This sermon was preach on Easter Sunday 2020. The global coronavirus pandemic had closed churches worldwide, and most Christians were worshiping online.
Scripture: John 20:1-18
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I’d like to begin with a question, one that I’ve asked before from the pulpit. If it were illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough irrefutable evidence against me to throw me in prison? Personally, I think it’d be good for all of us to periodically ask and answer that question for ourselves. If it were illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough irrefutable evidence against me to throw me in prison?
Clearly, what’s behind the question is the notion that one’s Christian identity is not supposed to be in name only, but also evidence by outward lifestyle. And even more to the point, that the so-called ‘Christian lifestyle’ should be noticeably different, or unique, from a lifestyle that is not typically Christian. In other words, Christians—followers, or disciples, of Jesus Christ—should stick out like a sore thumb. We believe there’s supposed to be a difference in the way we live and act and talk on account of the risen Christ living in us, right?
If so, then you might be surprised by what relatively recent polling data shows. Let’s compare self-professed Christians with those who claim no Christian faith according to seven behaviors which we would say should be especially characteristic of Christ-followers. By the way, this data comes from pollster George Barna in his book, “Growing True Disciples”.
The first two behaviors are more general in nature, and I assume the persons taking the poll based their answers on how they perceived themselves. So we’ll just take them at their word.
|Donated to help others||47%||48%|
|Carry significant debt||33%||39%|
|Volunteered in community||29%||27%|
|Gave to homeless or poor||13%||12%|
|Corrected change error ($)||19%||19%|
- Loving Others: 99% of Christians indicate they display this behavior, and 95% of non-Believers say they’re loving. Not a big difference – which, in this case, I’m glad to see. Christians certainly don’t have a monopoly on being able to love others.
- Showing compassion. Interestingly, 94% of the Christians polled identified themselves as being compassionate, while more—95%– of non-Believers see themselves as such.
- Likewise, a greater number of non-Believers said they’d recently donated money or articles to help others. 48% of non-Believers vs. 47% of Believers.
- Carrying significant debt. This statistic is based on the Apostle Paul’s command in Romans 13.8, “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another.” Another Bible version says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” 33% of the Christians polled said they carry significant debt, and 39% of non-Believers indicated the same. Not a big difference.
- How about when it comes to volunteering in the community? 29% of the Christians polled said they’d recently done so while almost an equal number of non-Believers did the same.
- Giving to the poor and/or homeless. I assume the question is getting at who voluntarily gave money directly to a homeless or poor person as opposed to giving to a homeless shelter. As you’ll see, there no difference between the number of Christians who did this and the number of non-Believers who did this. 13% and 12%.
- This last statistic is particularly interesting to me because it’s a behavior my parents modeled when I was growing up. The behavior is correcting an error made by a cashier when too much change was given back after a purchase. 19% of the people from both groups indicated they’d done that. The underlying behavior is honesty, and there is no statistical difference between Believers and non-Believers. In fact, as you can see, taken as a whole, there’s pretty much no discernible difference between Christians and non-Christians in regard to these outward, visible behaviors.
It pains me to say it, but this doesn’t reflect well on us who are supposed to be “salt” and “light” in this world (cf., Matthew 5:13-14). Just to be clear, I’m not saying that a wider statistical gap between Believers and non-believers in regard to these particular behaviors would make is better or moral than them. Absolutely not! But I think it would show that we take seriously the call of every baptized Christian to consciously and intentionally reflect to everyone we meet the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and his presence in our lives. It wouldn’t make us better; but it would make us more distinguishable from those who don’t claim our beliefs and practices.
So, why am I bringing this up on Easter Sunday? This could easily be a sermon topic for any Sunday of the year.
Well, here’s why. All week long a particular title associated with Christians as a whole has been on my mind. That title is ‘Easter People.’ The global community of all who profess faith in Jesus Christ are, by definition, an Easter People. So, all week I’ve been asking myself what it means to be an Easter People. And the first thing that occurs to me is that to be an Easter People automatically means that there’s something distinguishable about us that related to Easter, because as far as I know, Christians are the only populace who believe in and celebrate:
- the bodily resurrection of the human being Jesus Christ from the dead;
- that we will never experience death on account of Jesus’ resurrection; (you might recall Jesus’ somewhat esoteric promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die (Jn 11.25-26);
- that a day will come when the risen and glorified Christ will return to earth, at which time all creation will be returned to its state of original righteousness, and all true Christ-followers will be raised to life and will receive their resurrection bodies – the exact same type of physical body the resurrected Jesus had when he came out of the tomb.
As far as I know, this belief in the resurrection of Jesus, of ourselves, and creation itself, is unique to Christendom. And so, in light of this, to be an Easter People is to be a people who are decidedly unique in this world, and it has everything to do with Easter. So, today, Easter Sunday, we join millions of other followers of Jesus Christ to celebrate his resurrection from the dead.
