One of my roles as Dean of the Tennessee Convocation is to interview clergy and churches in our state that want to join our Diocese to determine if they are a good fit for us and we for them. I recently interviewed a priest and asked him to tell me his story. He told me that he came fresh out of seminary all full of hope and energy and could not wait to tell people about Jesus. But he was placed by the Bishop in a parish to work under a seasoned priest who confided in this young curate that he did not believe that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead. It was a deflating blow to him and he wisely moved on as soon as possible because Curates rarely win battle with Rectors.
Sadly that is not the first time that I have heard such as story about both clergy and seminary professors. So it occurred to me if there are men in pulpits and seminaries that are confused or in doubt about the resurrection of Jesus then perhaps there are some in the pews who are equally uncertain.
And let’s be clear. The bodily resurrection of Jesus does not fall into the non-essentials category when it comes to our faith. St. Paul said that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then we above all men are to be pitied. Why? Because if Jesus were still in a tomb then our beliefs, our very lives, would be based on a pipe dream. Others would be right to consider us pathetic.
I submit to you, that at least in part, there is doubt ABOUT Jesus resurrection because folks are not clear on WHY He was raised from the dead. So why was He raised from the dead?
He was raised from the dead for this….a chocolate Easter bunny. Or should I say He was raised from the dead for what this chocolate Easter bunny represents. And what this chocolate Easter bunny represents is all of our efforts to make life what we hope it would be, even what we need it to be, but in the end we fall short when we try it on our own. Let me illustrate what I mean.
First notice the packaging. It is bright and cheerful, and while you can’t see if from the pews, the little bunny even has a smile on his face. And like this little bunny we are conditioned to go through life to be bright and cheerful with a smile always on our faces. Especially here in the South we have been trained to make everything as sweet as this bunny. You can say anything about anybody you want as long as you end it with “And bless her heart.” Am I right?
But for how many of us is life really bright and cheerful and all smiles? We can look beautiful on the outside, be in our Easter best, and still be shattered on the inside. By the way, that is one of the reasons that we should not be judging one another. We have no idea what is going on behind the smiles or lack thereof in other people. The Scriptures call on us to believe the best of one another.
But as for us, we want to be bright and cheerful and happy and yet so often grief or fear or shame or anxiety or life in general robs us of these things.
I don’t mean to be whatever the Easter version of Scrooge is but let’s be real. If everything was as good as we pretend them to be then our heavenly Father would not have sent His Son to make atonement for the sins of the world. He came, as we heard from the prophet Isaiah, to remove the shroud of death from our lives, to wipe away the tears from our faces and to take away our disgrace. He was raised from the dead to take away our grief and our fear and our anxiety and our shame by making us right with God and right with each other. He was raised from the dead to replace our fake bunny smiles with true joy. Jesus said that He had come that we might have life and have it abundantly. It takes a resurrected Jesus to make that possible and I’m not ashamed to admit that I need that from Him.
Next when you take the packaging off the chocolate Easter bunny you discover that the packaging was deceiving. There is a lot less bunny here than the packaging leads you to believe. He was standing on an internal cardboard box and his ears don’t go all the way to the top of the box. At least he looked impressive from the outside and that’s what counts! Right?
For many of us, our packaging is a lie as well. I knew a priest who planted a church in Franklin, Tennessee and when I said that fundraising for a building must be easy for him in such an affluent community, he told me that I would be surprised how many times he has gone into million dollar homes that barely had any furniture in them. But at least they looked good from the road and that’s what counts. Right?
If we don’t hide behind external packaging like half empty homes, we hide behind degrees or titles or expertise. And that is nothing new. In His own day Jesus confronted those whose packaging was also a front. He rebuked those who loved their titles and places of honor and cared more for their reputations than they did for either God’s glory or for the needs of others. Jesus called them whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones. I’m not sure things have changed very much.
At the root of this is pride. We want people to think that we are doing better than we truly are. We want people to consider us experts when in reality we don’t know as much as they think that we do. We want to give the impression that we can handle it, that we have it all together when in reality we really don’t have it all together. Those in the helping professions will tell you that you would be surprised to learn how many lives are teetering on the edge of chaos.
