“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Many of you have heard those words before. Maybe in a worship service like this. Maybe on a bumper sticker. Maybe on Tim Tebow’s eye black tape or by a guy dressed as a clown, holding a sign at some sporting event. This word gets around. The first four words may be all we really need to know… maybe all we really need to hear today: “For God so loved…” For God so loved! Have you ever so loved anything? Not just regular old love which is pretty marvelous itself. I mean, I love the Kansas City Royals. I love frozen custard with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in it. I love that feeling of your favorite song coming on the radio in that moment of total freedom when all of your responsibilities are covered for the time being. You just roll down that window and bust a vocal chord without a care in the world. I love that. But have you ever so loved something? That’s a deeper kind of love. That’s the kind of love that the Apostle Paul says, “never” ends. For God so loved the world… for God so loved you… that we’re sitting here this morning in uncomfortable clothes and shouting, “He is risen indeed!” All because God so loved…
Mary Magdalene wasn’t feeling the love that first Easter morning. While it was still dark, she heads out to the tomb where Jesus’ body lay. She’s got her earbuds in as she heads that way. I imagine some Amos Lee – “When you’re gone, colors seem to fade,” or maybe Jason Isbell’s new tune, “Hope for the Highroad” — “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well. Uninspired and likely mad as hell. But wherever you are I hope the high road leads you home again; to a world you want to live in.” She can hope but why bother? She’s sleep deprived and grieving and really just going through the motions. Tell me you haven’t ever felt that way. You’re doing all you can do just to get by – your partner has flaked out on you. Your boss is projecting her stress onto your job performance. You’re caring for a loved one who can’t always remember your name. Mary’s world is rocked. Her tear ducts have no reservoir left from which to form new tears. And she just got a text from her neighbor – her dog is running loose in the neighborhood again. It was like the meme I saw this week that said, “I am presently experiencing life at a rate of several “What the hecks!” per hour.” And I promise you that’s a paraphrase. It’s a crass reality sometimes but I’m guessing you’ve felt like Mary feels.
She gets to the tomb with her essential oils to care for the body of her Lord only to discover things are out of place. She didn’t get too close. She didn’t examine inside. She just noticed the stone had been pushed away and that set her off. She ran back to the place Peter and the ‘other’ disciple, presumably John, were hanging out. It’s interesting that she goes to Peter directly. It was just a few days ago that Peter’s denial was front and center news. Jesus had been arrested and Peter was caught out in public three times saying, “Jesus? Never met the guy.” The denial was back-stabbing enough. What made it worse was the way he went on and on ahead of time, telling Jesus, “Those other punks may run out on you but not me. I’m in it to win it. I won’t bail on you. I’ll die for you if I have to.” Well… Some of us talk a big game, don’t we? Some of us quite proudly so! We can point at the other Christians who we feel don’t have it all together like we do and say, “I ain’t like them. They believe the wrong things. My favorite talk radio host thinks so too.” Before you know it, the betrayal is our own. But here’s Mary going straight to Peter with the news that something’s up at the tomb. Peter, in all his faults and failures – not unlike our own – is still looked to as a leader. No matter what we’ve done or who we’ve become, there is always a spot in the ongoing effort of Christ. For God so loved… remember? What is God’s love if not redemptive?
So the foot race ensues. Peter and John racing to the tomb. It is hilariously always noted that for a couple of thousand years, it has been preserved who won that race to the tomb. John, the writer of the Gospel, taking liberties here perhaps to make sure everyone knows he’s faster. Some say, Peter must have been much older than John, due to the time when John’s work is written. Age has slowed him. Peter’s version, if told, surely noted that he had plantar fasciitis or something that slowed him down. Whatever the case, John gets to the tomb first but he doesn’t go in. Is that a personality thing or another sign of the strength of Peter’s leadership? Did John default to Peter’s role waiting for him to arrive before going in? It’s doesn’t really matter. When Peter gets there he busts right in as we expect him to. He’s a bold, brash sort of guy. He never read the instructions before taking the state test in elementary school and he never stops to ask for directions when he’s lost. He looks at the evidence – some linens spread around, no sign of the body of Jesus and he scratches his head. His blood pressure rises. John peers in, sees the same thing and believes that Jesus has risen on his own like he said he would. Now, this could be his privileged revisionist history as the Gospel writer. “Of course, I believed right away!” By the time Mary gets back to the tomb, the guys have already headed back home. She’s exhausted, frustrated and can do nothing but stare at that death tomb and grieve. We are Peter and John and Mary, aren’t we? Peter’s confused. John believes. Mary is grieving. We all gather in this place this morning coming at this story from a different angle… based on our life experience, our history, our past. For some of us, our past is a great deterrent from living into a life of resurrection ourselves. Someone once said, “We too readily make our past the CEO of our lives.” We stay stuck in our old ways, our old thoughts, our moments of mistake or failure or poor judgment and say, “Nah… I’m staying back here in this mess because there’s really nothing for me in the future.” It’s a defeatist spirit – not a resurrection spirit. Rob Bell said, “When we don’t throw ourselves completely into [the now] and we hold back our best efforts because of what happened in the past, we are letting the past decide the future.” When we feel this way, we quit showing up to our lives.
