Behind Locked Doors

We find ourselves today in the twentieth chapter of John. So much has already happened. This is all you need to know: Jesus had died, and Jesus had returned from the dead. We have had two thousand years to process the resurrection; the disciples did not have that luxury. They were forced to accept the resurrection in a few hours.  That was a hard thing to do. According to the text, it is Sunday evening, Easter evening. The disciples were together. They must have felt as if it was them against the world. They really had no one else. They feared the Jewish leaders, who had orchestrated the death of Jesus, may be looking for them. The door is locked for their own protection. The disciples are afraid. Do you know of anyone in your life who is afraid this morning?

In my life I know a young woman who carries a great amount of responsibility. Her name is Candance. She is high energy. She is married and has two teenagers in her home. She is highly involved in both her husbands and children’s lives. She has a responsible job, which forces her to be detail oriented. Her plate is always full, but the pandemic was one too many things on her plate. One day at work she started getting chest pains. She was taken to the emergency room. The good news is Candance did not have a heart attack. The bad news is she is a victim of stress. Her doctor made an appointment with a cardiologist. After all the tests we run, she sat with her cardiologist. She reviewed all her heart tests with her. There was nothing abnormal. Then he asked her about her life. She told him about his husband, children, and job. He enquired about recent changes in her life which were upsetting to her. She confessed the coronavirus did not just bother her, it terrified her. She said, “I am trying to get all the information possible about the pandemic, so I can keep myself and my family safe. My tv is always on 24/7 news.” According to Candance, the cardiologist told her to turn her tv off, because it was causing her stress. She is not the only one. There are many who are locked behind closed doors afraid of the coronavirus.

You really cannot blame them because the numbers are not pretty. Did you know, as of Friday, there have been over 3.2 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the world. (234,765 have died.) There have been over one million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States. (55,439 have died.) There have been over 18,000 confirmed causes of coronavirus in Ohio. (975 have died.) There have been 828 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Mahoning County. (80 have died.) How many people do you know have had the coronavirus? Do you know anyone who has died of the coronavirus? Do you know of anyone who is afraid of the coronavirus and is living behind locked doors? I will admit, I was afraid how this church would respond to the coronavirus. I am proud to report, you are much braver than I ever knew. With this in mind, let us look at the Gospel lesson again.

This is the good news for today: Someone unlocked the door and the disciples came out. They did not just come out. They came out different people and transformed their world. Three things happened to the disciples behind that locked door which led to their transformation. Let us briefly look at those three things.

First, the disciples experienced the resurrected Jesus. Look at the text with me. It is important that you look at the timeline. It is not Easter morning; it is Easter evening. The disciples have had all day to wrestle with the women’s account of experiencing the resurrected Jesus. Did you hear what I said? They had heard about the resurrected Jesus, but they had not experienced the resurrected Jesus. Once Jesus appears to them, he shows them his hands and his feet to prove he is genuine. When they are finally convinced it is Jesus, they are overjoyed. There is a world of difference between hearing about the resurrected Jesus and experiencing the resurrected Jesus. Everything changes once you experience the resurrected Jesus!

Second, the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit. Look at the text with me again. When the disciples finally experience the resurrected Jesus, they are overjoyed. Verse 22 says, Jesus breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Why is that line important? Receiving the Holy Spirit means you do not have to do the work of the church alone. The Holy Spirit goes before us and helps us. It is like cutting a tree down in your yard. You have a choice. You can cut it down with a hand saw, or you can cut it down with a chain saw. Which one are you going to use? The Holy Spirit made their divine work easier.

Third, the disciples embraced the mission. Look at the text with me one last time. Once the disciples had experienced the resurrected Jesus and accepted the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave them a job. Verse 23 says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  What does that verse mean? It simply means we are to take the Good News into the world and win souls for Jesus. Only one of the disciples in the room at that moment, John, died an old man. The rest died a martyr’s death. You cannot tell me the disciples did not embrace the mission.

It is not just the story of the disciples over two thousand years ago. It is the story of disciples in every generation. Every generation must experience the resurrected Jesus for themselves. Every generation must experience the Holy Spirit for themselves. Every generation must embrace the mission for themselves because every generation of the church has been entrusted with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If one generation of the church fails to pass on the Good News to the next generation, then the faith itself will fail. With so many churches failing, I feared we would be that generation who let Jesus down. Then, the coronavirus entered our world and God reminded us the church exists not in buildings, programs, and budgets. The church exists in the hearts of men and women who believe.

I got the news of Friday, March 13. I will admit it. It was a shock. East Ohio Resident Bishop Tracy Malone had suspended worship for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus. Everything was really to go for Sunday, March 15. The sermon was written, the music was selected, and the bulletins were run. On that Sunday morning, I came out late in the morning. I walked around our empty building and thought about what should have been. I was filled with questions because I did not know how the congregation would respond. However, there was one thing I did know. We had to adapt if we were going to survive. Over the past few weeks, we made some changes to adjust to our new normal. We did four things.

