What a week it’s been! Last Sunday we had a wonderful Palm Sunday celebration, and the past three days we met to mark the events of Christ’s passion. The music was wonderful, the prayers powerful and the message of salvation touched our hearts once again. And now here we are today on Easter Sunday, celebrating our Lord’s glorious resurrection from the dead. It has indeed been a very holy week.
I realize it’s been a good week for other reasons as well. For the kids it’s been spring break – always appreciated of course. The weather has started to warm up too– just in time for Easter. March madness is in full swing for basketball fans, opening day is right around the corner for baseball fans. Lots of good things are going on. One of you said to me this week: “Wow, pastor, March Madness and Holy Week – you’re probably loving life right now.” I am.
Because of Holy Week my family and I stay in town for spring break, but we did take a half-day trip to Charlottesville on Wednesday. We took in some of the campus sights, and we watched the University of Virginia basketball team play against the University of Iowa – our family’s home state team. The place was packed, as everyone anticipated a good game (or maybe it was the $10 tickets). And it was a good game – especially for us Iowa fans!
About halfway through the game my daughter leaned over to me and asked: “Dad, why do more people watch sports games than go to church?” I gave her a quick, non-specific kind of answer, mostly because I wanted to get back to watching the game. And we haven’t yet re-visited the question. But I thought about that question again as I was preparing today’s message.
It could very well be that sporting events are better attended in our country than church events. I’m not sure about the total numbers, but I can think of lots of people who attend far more sporting events than they do church events. I try not to see it as a competition. I do get very concerned, however, when people rarely, or never, attend worship.
In the Easter Gospel account we hear that the disciples of Jesus did not believe the first reports about Jesus rising from the dead. So also in our day, many people simply do not believe that Christ rose from the dead. In the words of the Gospel writer, they consider it an “idle tale.”
We don’t normally see people rising from the dead, and so there’s a part of us that naturally conclude that death always wins. “Nothing’s certain in this life except death and taxes,” as the old saying goes. Life teaches us to have reasonable expectations – lest we be disappointed too often. And so a resurrection is beyond what we expect. It’s much safer to assume death wins. We end up saying that a person “loses their battle with cancer” or whatever takes them. We keep things real, and our expectations low.
And yet, there is also a part of us that is just like Peter in the story. Peter professed his unbelief, but then ran to the tomb anyway. Was it simple curiosity? Hope? Maybe a small bit of latent but existent faith. He ran, and found evidence for at least part of the message—the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. Later he would see Jesus himself. Faith often works in stages. And Christ never disappoints. The problem is that some never run to see. They’ve chalked it up as an idle tale and settled for life without resurrection.
That explains why some people don’t go to church. But what about those who have faith but still don’t come? I know lots of those people too. You probably do also.
If I were to give my daughter one reason why I believe people choose sports over church, it would be that sports are more exciting. In sports there’s suspense—the outcome of who will win and who will lose is always yet to be determined. Even when the game is over there is always another one to look forward to.
In the Church it’s always the same story. Christ rose from the dead. We might pick up a new detail about it now and then, but the basic message doesn’t change. It’s just constantly repeated.
There something to be said for showing the highlights over and over. ESPN does it. The clip of Bryce Drew hitting the buzzer-beater for Valpo in the tournament will probably be shown forever.
Maybe in the church we need people who can bring these highlights of Christ to life. People like Wipo. Wipo of Burgundy. Do you know him? Nobody today knows much about Wipo—only that he was a loyal chaplain to a Holy Roman Emperor in the 11th century and an excellent writer. His biography of the Emperor fills in lots of important history during that time, and his Easter hymn is one of the greatest ever.
The choir just led us in singing his Easter hymn. The hymn appears in 4 different versions in our hymnal. It is one of only 4 ancient hymns to be included in the Roman Rite after the Council of Trent. Wipo’s Victimae Paschalii became the sequence hymn sung before the reading of the Easter Gospel each year – and we sang it in that place here today. Very cool.
Wipo’s hymn is great because it contains lines like this:
“Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous;
The Prince of Life who died, reigns immortal.”
Wipo highlights the battle which took place when Christ defeated death and the forces of evil. Like all those medieval paintings of the resurrected Christ which show him holding an unfurled military banner, Wipo knows that Christ’s battle was intense, dramatic and glorious. While we rightfully picture Jesus going obediently and silently to the cross, we should also recall his words in John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world
be cast out.”
Christ fought and won a great battle on the cross. Perhaps we need to highlight this battle a little better. And yet, it’s not the highlights that make the network. It’s the anticipation and suspense.
Yes, the story of Christ’s resurrection is the same every Sunday. But the story of Christ’s people is new each day. And these stories are filled with great anticipation and suspense.
There are people we know right now who are contending between death and life. Some are facing illness which might take them at any time. Others are in great emotional turmoil, facing depression, fears and attacks. Still others face great risk to their lives in the work they do – those who serve in the armed forces, those who police our streets, those who guard, protect, and defend – and those who put their life at risk to train for such work.
And then there is that particular drama which each of us faces each day– that “combat stupendous” in which we are tempted to go the way of self-preservation at cost to others, as opposed to following God’s commands and living by faith.
In the midst of our combat, we must turn to Christ for strength. It is the resurrection of Jesus which shows us that God’s way is the right way and that this way will prevail. Death and Life have indeed contended in the Passion of Christ. The Prince of Life died, and yet he rose and reigns immortal.
Christ’s resurrection brings us true life. It brings us life filled with meaning. As followers of Christ we join the battle of good against evil. In this battle we fight not just for our lives but also for the lives of others. The Christian life is not a meaningless survival of the fittest but rather a sacred battle to defend the helpless and shore up the weak.
Christ’s resurrection brings true life because it gives us life eternal. As St. Paul said in our second reading today, Christ’s resurrection is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sin. His resurrection leads us to life everlasting in his kingdom.
Today is the day when the Church celebrates Christ’s victory with all of its might. We marvel at what Christ did for us and we marvel at God’s great love for us in making our resurrection possible. We proudly show those highlights over and over again because we know they bring life.
I don’t know if the millions who gather in churches across this country will outnumber the millions who watch the basketball tournament or the millions who decide to catch up on their sleep or the millions who focus on keeping their bodies fit for as long a life on this earth as they possibly can get, but I do know that the message we proclaim brings the truest and greatest life. And I know that those of you who ran to the tomb this morning will be blessed. And I know that contending in the combat stupendous that God calls us to will be a blessing to us and others.
God works in our lives to bring that which is good and whole and right. It all starts with the resurrection of Christ.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!