Well, if you've been coming to Douglas UCC for a number of years now, you know that I always like to begin my Easter message by reading you a short children's story, because although we don't have a lot of children who come to our church, I think the joy of Easter morning brings out the child that's in each one of us. The story I'm going to read for you this morning was written by Heather Lynn Hanson. This is a story about two children, a brother and a sister named Roberto and Ramona.
And they have a wonderful dog named Felice. Together, the three of them would roam around their neighborhood. Sometimes Felice would playfully chase a squirrel. Other times, Felice would sit with the children on a tree stump, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging as he rested. And Roberto and Ramona would talk to Felice, staring into his big brown eyes. They would tell him their joys and their concerns.
And it seemed like Felice understood them. Sometimes when they walked together to the supermarket in town, bigger kids would tease Roberto and Ramona. But Felice would always growl at them, and the bigger kids would leave them alone.
But one day, something terrible happens. Felice died. The children cried and cried. Then they found a place to bury him in a garden. A few days later, Roberto and Ramona were walking home from school, and they saw a dog coming toward them that reminded them of fleece. He too, was chasing squirrels just like Felice did. And then he came to rest with the children on the tree stump. And he wagged his tail just like Felice. The children looked into the dog's eyes, and they felt Felice’s love and presence. It was real, very real. And then the dog left them.
On their way home, the children had to pass by that supermarket, where the bigger kids would tease them. Though Felice was no longer with them, Roberto and Ramona remembered how confident they felt with him by their side. And so they walked bravely past the other kids, feeling Felice’s presence and power with them. And the bigger kids left them alone.
When they got home, Roberto and Ramona asked their mom if Felice had come back to life as an angel or a ghost. Their Mom replied, I don't know about that. But what I do know is that Felice’s love and spirit live on. Every time you remember him, he becomes alive again. In you. The end.
I love that story. Because like all children's stories, it speaks to truth, great spiritual truth. And the spiritual truth is yet that yes, Felice’s physical body died and was in the ground. But his spirit lived on in those who loved him.
And that's the Easter story. Jesus's physical body had been crucified and put in a tomb. But the tomb could not contain his spirit. His loved ones, after his physical death, continued to experience His light, love, power, and presence in a very real way.
And they understood that his light hadn't been extinguished, but that it lived on in each and every one of them. And it lives on in you and me, too.
That's what we're celebrating today at Easter. Now, the world's greatest biblical scholars and theologians have absolutely no idea of the exact date that Jesus died. And so the early church decided to celebrate Easter during the spring solstice.
The Solstice, of course, is the celebration of the sun, S U N. And they made it into a celebration of the son, SON. If you were here in December, I explained that we also don't know when Jesus was born. And so the church set the date of his birth during the winter solstice. One is the birth of the light. And the other, that we're celebrating today is the rebirth of the light.
In fact, that's how we get the name Easter. It comes from a pagan goddess. Her name was he Oestre. She's the goddess of spring. The church took a pagan festival and transformed it into a religious festival.
One of my favorite quotes about resurrection and springtime comes from the Christian reformer Martin Luther, who said, “God has not written the promise of resurrection only in books, but in every leaf in springtime.”
And isn't that the truth? If you want to know if resurrection is real or not, go outside right now. Look at the grounds. Look at the flowers popping up out of the ground after the long winter after the darkness of winter. Look at that, look at the trees beginning to bud. That's resurrection. That's what we're celebrating on Easter, that after the darkness of winter, the winters in our lives, the light remains. There's always new life.
Now we in the progressive church, we understand that the stories of the Bible are symbolic stories. Theologians and biblical scholars tell us that that's the way the Bible was written. It was written symbolically, and it was meant to be understood symbolically. So most progressive Christians that I know, don't believe there really was a talking snake. They don't believe that Jonah lived inside of a fish for three days. They don't believe in Noah's Ark or a virgin birth.
But when it comes to the physical resurrection of Jesus, it seems most progressive Christians draw the line. They say no, no no, not that. I mean… that can't be symbolic. That's literal. In fact, a few Easter's ago, one of our church members got very upset with me and said, Pastor Sal, if Jesus didn't physically rise from the dead, what in the world are we doing here every Sunday? Isn't that the basis of our faith?
