Sunday, April 24, 2011

Linen Wrappings and the 'Real' Estate

Acts 10:34-43 Colossians 3:1-4 John 20:1-18

As Vice President, George [H.W.] Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Mr. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev's widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev's wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband's chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.

Gary Thomas, Christian Times, October 3, 1994, p. 26.

The hope that must have been within Mr. Brezhnev's widow is precisely the kind of hope that was imparted to an unbelieving world on that Glorious Day when the disciples discovered that death itself is NOT the end but is only a door through which we must all pass. This is the kind of hope that makes getting out of bed each morning worth the trouble. This is the kind of hope that makes attending Sunday school, Bible study, and worship worth the effort and time. This is the kind of hope that gives reason for denying oneself for the sake of another and expecting nothing in return. It is the hope that turns something ordinary into something extraordinary.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Easter for us today is not exclusively about what happened some 2000 years ago. Easter is the celebration of what is to be, so it is theological rather than historical! It is the acknowledgment of the Glorious Power that has finally and completely defeated sin and death in spite of evil's best efforts to destroy the very best Thing that ever happened to the human race! The reality of the Resurrection is the only comfort we can draw from when we stand at the edge of an open grave that is ready to receive the casket of our beloved. The theology of Easter is what draws us forward and out from the so-called "circle of life" that says we are born, we eat, we work, we reproduce, and then we die. For the secular humanist, this is how eternity is defined (and inherently restricted).

Yet sin, death, and suffering continue to abound virtually unchallenged. It is not hard to notice the overwhelming number of persons who wake each day with no apparent reason to do much more than to hope for a single meal. We can easily see that the Resurrection of the Lord did not solve our problems. Humanity even killed Him in the hopes of somehow making things better, and yet nothing really changed.

We can know from one day to the next that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we give, and no matter how tirelessly we work there will continue to be pain and suffering in this world. Jesus Himself says as much; that evil and betrayal and poverty will always exist in this world, but there will be eternal WOE for the one who causes such evil and betrayal and poverty either by those acts of intention OR those moments of neglect.

It is an awesome thing to come before the Lord especially on Easter Sunday and offer Him our hearts, our minds, our souls, and our gifts; and it is even more so when we truly engage in the Easter story by thanking Him for "saving our souls" and offering to us the Hope of Eternal Life. But to be fully engaged in the Easter story is to go far beyond the "linen wrappings" we find lying in the empty tomb. From the moment that Mary Magdalene reported to the apostles all that the Resurrected Christ had told her to report, history began to unfold. A new story was to be told, yet this story is a continuation of a long-ago laid plan by a Holy and benevolent God whose greatest desire is to reconcile His creation to Himself.

However, nothing much has changed. He still has new generations, young and old alike, to whom the Gospel must be delivered; but we seem to be a little too busy with "real life" to get too bound up in evangelism and mission work. We are overwhelmed with an uncertain economy that threatens our financial well-being as well as our long hoped-for and planned-for retirement. We lament about the demise of the Church, and we groan about a society that seems bound and determined to go straight to "hell in a hand basket".

But we have our own problems, don't we? Our greatest hopes seem to be directly related to how well our investments are doing and whether or not the Congress will somehow preserve "my" Social Security. Our greatest and best hope is bound in the birth of a new child or grandchild and that he or she will be healthy. Our greatest and best hope is that we will win whatever tournaments we or our children and grandchildren will be playing in, and we will drop EVERYTHING to lend our support to this end.

We have virtually NO REAL HOPE invested in the Resurrection because we take it for granted that it "just is". It is just another Holy Day on the church calendar that marks some historic event. And while we have lived and based our lives on our hopes for worldly treasures and worldly pleasures, we wonder why our children, our grandchildren, our neighbors have decided that church life is simply another choice to make, another club to join. We wonder why they don't take our faith and our religion seriously. I'll tell you why they don't. It is because WE don't. It really is that simple.

We fail to recognize that our faith and our religion are much more than a simple moral code of conduct, though it is that ... and much more. We sat our children down and warned them of the dangers of drugs and alcohol and teen pregnancy. We sat down at the kitchen table with them and taught them how to manage their money. We worked to instill in them a work ethic we could be proud of, an ethic that would serve them well in school and in careers. We encouraged them to pursue vocations that would pay well ... but we never sat them down and told them the story of the Exodus. We sat by the fireplace and told them the story of Santa Claus and mentioned the birth of Christ incidentally. We taught them about the Easter Bunny who happens to come at about the same time as Easter.

We must surely see by now that church life, faith, hope, and enduring love are merely incidentals to the "real" stuff we must contend with. We worked hard to teach our children to be responsible and civic-minded citizens, "good Americans", but we failed them by "telling" them they should go to church but not telling them WHY they should be attending to worship, small group Bible studies, and Sunday school. And it is simply for this reason alone that we have failed them: the hope that is the Resurrection is no more real to us than it has ever been to them. And until we can embrace the One Certainty that is Absolute and Eternal and learn to put aside the things that are by their very nature temporary, things will only get worse. In fact, if we think it's "bad" out there now, we ain't seen nuthin' yet!

The story of the Resurrection does not end at the empty tomb and the linen wrappings; it has, in fact, only just begun in that one Shining Moment in Eternity! And therein lies our own hope; in the stories of the Bible, the story of the Exodus and how the Lord delivered a whole people from slavery. It is the same story that has actually revealed itself in American history when Martin Luther King led an entire nation by the Word of the Lord. He was telling the story of salvation and redemption, and that faithfulness bore fruit. Dr. King's hopes did not lie in political solutions. Rather his hope was entirely invested in the Word of the Lord; the political solutions themselves were incidental. The Eternal Word of our Redeeming God and Lord was never more alive for us than during this era, and we may have missed it.

Yet it is the hope that drives us forward from where we are to where we are to be. It is not about the Linen Wrappings which were left behind; it is about a Glorious Crown that lies ahead! It is not about the "real estate" of a cemetery where dead bodies are laid; it is about the "real" and glorious Estate to which we are called, that Glorious Estate that is yet to be but is most surely going to be!

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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