Come Home – Easter Sunday
with Rev. Alex Lang
April 3, 2021
One year ago, we were celebrating Easter in an empty sanctuary with a lot of unanswered questions. This year, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and the resurrection of Jesus is a moment that can help us reflect on the past, while at the same time finding a way forward.
John 20:1-9; 21:1, 15-17
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) – 1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. 15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
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I want to begin by wishing you a happy Easter. I remember preaching my Easter sermon last year to an empty sanctuary thinking to myself, “I don’t ever want to do this again.” And yet, here I am. But unlike last year, where we really didn’t know what to expect from the pandemic, we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. In my opinion, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is the perfect opportunity for us to reflect back on this year and I want to begin by telling you about a few things I’ve learned about myself as a result of this pandemic. The first thing I learned is that I am a much better father when I’m not around my children. It’s true. The longer I’m away from my kids, the more I’m like super dad when I come home. Prior to the pandemic, I considered myself a pretty good dad. I would come home from work, my kids looked forward to seeing me. I looked forward to seeing them. They’d tell me about their day. We’d play games and wrestle. It was great. My confidence in my fathering abilities quickly nosedived once we were stuck inside and couldn’t go anywhere. All of a sudden, they didn’t look forward to seeing me anymore. In fact, they started looking for excuses to leave the house. They’d be like, “Hey, dad, we’re going to the park.” I would be like, “Oh, let me get my shoes, I’ll come with you.” They’d be like, “No, no. You stay. This was more of an exchange of information rather than a personal invitation.” I was like, “Are you sure? Cause I could just get my things…” “Really, it’s fine. You stay right where you are. No need to move.” I haven’t moved for 12 months. I’m like a piece of furniture now.
The second thing that I learned is that I am shockingly bad at home improvements. I’ve always fancied myself handy around the house. Well, apparently, I’m handy as long as whatever I’m doing only requires the motor skills of a five year old. Anything more challenging than that and I’m not just useless, I’m actually quite a menace. I will make the problem so much worse than it was originally. I would want to do something like patch a hole in a wall. So I would watch a YouTube video and, of course, when they patch the hole, it looks flawless. You would have never known there was hole. The video’s like five minutes long, so I think to myself, “Looks simple enough! How hard could it be?” Well, two hours later, the hole is twice as big as it used to be and I’m so frustrated that I quit and I tell Courtney, “You know, we needed extra storage space anyway.” I was like, “Think about it! We could hide snacks we don’t want the kids to find in the wall. It’s perfect. They’d never suspect it.” Anyways, I lost that argument and we hired a “professional” to come and fix it. The final thing I learned is that I miss you guys, the people in this church. Right before the pandemic hit, I was working really hard. I was preparing for the capital campaign we were going to begin last fall. I was trying to get everything squared away before I went on sabbatical. Although most people think that pastors only work a few hours on Sunday morning, most nights I was staying up past midnight and I was starting to feel really burned out. I was like, “I really need some time away from this place.” Well, be careful what you wish for because I got some time away. Unfortunately, you all did too. As I’ve been away, I’ve noticed something about myself—when I’m not with other people, it’s hard for me for feel connected to God. This was a striking revelation. You see, I’m an introvert. I love spending time by myself reading, studying and contemplating deep theological questions about God and Jesus. I figured that since being alone was my sweet spot, the isolation of the pandemic would help my faith grow stronger. Instead, I found myself faltering. I was struggling to stay focused. You see, what I realized is that I’ve been a leader in the church for so long that I took for granted how people in the church are the magic ingredient that makes all of those deep theological thoughts come to life. Without you all to embody Jesus’ message, they become just words on the page. The power of Jesus’ message is how it transforms the lived experience and this is what I want to talk about today—how does the resurrection, Jesus coming back from the dead 2000 years ago, change our lives here and now? To begin, let’s talk about the story itself—Jesus coming back from the dead. So the events that transpired are as follows: Jesus is arrested, charged with treason against the Roman government and executed by means of crucifixion. According to the gospels, after his death, Jesus’s body was removed from the cross, and placed in a large tomb. Walk in tombs were very hard to come by in Jerusalem. Jesus, a poor peasant, could have never afforded one on his own, so the gospels tell us the tomb was donated by a wealthy man, Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus’ disciples want to mourn Jesus’ death according to Jewish custom, but they are unable to do so because, by the time his body is in the tomb, the sun is setting, which means the Jewish people must observe the Sabbath. The Jews are not allowed to work on the Sabbath so they cannot perform the rituals of burial, hence they have to wait until the sun rises on Sunday to visit the tomb. It’s important to note that Jesus’ male disciples were not the ones who approached the tomb. Rather, it was Jesus’ female disciples who felt the need to give Jesus the appropriate Jewish burial rites, by anointing his body with spices and oils. The implication being, the men had given up on Jesus. It was the women who still believed. But when they approached the tomb, the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was gone. The initial assumption of anyone walking into a tomb where you expect to find a body and there is none is that the body has been stolen. However, as the story unfolds, we discover that Jesus is alive. His body has been brought back to life by God. Jesus has been resurrected. The term resurrection comes from the Greek word anastasis, which means to rise up. Although today, the term resurrection applies almost exclusively to Jesus, this was not the case in the ancient world. