Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Pause for response). Oh, what joy and rapture to be able to call out the Good News on Easter morning after a long, dark Lenten season! We mark the occasion of Christ’s resurrection with enthusiasm, shouting the refrain that is found on greeting cards, placards, and t-shirts around the world: Jesus died for us! Jesus died for you!
Well, which is it? Do we believe that Jesus died for us – or that Jesus died for everyone? Because I have heard some folks suggest that Jesus belongs only to upright Christian folks who have earned their spot in heaven. In fact, there seems to be a tremendous difference of opinion about who Jesus is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean – one that is critical to understanding what a church of Christ is, and how we should interact with the world around us.
I recently read an article that suggests that the consistent decline in church affiliation that has occurred over the last 30 years is particularly pronounced among young people. This trend first appeared in 1991 and snowballed rapidly. Although we can only guess at why the percentage of believing 18-35 year-olds dropped by a full 17 points in only seven years, the writer suggests that at least one reason is that “’backlash against a radical form of religious expression leads people to distance themselves from all religion, including more moderate religious groups that are viewed as guilty by association with radicals.’” According to the author, such “radical” expressions include “the bomb-throwing approach [of] …. painting [non-believers] as morally inferior and godless.” This kind of hostile exclusivity has led young people to boycott all forms of Christian community. This finding is both tragic and ironic because the Savior we celebrate today was a radical himself – but of a different kind - rejecting social norms that tied wealth and power to moral superiority. He was the kind of radical that I suspect our young people would happily embrace if they knew him better.
If you doubt the revolutionary nature of his teachings, look no further than today’s gospel, in which the resurrected Jesus chooses to identify himself not to his male disciples but to a person with no power or authority – a woman. This is the act of the transforming divinity that Isaiah prophesied would create a new way of being, allowing entrenched enemies to live in peace. This is the human God who touched the untouchable, ate with the unclean, slept beside migrants, and argued theology with a woman “living in sin.” Speaking to a society in which the ability to conquer and control was valued above all else, Jesus insisted on arguing for right over might. As Peter told Cornelius, Jesus represented an impartial God who does not favor one nation over another. He rejected the tribalism of his heritage in favor of a new ethic - changing Jerusalem from the city that kills the prophets into a place where justice and peace prevail.
This Jesus saved his sharpest criticisms for those who worshipped with words rather than deeds, reproaching those who did not practice what they preached, who showed off by praying loudly in public, and who sought to exclude others from the kin-dom of heaven. Woe, he cried, to those who swear by church buildings instead of the God whom they house, who make the church rich and the people poor, and who judge others and excuse themselves. This Jesus was crucified because he told people to give to the emperor only the empire’s meaningless, self-aggrandizing, currency and to save everything else for God.
It is puzzling, then, to hear Jesus’s name used as a justification for exclusion, aggression, and injustice – and it is agonizing to consider that people have left the religion founded in his name because they see Jesus’s followers embracing the very things that Jesus contended against. How can it be that the Church has become so confused about our faith that our own words and behaviors drive people away from rather than toward the God who saved us?
Perhaps it is because as much as we believe in what Jesus preached, those of us who benefit from the status quo cannot help but resist his true meaning: that it was to those who desperately desired a changed world that Jesus came - and it is to them that Jesus’s words have always meant the most. This is the reason that enslaved people clung to their faith even in the face of being told that scripture supported their enslavement; that saints throughout history have willingly suffered for him, and that Jesus’s Spirit remains present in this world still. Jesus is not the Lord of the privileged, bringing blessing upon blessing to those who are already awash in human wealth. He is the God of the lost, the frightened, the imperiled, and the unjustly accused. He is the Savior of the poor and the marginalized.
I think that deep down we are a bit threatened by this, wondering if those of us who live more comfortably have less of a claim on the God who favors the forgotten. Of course not! The Good News of Jesus is not just for those who need it most, but for everyone who needs it – and that is all of us. Do we not fear? Do we not sorrow? Do we not suffer? Jesus does not love or support us any less than those whose agony is different from ours. We too are apostles of the risen Christ, sharing the same joys and burdens as all who seek to follow his way.
Some of you may have heard me speak of “mountaintop moments.” These are times when we experience God’s presence so profoundly that we feel inexplicably joyful. Such moments are rare - and for good reason. Human beings cannot sustain the power of these experiences; they are too beautiful, too awesome - and too terrifying to bear. And yet, some worshippers demand such intensity, mistaking extravagant, exaggerated expressions of love for Jesus for obedience to his commands. This is not what he asked of his followers. It is not what he told Mary at the tomb. “Why are you weeping”? he asked her. “It is not shouts and screams and tears that prove my resurrection. You cannot hold on to me that way.”
John’s gospel tells us that after Jesus’s crucifixion the disciples were frightened and confused. They thought Jesus had come to repair their world – and he died without fulfilling that promise. Our modern siblings who have left the church built in Jesus’s name are similarly perplexed – because they do not see Jesus’s followers working to repair this world. They think we are too busy explaining why worshipping Jesus is right. They see us as too engaged in emoting about how we love him, instead of following his directive to show that love by loving one another.
This is why we cannot remain on the mountaintop - because humanity does not live there. We live in this world, and it is in this world that we can demonstrate our love for Jesus - not by concentrating on our individual piety, but by improving the lot of all people. Celebrate, but do not cling to the ecstasy of Easter. Thank God - and then go out into the world. Fight, as Jesus did, for equality, justice, and peace. Tell people who Jesus was and is – and show Jesus’s love by helping God’s creation. Then the disillusioned will see, and the faithful will be renewed, and all people will believe that The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Alleluia! AMEN.
Ryan Burge (April 13, 2022), “Ahead of the Trend: How America’s youth lost its religion in 1990s, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2022/04/13/how-americas-youth-lost-its-religion-in-1990s/ Ruth Braunstein, quoted in Ryan Burge (April 13, 2022), “Ahead of the Trend: How America’s youth lost its religion in 1990s, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2022/04/13/how-americas-youth-lost-its-religion-in-1990s/ Ryan Burge (April 13, 2022), “Ahead of the Trend: How America’s youth lost its religion in 1990s, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2022/04/13/how-americas-youth-lost-its-religion-in-1990s/