By Pastor John Johnson

Easter 2020

April 12, 2020

“Christ is risen!”

Let us read the story describing the day He first rose, as we turn to the Gospel according to Matthew:

[Matthew 28:]1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

“Christ is risen!”

That is the way that I always begin Easter services, and upon my so declaring, the congregations normally answer back, “He is risen, indeed!”

And despite the fact that I cannot hear you, He is risen, He is risen indeed.

Most Easters, my message is not intended for those of you who normally attend worship and know that response by heart, but is intended rather for those who are “two-fers,” Easter and Christmas only, for whom I have absolutely zero contempt, but rather, have appreciation for their attending, and, I hope, listening to what I have to say. And I tend to make the assumption that at least a few of them do not attend church other than when dutifully accompanying a family member, because they cannot reconcile what they know — or think they know — about science, with the whole idea of God, let alone with the idea of a crucified Jewish peasant’s rising from the dead.

As a result of my assumption that they think themselves too sophisticated to believe in God, let alone Jesus and His resurrection, on most Easters, I try to resort to relating how they, like all humans believe, in much which they or we cannot explain personally, and I like to use examples from my past life in physics, such as “dark matter” or the charge to weight ratio on an electron. I do show this to show that we often believe in things based on our choosing to accept the testimony of others whom we trust know of what they are speaking. This is what the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, encompassed within his description of the  “I—thou” relationship: “I believe what thou says, because I trust thou.”

And for Christians, in the final analysis, we have faith, because in the final analysis, we believe the testimony of those “thou’s” who came upon the empty tomb that long ago Sunday after Passover, and of those “thou” apostles to whom they told their story and showed the tomb.

Today, since it is probably only believing Christians who will read or hear my words— though I hope there are indeed others, — I want to refer to the apostles, if not exactly to these same apostles, then to others who came after them, and to how one of the “liturgical expressions” we church-going Christians often use can tie our current time of quasi-involuntary staying at home, which we do because we as Christ’s Church seek to be part of the stopping of the spread of this horrendous COVID-19, how one of the liturgical expressions we normally church-going Christians use can help tie our being apart from one another, into the concept of Easter itself.

The “liturgical expression” comes from what most of us know as “The Apostles Creed.”  The Apostles Creed dates to the second century after Christ, and is thus older than is the Nicene Creed, and also more widely shared.

I do not use the Apostles Creed in worship so often as many pastors, and there is no particular reason other than that the rote we use in “The Lord’s Prayer” is probably an adequate instance of reciting, since reciting does not necessarily, or even usually, I suspect, lead us to reflect on what we are reciting.

Many or most of you know The Apostles Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell. [On] the third day he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

There are subtle variations amongst churches, but the gist is the same, and until I began to lead worship, I kept quiet in three places, two of which need not concern us this morning, but might gain credence for my faith among those skeptical of our faith, but the one expression on which I want to focus is this:

He descended into hell.

A more modern Presbyterian worship guide sugar coats this by offering, “He descended to the dead,” which is more in keeping with both the Jewish idea of Sheol as the place where all the dead go. and with the Greek idea of Hades, where, again, all the dead go, ideas existing at the time of Jesus.

But this nonetheless raises the question, “What could it possibly mean: ‘He descended into hell’ or ‘He descended to the dead’?”

I do not remember whom among people I respect suggested to me that the meaning of this is: He — Jesus — was apart from God during those three days, which is, of course, problematic if Jesus was and is God, but it is far more acceptable in another sense, for as most of you know, I do not believe in a literal hell. I do not believe in a literal hell, yet I do like that apart from God concept. Even if it might not fit for Jesus’ time between crucifixion and resurrection, I do like that concept that hell, which I maintain we normally create for ourselves, that hell is being apart from God.

Our personal hell is when we feel apart from God.

Being apart from God. This extended period of quasi-isolation, and I suspect it will be extended to the end of May, this extended period of stay-at-home and no public gatherings, including for houses of worship such as our churches, this extended period is somewhat an apart from! An apart from, if not apart from God, who never abandons us by leaving us alone, then apart from in the sense of our not being able as a community to worship together the God whom we know in Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us . . . for us!

Jesus Christ who died on the cross, and yet did not die forever, but on the third day of being apart from, rose from the dead, and, and in doing so provided and provides us with the incredible message that neither shall we die forever!

Just as surely as Easter follows Good Friday, we shall not die forever . . . and neither shall we be physically separated from or isolated from or apart from one another forever when we seek to worship our Lord.

This pandemic shall pass, not in three days, we already know that, and I hope it shall pass without taking away from this life any of you nor any of your loved ones, but it shall pass.

At a time when we all feel a bit of the sense of “closed in,” of being apart from, I find it reassuring to know that Jesus, closed in that tomb, three days apart from earthly life, rose, and walked, and waits for us.

We shall rise from this current situation; we shall rise from this current situation and take our reassurance and inspiration from the fact that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, and promises the same for us!

Alleluia, Alleluia, and in His name, Amen!


NJB Colossians 3:1 Since you have been raised up to be with Christ, you must look for the things that are above, where Christ is, sitting at God's right hand. 2 Let your thoughts be on things above, not on the things that are on the earth, 3 because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. 4 But when Christ is revealed -- and he is your life-you, too, will be revealed with him in glory.

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