Hallelujah, Christ is risen!
I wish I could hear the response. I wish I could see your faces. What a strange Easter, friends. I didn’t expect to preach my first Easter sermon to a screen. It’s one of the days that I appreciate the benefit of ritual. Because today, I’m not sure I can say with all of my heart, without doubting, that Christ has conquered death, because death is disrupting the whole world right now, locking down our city, keeping us apart; but we say it every year so our lips learn the phrase and can repeat it when our hearts forget, and we can remember in those years where it’s harder to believe, the undying nature of this truth: Christ is risen, he’s risen indeed, in victory over sin and death, and our hope is sure, of a future of God’s peace, everything brought back to rights, even after all of this stress and sadness.
Go with me to Romans 8:31. That’s Romans, chapter 8, starting in v.31. With everything that’s going on, this lenten season has lasted lifetimes. But, friends, our time waiting and mourning, crying out to God, asking him how long he would hide himself from us, will he wait forever—that time is done. The day is here. It’s Easter morning, and Christ is risen! And because he’s risen, suffering has meaning, we have hope for the future, and nothing can separate us from him.
My son, AJ, the other day, we were outside a couple of months ago—back when people went outside—and he looks up at the night sky. He turns to me, with a huge smile pointing straight up and says, “Daddy, look!” I looked. I kept looking. I saw nothing of excitement. For him, still, huge smile, he says, “The star is out tonight.” I told my wife that story and she goes, “Yeah, we gotta take him camping.”
The passage for today is like a backpacking trip I took once, a five-day loop, and on that third night, we were about fifty miles from any vehicle, or streetlight, or horn. Outside of our camp and our little fire, everything was silence and black. Honestly, it was a little terrifying to be that removed from anything we usually depend on, but with a quiet excitement, because…we didn’t use our tents that night, and as the fire died we realized the darkness was profound enough that far out, the depth and beauty of the universe was on display in the stars. I’ve never seen anything like this, before or since. We saw galaxies and counted shooting stars until we fell asleep. Honestly, it was enough to make me want to stay there, in the wilderness. This passage is that way.
Read with me, Romans 8, starting in v.31. [Romans 8:31-39] Pray with me. Father God, the living God, who descended into hell so I don’t have to, and rose again in victory over death. To you, God, we pray, in awe. I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
The first thing I want you to see in the text this morning, is this: because Christ is risen, your suffering has meaning. Because Christ is risen, your suffering has meaning.
Paul asks in v.31, that first verse, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” A lot of times, I think we see this question as having an easy answer, but that’s not how Paul means it. We know Paul’s answer—if God is for us, no one could be against us—but it’s not an easy answer for him. He’s addressing the sources of very real doubts and fears in this congregation. Look closely in the passage, you’ll see him in each verse allude to something weighing heavily against the people to whom he’s writing: in v. 31 he writes, “if God is for us,” when you know, in their time as in ours, people were responding to suffering by saying that God had abandoned them, or was angry with them. You see a kind of cruel atheism in times like this, that glories in people’s suffering because suffering people begin to doubt the presence of God in the world. People were questioning, doubting whether or not God was with them, then and now. The psalm he quotes in v.36 accuses God of falling asleep, uncaring of all the suffering of his people.
In 32, talking about God giving everything, even his son, we hear echoes of intense poverty, losing everything. In their time, Christians were being disinherited, looted, and in our time many have lost jobs without much hope of finding new ones, entire industries collapsed, so we look to God for basic provision.
In v.33, “who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” and we know Christians at this time were being dragged into Roman courts with false accusations, just as Christ himself. In v.34, “Who is to condemn?” we are reminded of the judges all too willing to condemn them on the false accusations, the death sentences handed out, and the privileged people who cared nothing and said nothing in their defense. We are reminded of an unjust emperor on the throne. In v. 35 we see fears of famine, destitution, disease, and war.
So if God is for us, who can be against us? Perhaps the emperor, or his judges, or the neighbors willing to throw false accusations in hopes of plundering your house after you’ve been killed. Or maybe the guards who realize they are able to kill you with impunity. Perhaps a virus can take our hope from us, or not making rent, or being scammed in your desperation, or not having enough to eat, or losing the ability to sit with a friend or gather in community.
We usually read this passage like a victory anthem, more than conquerers, glorying in the wonderful life God gives to everyone who loves him, but it’s more like a campfire and stars when the rest of the world is completely dark. It’s the view from the overlook after you’ve hiked for days to get there. It’s like going into a refugee camp and telling the people there that they are conquerors. It’s a reminder that Christ has the power to change the reality of our present sufferings, and make them into something beautiful. How, we ask in dark times, how could he possibly make something good from all of this bad, and give this time meaning? It’s because of Easter. He’s able to make all of the sad things in the world come untrue through resurrection. It’s why we follow lent with Easter, why we mourn and fast for so long before we celebrate the resurrection, to show that the resurrection changes the whole nature of our suffering and mourning. Resurrection doesn’t just come after mourning, resurrection substantially changes mourning into joy.
At the very beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, I spoke on God’s relationship with time, and a thought started there and grew through lent until today. It this: God has the ability to change the past, because to him it’s not past. All of our days are present to him. And I don’t mean he will change the past in the time-turner sense of changing what’s happened, he changes the past in the authorial sense of the last chapter changing everything. I know I talked a little about this when we started in the book of James, but I want to return to it now.
Resurrection is like how old married couples laugh about fights they’ve had, even breakups and separations, because being together again with love changes the whole history. Like how we see people in our church go into recovery from addiction, and their whole story of addiction and death changes into a story of hope and life and the faithfulness of God.