What does it mean to be an Easter People? Well, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection touches almost every aspect of human life, so it has a myriad of implications, more than I could possibly touch on in just one sitting. So today, in light of the one issue that’s in the forefront of everything these days, I’ll focus on one important implication of being an Easter People, which is this: As an Easter People, death has no power over us.
Actually, it’d be more to the point to say, As an Easter People, death no longer has power over us. I say no longer because there was a time when it did have power over us: before we came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. But at the point you said ‘Yes!’ to Jesus, his resurrection from the dead was vicariously applied to your life.
In Ephesians 2:1-2 Paul says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.” Notice Paul’s using the past tense. You were dead…in which you used to live. He’s talking to a congregation of Believers, but is quick to remind them that there was a time before they believed, at which time they were not connected to God through Christ and, therefore, spiritually dead. They hadn’t received the forgiveness of their sins. However, coming to faith in the resurrected Christ changed all that. This is his point in Colossians 2.13: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” So the fact is, as Easter People, we’ve been resurrected with Christ. And on account of that, death no longer has power over us.
Now, I believe this truth carries immense significance. If death no longer has power over us, then it’s not something that we need fear. Think about it. The only things that should ever strike fear in us are those things that have some sort of power over us.
Personally, I’m thinking back to an experience I had in 7th grade. There were three to four boys who bullied me through most of that year. But at some point it came to a screeching stop. There were three reasons. One, a power greater than me decided to intercede on my behalf, and that was my dad. I don’t recall if I gave him permission to do so or not, but at some point my father went and talked with the appropriate powers that be…. which was the second reason. A power greater than the three bullies decided to step in, and that was the principal. And the third reason the bullying stopped was because at the point I’d reached my limit of their pushing me around, I quickly returned in-kind. It came as a surprise to the other boy, who’d grown used to my passivity. But, to be honest, it was an even greater surprise to me! Here’s my point. After those three things happened, I realized I didn’t have to fear them the way I had all year. I realized that in the end, they really had now power over me. In my passivity, I’d granted them power over me. But as soon as I fought back, and as soon as a power greater than us got involved, their power over me was nullified, and I feared them no longer.
Well, in the same way, the power of death has been completely nullified in us because One who is greater than death decided to step in and get involved. Even while we were being bullied around by Death, God the Father took matters into his own hands and simply abolished its power over us by subjecting his Son, Jesus Christ to death and then three days later raising him from the dead. And when anyone—anyone—believes in what Jesus did, and willingly applies it to themself in faith, then the power of death has been destroyed in that person’s life. Period. And because it has no power over us, there’s truly no reason to fear it.
This week a member of our church pointed out an interesting parallel between the situation we’re all in this Easter and the situation surrounding the very first Easter. On the very day Jesus was resurrected, his closest friends—the men to whom he’d given the responsibility of carrying on his work, including the work starting the Church—were in hiding behind closed doors. And why did they do that? For fear of certain death that lurked outside their doors. They were certain that if they freely walked out and about in public, they would be identified as Jesus’ followers and, as a result, also be put to death…or at the very least, imprisoned.
Do you see the parallel to our own current situation? On this Easter morning, most of us are “hiding” behind closed doors, trying to avoid possible sickness and death that “lurks” outside our doors. And we’ve been warned that going out and milling about with others at this time could be harmful to us. And so here we find ourselves behind closed doors where we’re safe from the harm out there.
The Gospel of John reports an important encounter between Jesus and his disciples on that first Easter which is not found in the other three Gospels. That night Jesus came into their hiding place and began to speak courage into their hearts and minds. Here’s how John describes the encounter:
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. (notes13) As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-22).The same thing happened a week later.While they were again gathered behind locked doors Jesus came into their midst and gave them the same encouragement, saying, “Peace be with you” (v. 26).
John reports that at least 3 times on at least two different occasions Jesus bestowed his divine peace upon his fear-filled followers. His doing that must have had its intended effect, because the next encounter between Jesus and his disciples that John records takes place away from the house. In fact, they’re out fishing on the Seat of Tiberias when Jesus happens along. As it was, it was during that encounter that Jesus reinstated Peter, calling him once again to “Follow me” (21.19).
Here’s what I note: Jesus replaced their fear with peace. His peace. And we know from the Book of Acts that it was only a short while later that the Holy Spirit came upon them and filled them with everything they needed to boldly move forward in the face of all level of hardship and resistance with the wonderful and true message of Jesus, crucified, risen, and glorified. Every single one of them went from fear-full to bold and courageous. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. As such, they never again feared death, for they knew it had no power over them.
The good news is that if you have been raised with Christ, then his Spirit lives in you.
- The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead lives in you.
- The same Spirit who replaced the Disciples’ fear with Christ’s peace lives in you.
- The same Spirit who came upon the Believers at Pentecost and empowered them to start and lead the Church lives in you.
- The same Spirit who filled Peter and other early church leaders with courage to lead boldly lives in you.
And because he lives in you, you have no need to fear death. Don’t go looking for it! But don’t fear it. Because it’s been defeated, and it holds no power of you. This is a significant implication of what it means to be an Easter People.