Easter Sunday 2017
Lately, I’m becoming more aware of my age. I feel my trousers (that used to fit neatly around a 33-inch waist) falling down. I tighten my 42-inch belt another notch in hopes of holding on, but the exercise in belt tightening proves useless. What I really need are suspenders. No, what I really need is to lose thirty pounds. No, it’s not that either. What I really need is to be thirty-five again. If I were thirty-five again, only with the benefit of sixty–five years experience, I would use the added wisdom gained from having made a thousand-and-one mistakes to new advantage. I’d do things differently. I would eat less pizza and drink less wine. I see my body changing and I feel like I’m treading water in a whirling sea trying to stay afloat against the odds that maybe, somehow, I’ll be young again and as fit as I once was. Oh well, it’s the common inheritance of humankind; the world keeps moving on, and the further it goes, the younger everyone else becomes. Change, like death and taxes, is an intrinsic feature of life. Like the weather about which we can do nothing, you either accept change or you’re miserable on this planet.
On the other hand, some things never change. God visited this earth, incarnate in a man. We found his presence among us objectionable so we hung him on a cross making us guilty of deicide. You’d think for that crime he’d punish us, but he did not. To the contrary and beyond our wildest expectations, he rewarded us for it. He raised himself from the tomb in which we laid him, and then he set out the terms by which we too might share in his divine life, an immortal life more powerful than death. “Be baptized everyone of you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall be saved” (Mt. 28.19; Acts 2.38; Mk.16.16), he said. “Saved” means that we will receive a reward from God, that when we die, rather than leave us to perish in a grave, God will do for us what he did for Jesus (Ps.16.9-10). He will raise us up immortal in a new and glorious body, a body free from the limits of time and space; in other words, a body that does not age or bulge in all the wrong places, a body that is tailored made for life in heaven. Christians call that promise “the gospel” because that is what Jesus called his message: “the good news” (Mk.1.15). That has not changed. That was the message he delivered to Israel when he first emerged from the waters of baptism in the Jordan River filled with the Holy Spirit; that was the message that Saint Peter preached on the day of Pentecost in his first sermon; that is the message I delivered to you last Easter Sunday from this pulpit. The message is the same today, as it was then. And if you return next Easter, it will be the same message: all who believe and are baptized will be saved and all this is from Jesus Christ who won our salvation by dying for us on a cross and by raising himself afterwards from the grave revealing his divine nature and leaving no doubt about it in the mind of his chosen witnesses: God really did this.
I can see by the wizened expression on some of your faces that you’re disgruntled. You’re thinking, “That settles it. You won’t see me here next Easter, if that’s how it’s gonna be. Why don’t you try something new? That’s what’s wrong with this church; you serve up the same old dish over and over again and people don’t buy it. You have to innovate; you have to change with the times. Get with it.” “Get with it” is essentially what Peter said to Jesus after Jesus told him that “the Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes, be killed, and on the third day rise again”(Mt.16.21). After hearing that, Peter said to Jesus, “Don’t say that. No one wants to hear about your death and resurrection. Preach about “the lilies of the valley” and “do not judge.” That’s what people want to hear. You gotta meet people where they are. Come on. Get with it.”
To which Christ said, “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are not on the side of God but of men” (Mt.16.23). In other words, Jesus said to Peter—and through him to the Church and to us today—that some things must never and can never change. The Gospel is what God has made it. Christ has died and he is risen, and all who are baptized in his name have died to sin and are risen with him. The Gospel is from God and therefore the truth of Christ’s message does not change.
You would think that a world weary of violent revolution and soulless evolution would be grateful for the gospel of God (Rom.1.1–4), and yet, the world remains ungrateful. The world rejected Christ then. The world rejects him still. Like His mother and the other women and Saint John who followed him to the cross, and like his disciples after seeing him resurrected and eating a meal with him and touching the wound in his side, there are some here and there who believe. But the majority of humankind has an attitude toward Jesus like that of Pilate. Pontius Pilate, after interviewing Jesus, was thoroughly unimpressed. Pilate knew he was an innocent man, undeserving of death, but he had Jesus flogged anyway just for good measure, just to show him who was boss. The world, like Pilate, just doesn’t get it. Pilate said to Jesus, “So, I hear you’re a king?” And Jesus replied “I am, and for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” “Imagine that,” Pilate must have thought to himself, “A king of truth leading an army of truth seekers.” Pilate’s response was to shake his head, condescendingly smile, and ask Jesus, “What is truth?”(John 18.36–38). He meant, “What is truth worth? Where’s that gonna get you. A king needs power, real power. Truth is for philosophers.” Worldly people like Pilate are contemptuous of Jesus, they may not think he’s a bad man but he seems to them irrelevant. He offers nothing of substance for people trying to survive and thrive in the real world. Who needs truth? A king needs power. Pilate rejected Jesus because he looked at a broken and, seemingly, impotent man wearing a crown of thorns and he thought Jesus was a joke. And so do most of the people in the world today—think Jesus is a joke. Very few take him seriously. Why respect a “king” who allowed his enemies to torture and kill him? They do not understand either the scriptures that foretold his death or the power of grace by which he was able to roll away the stone and break free from the tomb. God’s grace is the greatest power in the universe. Christ’s resurrection from the dead showed that God’s grace belongs to him. The Word by which God created the universe became flesh and dwelt among us. Now that’s power. Go on believing that Jesus Christ is irrelevant, my friends, and you’ll remain as clueless as Pontius Pilate.
