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Easter 2015

Verlee A. Copeland

John 20:1-18

What Happens Next?

         Last summer I lost the cross. This one, actually, the one many of you have seen me wear every Sunday for worship. This is the cross I’ve worn for more than two decades every Sunday morning, through 360 funerals and countless weddings. The silver chain came from Mexico, the cross itself from two centuries ago, discovered in a small shop in central Guatemala. Several generations of international teams there supported the Mayan people with food, housing, medical supplies and education during the genocide of their thirty year civil war. Serving with Habitat for Humanity, this cross found me there.

         When the Cross turned up missing sometime in the last eight months, I searched everywhere for it. I got through Christmas wearing angels with trumpets. But without the cross, I worried that Lent would do me in. I felt like Peter at Jesus’ arrest. Somehow I felt that I’d betrayed Jesus. The only work I’ve been given to do this side of heaven is to equip people to live as resurrection people, followers of Jesus, or of The Way, as early Christians called themselves. Without the cross, I’m out of a job.

         So one of you loaned me a cross to wear during this long season of Lent, so that I wouldn’t attempt to wander out alone in the desert without Jesus. Thank you for watching out for me, you know who you are. You see, it’s foolish to go out into the world without the Cross. Unless you are so young that nothing awful has ever happened to you, you know that there are times when we need something much stronger than our best laid plans to see us through suffering to the other side. That strength for those of us, who trust God, is the empty tomb and the empty cross of Easter.

         We proclaim together, “Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.” We hear the trumpets and choir and laughter of children celebrating good news. We listen to the witness of Mary Magdalene in this version of the story, sharing her life-changing encounter with Jesus, whom death could not contain. And then we ask the Easter question, “After we find the Cross, what happens next?”

         There are a number of ways to respond to this Easter question. Today we’re going to keep it simple. When Jesus was still walking around in this world with skin on, he invited people into a forever relationship with God through a new covenant called “Follow Me.” Follow the leader. Ask any kid in this room the rules of “follow the leader” and they can tell you how to play the game.

         Jesus says to the fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus says to the money people, the tax collectors, and the bankers: “Give the government what belongs to them, but give God what belongs to God.” Jesus says “follow me”, and then he feeds 5,000 people on a hillside by breaking a couple of loaves of bread and sharing a couple of fish. “Now you do it,” he says. “If you have something to eat, share it with somebody. Watch this”, he says. Then Jesus touches sick people, and they get better, or their spirit gets healed, and he says; “Now you do it. Heal them, take care of them.” And then someone is hanging around all depressed and hangdog and Jesus says, “Whatever you’ve done or haven’t done, you are forgiven. Now you do it. Go forgive somebody whose hurt or disappointed you.”

         “Go and do what I did. Go and invite other people to follow me to. I’ve spent a short lifetime,” he said, “showing you what love looks like, now go. Do it.” “But remember not to judge anybody, even if they aren’t ready to follow me,” Jesus said, “For God so loved the whole world, that’s everybody, that he sent me into the world. When you judge people who are different from you, you get in my way. Leave them to me.” Jesus says, “for I am the Good Shepherd who will keep going after the lost sheep until every last one of them comes home.”

         Now you may have noticed that sometimes people who call themselves followers of Jesus don’t look anything like Jesus. They don’t say what Jesus says and they don’t do what Jesus did. Maybe they say what Jesus said when they’re at church. But when they’re driving in traffic, or filling out their tax returns, or shopping at the mall, or playing sports, they sometimes forget that when Jesus said, “Follow me”, he was inviting us to play the game all the time, not just on Sunday.

         It’s easy to see how some people get all confused about this. All kinds of people in all kinds of churches for a very long time have pretended that we don’t really have to actually follow Jesus. We just need to have faith and think it's a beautiful idea.

         We pretend we’re playing follow the leader in our heart but we don’t actually play follow the leader for real in our life. Imagine what it would be like as parents if we asked one of our children to go clean their room and they didn’t do it. We might actually expect them to really clean their room, and in a timely manner. We wouldn’t be all that interested if we caught them playing video games an hour later, saying, “I’ve been cleaning my room in my heart.” We wouldn’t be satisfied if they could recite the rules of cleaning their room. We wouldn’t be impressed even if they could translate the rules of room cleaning to Greek or Hebrew. We wouldn’t be much pleased if they formed neighborhood clubs to talk about what it would be like to clean their room and talked about the process of cleaning their room, what to keep and what to get rid of, how to take out the trash, and whether or not they were worthy of living in a clean room without trash. We wouldn’t find delight in the fact that they had developed a support system with others who had also been asked to clean their rooms.