A colleague of mine was keynoting a youth camp a couple of summer’s ago and he set up his talks on that first night intro by saying, “Most of the time, the most courageous thing you can do in your life is just show up.” You know what goes through a kid’s mind and spirit when they tear up in the morning and say, “Please don’t make me go to school today?” Hard to know. Those kids that walk through those school doors everyday are courageous. Maybe that’s you showing up for work. Maybe for some it’s even showing up at the dinner table with your family. It takes courage to show up and pay attention to your life. On the last night of this camp, the leader invited everyone to take a slip of paper and pencil, return to their seats, and write down a prayer request – not for their dog or their sister or their great aunt’s bunion – but something personal; something they wanted God’s spirit to do within them. My preacher friend wrote on his paper: “I’d like to have the courage to live the way I preach.” I feel you, brother. The leader then invited them to bring their paper forward and put in a basket with all the others. At the close of the service, when they left, they were to reach into the basket and pull out one of the requests. My friend pulled one out… best he could tell, it was the writing of a young person – a Freshman perhaps – 14, 15 years old – it said, “I’m so afraid, God. Help me.” Heart wrenching words. Those could have been Mary’s words that morning: “I’m so afraid, God. Help me.”
But the plot was about to thicken. Mary’s earbuds now welcomed another song. It’s Taylor Swift this time. Begin Again is the song. Do you know it? “Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end… but on a Wednesday in a café, I watched it begin again.” Mary’s not thinking “For God so loved…” she’s thinking “What good is love?” All love ever does is break and burn and end. But on a Sunday, at an empty tomb, she watched love begin again. There’s a man there now. She thinks he’s the gardener. It didn’t cross her mind to think that the gardener probably had the day off – it was Easter and all and Chic-fil-a wasn’t open. A confusing and stammering conversation about “If you saw where they took him” and “if you could just point me in the right direction” turns into a “For God so loved” reunion. When Jesus calls Mary by name, she unmistakably recognizes the voice of her Lord. It wasn’t the first word he spoke to her. She didn’t recognize him until he said her name. There’s something personal in this moment that may be worth us considering. You can read the Bible cover to cover. You can listen to the best preaching the world has to offer – the interwebs has become church for many. You can debate your friends and family about doctrine and right belief and which denomination Jesus prefers but until you’ve made it personal – you’ll not recognize the voice of Christ; you’ll not recognize the world that God so loves as anything other than allies and enemies, dirt and water. Until it’s personal, love won’t challenge you to grow your circle of welcome. Easter becomes personal to Mary the instant she hears her name; and she is astonished.
The church may be missing the boat on this. Mike Yaconelli is in the resurrection now but when he walked this earth, he was an influential author and youth pastor. A few years back, he spoke about the greatest issue facing the church – not addiction or technology or doctrine. He said, “The greatest issue facing the church today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The ‘Good News’ is no longer good news, it’s okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wide eyed radicals anymore, he changes them into nice people.” There’s nothing wrong having your life enhanced or becoming a nicer person – those are good things – but there’s got to be something greater, don’t you think? Something more personal at stake. Mike says, “It is time to find the place where the dangerous wonder of faith can be discovered again…”
That’s having faith on purpose… a personal faith that we don’t leave in these seats or we don’t hang up in our closets this afternoon for another year along with our Easter pastels. We don’t leave today thinking, “Nice service,” but we leave thinking, “How can I begin again?” ‘For God so loved’ becomes a challenge for us to so love one another too; so love the world that we might hold the wonder of it all again. That we might be astonished at what love invites us to do and then we make it personal. That sooooo kind of love changes the way we operate in our own homes, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods and even in our churches. And it’s that kind of Easter love that can change the world still.
In a few short minutes, we will baptize a few of our own in the name of Jesus. They make it personal today. At our first pastor’s class where we begin a journey of discovery – of claiming faith for ourselves, we talk about our identities. We share our full names and how we got those names. I always share that my dad is a preacher and my mom a teacher – deeply faith-filled people. They gave me the name, Mark, just like the Gospel writer in the Bible. Then I say, I have an older brother so his name is naturally… Matthew. Which left my poor little sister with the name… Luke. I’m just kidding. My parents are faithful people and all but they’ve got good sense about them. Her name is Kristin and she’s the best sister in the entire world. Each student would share their full name. It was fascinating to watch their wheels turn about their own names, their own identities, where they came from and why that matters. We taught them the Latin phrase, “Imago Dei” – which means “image of God.” We share how each of them was made in that very image. For God so loved the world that they were created to be their own unique presence in the world that somehow reflects the very nature and image of God’s love. No one else just like them in the world. What a beautiful thing! They’ll hear their full names called aloud in this space this morning and they’ll profess their Easter faith and they’ll begin again – a life in full pursuit of the way of love they are uniquely created to bring to the world.
That’s the message for you and me today too – the same one. Easter has your name written all over it. Easter couldn’t be contained in any tomb and it can’t be contained in any church sanctuary. Easter only flies on in this world – a world that desperately needs some resurrection – when we take it personally. We don’t anoint our past or give its grip control, we step forward to the future knowing that God so loved even you, even me, that we might believe in Christ and know life that is truly life. Love doesn’t break or burn or end. Love never ends. On Easter morning, we watch it begin again. Now? It’s on us — what will we do with Easter? What will you do because God so loved you? I don’t know about you but I’m so done with death. Three days of death was enough for Jesus too. He was so done with death. We often say “Life’s too short” as a way of saying, “Make the best of your time.” The flipside is true today. “Death’s too short” to let it rule your thoughts, your fears, your relationships and your faith. It’s time to live unafraid. Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia! Amen! Let’s go! Let’s begin again…
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 From Yaconelli’s work, “Dangerous Wonder”. Tyndale House. 1998.