Paul uses two analogies, childbirth and adoption, in the passage just before the one we read to explain how resurrection can give life and meaning to your suffering, because in childbirth you suffer unbearably, but you endure it, knowing that new life waits at the end. That child means that you didn’t suffer without reason. The new life in the end changes the whole nature and purpose of what came before.
We’ve never experienced labor and birth in our house, but we have experienced adoption, and it’s on my mind today, because Thursday, in addition to it being Maundy Thursday for us, it was the second anniversary of AJ’s adoption. His story is his own, but one day probably very soon—our conversations, even this week, are getting closer and closer to this—I’m going to have to relate to him what he went through to arrive at a place of adoption. All of the suffering, and the loss, all of it unbearable, all of it completely unfair to happen to him. Senseless meaningless violence, like the kind that fills our newsfeeds. When I think of it, I feel anger at the Lord for allowing these things to happen, and incredulous doubt. But AJ’s adoption changes that story in a way that allows me to see some meaning and purpose in what would have remained senseless otherwise. He has a new life. There is no adopted child whose story doesn’t begin with death of some sort, and though our family is far from perfection, I can see why Paul draws the analogy; he’s been raised up from a kind of death in his life.
The resurrection is written all through our creation, like stars in the pitch-dark sky, to remind us that there is beauty and meaning that we can see, even though we are lightyears away in this world. In this life, there is suffering, but resurrection comes in the end, and that new life will change everything and bring meaning to what we’ve gone through in our lives. “Because he lives, we can face tomorrow.” We have hope for our future, because Christ is alive.
This current crisis, I know, is weighing on everyone, and today, at least for me, is especially hard, to be here, without you, without our families. But like the stars multiplying in deepening dark, the good news of resurrection is even more needed on this Easter. Christ is risen. Resurrection is our hope, even now, and even now God is trying to tell us, through all of our anxieties, that he is bringing new life, and the whole nature of this story will change. Can you see, can you hear him rewriting this chapter already? The sun rose this morning, and all through this season, plants and flowers have come up from the ground, seeds broken and buried sprout new life and fruit. It’s all around us. Creation is thrumming with a chorus of resurrection, and even though life now is fallen, soon the Lord will lift us up.
We talked a few months ago, before any of this, about how celebration is a spiritual discipline, like prayer and rest. It’s not something that always comes easily, but on days like today, we celebrate because he lives, even if that’s all the reason we have to celebrate, that’s enough. So today, rest with your family, enjoy life with them, because today, Christ is risen. And because he’s risen, because he will raise us up, any suffering any mourning we know in this life will change in the last day to joy.
The only other encouragement I have for you today, the last thing I want you to see in our text for today is this: Because Christ is risen, nothing can separate us from him. Because Christ is risen, nothing can separate us from him.
Vs. 38 and 39: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Again, we see, it’s less of a victory anthem, and more of an encouragement in dark times, like fire and stars.
The reason Paul reminds his congregation that nothing can separate them from Christ, is because there are so many things able to separate us from each other, from the body, from the community. There are miles between us right now. I think about all those of you who will read this sermon from the transcript because you’re unable even to join us online, and I miss each of you. This Easter teaches me the meaning of Paul’s words at the beginning of this book: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you; that is, that we may be encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” I’m longing for communion, for singing together, just for the gathering of the body of Christ.
But I’m realizing, this is something on Easter I need to realize every year—that though we are separated, in Christ we are one. By his resurrection, we are bound together in hope. Even before this virus, and for long afterwards, there will be things that separate us. I want to be with my family, but we’re separated by heights and depths, by life and death. I want to be with friends I’ve lost, both to death and to sin. I want to worship with our brothers and sisters in every nation, but the heights and depths come between, with saints who have passed and are yet to come, but life and death come between.
But do you realize? We’re closer this year to understanding that first Easter than we ever have been in my lifetime. Here we are, with locked doors, fearing for our own lives, with doubts in our hearts like Thomas, and stress of nothing being as we’d planned, uncertainty about what our futures will look like, the shape the world will take after this. In some ways, I’m just now understanding Easter for the first time.
This Easter, more than any other, reminds us, as Malcolm Guite writes, “Christ has skill in walking through locked doors” and “breaking barriers, of bending prison bars,” and “joining us as the guest who is our host.” Today, more than any other day, I long for Christ to come through my door, because no one else can, and I can’t go out. I long for Christ to offer his hands and his side to me, because I have doubts that he is risen indeed. I long for a meal with him, and a conversation at the end of which I’ll realize he was with me all along.
And this, too, is something I’m realizing I need every year. We are never fully without barriers between us and the people around us. We are never without sin entangling, and the need to be set free. Every year, we need Christ to walk through the locked doors in our lives, to let us touch his hands and feet, and to speak to us. We just realize our need more in times of struggle.
And church, Paul’s words are as true today as they were almost two-thousand years ago. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, stay-at-home orders across every continent, and Christ is with us. We can still worship him. We can still see him working to build his kingdom and to turn back death from every corner of our world, “far as the curse is found.” If this illness, which has ground everything else to a halt can do nothing to separate us from the love of God in Christ, what can? Tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
No, in spite of all seeming, in spite of all fear and doubt, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
If you are watching this, and you know you are bent down and defeated. If you are suffering, and in need of joy. If you are alone and need Christ to join you in this time and in your life, pray with us. I know it seems impossible that your life would actually change from knowing God and taking part in his church, but rising again from the dead is impossible. Our God does impossible things. He is bringing the entire world back to rights after sin and death entered in. He can bring you back to rights. He can restore you. He can give you meaning and purpose. He will forgive you, and save you. He delights in you. He died for you, and more than that, he was raised. Now nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in him.
Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Amen. Pray with me.