Do You Believe?
What a difference a week makes. Just seven days ago there was jubilation in the streets of Jerusalem and shouts of “Hosanna” as thousands of men, women, and children waved palm branches in the air and welcomed a man by the name of Jesus of Nazareth into the Holy City. This massive celebration was a culmination of three years of Jesus traveling through the hills of Galilee, the countryside of Judea, and the region of the Jordan, in addition to his making occasional visits to Jerusalem to reach out to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the marginalized, healing the sick and sharing a new message of liberation and hope.
The wave of excitement that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on a Sunday, however, had slowed down Thursday when Jesus was arrested and it came to a screeching halt on a Friday afternoon when the order was given to execute him on a cross as a common criminal. Crucifixion and death have a way of chilling enthusiasm. Friday night and Saturday were nothing short of hell. The disciples had scattered out of fear hiding in a room behind closed and locked doors which suggests to us that we today are very much like this band of brothers. We can be quick to jump on a band wagon and support a cause when there is momentum and little resistance, and just as quickly jump off if it looks like the cause is losing steam.
Saturday was horrible. As Rome stood guard in the streets, the Sabbath lent itself to inquiry and speculation. People on the street corners, in the Temple courts, and in their homes were all asking in the aftermath of Friday, “What in the world just happened?” But most importantly they also asked, “What might happen next?”
As the evening shadows covered Jerusalem on Saturday night, Peter was restless and unsettled. He was trying to reconcile his failure and duplicity, struggling to come to terms with what he had said to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death.” Instead, Peter did the exact opposite. He turned his back, watched from a distance, allowed another man by the name Simon to carry the cross for Jesus, and when it was all over and it was time to dispose of a dead body, Peter and his friends did not even share in this task. That job was left to others. Peter had compromised himself. He had contradicted his affirmation of allegiance. Along with his compatriots, Peter did nothing, but watch, run, and hide.
And now, Peter and Andrew, James and John, and all the others, had to live with the results of this gigantic collapse. How do you rest? How do you sleep? How do you live with yourself? How do you face your neighbors tomorrow?
In the meantime, the gospel tells us that a small group of women had accompanied two men by the name of Joseph and Nicodemus to the tomb. But it was late. The evening was ushering in the beginning of the Lord’s Day so they returned home to prepare spices and perfumes. They would return after the Sabbath was over.
At daybreak on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and her friends walked to the tomb. They are greeted by two messengers who share the unbelievable announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead. They immediately rush to tell the Eleven this glorious good news, but are met with skepticism and unbelief. The Bible is precise and to the point. The Eleven listen, but the words of the women are regarded as nothing more than nonsense. This news about Jesus having risen from the dead is absurd.
But Peter is a little curious. He wants to see for himself so he makes his way to the tomb where he like the women before him sees strips of linen and no Jesus. He walks away stunned, wondering to himself what had happened. “How am I to understand this mystery?” If what I have been told and what I see is true, what does this mean for me, my friends, and the world?
As we ponder these same questions, a teacher of mine puts it this way, “The resurrection of Jesus is a promise of life beyond death and a presence now” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, page 42).
Clarence Jordan whose cotton patch version of the gospel was popular towards the end of the 20th century and well-known for his work in developing a farm outside of Americus, Georgia to assist the poor and encourage the grace of Christian fellowship provides this word of explanation, “The resurrection of Jesus was simply God’s unwillingness to take our “no” for an answer. He raised Jesus as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. Jesus is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, and sick brothers and sisters with him.” (Common Prayer, page 217)
So, here we are on this Easter morning and we are confronted – again – by the very essence of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of the Jesus Way. To be a Christian one must have faith: Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
I remember reading some time ago a rather startling assessment given by Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the communist revolution that ravaged Russia and eliminated some sixty million people from the face of the earth. After reading hundreds of books, collecting hundreds of personal testimonies, and contributing eight volumes of his own commentary, he formulated the main cause of that revolution in the following words: “People have forgotten God; that’s why all of this has happened.” (Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace, page 255)
There is much to appreciate by way of recent advances in science and technology that has made life easier, and more complicated, but we have a reached a point and time in human history where it is absolutely necessary to consider the place of God and faith in our lives as it leads us to acknowledge the cause of Jesus and follow him even if it invites some measure of suffering and sacrifice.
My friends, this is what today is all about. The Christian faith begins at Easter. Without Easter there is no Gospel, no narrative of good news, and no letter in the New Testament. Without Easter there is no faith, no proclamation, no Church, no worship, and no mission.
It was on Easter of last year, at this very hour, that Kay and I along with our children and their husbands, our grandchildren along with my sister, brother in law, and their children, stood in a horseshoe around the bed of my mother. As I held my cheek to hers, Kay led us in singing some of the great hymns of the church. I did my best to sing and quietly hum, and reassure my mother that Jesus was taking her by the hand to lead her home. As death came, I remember asking myself the question, “Steve, do you believe?”
Several days later, each one of us, adults and children, from the oldest to the youngest, took a shovel or handful of dirt and tossed it on my mother’s casket. As we said goodbye, I asked again quietly, “Steve, do you believe?”
I lifted my heart then as I do now and affirm my faith in the words of Job who said, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” (Job 19:23-27)