I think many if not all of us know why we are here today, but just in case, would you read me the words of the apostle Paul to his faith family in Corinth? The scripture is on the screen.
Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time—this gospel that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy, that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)
The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that Jesus the Christ died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.
But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste.
Can I admit that it is rather strange for me to be preaching to those whom I don’t know, at least many of you I have yet had the privilege of conversing. Preaching is one of those things, to me anyway, that is much more personal than general. Truth is truth as they say, but no truth was spoken generally in our scriptures, truth was always shared in specific context to specific people. Not knowing everyone, yet desiring to speak to each of us, I have prayerfully prepared for these few moments, and thus for you. That said, please do forgive me if any of my assumptions appear to not include you; it is unintentional I assure.
I know that many of you are in this following Jesus life for good and holding fast, but I also know some of us may be unsure what you believe about part or all of what Paul has just said is the message which gives us sure footing and saves. The very reason for our getting together this morning. There is no shame in questioning. The shame would be in failing to ask the question to others, especially to God. Now I am not going to try and convince you this morning one way or the other; rather, if you’ll permit, and as Paul said, because God was so gracious and so very generous through the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection even to those of us who recognize we deserve it the least; I am going to invite you and all of us to not let such grace go to waste today. That’s our hope, to take advantage of, put to good use, grace.
Do you mind if I ask you a question? In our faith family we ask a lot of questions of one another, scripture, God and our faith, and usually we have some pretty good and helpful discussions. So my question this morning for us: Why is the cross the symbol most associated with our faith? Have you ever thought much about it much? The simplest answer is that Jesus died on one, but Jesus did a lot of things that never made it to wall decoration and tattoo status. So, why the cross? Why not the empty tomb? After all the empty tomb is what we gather here to celebrate this morning with nearly 2 billion others around the globe. Yet, it is the cross that is the symbol which marks our faith. Faith, you know, is that belief in something more true than perception of conditions often allows us access to. How is the cross the symbol of something profoundly true? No, the cross is a terribly horrid symbol of faith when you really think about it. The grotesque representation of what one human can do to another hanging from your neck or plastered to the back of your car. And yet, the cross is a perfectly appropriate symbol for death; the very thing it was designed to bring about rather slowly.
Death, for most in our time and place in history, is not something we dwell on. It rarely comes up in day to day conversation, at least the ones I have! Now, I am certain that there are some here this morning that may think of death as something near. The reality of death is not distant, whether your own or a loved one’s. Yet, for most of our faith family, our youthfulness stays off the conversations of death more often than not. Unless of course you are a fan of the show The Walking Dead. You know the apocalyptic drama in which some disease has kept the dead from dying fully. Probably not a show you thought would be mentioned on Easter Sunday! I get why most would laugh or cringe at the thought of me or any pastor watching this show, but seriously, once you get past the whole zombie thing, the show is really trying to answer the question: “How will we live while dying?” In the show death is unavoidable, there is no cure, and any attempts to overcome have long been abandoned. Death is in them and all around them in plain sight each and every day. With death staring back at us, how shall we live? That’s the question the show is asking.
The reality is that we are not that different from the characters in the show. Death is unavoidable, there is no cure; yet we do everything we can to keep death from view, don’t we? For the last century plus we humans, and especially we Americans and Dallasites, have been active in our attempts to defeat death, to cure this illness that takes each of us—whether through anti-aging whatevers, to medical breakthroughs, diets and fitness, to creating parenting safety bubbles, to fictional and faith based obsession with the other worldly next life. Death is to be avoided at all cost or becomes often becomes a spiritual parody. Now, I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong in our preserving and prolonging life. Quite the opposite actually. Our scriptures teach that life, all life, every life, is beautiful, sacred and to be treasured as the truest of gifts. Why wouldn’t we want to overcome the enemy to life then? We want to do defeat death by not dying, at least keeping it at bay as long as possible, or pretend that death is somehow a friend rather than loss (no matter how “natural” it is or what comes next).
But is that what our scriptures and the life and death of Jesus reveal? An avoiding or sentimentalizing of death? How does Jesus overcome death? Many of you know the answer, even if you don’t believe it fully, you have seen the symbols everywhere. Jesus defeated death by dying on a cross. And, he overcame the sting of death by rising again. Death in relation to Jesus has no victory. What it takes it cannot keep. Death has no sting—a sting does not hurt when you are dead, but is the pangs of living while dying—that sting of death called sin is removed; as the apostle Paul so aptly reminds us just a few verses later (1 Cor. 15:55-58), read with me on the screen,
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is you string? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
Now sin is word we need not pass over too quickly. The basic idea of sin is that you live as if you do not need God, nor want God, nor recognize (or worse, attempt to control) the way our good God has ordered a full and abundant life in relationship with him. Sin is ultimately the dis-association with God; whether the relationship is cast aside out of ignorance, walked away from out of rebellion, or mechanized through religion. This non-relational state reduces life to naiveté (assuming you are in control of life and death, good and evil) or fearfulness (death remains your enemy and life is lived not to die). Yet, the dying and rising of Jesus changes things, all things. That’s why today matters for us. Did you know this day sets our calendar as Christians? This day marks the begging of the life of faith this year for you, a year in which we can live in our dying, starting today.
