In Light Of Easter

Ben H. Swett
Easter Sunrise Service
Bethany Christian Church
19 April 1981

Why are we here? Why are we sitting out here in the cold, waiting for the sun to come up? Have we come to watch the sunrise? Or to look at our world in light of the first Easter? Or both? What does light reveal that darkness conceals? The truth.

Sunrise allows us to see our world, each other, and ourselves ever more clearly. It illuminates things we could not see before--we know that, or can observe it for ourselves. But when we think about it, we remember that the sun does not rise. The earth rotates. Our words still reflect the ancient idea that the earth is flat.

What does that other ... sunrise ... called "Easter" illuminate for us? What do we find when we think about it? An empty tomb? A group of hysterical women who saw a gardener and thought he was the ghost of their dead rabbi? A beautiful myth, like a fairy tale, intended to comfort those who need it? Or a poetic oriental metaphor and therefore not to be taken seriously? Is it a mystery that we are not permitted to question or understand? All those theories have been used to explain that first Easter morning. As Socrates said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and so it is with the beauty and the significance, of sunrise and of the resurrection of Christ. What we see depends on our own point of view.

For me, the hinge of history pivots on a single instant of time--the short silence between two words spoken on that first Easter morning: "Mary"..."Rabboni!" This world has not been the same since that moment.

The moment of Easter recognition comes at different times for different people. For Mary Magdalene, it was at sunrise. For a group of his disciples in an upper room, and two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it came later that same day.

One week later, the hinge of history came to an honest sceptic named Thomas. He fell on his knees and cried, "My Lord and my God!" The risen Christ said to him, "Do you believe because you have seen me? More blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe."

About a month later, some of his disciples watched Jesus ascend through the clouds and no doubt thought to themselves, "Well, there he goes. It was fun while it lasted." But a very matter-of-fact angel said to them, in a very matter-of-fact way, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there staring into heaven? This Jesus will come again as you saw him go." In other words, "Men of Galilee, what makes you think that was a one-way trip?"

It was not a one-way trip. He proved that about ten days later by pouring out so much power, through those same disciples, that the neighbors thought they were crazy--or drunk. And he filled them with such clear, unmistakable, convincing words that some three thousand people joined them that day.

Some time later, there was a man named Saul who didn't like the teachings or the followers of Christ. In fact, he didn't like them a lot. He tried to destroy them. Nevertheless, the same Jesus who spoke to Mary on Easter morning spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus--and permanently altered the way Saul looked at the world, other people, and himself.

What does the hinge of history mean today? For insight concerning that question, perhaps we should ask: What does sunrise mean to us? What is the significance, here and now, of the fact we that live in a part of the world where the sun has risen? We can see, whereas a little while ago we could not. That is the difference.

What is the significance, here and now, of the fact we live on this side of Easter? Does it make any difference in the way we live our lives, here and now?

Has it dawned on us that Jesus can come to any human being, anywhere, any time he chooses? Have we seriously considered the implications of having that Jesus loose in this world, today? Or have we tried to hide behind the notion that he cannot come, that he is safely dead and buried or conveniently far away in heaven sitting at the right hand of God-the-Father-Almighty, where he will hopefully stay until the hopefully distant end-of-the-world?

Many modern theologians tell us the Greek word parousia means "coming" or "second coming." They are either full of beans or deliberately misleading people. The Greek word for "coming" is erchomen. The word parousia means "presence." But consider this: when we say "he is coming," we are also saying "he is not here." Thus, modern theologians lead people to believe that Jesus is not here. They have twisted the meaning of the word parousia so that it testifies to his absence, rather than his presence.

Why would they do that? They are usually the same theologians who maintain that his resurrection is a myth--in other words, a fiction rather than a fact. Thus they deny the reality of the risen Christ and convey the message, "Jesus is dead."

Many people would rather believe Jesus is dead. That way, they have no reason to fear his presence. Conversely, those who believe they have some reason to fear his presence therefore have reason to believe--or try to believe--that he is dead.

Those who believe in his "second coming" at the end of the world, instead of his presence in the world today, have neatly postponed their need to consider the question any further. How convenient! How very convenient to have placed this man from Nazareth at a comfortable distance from our sinful selves! But what if it is not so? What if Jesus continues to come, whenever and wherever he chooses, to whomsoever he chooses, without invitation and without warning, as he did to Paul on the road to Damascus?