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people were talking about the idea of resurrection all the time. The reason why is because there was a big debate going on in Judaism: what happens after you die? There were different theories. One theory is that nothing happened. Once you die, you’re dead and that’s it. There’s no afterlife. No reuniting with loved ones. Just nothing. This idea is found in the book of Ecclesiastes: The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. (Ec. 9:5) Another theory is that you end up in a place called Sheol, which is kind of like the Jewish version of Hades found in Greek mythology. You can find this idea in Psalm 6: For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? (Ps. 6:5) What you can glean from both of these scriptures is that the authors of the Old Testament didn’t have a really strong concept of afterlife. They didn’t really believe in a soul like we do today, so they were more concerned with what happened to you in this life. But what’s interesting is that around the time that Jesus was alive, another theory was becoming prominent—after you die, God will reassemble your body and bring you back to life. This theory was called resurrection. Now this might sound like kind of a strange idea, but you have to appreciate that the Jewish people at this time didn’t really believe in a soul that could separate from your body after you die and go to heaven. For them, the only way they could envision an afterlife was if you physically came back to life after you died. Literally, an after-life, another life after this one where you were given a new body and you could keep on living. So this idea of resurrection was being discussed everywhere. There were some people who believed in resurrection. Some people who didn’t. But what’s important for you to understand was that for those Jews who did believe in the possibility of resurrection, they thought of it as a future event where, at some point, every human who had ever lived in the history of the earth would be brought back and placed in a new body. Ultimately, God would be the one to trigger this event and once everyone had been given their new bodies, they could live forever because these new bodies are indestructible. This brings us back to Jesus and his resurrection. He dies and comes back in a new body. For those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, this was proof to them that the theory of resurrection was real. And so the people who followed Jesus came to believe that what happened to him was an example of what would eventually happen to all of us. Jesus overcoming death is proof that one day we will overcome death as well. Now this is the traditional Christian thinking around Jesus’ resurrection. The reason why we celebrate Easter is because Jesus’ resurrection is reassurance that this life is not all there is. But for me, this is a bit one dimensional. If Jesus’ resurrection is just about what happens after we die, then I think we are missing the larger message of what resurrection means to us as Christians. Before we read about Jesus’ resurrection, we read a famous parable by Jesus known as the parable of the prodigal son. This story revolves around a father and two sons. The younger son approaches his father and states that he wants his father to pay him his inheritance. Of course, this is a horribly insulting request because the son is essentially saying that all he cares about is his father’s money and he wishes his father was dead. Practically such a request would be extraordinarily difficult for the father to grant because it would require the liquidation of assets and land, a process that could be quite complex for a family of means. For the hearers of this parable in Jesus’ day, they would have understood that such a request would irreparably damage the relationship between the father and son, essentially severing the younger son from the family. The younger son then takes his inheritance and moves to a foreign land where he indulges his every desire. Today we would say he lived the party lifestyle, meaning he probably ate huge amounts of food, drank day and night, slept with prostitutes and gambled away his inheritance. This goes on until, one day, he runs out of money. Facing starvation, he resolves to return back to his father, ask his forgiveness and become one of his father’s slaves. As he gets closer to his home, he is anticipating how his father will react to seeing him again. Since he is no longer part of the family, he is expecting an icy cold reception. But before he gets to the house, his father sees him off in the distance. Interestingly, the father does not become angry, but rather, runs out to meet his son. The father embraces his son, hugging him close. The son attempts to state his case as to why his father should accept him back, but his father doesn’t seem to be listening. Rather the father calls to one of his slaves to bring out his best robe and to kill a fatted calf. They are going to celebrate because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The parable of the prodigal son is a resurrection story. It’s a story of someone who cared only about himself. He was not concerned with anyone else. More importantly, he didn’t care who he had to hurt to get what he wanted. He was willing to sever the most important relationships in his life so that he could fulfill his wants, needs and desires. He believed the path of selfishness would bring him happiness and would allow him to experience life to its fullest, but, eventually, that path left him destitute. He was not physically dead, but on the inside, emotionally and spiritually, there was nothing alive. After he hit rock bottom, there was a moment of reckoning. After losing all of his money, he could finally see clearly how he had squandered the most important treasure in his life—he had squandered the love of his family. And once he wakes up to this reality, he begins to connect with that love again. That part of him that was dead on the inside comes to life. So he returns home, having seen the error of his ways. And what does the father do in the story? Does the father reject the son? Does the father turn him away? Does the father call him out saying, “You took your inheritance before I was even dead and now you come crawling back? You had your chance. I will never love you again.” No, the father welcomes his son back with open arms because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! What Jesus is trying to tell us through this parable is that, central to God’s being, is unconditional love. This means that our actions, regardless of how vile or sinister they might be, will never prevent God from loving us. From God’s perspective, the door is always open. We simply have to be willing to walk through it, and once we do, we will find restoration. This, for me, is the beauty of resurrection. The idea that we can be dead on the inside. We can be a walking corpse and God’s love can bring us back to life. And I believe that so many of us right now need that message. We’re walking around, alive to the touch, but on the inside we are not whole. The pandemic and the suffering we have seen and endured over the last year has destroyed a part of our spirit that is need of being restored. God’s love can do that for us and what the parable of the prodigal son teaches us is that God is always waiting to welcome us back with open arms. All you have to do is walk through that open door. So no matter how you have suffered over the last year. No matter what has happened to you or your family or your friends, just know that God wants to help you heal. God wants you to be resurrected so that you can experience life after death; life after the pandemic. All you have to do is come home. Happy Easter and Amen!