April 24, 2022

“Great Celebration!  So What’s Next?”

by Rev. James Rausch

Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed!)

With these exultant words the church greeted Easter Sunday morning together, and can do so from now on whenever Christians meet.  We may now have peace and joy in our hearts even in the struggles of life, even when we face death itself, because of our confidence in the resurrection of Jesus.  He has demonstrated for us that death does not get the last word.

It’s good to know who gets the final word.  In our house, when Chris and I have a disagreement, sometimes it gets to a point where I have to firmly assert my point and establish just who gets to have the final word.  So, on those occasions, I put my foot down and with determination I say, “That’s semi-final!”  Yes, it’s good to know who gets the final word.

The power of death put its foot down on Good Friday when Jesus died on the cross.  But what death thought was final, was only semi-final.  God had the last word, and the last laugh in the end.

Speaking of laughs, how many of you have ever heard of Holy Humor Sunday?  It is the rebirth of an old tradition, celebrated by many congregations on the Sunday after Easter.  I’ll propose it to worship committee for next year and see if we’d like to give it a try.  Chris and I have had great fun with it in the congregations we served in Kansas and Michigan.

Centuries ago, a tradition took shape in the church which extended the celebration of Easter.  Lent grew into a somber and reflective 40-day period before Easter, and the church rightly wanted to lengthen the festive spirit of Easter.  So, they observed “Bright Week,” 7 days of singing and smiling and celebrations that came to include joking, silliness, and lots of laughter.

In that tradition, many churches today observe Holy Humor Sunday.  People are encouraged to dress in silly outfits, and the whole service is playful, yet still reverent and theologically appropriate.  A Christmas Carol might be sung, liturgies may include punchlines, and the Bible message and sermon focus on the joyful news that God has pulled the ultimate practical joke on the devil:  The tomb was empty, and Jesus was raised from the dead! 

That’s the message of the gospel, which we celebrated on Easter.  Now comes the time after Easter:  when our challenge is living out the message we have heard and believed.  It is easy enough for people to show up on the great day of celebration and feel the fire of the love of Jesus, but it’s harder to walk moment by moment in a life of grace, worship and compassion.  We need a lot of faith, patience, grace, and even humor to live as Easter people all the time.

The disciples, who deserted Jesus at his crucifixion, finally came to know that he was risen from the dead, and surely in that, felt the fire of the love of Jesus in celebration.  But they too would have to move on from that time of celebration into a life in which grace, worship and compassion would be at times very hard.  Yet somehow these deserters who had recently proven they were too afraid to be obedient and loyal to Jesus, when it meant they may be arrested, beaten or killed, somehow underwent a great transformation.

In the book of Acts, the disciples were doing such wonders in Jesus’ name that the whole city was taking notice.  And they in fact were arrested.  But now they were no longer afraid of what the human authorities and jailers could do to them.  So great was their faith and the power that accompanied it that the jail could not hold them.  It says an angel released them in the night.  The old disciples would have run into hiding upon their release.  But the transformed disciples went right back to the temple court and took up where they left off.  And the people were responding in remarkable ways.

So much so, that the authorities could not arrest them for fear of a riot.  So, they brought them away from the crowds before the religious leaders who had campaigned so hard to have Jesus put to death.  Here’s what happened.

(Read Acts 5:27-32)

Doesn’t sound like the same Peter who was so afraid to be associated with Jesus that he denied knowing him three times!  Something amazing had happened, and now Peter was as firm as a rock in his commitment to obey.  Because of this, he and the others were beaten – yet they went away rejoicing and primed to keep on doing as God told them to do.  That must have been one heck of an Easter celebration if it changed them that dramatically.    Boy, wouldn’t we all like some of whatever it was that got into them?

Peter was very clear about their direction.  “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  That’s a statement we can all affirm.  But can we live by it?  What makes it so hard for us is our difficulty in differentiating God’s voice from others so we can know which voice to obey.  How do you hear God’s voice and know it?

A clue in our text appears to be that God’s voice is the one that frees us from prisons.  Not the prisons that include bars and guards, but the prisons of fear, bitterness, emotional paralysis, self-doubt, hopelessness, despair, and purposelessness.  Strange how the voice that frees us from those prisons also consistently disarms the kinds of prisons with bars and human guards from their power to demoralize.  Peter was no longer afraid of being arrested.  Paul saw his times of being thrown in jail for being a Christian as an opportunity to witness.

Even execution loses its power to command obedience when one discerns that the word of death is only semi-final. 

Many Christians today are imprisoned by fear in many ways.  Many have even come to find those prison walls to be safe and comfortable.  And death isn’t even the greatest fear that locks people away.  For many, it’s speaking in front other people.  I’ve read that the fear of public speaking is consistently the number one fear people have.  Death is further down the list, usually third or fourth.  Where will we find our courage to voice our love and trust in Jesus?