Well, as we heard in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, stories of the physical resurrection of Jesus appear nowhere in the early gospels, Mark and Luke do not speak of the resurrection as the resuscitation of a physical body. And Paul, in his letter to the early Christians, he never once describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body, coming back to life.
The story we read this morning comes from John's gospel, it's the very last to be written decades after Jesus died by people who didn't know Jesus. They never met him. And even in that story, notice, the disciples don't recognize Jesus. Mary Magdalene thinks she's speaking to a gardener. Could it be that she felt the light and life the power and presence of the Christ in the gardener, just as we heard in our children's story this morning?
Now we at our church, we have a mission statement. And part of it says we are a church that's more about the questions than the answers. So I don't know if Jesus physically rose from the dead. All things are possible with God. But I'll tell you what I do know for sure. Without question I know that the resurrection really happened. And the reason I know is because I'm a witness to it. I am a firsthand account. I don't believe in the resurrection of the Christ because I read it somewhere, or because some pastor told me I believe in it, but because I've experienced it firsthand. A man who died more than 2,000 years ago, is alive in me. In the silence of prayer and meditation, I have felt his presence, his power, his light and his life. I have felt his guidance in a very real way.
So I know that the resurrection is real. And that's why we're gathered here every Sunday, because I'm not alone. All of you have felt his power and presence, and you want to experience it more fully. That's why you're here. That's why we're here each week.
So Easter isn't just a commemoration of an event that happened more than 2,000 years ago. The resurrection happens now, here and now. That's why if you notice, we on Easter don't say, Jesus was risen. It's not past tense. Now we say, Christ is risen. It's present tense.
When God created everything, and said, “Let there be light.” there was the Christ, 15 billion years ago. Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. And Jesus was able, during his lifetime, to recognize that the Christ light that God had infused in all of creation, since the beginning of time was alive within him. He was able to manifest that light fully. And then he made it his mission to go out and to teach other people, that they could do it too.
That's why he said you are the light of the world, and that the kingdom of God is within you. And how do we resurrect that light? By following the way of Jesus – when we love people unconditionally, Christ is risen. When we forgive people who have wronged us, Christ is risen. When we welcome the stranger, Christ is risen, when we work for justice, Christ is risen.
The second coming of the Christ that you read about in Scripture does not literally mean that Jesus of Nazareth is coming back to Earth.
The second coming of the Christ is about you.
It happens in you, the resurrection of the light, here and now. That's what it means to be a Christian. That's why we say we are Easter people. We are children of the light.
And so my friends on this Easter morning on this resurrection day. May you more fully recognize the light of God that is with you and within you. May you awaken more fully to it. May you rise to a higher consciousness. The young American poet Amanda Gorman said it so beautifully. “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only were brave enough to be it.”
And so my friends, may we go forth to awaken more fully so that we can see the light and be the light so that we can shine that light for all the world to see.
Namaste and Happy Easter
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Derek Miller
As a Progressive Christian, I have always had quite a few unanswered questions about the event that is commonly known as Easter. Growing up in a conservative household, I was raised to believe that Easter meant a literal, bodily resuscitation of Jesus that occurred on the third day after he gave himself up to be executed for the sins of the world. Although I had long ago dismissed the theory that Jesus died for the sins of the world, it wasn't until I read Rev. John Shelby Spong's book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, that I became convinced that a physical resuscitation of Jesus had never taken place at all. Spong argues that the resurrection stories are heavily symbolic and must not (along with the rest of the Gospels) be taken literally. Spong's rendering of Easter is not about believing in incongruent stories that have been disproved by the laws of science. Easter, he says, is about realizing that Jesus is the meaning of God. It is Easter that caused the disciples to travel back to Jerusalem six months after Jesus’ death to proclaim that "Christ is risen!" and "Death cannot contain his Spirit!" Easter also caused the need for early Christian writers to capture the sentiments in subjective, non-literal words so that we, too, can enter the text and experience the moment anew every day. We, too, can proclaim that Jesus lives on in each one of us as Easter becomes a timeless invitation to enter the meaning of God by living for others, expecting no reward, and loving wastefully no matter what the cost. When we do that, we are Easter people and resurrection becomes real. Very real.
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