         When we teach our children to clean their rooms, we actually expect them to clean it. We show them how it’s done and tell them that we can be happy and share this home together if everybody is willing to do their part. When asked who gets to be with Jesus forever, he told the crowd that they were in for a big surprise. He said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and then you don’t do what I ask you to do? If you desire to experience God’s kingdom, if you hope to participate in abundant life, if you want to embody joy, then remember what I taught you, and follow me.”

When the funeral ends and Jesus pulls a Tom Sawyer, sitting alive in the balcony while everybody talks about him, it’s not that complicated to figure out what happens next. Jesus comes back a few last times after death, appearing to the disciples just to remind them that God kept God’s promise. God came into the world in power through the life of Jesus to show us what life can be for those who trust God and follow Christ. Maybe the question isn’t what happens next, but what difference does it make?

There’s a great deal at stake in how we answer that question at this time in human history. We live in a time as hostile towards Christians as any in human history. At a high school in Columbine Colorado, a fellow student asked several classmates if they believed in God before killing thirteen other students in all. As there are children present this morning, I won’t elaborate on the details of news this past week. Let me simply say that we grieve with people of faith throughout the world this morning at the loss of Christian University students in Kenya who stood for their faith as if their faith matters.

When we commit our lives to follow this Christ and keep our eyes on the promises of this empty cross, everything changes. We wake up fully alive. We become our best self. We live our best life, for our sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of the world. It doesn’t matter so much if we live only a day or one hundred years, we come to see that our lives have purpose beyond what we create for ourselves. God uses our gifts and capacities in ways that we could not imagine. These past weeks we released to death the life of Andy Noel, Jr. for whom we prayed for months. Some might say our prayers were not answered, as he died of cancer at the age of 47. Tell that to the future recipients of countless scholarships who will remember him for generations to come, or to the 650 athletes who gathered this past week for an awards banquet, for a program now named in remembrance of his generosity as a father, a teacher and a coach.

Our lives have meaning and a purpose beyond what we make of ourselves as evidenced by the very public struggle of one of our neighbors, whose story has graced the front pages of our newspaper as he stood outside our church for sometime, inviting the community to struggle with how to provide bread for all. The challenge for us has not been what to do for him alone, but for how to provide affordable housing for all people, and how to care for the vulnerable in our communities so that no one suffers in the shadow of our spire. Thankfully, our neighbor has just this weekend been given a local apartment at a price he can afford, and with the help of countless church members and neighbors will move from the place where he has been evicted to a new home come Tuesday.

If God could use the life of Andy Noel, Jr. to encourage the lives of athletes, if God can use the struggles of a local man who struggles against enormous odds with autism spectrum disorder to bring awareness to the needs for affordable housing in our community, if God redeemed the life of a young teacher named Jesus whose life and death changed the course of history, imagine what God can do through you?

We gather in this place week in and week out to share stories like these of this God who moves through our lives and whose light triumphs even through the deepest shadows of the world. We gather to remember this Jesus who God sent into the world in the fullness of time, as a light shining in the darkness, as a sign of the new covenant God made with humankind, to be our God, and we God’s people. We gather as heirs of a story of sacrifice to God as a way of showing faithfulness, only to have God reveal that through this final sacrifice in Christ, this way of demonstrating faithfulness is now past. No longer do we sacrifice an animal on the altar, as did our ancestors in faith. Instead, our mark of faithfulness is simply to follow this Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Even if you have been careless with the cross, even if you have forgotten who you are and to whom you belong, God has not forgotten you. Whatever brought you to worship this morning, consider this: Whoever you are, wherever you are in your life journey, whatever your struggles, however great your joys, the God who made heaven and earth, all that was, that is, or that ever will be, entered the world through the life of Christ for all people. On Easter, we remember what happens next. Christ invites us into the way, the truth and the life of God, for you and for all who trust in him.