Tuesday, April 07, 2015

April 5, 2015 - Easter Sunrise Service: The Power of Faith

The Power of Faith

It is Easter morning!  It is also the end of Lent.  I arose at 12:01 a.m. this morning to eat a breakfast that included 12 boxes of marshmallow Peeps and 15 chocolate bunnies, so we’re going to ratchet up the energy level in this service!

I had an Indiana Jones moment years ago.  It was early in the summer after 5th or 6th grade.  One fine summer day I walked out into our front yard to a big, canvas hammock that we had strung up between two trees.  It was all bunched together, so I pulled it open and in one motion flopped into it.  As soon as I landed in the hammock I realized it was already occupied.  In the bottom of that hammock, squirming under my back, was a really, really big snake.  It was probably fifty feet long, at least.  Both of us were trying to get out of that hammock as fast as we could!

I don’t know if that’s why snakes strike fear in me or not, but I’m going to assume that episode had something to do with my absolute fear and dread of snakes.  I don’t think there is anything that would allow me to conquer that fear, unfortunately.

Think about your deepest fear, your greatest dread in life; how do we move beyond our fear?  When we read the resurrection stories in the gospels, the presence of fear is not only surprising, it is very palpable.

Listen to our Scripture reading from the gospel of Mark –

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb
and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons.
10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.
11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.
12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.
13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.
14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

Did you note the presence of fear in the first witnesses of the empty tomb?  Now, considering the events of the previous week, and also the difficulty in comprehending Jesus’ prophecy that he would be resurrected, it’s not hard to understand why fear was present in those witnesses.

Fear is a powerful force in our lives.  At some point in recent days, every one of us was held back in some way because of fear.  Every one of us.  Every one of us will marvel at someone who is not bound by a fear that grips us, and every one of us will wonder why someone is bound by a fear that has no hold over us.

Jesus spent a lot of time trying to move his followers beyond fear.  At the moment of crucifixion, almost every one of them fled.  After the crucifixion, they had returned to the Upper Room and were hiding out in fear, and with good reason.  After witnessing the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus, who wouldn’t hide out, assuming they might be next on the list of those to be executed by the Romans.

So how do you transform a group of frightened, anxious, uncertain disciples into a group that turned the world upside down?

There is only one power I know that can accomplish such a feat, and that is The Power of Faith.

There are a lot of powerful forces in the world, and some of those forces are strong enough to move people to give up their lives.  Love is such a force.  Patriotism can be such a force. 

But there is something different about the power of faith that transformed those disciples.  Plenty of people have given their lives for someone they loved.  Plenty of people have given their lives for their country.  People will die for all manner of causes, but their sacrifices are not generally remembered beyond a rather limited amount of time.

Something was different with the disciples.  What was it?  It was the power of faith that allowed them to overcome their deepest fear, that transformed the way in which they looked at the world and other people; it transformed them so completely that almost everyone who came in contact with them was also transformed.

It is the power of faith that is fueled by the reality of the resurrection.

Mark begins the resurrection story by telling us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Jesus.  There was absolutely no expectation of a resurrection.  They fully expected to find the dead, lifeless body of Jesus.

We are the beneficiaries of 2,000 years of history, theology, and teaching about the resurrection.  Belief in the resurrection and the understanding of the resurrection as the pivotal event in human history is passed on from one generation to another almost as though it is a family heirloom.

Though Jesus spoke of resurrection, his followers didn’t really expect it, and had a hard time believing it was true, as the resurrection narratives in Scripture clearly show.

How do you comprehend something that is so completely outside your range of knowledge, experience, or expectation?  How do we, to use today’s overused language – think outside the box our minds have been molded into?  How do we accept the impossible as possible, and the implausible as plausible?  Through the power of faith.

So much of our world is based on power.  There is the power of politics.  There is the power of military might.  There is the power of money.  But this morning we are here to acknowledge and celebrate the ultimate power – a power that deals with ultimate matters of life and death, a power that is about changed and changing lives.  Easter is a celebration of the ultimate in power – the power of faith and the victory it brings of life over death.

The entire life of Jesus, but especially his final days, is a challenge to walk like him and to forsake the normal categories of power.  The Triumphal Entry challenges us to remember that to walk like Jesus means we forsake conquering power and pride and embrace humility.  The Last Supper challenges us to embrace the great command of love and a life of service rather than that of a defeating power.  The Garden of Gethsemane challenges us to walk in the paths of Jesus even when the walk is difficult and challenging and to seek the power of the will of God rather than the power of our own will.  The crucifixion challenges us to embrace the power of forgiveness, as did Jesus while he hung dying on the cross.  And finally then there is the resurrection, which challenges us to never forget the ultimate power – the power that allowed life to conquer death.

It was the power of that faith that allowed the early followers of Jesus to overcome their fear.  Aside from Judas Iscariot, who took his own life, every one of the disciples – with the exception of John, who died in exile – had their lives taken from them.  This small, ragtag band of fearful followers formed the first church.  They were our forbearers in faith and our church ancestors, and they become our role models for allowing The Power of Faith to move us beyond our fears and into the life to which God calls us.

It’s important that we emphasize what convinced those first followers was the reality of the resurrection – it was a personal experience with Jesus.  Jesus came to Mary, he came to the disciples, he came to others, and the reality of their experience brought to them the truth of his resurrection.

The essence of faith remains a personal experience with the risen Christ.  The Christian faith is not a belief system, it is not a theology, it is not an organization or an institution – it is a relationship founded upon an experience with the risen Christ.

We can seek to use theology and philosophy and reason in an attempt to convince people of the truth and reality of Jesus, but they are not enough.  Theology and philosophy and reason may open a person’s mind to faith, but it takes more – it takes a personal experience.

This is what happened to Peter.  Peter, who had denied Jesus three times in order to save his own skin, but later willingly gave his live.  It was an experience, on the road to Damascus, that transformed Paul, the great persecutor of the Church, into the great missionary pastor.

The power of faith that allows us to receive the resurrection is what transforms our lives, as it has so many millions before.  Without the resurrection we would know nothing of Jesus.  Without the resurrection Jesus might have achieved a status of a moral teacher of some renown, but it is the resurrection that moves him far beyond just a teacher of morality and into a very real and living presence.

There are countless people throughout history whose lives have been transformed by Jesus.  Some of them are notable – Peter, Paul, Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – but many more who remain nameless.  But notable or nameless matters not; what matters is the transformation that occurred in their lives because of The Power of Faith.

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