before you who do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, stand up and depart for services elsewhere, let me add a very important caveat. Just as I strongly believe in Christ's physical resurrection, I also strongly believe in the radical Christian principle we proclaim in this church's constitution and every Sunday in our bulletin. Please turn to page 6, line 6 under "Welcome," and read aloud with me, beginning with "The church . . . " ending with "convictions."
"The Church acknowledges that all members have the right of individual interpretation of the principles of the Christian faith and respects them in their honest convictions." (If you are visiting today and find agreement with this principle, welcome, you have found your way home! Our new members class begins tomorrow night!)
You see, in addition to believing strongly that which I believe, I do not believe that you must believe as I believe. In fact, as I come to the end of "The Heart of Christianity" series, I feel more convinced than ever that we in Christianity have wasted our inheritance for too many centuries by insisting that others believe as we do. At the heart of emerging paradigms in Christianity, it is our duty, our purpose, our place and our calling - to nurture, commend, and encourage a diversity of beliefs in this congregation and everywhere we go. We need to be more committed to conversing with others rather than converting them. I have learned this the hard way! I have spent too many hours of my life trying to convert people (on any number of topics) as opposed to conversing with them and learning from them.
Having said this: I do hope and pray, by the end of this day, you believe that we need the resurrection of Christ- whether you perceive it as a spiritual or physical resurrection! We need rebirth! We need Christ Risen - not dead and buried, not forgotten and rotten. We need Christ to burst forth from the womb of his tomb in new and resurrected life! His rising was not a resuscitation. It was a resurrection. He didn't simply pick-up where he left off. He took on the nature of a whole new creation - transformed and transcendent, with power to change this world, yet created as a nature that could not be contained by space and time. Oh yes, we need the resurrection of Christ! Here are three reasons.
First, we need Christ's resurrection because we have forgotten about God. There is a story about a three-year-old girl. She was the firstborn and only child in her family. When her mother was pregnant again, she became excited about the prospects of a new baby. When her brother was born and brought home from the hospital, she requested some private time with him. She insisted that they be alone. With a baby monitor on in his room, mom and dad could hear everything, so they agreed to allow this private visit. As she closed the door, they listened intently as she walked across the room to her brother's crib. Then she spoke: "Hi, baby brother . . . I was wondering, could you tell me about God - I've almost forgotten" (found in Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity, pp. 113-114). This truth is haunting and evocative. Somewhere between birth and growing up, we learn about the world and in so doing we often become separated from God. By early adolescence, many of us are caught up in the three "A's" - Appearance, Achievement and Affluence. For too many of us, our culture hooks us on the three "A's." Are we attractive enough? Are we high enough achievers? And on into adulthood, we wonder if we have enough money, enough things, enough affluence. Am I enough? Am I good enough? We worry and we fret about the three "A's" until we lost have our bearing and we have lost touch with the intimacy, sensitivity, compassion and caring that tied us to our earliest days.
In the words of American poet laureate, Billy Collins in "On Turning Ten," "It seems only yesterday I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me, I would shine. But, now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees, I bleed." (Ibid, p.116). As we grow up, we become separated from our true selves. "We live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out" (Ibid). We fall into a deep exile. We have almost forgotten God.
To remember God, we need Christ's resurrection. We need to live our lives from the inside out. We need to live our lives with God at the center. We need to live in the new heart that Christ has created within us. We need a resurrection to remember who we are and whose we are, to remember that we are children of our living, loving Lord.
Second, we need Christ's resurrection because each one of us needs to be born again. "Being born again is the work of the (God's Holy) Spirit. Whether it happens suddenly or gradually, we can't make it happen, either by a strong desire and determination or by learning and believing the right beliefs" (Ibid, p. 119). Being born again is the spiritual rebirthing work of God. It may happen in a moment in time. It may happen gradually. It may also come about through the daily rhythm of our lives. Martin Luther spoke of "daily dying and rising in Christ." The daily discipline of prayer or meditation creates openness to God. We rise out of our self-preoccupations and the burdens of our days and experience God's bliss - like a daily practice of rising from the tombs. And although we can't make rebirth happen, we can be intentional in seeking and pursuing our relationship with God.
The process of being born again is not unique to Christianity. In Judaism, "the way" is a self-centering in God. Islam means "to surrender" one's life to God by centering in God. Muhammad was reported to have said, "die before you die." Die spiritually before you die physically; die metaphorically before you die literally. The heart of Buddhism is the path of "letting go" - which is the same path as dying to an old way and being born into a new way. For Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Lao Tzu wrote, "If you want to become full, let yourself be empty; if you want to be reborn, let yourself die." (Ibid, p. 119). As you see, the process and path of being born again and resurrected in a new self is universal to religion. To me (and I hope to you) this is reassuring, not disconcerting. Our path is not absolutely unique. Our path is one known to many by many different names. In Christ Jesus, we come to know this path as resurrection, as rebirth, as being born again. We need Christ's resurrection to live fully in the spiritual path of our faith!
Finally, we need Christ's resurrection so that we remember and know that our God has the last word. Our God insists on having the last word (not the second to last word). Martin Copenhaver writes:
The second to last word, which can be very powerful, can be given to something else - despair, estrangement, hurt, evil, even death. Bout our God is the kind of God who insists on having the very last word, and that is always a word of hope, of reconciliation, of healing, of goodness and of life.
When we await God's last word with confidence, the second to last word loses its death grip. (Copenhaver, To Begin at the Beginning, Cleveland, Pilgrim Press, 1994, p. 57).
Our daily news is filled to the brim and overflowing with second-to-last-words. From the front page, to op-ed section, to the obituaries we find second-to-last-words in abundance. They are often and mostly words filled with despair, estrangement, hurt, evil, and even death. But, God's word - if it appears at all in the telling of the news - is usually buried somewhere deep in the papers. The stories of people reconciling themselves to God, of miraculous healing stories, of love unnameable and unknown. These are the last words of God. There's the husband who sits beside his wife's hospital bed day after day reading Shakespeare and Chaucer in the face of her coma. This is God's last word of resurrection. There's the life partner who will not abandon hope when after 30 years together, the love of her life is facing a battle unto death. This is God's last word of resurrection. The child who prays on bended knee each night for his father or mother to come from war. When we await God's last word with confidence and hope, the angels of death lose their grip and are vanquished in their second-to-last efforts to steal our souls.
God's last word in Christ's resurrection reframes reality. By reframing, I mean taking the common and making it holy; taking what others say "is" and changing to become what "might be." In Christ's resurrection, God takes the weapon of the crucifying cross and transforms it into the symbolic passageway to new life.
On the first day of the week, the women of faith who followed Jesus came to the tomb to anoint with spices the dead body of their beloved leader. They found the stone rolled away. They found an empty tomb. Two angels of the Lord appeared to them and asked, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen! Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again" (Luke 24:1-5). And they remembered God. They remembered the words that Jesus had spoken to them. They knew they were being born again. They knew this was God's last word.
Remember these words as well. They are the last words you will hear today - words coming from the very heart of Christ. The Christ said:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may also be . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John 14:1-6a).
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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