Sunday, April 16, 2006

Relationship and Resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

There is an old Arab parable about a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market one day. Before very long, the servant returned, white and trembling with fear. There was great agitation in his voice as he said: "Master, down in the market place I was jostled by someone in the crowd. When I turned around, I saw that it was Death who had jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master," he said, "please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid Death. I will ride to Samara and there I will hide, and Death will be
unable to find me."

The merchant lent his horse and the servant galloped away in a great hurry. Later, the merchant went down to the market place and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to Death and asked: "Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?"

"That was not a threatening gesture," Death replied. "It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara." (Five Minutes After Death, on-line sermon by Robert L. Allen)

Each of us has an appointment in Samara. We all realize that death is a realistic fact that comes to everyone. It comes to the king in his palace ... to the beggar beside the road ... and to the animal hiding in its hole. But what happens to us after death? Are we like candles blown out in
the wind? What happens to us after this life?

We talked about heaven during the Confirmation Class. In fact, the course began with a simulation game. One person got to sit in a special seat called the "throne of God" and pretend he or she was God. The rest of us got to ask God questions. It felt good when I got to pretend to be God. But I was relieved when I got to get off the "hot seat" and stop answering those hard questions. Hard questions such as why do some teenagers die in a car wreck? Why do some babies die during childbirth? Hard questions with no easy answers. Especially the
questions about death.

Today's words to us by the apostle Paul do not pretend to answer these hard questions. But they do put all such questions within the context of our Easter affirmation. Paul is talking about the
resurrection of Jesus Christ. He gives us a litany of people to whom Christ appeared after he died. Paul says the risen Christ appeared to Cephas ... then to the twelve ... then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time ... then he appeared to James
... then to the apostles ... and last of all, the risen Christ appeared also to me.

Thank God for that little phrase: Also to me. That is the key phrase for our Confirmation Class, and for us as well.That is the key phrase for us as well, because, it is good to know that Christ appeared to Cephas ... and I'm glad to know that Christ appeared to the twelve disciples ... I'm sure they needed some reassurance after all they'd been through. And I'm astounded to learn that the risen Christ appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time
... and I'm not surprised to hear the risen Christ wanted to spend some time with his brother, James, before he ascended into heaven.

This is encouraging and uplifting information. But Christianity is not primarily about information. Even when that information is about the risen Christ. No. Christianity is about a relationship with the risen Christ. So the key part of our text today is when Paul says the risen Christ appeared also to me.

Friends, let me be candid with you. I have experienced those words of Paul. The risen Christ has appeared also to me. I have experienced the risen Christ on more than one occasion. I've had that feeling you get when you know someone else is present even though you can't see them with your eyes. I've had that feeling. The certainty I sometimes get that the risen Christ is present as I sing a hymn or listen to the organ during worship. Those are some also to me moments. Or how about those moments during morning prayer when I sit in quiet solitude listening for Christ to speak and he says nothing but I feel his love warm my heart and that says everything. So yes, friends, Christ has appeared also to me. And here is our Easter affirmation. Christ has
appeared also to you.

One of the things we notice about the appearances of the risen Christ is that it takes awhile for the people to realize that they are communicating with the risen Christ. Take Mary Magdalene. She searches Jesus' tomb three days after his death and she cannot find the body.

Suddenly she sees someone with her in the tomb and she thinks it is the gardener. The gardener asks her: "Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?" She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, "Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him." Jesus said, "Mary." Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" meaning "Teacher!" Mary Magdalene didn't recognize the risen Jesus at first. But when he spoke her name she realized who he was.

How often has there been a stranger in our lives. Someone we gradually got to know. Someone who taught us more than we knew. Someone who showed us the way to God. Then, at some point, our eyes are opened and we realize that the risen Christ has visited us through
this person.

That was certainly Paul's experience of the risen Christ. Saul, that was his real name, back when he was terrorizing the Christians. Saul was on his way to Damascus to stir up trouble against the Christians there. Suddenly, as he traveled on the road, he saw a blinding light brighter than the sun. When he got to the outskirts of Damascus, he was suddenly dazed by a blinding flash of light. As he fell to the ground, he heard a voice: "Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?" He
said, "Who are you, Master?"

"I am Jesus, the One you're hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you'll be told what to do next." And over the course of time Saul was changed to Paul and he is the same Paul who writes in our text today that Jesus appeared also to me.

The risen Christ appears to us and we often do not even know it is him. Sometimes the veil is lifted and we recognize the risen Christ in the eyes of a stranger, a teacher, a lover, a friend. Sometimes the risen Christ appears to us through a tree, a flower, or a creek. Sometimes through a movie, a play, a work of art. Yes, my friends, it is true. The risen Christ appeared to the twelve disciples, and more than 500 disciples at one time, to Paul .... and also to me. And also
to you.

We have experienced the risen Christ and that experience helps us stand up to death. We can now look death in the eye and says, "Death, you have been overrated; your power has been
overestimated; your influence has been miscalculated. You can't squelch my ultimate identity; you can't destroy what is essentially me; you can't kidnap me from God. From you I will not
run. Do to me what is yours to do, because you will not be my undoing. Death, where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?"

As Paul puts it elsewhere: "I'm absolutely convinced that nothing--nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable--absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us." (Rom 8:38-39, MSG)

Yes, the risen Christ has appeared to many Christians throughout the ages. And also to me. And also to you. And also to our Confirmation Class members. A Christian is someone who has a personal relationship with the risen Christ. Our personal relationship with the risen Christ inspires us and helps us make sense out of life on this earth. And our personal relationship with the risen Christ gives us hope as we face the reality of our own death. For whether we live or
whether we die we belong to the Lord.

Thanks be to God.