That’s what resurrection is about. Not, not dying or dying only at the end. Resurrection, Jesus’ life that came through death gives us another way to live. Death has no victory because it leads to resurrection. Sin has no lasting sting because the sting has been removed, like the stinger of wasp, from the flesh which it attacks. We can be ones who live in our dying. Daily a cross (that symbol that marks us), daily a death, and daily a new life; resurrection.
The renowned American author Flannery O’Connor once wrote to a friend who, I think like many of us if we are honest, struggle with the reality that the cross portrays and thus we try and pretty it up in as many ways imaginable. O’Connor says,
“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them…I have found that violence [like Jesus upon the cross] is strangely capable of returning [people] to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader [of scripture or humanity], but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”
This reality of living while dying that we must be returned to each day at great cost, preparing us to accept our moment of grace is…a King on the cross. And, the reason, I think, that of all the things Jesus did, the horrible image marks our faith because the cross becomes an intrusion of grace. An image that allows us to “practice resurrection”.
The apostle Paul once again, trying to not waste grace so generously bestowed upon him by the dead and risen Jesus is once again helpful for you and I. Read with me the text on the screen,
So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!
That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country.
Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life [this life without God or trying to control God—this relation-less life]—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.
Dead to sin, alive to God. Living while dying! Dead to a way of life without God, using God or controlling God. Alive to a new life in the strangely new and fresh grace-sovereign country called today. A life in which you and I are invited to live new—not a slightly elevated—but totally different! Perhaps this will help us get the picture. Wendell Berry, the famous farmer philosopher, author and activist once coined a poem that impart says,
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns…
…Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection. Live differently because you are living while dying. “We live our lives in the practice of what we do not originate and cannot anticipate. When we practice resurrection, we continuously enter what is more than we are. When we practice resurrection, we keep company with Jesus, alive and present, who knows where we are going better than we do, which is always ‘from glory to glory’”…from dying to new life.
Each morning we awake to a day called today, we are invited into this resurrection, this living while dying that we can hardly anticipate. This intrusion of grace, readied for our moment by the symbol of our faith—the cross—to live in our dying to a way of life without God or trying to control God. This living in our dying to that which clings so tightly to us which keeps us from living truly free. This living in our dying to our obsession with self to the neglect of others. This living in our dying with Christ so that we too might share in his rising.
For those that know me, I am not one to supplement the necessary nourishment of processing truth in relationship and conversation in the Spirit with the scriptures and community by providing much direct application. Spoils all the fun! In that way I have failed my “preacher’s training”! Yet, this morning, might I help you out a bit to chew on reality that the cross and resurrection awake you to at such great cost? You know something needs to die so that you might live differently. Death is stinging you still in part because you have been enculturated to live by fighting off death rather than dying to live. What needs to die?
- Death to life in which God is absent, hated or used?
- Death to life in which you are only what you are in the eyes of others, what your boss, spouse, co-workers, or social network say you are?
- Death to life that is fleeting and floating, un-tethered and without soul?
- Death to life that is controlled by fear or fearful because you have no control?
- Death to a life restricted by religion without relationship?
- Death to life lived so focused on yourself that you are unable to see others, and especially God present in front of you?
- Death to a life lived in the pursuit of what you are told to pursue rather than what created to pursue, who you have been made to be?
- Death to sin, alive to Christ.
My exhortation, don’t fight death; rather receive it. Receive the death of Jesus that overcomes as you receive his life with abundantly more than you can ask or imagine. Let this day of new life mark a new year in Jesus with others who are practicing resurrection with you.
There is something we do every time we gather as a faith family to help us return to the reality which the cross and resurrection awake us to. In just a moment I will invite all of us to share in this family practice we call communion.
Perhaps you are here and nothing I have mentioned has made much sense (I do hope it is not true, but I not naïve) or you simply feel that you do not have much need for a life with Jesus. If so, you are welcome to simply observe what we are about to do. Taking bread broken like the body of Jesus was broken on our behalf and drinking juice like blood that was board out by Jesus so that his life could become our life. Such symbols help us remember that whatever dying might cost, it is always followed in living, now and forever. So, no matter what you feel, I would encourage you to receive this intrusion of grace this morning, to receive Jesus’ death as your death, and receive Jesus’ life as our life.
 Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (1 Co 15:1–10). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
 Flannery O’Connor, “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable” published in, Flannery O’Connor: spiritual writings, 137-138.
 Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ro 6:1–11). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
 Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: a conversation on growing up in Christ, 8.