Devotions – Several years ago, we began to write a Lenten devotional. This year my wife, Kathryn wrote it. They are not just theologically accurate. They are well written. Every day, a devotion was emailed to the entire congregation. The mailings were scheduled to end on Easter, but due to the pandemic we decided to continue. Writing a daily devotion is a big job and we owe her a great deal. Those devotion are a reminder our church is functional.

Facebook – Every Saturday morning at 10:00, I come to the church and record my message for Facebook. I meet two friends. The first is Doug Price who acts as my camera man, liturgist, and editor. The second is Mark Halls who is an accomplished pianist. I knew Facebook is a power tool, but I never imagined. I email those YouTube links ever Sunday morning for the non-Facebook members. Many have shared those links. More people listen to me now, than ever have in person.

FM Transmitter – The idea of parking lot worship was not original. I first heard about it on the local news. One of our sister churches was doing it and I thought we could do it. We purchased a FM transmitter on Ebay and had to wait several weeks. It was worth the wait. We will remain in the parking lot until the pandemic passes.

Contact – There is nothing high tech about this idea. I knew it was important to stay in touch with everyone, so I started to contact them. I went through the directory, A to Z. Then I went from Z to A. Then I started in the middle and went forward, then backwards. Some I called. Some I texted. Some I emailed. I cannot tell you how much I learned listening to you.

This is the truth. I knew, I could change. I did not know if you would change. After all, the church is not known for changing rapidly. Some churches will never change. However, that is not the case here. This church did change and seemed to be energized by the challenge. I have always believed churches vote in two ways, by attendance and financial support. If people do not like what is happening, then they will not come. If people do not like what is happening, then they will not give. If people do like what is happening in their church, then they will come and give. I did not know if they would come and give with all the changes. I was afraid people would stay at home tight fisted behind locked doors. I am glad to say, “I was wrong!” I had nothing to fear.

People have been coming! On Palm Sunday, we tried something new. We called it, Palms and Prayers. Respecting our social distancing guidelines, everyone who came got a palm and a prayer. For two hours, I talked and prayed with people. In that 120 minutes, there were very few breaks. On Easter, approximately two hundred came to listen to our parking lot to hear about the resurrection of Jesus. Last Sunday, more than one hundred sat in their cars again on a cold wet day to hear the word proclaimed. For years, I have called this church the ultimate non-prophet. This church has next to no financial reserves. We exist on your generosity. In the economic storm we are living in, I was afraid you might forget us, but we have not been forgotten. I am humbled by your generosity and moved by your Christian love. You are hungry for God and concerned about one another. The number of people who have offered to help others is really something.

The coronavirus has brought out the best out in us. I will admit it. I was wrong! You were not like the frightened disciples behind locked doors. You were like the disciples who left that once locked room to face a changing world. Can I be honest with you? I am proud to stand with you not just as your friend or your pastor. I am proud to stand with you as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Do you remember the quote from T.S. Elliot (1888-1965) is considered one of the great poets of the 20th century. He once said, “The True Church will never fail. For it is based upon a rock.”

Why is Easter Important?

When we last left Jesus, things looked bad! Everyone knows what happened. Jesus, the son of God, the long-awaited Messiah died. It was a Friday afternoon, and he passed between two criminals. His lifeless body was taken down from that instrument of death and everyone cried. Broken hearted his loved ones placed him in an unused tomb. Those who had the unpleasant job, must have turned to take their last look. In my station in life, I have taken that last look many times. It is amazing, how quickly a body turns into a corpse. Then, they rolled the stone into position. It had to be tight so the smell of decay wouldn’t be released. Covering all the details, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate to have a guard placed in front of the entrance of the tomb so the body couldn’t be stolen. There was nothing more to do. After all, Jesus was dead! However, this is Easter morning, and we know it isn’t over, until God says it is over!

According to our reading for today, it is dawn on the first day of the week. That means, it is early on Sunday. Jesus was executed on a Friday. Two women both by the name of Mary appear at the tomb of Jesus. That were preparing to do what the law prohibited them to do on the Sabbath, treat the body of the dead. They went early for two reasons. First, they couldn’t sleep, Jesus’s death was hard to accept. Second, they went early because they wanted to complete the horrible task. The only question haunting them was how to roll away that massive stone. There was no need to fear. According to the text, there is a great earthquake. God, himself, had rolled away the stone, exposing to the world the truth, Jesus had returned from the dead. I do not know how that happened because I can’t explain a miracle. However, I do know that miracle changed everything.

To those of us of faith, Easter is more than the celebration of spring. It is the very heart of our faith. Historically, Easter is the oldest festival on the Christian calendar. In the Greek Orthodox tradition many tell jokes on Easter because, God, himself, played a joke on Satan. It looked like Satan had won, Jesus was dead! Satan must have celebrated on that Silent Saturday. Then, Easter Sunday came. Jesus returned from the dead. I Corinthians 15:14 says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Yet, the resurrection is not just some theological point reserved for some academic classroom. The resurrection is practical. Today, I want to look at the practical side of the resurrection. I am going to do that by answering the question, why is Easter important? That single question has three answers.