Jesus’ resurrection offers us a way out of this prideful trap. His resurrection was the crowning proof that His life of humility was the way of God. He demonstrated humility when He put aside His divine prerogatives to be born of a woman. He demonstrated humility when He loved the despised and rejected. He demonstrated humility when He washed His disciples’ feet. He demonstrated humility when He yielded to the Father’s will and offered Himself as an atonement for the sins of the world. It was not a role He played it was who He was. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
It is in following the example of Christ’s humility that we become free of prideful posturing. It is incredibly liberating to no longer concern yourself with the packaging.
Last week was the feast of Richard of Chichester in the 13th century. The Church made him Bishop against the wishes of the King and so the King barred him from the Bishop’s palace. So Richard spent two years walking barefoot around his diocese, doing the work of Christ and, like St. Paul, accepting the hospitality of his people. Even when the King gave him the privileges of the Bishop, he fasted often and slept on the floor to avoid the pride that can come with the office. It is through the resurrection power of Jesus that we are freed from the bondage of pride and we learn how fulfilling it is to take up the towel of a servant.
Where this bunny truly becomes an icon, for why we so desperately need Jesus to be raised from the dead, is in the taste test. You have had these cheep bunnies before. They start out good but the aftertaste is nasty. Why? Let’s look at the ingredients. Number one is “sugar.” No surprises there. That is why it has a good start. But next is “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” and who doesn’t want some hydrogenated oil in their sweets? And thank the Lord it is only partially hydrogenated because if they had made it fully hydrogenated there is no telling what it would have become.
Next comes “whey” as in “Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet.” Frankly I don’t know what “whey” is except that it goes with “curds” and I heard on the news that “curds” have something to do with the fighting in Iraq, so this is all very confusing.
But here is the point. Did you notice anything missing? Wouldn’t you kind of hope that a chocolate Easter bunny would have some chocolate in it by now? So I turned to the front of the package and it reads “Hollow Milk Chocolate Flavored.”
How appropriate. This bunny is not milk chocolate, it is milk chocolate FLAVORED. And it is not just milk chocolate flavored it is “HOLLOW milk chocolate flavored.” Is that not a perfect description of so many lives today? When the season finale of Keeping Up With The Kardashians is the most watched show in the history of E television, “hollow milk chocolate flavored” may even be a compliment.
This goes deeper than trying to have bright packaging by seeking happy lives. It even goes deeper than pride fully portraying ourselves through deceptive packaging. Now we are down to the essence of who we are. When we get real quite and take an honest appraisal of ourselves we discover that we are not what we are called to be. When we go to places that we don’t like to go, we know that something is desperately wrong. The way the Bible puts it is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
But there is something deep within us that wants to be genuine at our core. And yet all that we are able to accomplish by our own efforts is to be hollow milk chocolate flavored. The Bible is very blunt here. It says that even our righteousness is like filthy rags before God. We need help to be forgiven; we need help to discover who we are supposed to be. That help comes through the resurrection of Jesus. St. Paul said, “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above…For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
Notice something very important in his words. These are words not just of doctrine or belief. These are statements of your actual position in God. Listen again. You have died, your life is hidden with Christ and you have been raised with Him. This takes us from merely believing in the validity of the resurrection to living into Christ’s own resurrected life. It cannot be overstressed how we must take this beyond mere doctrine. Why? To paraphrase the Epistle of St. James, “So you believe in the resurrection of Jesus? You do well. So do the demons and they tremble.”
Through the resurrection of Jesus, sin and death have been defeated. He offers us a life free of their control. Through the resurrection of Jesus we are made free and once made free we discover who we are, we find out why we are here, we live lives that are most authentic, and not hollow milk chocolate flavored lives.
What does it mean to live lives that are hidden in Christ? You will need to come back to hear and experience that over the next few weeks as we prepare for Pentecost. But know that just as Jesus made a decision to die on the cross for your sins, so you can make a decision TODAY to accept His resurrected life. As you come forward to receive His Body and His Blood, present yourself to Him as a living sacrifice. I mentioned Richard of Chichester earlier. He offered a simple and humble prayer that became a hymn of the Church and even became a pop song. It says it all and it is one that you can use today to invite the power of Christ’s resurrection into your life. Let us pray. “Day by day, dear Lord of thee three things I pray; to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.” Amen and Happy Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord has risen indeed. Alleluia.