Some things like our frail bodies change with age, scandals rock the church, new sects sprout up like spring weeds, elections bring in new politicians with new ways of doing the same old things, the government grows bigger, the weapons of war improve, life is what it is; there’s not much we can do about it. But the most important things in life remain the same. The most important thing in life is not a thing but a person: Jesus Christ. And he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb.13.8). What he accomplished by his sacrificial death and resurrection is permanent. Nothing can ever change that.
But what about you? Everyone in this world is defined by where he or she chooses to stand in relation to Jesus Christ. Do you stand with him or do you stand with Pilate, thinking of him as a joke? Are you like Nicodemus who sort of believed in Jesus but only came out to see him at night because he was embarrassed to be seen with him in daylight? He was afraid of what other people would think, if they knew he was Christian. Are you like the rich young ruler who praised Jesus and wanted to follow him, until Jesus asked too much of him? He turned away and went home. Are you like Peter on the night of Jesus’s arrest, afraid to admit that you love him? Or are you like the men who stood at the foot of the cross and made fun of him? Or worst of all, are you like the temple priests who believed he had risen from the dead but who paid the guards off to spread the rumor that his disciples had come in the night and stolen the body? Are you among those who simply are not going to believe him no matter what? If you are, I have good news for you. You’re among the majority. The world is on your side.
I was speaking to a person recently about Our Lord. She did not attend this church and said that she would not be attending any church on Easter. With her it was a matter of principal. When I asked her why, she said, “Because the church is filled with hypocrites. I have my own beliefs,” she said. She didn’t mean this parish in particular is corrupt, just the church in general. Her attitude seemed to be, “Who needs organized religion? I have my own ideas about God. That’s enough for me.” Her criticisms of the church and of the Gospel reminded me of something Fr. Andrew Greely, a Catholic priest, wrote in a book called Why Catholic?. He addressed a Catholic readership, but his comments apply to all Christians. He said this: “The reader can make up his own litany of injuries the Church has done to him. I do not care how horrendous the litany may be, it does not provide a valid excuse for disengaging from the church and from the faith. Indeed it is irrelevant. I attempt no justification and offer no excuse for what the Church may have done to you: I simply assert that the failures of Christians and the failure of Christian leadership have nothing to do with the validity of the faith. If you use those failures as an excuse for not facing the essential religious demands of the catholic and apostolic faith to which we pledge our souls in baptism, you are engaged in an anti-intellectual dishonest cop-out. The question is not whether Christian leadership is enlightened but whether the catholic faith is true. A whole College of Cardinals filled with psychopaths provides no answer one way or another to that question. Search for the perfect church if you will; when you find it, join it. And realize that on that day it becomes something less than perfect.”
The world is forever looking for reasons to deny Jesus Christ. There are millions of them. If you want to find one, you will. But I’ll give you one good reason to believe in him, one good reason to be baptized in his name and to make it your priority to keep your baptismal vows. It is this: because he and he alone can change you and make you what you’re not. Because of sin, neither you nor I am acceptable to God. We are imperfect. He alone is perfect; his resurrection from the dead is revelation of his integrity as a man in full possession of the divine nature. And he has promised to infuse his perfection into our souls in baptism making us as acceptable to God as he is. “He is the perfect offering for our sins.” Saint John said, “and not our only but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.1–2). In other words, what we lack, he supplies. That is why everyone needs him. That is a fact of life that will never change. Why should we belong to his church and believe in him? Because he is God and his Gospel is the truth: that’s why. You can have all the beliefs you want, but there is only one belief that counts. Faith accepts Jesus Christ for who he is, stands by Him, doesn’t waver, doesn’t falter, and does not change.
In a moment we are going to receive a child into the church through the sacrament of baptism. From the beginning, the church has welcomed the newly baptized on Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection. As part of this service I will ask you who are Christians to renew your own baptismal vows. As we stand here today, Christians around the world from India to Egypt to England to Nigeria, to the Central African Republic to Virginia have recently paid for their faith with their lives. This is serious business. There is a spirit in this world that hates Jesus Christ, hates his church and everything about him (John 15.18–19). If you stand up for him you become as he is, a target. But if you receive his baptism you also become as he is, a child of God as much a son or daughter of the Father as is Jesus who alone was privileged to call God “my Father.”(John 5.17–18). In baptism the only Son of God, unites us to himself in his Spirit, thereby giving us the right and privilege to call God “Our Father” also (John 20.17; Mt.6.9). And that, my friends, is why we stand with him, and will always stand with him, because through him we have full and unfettered access to God, Our Father, and that privilege is worth everything (ITim.2.5).