That is precisely what the Syrian word maranatha means. It is translated "the Lord comes," but it does not mean "he came" or "he will come" or "he is coming bye and bye." It means "he continues to come" and it infers "This is the report of an eye-witness." Paul used the word maranatha in one of his letters (I Cor. 16:22), and from all accounts, he knew what he was talking about.

So now it is up to you to decide whether the New Testament is a lie and all of those who have testified to his presence from that day to this are also liars--or whether those who have tried so hard to put Jesus in the distant past, the distant heaven, or the distant future are merely kidding themselves.

I say they are kidding themselves--the materialists, the humanists, the modern scribes who interpret the scriptures to suit themselves, the modern Sadducees who say there is no resurrection, and the modern Pharisees who believe he will not be here until the end of the age.

And I say that Jesus is alive and working, today. He comes when he pleases and where he pleases, whether we believe it or not and whether we like it or not. He is not a tame lion, a captive king, or a domesticated deity. He is himself, the same as he was in Galilee: a real person, having and exercising full freedom of choice.

Whether he comes to any one of us does not depend on us. That is his decision. We cannot make him come or keep him away. But whether we stand still or run away from him is up to us, and that depends on whether or not we fear his presence.

Don't take my words too lightly. It might seem easy to say, "Oh, yes! I welcome him! Come, Lord Jesus, come!" But it might be something else again to face him as he is, to experience his presence, his parousia. On that occasion, one might find it far more appropriate to say, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!"

But do we really need to fear him? So much that we need to deny his presence, his parousia, in this world? Why do so many religious leaders dream up doctrines that lead us to think Jesus is far away? Are they afraid of him, as the leaders of the Jews were afraid of him? Was he that terrible to the people of Palestine, or was he only viewed as a threat by those who had some reason to fear the light of truth? How did he deal with sinners like you and me?

Look in the Bible. See for yourself how Jesus deals with various kinds of people. Remember that he already knew their innermost thoughts and feelings: he did not judge by external appearance or behavior. But look at him! See what he did.

How did he treat those who would not listen, those who actively disbelieved what he had to say? At Nazareth and in the Temple, he tried to convey his message, and then quietly walked away.

What about those who called him "Lord" but would not keep his commandments? To them he said, "I never knew you."

What about the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees who thought they had all the answers and loaded on other people the multiple burdens of their own religiosity? How about those who pretended to be better than they really were? He verbally blew them away.

But how did he deal with honest doubt? How did he respond to those who came to him with real questions, not trick questions or clever debaters' traps? With them, he had endless patience.

What of those who really had done something wrong and were sorry? To a woman caught in adultery he said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." And to a thief who admitted he deserved to die for his crimes, Jesus said, "This day you will be with me in Paradise." Might he not say something like that to you?

How did he deal with those who asked him to help or heal someone they loved? He went out of his way for them, time and time again. What about his disciples, dumb and slow as they so obviously were? He was firm and kind, patient and persistent with them.

So then, which of those people are you like? And how did he deal with them? Isn't that how he would have dealt with you, if you were there?

Look and see whether you need to fear his judgement. As Pontius Pilate said to those who wanted him to crucify Jesus, "Behold the man!" Take off the blinders of doctrines and dogmas and creeds. Simply look at Jesus to see how he deals with people like you. Then you will know whether you should invite him in--or fear him and flee from his presence.

Now look again, in light of Easter, and Pentecost, and the road to Damascus, and the testimony of those who have experienced the hinge of history from that day to this. I believe you will find it is foolish to think Jesus is dead, or far away, or that he cannot come to us here and now. I believe you will see that each human being will have to decide, sooner or later, whether to face Jesus or flee from him.

I have looked, and looked again. What I see is this: I do not follow Jesus because he was born of a virgin, or descended from David, or the Jewish Messiah. I do not follow him because he died for my sins, or because the Church Council of Nicea said he is the second person of the Trinity. I am a soldier and a scientist: I care for none of those things. I follow Jesus because he is worthy of my allegiance, fit to be my master, qualified to be my king--and my God, for that matter--here and now. I have not come to this belief lightly, nor do I hold it lightly.

I believe Jesus of Nazareth is qualified to be the king of any man and any woman, of all men and all women, here and now, in this life and in the life to come. And I say to you, as Paul said to the early Christians: maranatha, beloved, maranatha. He continues to come.

Happy Easter.

Amen.