I can’t remember if I have ever told you about a wonderful man in the church in Kansas where I served.  He was a navy veteran from WWII, named Kendall Ashford.  He was a gruff-sounding teddy bear who was deeply loved.  A Vietnam vet in the congregation took Kendall and a few of us to see the 2006 movie “Flags of Our Fathers,” which told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Now, Kendall had a booming voice and was incapable of speaking in a whisper, and it turned out he couldn’t help but speak about things on the screen that brought back his memories of participating in that bloody nightmare.  Kendall was a boat pilot who drove troops to the shore from the transport ships.  And no one in the movie theater minded his narration at all.  Time and time again he piloted his boat into machine-gun fire onto the beach, only to have to turn around and do it again and again.  I don’t know if I could ever muster up such courage.  Kendall, God rest his soul, was one of my heroes.

That’s why I was absolutely stunned when, one day after worship, he came up to me and said, “You know, I could never do what you do.  Getting up in front of people terrifies me.  I would just freeze.”  Here’s a man who drove a boat into a hail of bullets repeatedly telling me he couldn’t find the courage to speak in public.

Well, as Christians, it’s our duty to find our voices of witness somehow.  Maybe it’s not preaching sermons.  But it’s clear that we need to embrace belief and obedience in ways that transform us into disciples who Jesus can work through to reach others.  Your unique witness matters to someone, and probably many “someones.”  Too many Presbyterians suffer from the feline-induced condition called “The cat’s got your tongue.” 

Have you ever heard what you get when you cross a Jehovah’s witness with Presbyterian?  You get someone who knocks on your door and then has no idea what to say.  What comes next after the Easter celebration?  It’s our continuing transformation through obedience, love, and fellowship.  And our transformation changes us from fearful hiders into active witnesses and people of mission.

Transformation away from fear makes for some very inspirational stories.  In the early church, in the year 155 A.D., the pagans who worshipped the Roman Gods considered Christians to be atheists.  And they began persecuting these “atheists” aa a pagan festival.  Having killed a man named Germanicus, the crowd began shouting, “Fetch Polycarp,” the long-time, beloved Bishop of Smyrna.  He was found at his farm nearby, neither provoking nor fleeing martyrdom, but calmly waiting. He invited his captors to eat a meal, while he prayed alone for an hour. At his interrogation, threats and promises did not shake his constancy.  When ordered to execrate Christ, he answered: “For 86 years I have been his servant and he has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me? I am a Christian.”

When the crowd at the games in the amphitheater were told that Polycarp had confessed that he was a Christian, they shouted first for the lions and then for him to be burnt at the stake. He was bound; an official killed him with the sword; his body was then burnt.  I stand in awe of Polycarp’s courage, and his final words have strengthened and inspired the faith of many Christians down through the centuries.

Polycarp, like the disciples before him, when told to do as the people in power commanded, had to obey God rather than any human authority. 

Again, in our recent history, we have the profound voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who on one occasion said:  “If any earthly institution or custom conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to oppose it.  I don’t think any society can call an individual irresponsible who breaks a law and willingly accepts the penalty, if conscience tells him or her that that law is unjust.”  I think that this is a long tradition in our society; it is a long tradition in Biblical history.

Now, on another thought, would I be correct in stating that we have little trouble seeing that disobedience has the power to transform a person completely?  It’s not hard to get people to point out all kinds of examples of that. Little lies, sins, and crimes are often gateways to weightier misdeeds.  Hearts can harden and patterns can become entrenched.  Disobedience has proven to be a slippery slope for lots of people, ourselves and many who we know and love.  Just look at Larry.  (Boy, that felt good.  I gave up picking on Larry for Lent and then gave him a free pass on Easter.)

But if we can so readily believe that disobedience can change a person, why would it be so difficult to see that obedience, too, has the power to transform a person completely.  The disciples were transformed by believing the risen Christ, and they became obedient to their commission, given by Jesus, to go and make disciples of all the world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Each instance of obedience aided in their transformation into those who overcame fear and preached boldly. Small steps of obedience transform us as well.

Over a hundred years ago, Oswald Chambers said, “Never try to explain God until you have obeyed God.  For the only bit of God we understand is the bit we have obeyed.”

Louis Cassels, United Press International’s Religion columnist for 32 years until his death, put it this way:  “Obey … take up your cross … deny yourself … it all sounds very hard. It is hard. Anyone who tells you differently is peddling spiritual soothing syrup, not real Christianity. And yet, in a strangely paradoxical way, it is also easy. With every cross that we lift in obedience to Christ comes the strength to carry it. It is always a package deal.”

Starting today, find ways to be obedient to our Savior who commanded us all to “love one another as I have loved you.”  Be transformed by the ongoing celebration of Easter, and find your voice of witness to share how you are loved, forgiven and freed.  Amen.