Easter Sermon on John 20 (2006)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: John 20:1-18;
Acts 10:34-43; Isa. 25:6-9


There are so many things to celebrate this glorious day. I’d like to focus this morning on just one of the things made new at our Lord’s resurrection, namely, our whole experience of God is made new as the one who was Crucified is raised as God’s Messiah, God’s Christ. I don’t think we can overemphasize enough how much that changed even the disciple’s experience of who God is. They had always thought of God as one who would rescue his people through military might by sending the Messiah to lead them in victory. But the one who they had thought was the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, had been shamefully executed by their enemies the Romans. So if God had now raised this Crucified Jesus from the dead, then who is this God, really, and why would God let the Messiah be executed?

I’d like to bring out the newness of this experience of God in Christ’s resurrection mainly through telling you one of my favorite stories, a story that has helped change and shape my experience of God. Before I tell my story, I’d like to help to set that up for a moment with some of the texts we’ve been reading from John’s Gospel through Lent. In John’s Gospel, he sets it up from the beginning about what the Resurrection will really mean. There’s that most loved verse from John 3 that tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. The experience of this loving God can virtually help us be reborn from above with God’s Spirit of grace.

And even before John 3:16 we heard the story from John 2 back in the Second Sunday of Lent, a story that already looks ahead to the resurrection. There is this very interesting exchange to conclude the story.

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22)

Do you see? Right at the beginning John is telling us what the disciples had to start re-figuring when confronted by the Risen Jesus. They remembered these words from Jesus about the temple being rebuilt.

And this whole idea of the temple being rebuilt is a bigger deal than we might realize. For what was the temple for people of Jesus time? It was the interface between God and human beings. If you wanted to meet God you would have to go to that sacred place, that building. And your experience of God was greatly colored by what you would do there, killing a lamb, for example, on an altar. God was so often experienced as an angry God who demanded blood sacrifices for the forgiveness of your sins.

Jesus is saying — right from the beginning of John’s Gospel, then — that he has come to replace the temple as that interface between God and human beings. The Risen Jesus on Easter morning began to represent for the disciples a whole new experience of God through what they had just experienced, a God who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Jesus came as the Lamb of God to replace the temple sacrifices and to grant forgiveness through the mercy of the cross, a self-sacrifice.

This is huge! Two thousand years later, have we fully comprehended this change even yet? How often in your life have you continued to hear about an angry punishing God, the kind of God experienced in the temple sacrifices, not the cross of Jesus?

This is where one of my favorite stories enters in, told by Christian counselor Dennis Linn, about how his mind was changed about God. (1) Pastor Dennis basically has an Easter moment very similar to what the apostles must have begun to undergone. He describes how his image of God was more like his stern old Uncle George than the God who graciously gives us forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ. Then, he tells this story of how his mind was finally changed:

One day Hilda came to me crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”

Since at the time my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George, I thought “God will probably send your son to hell.” But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad that my … training had taught me … to [instead] ask …, “What do you think?”

“Well,” Hilda replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Although I tended to agree with her, I didn’t want to say, “Right on, Hilda! Your son would probably be sent to hell.” I was again grateful for my theological training which taught me a second strategy: when you don’t know how to solve a theological problem, then let God solve it. So I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. Your son has just arrived at the judgment seat of God. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”

A few minutes later Hilda squeezed my hand. She described to me the entire judgment scene. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.

I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.

As we come to our Risen Lord’s Feast of Victory this morning, as Andy and Mattie come for the first time to receive the bread and wine, we are invited once again to meet the God we glimpse in Jesus Christ, and to put away any and all vestiges of our Stern Old Uncle George. The God we behold through our Crucified and Risen Lord is wholly a loving Heavenly Father who calls all the people of this earth into his loving family. We are continuing to be reborn from above to be children of this God that we might come together as a Holy Communion. And as the body of our Risen Lord, we are now that new temple in this world. God’s healing and life presence is still not contained in a building but in the fragile vessels of our lives as we are reborn and remade in Jesus Christ. May we go forth from this place with that life-giving message of the God of unconditional love that raised Jesus our Risen Lord. May we go forth refreshed by the Holy Spirit to bring that experience of God to others that all may know God’s love as children of God.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran,
Milwaukee, WI, April 16, 2006

1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.

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