First, Easter is important because it defines our faith! Today, we celebrate with Christians around the world the resurrection of Jesus. The church stands alone. The scientific world has dismissed the resurrection as nonsense. The secular world has replaced the resurrection with community service. Other world religions have simply denied it. We are the only ones who know of the significance of the resurrection. It is the cornerstone of our faith and the only thing that really matters. One of my favorite Bible verses is Romans 10:9. It says, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Many consider that verse to be the first creed in the church. It is a timeless truth. Your belief in the resurrection is not just important, it is indispensable. It is the one thing that separates us from everyone else. The resurrection is the only thing that really matters in the church.

Several years ago, I preached a sermon series called Christianity’s Family Tree. It was originally developed by Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. We looked at all the branches of our family tree. We examined all the various traditions and customs found various churches. Human beings have a way of looking at differences, God only sees what we have in common. Just think about it for a moment. Within the body of the church we baptize differently. We experience the Eucharist differently. Some churches have a call system and some churches have an appointment system. Some churches emphasize the Holy Spirit and churches promote missions. Some observe the various liturgical seasons, and some don’t. Some traditions embrace icons, some statutes and some nothing. I will be completely honest with you. None of those differences bother me. The only thing that really matters to me is the resurrection. It is the one thing we must have in common. Your belief in the resurrection is not optional, it is indispensable. It is the one thing that separates us, Christians, from the rest of the world. We worship a risen savor! Other world religions just remember a dead founder. Easter is important because we are embracing the resurrection, the defining moment of our faith. We serve a risen Savior!

Second, Easter is important because it demonstrates God’s power! One of the pivotal lines in the Easter passage is verse two. That verse tells us there was a violent earthquake. It is only found in this account of the resurrection, but it means so much. The earthquake does two things. First, the earthquake rolled away the stone that covered the entrance of the tomb. Second, the earthquake underscores the power of God. There are many who ignore the power of God. We live in incredibly arrogant times. Consider two Bible verses with me. The first is Colossians 1:16. It says, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created by God and for God.” The second is Psalm 115:3. It says, “Our God is in heaven; he does what he pleases.” Think about those words.God created this world for himself, we act like God created this world for us!

We live in incredibly arrogant times. We forget the power of God and try to hold God accountable to our standards. Do you know of anyone who tries to make God accountable to them? They wonder why God doesn’t do something about world hunger. They ask why so many people in our world feel unloved. They wonder why there are so many diseases. They wonder why God didn’t give them a perfect body. They wonder why their families are so messed up. Do you know of anyone who is trying to get God to live up to their standards? The answer to those questions is very simple. The answer to those questions is because God is God. In comparison to God, we are nothing.

This is the real question, why don’t we do something? Why don’t we do something about world hunger? Why don’t we start loving the unlovable? Why don’t we spend more money on medical research and education and less on our hobbies? Why don’t we start living healthier lives? Why don’t we start taking some accountability for our broken relationships? Never forget the truth. We are accountable to God and God is not accountable to us. Easter is important because it demonstrates God’s people.We serve a risen Savior!

Third and finally, Easter is important because it determines our eternity! David Seamand’s (1922-2006) life was dominated by missions. He was raised in a missionary’s home and served sixteen years in the mission fields, himself. I got to know him at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He once told of a Muslim who became a Christian in Africa. “Some of his friends of the former Muslim asked him, ‘Why have you become a Christian?’ He answered, ‘Well, it’s like this. Suppose you were going down the road and suddenly it forked. Next to the road were two men, one dead and the other alive. Which one would you ask for directions?’” We serve a risen savior!

Several years ago, someone asked me, “Russ, what do you look forward to when you get to heaven?” The person was disappointed in my answer. They wanted me to say singing in the eternal choir or standing at the throne. The truth is no one wants me in the choir, and I am too hyperactive to stand anywhere too long. This was my answer. What I look forward to when I get to heaven is being reunited with people who have passed. The twelfth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews tell us there is a great crowd of witnesses surrounding us at this moment. Some of those saints include some of the spiritual giants of the past. Some of the saints include some of the saints in our families. Some of the saints include some of the saints of this church. Some of the saints are personal friends. It is a great cloud of witnesses. Can I ask you a question on this Easter morning? Who are you going to look for when you get to heaven? Easter is important because it determines our eternity. We serve a risen Savior!

Why is Easter important? Easter is important because it is on that day, we remember the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. The resurrection is practical. It does three things. First, the resurrection defines our faith. Without the resurrection, we are like everyone else. Our belief in the resurrection means we stand alone. We serve a risen savor! Second, the resurrection demonstrates the power of God. Never forget, we are accountable to God and not God to us. Third, the resurrection determines our eternity. Someday, we are going to heaven. John Ortberg (born 1957) is the Senior Minister of Menlo Church in Menlo, California. He once said, “At the very heart of the Christian faith is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.” I agree.