John 20:1, 11-18

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary
     Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed
     from the tomb.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent
     over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting
     where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at
     the feet. 13They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said
     to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where
     they have laid him." 14When she had said this, she turned around and
     saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus
     said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking
     for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have
     carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him
     away." 16Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in
     Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, "Do
     not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go
     to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your
     Father, to my God and your God.' " 18Mary Magdalene went and
     announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them
     that he had said these things to her.

On March 18 the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army stood before his assembled troops in Kuwait.  The war with Iraq was about to begin and no one knew what dangers the soldiers would face once they crossed the border and began the invasion.  Chemical weapons, biological weapons, scud missiles, mine fields, booby traps, guerilla warfare, suicide bombers—who could predict how the regime of Saddam Hussein might resist?  The brutal Iraqi dictator who had gassed his own citizens had shown himself capable of anything.  That last day in Kuwait, in his final charge to his troops, the American commander said:  “Take care of yourself, take care of your brother.  Don’t leave your honor in Iraq.  Do what’s right.  Do what millions of American soldiers have done before you.  Do the right thing.  What we do in life echoes in eternity.  God be with you all.”

Whatever your opinions about the war in Iraq, you’ve got to admire the bravery and the patriotism of the quarter of a million men and women in our armed forces who have risked their lives on the battlefields of Iraq.  Former presidential speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, in a column for the web site of the Wall Street Journal wrote:

 Our young troops love their country.  That is why they are where they are.

It was for love of country that over 120 American patriots paid the ultimate price and gave their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Tragically, over 600 Iraqi civilians were also killed (perhaps many more, no one knows for sure), including women and children.  In no way do we glorify war or excuse the killing of innocent civilians.  But that does not diminish the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the cause of freedom.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus didn’t just talk about making the ultimate sacrifice—Jesus laid down his life for freedom for us all.  When Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, he gave all that he could give.  He held nothing back.  He loved us so much that he was willing to die for us.  The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was pure love—there was no mixed motive in it.  Jesus didn’t die defending himself or attacking others.  His only purpose in dying was to save others.  The chief priests and scribes mocked him saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.”  It’s not that he could not save himself, but rather that he would not save himself, for only in not saving himself could he save others.  Only in his dying might others have life.

Mary did not understand all of that when she came to the tomb early on Sunday morning.  Her heart was broken with grief.  For Mary, the death of Jesus was still a tragedy, still a cause for bitter sorrow, still a sign of senseless defeat.  Mary did not yet understand that the death of Jesus on the cross was for the salvation of the world.  It was only after the resurrection, only after Jesus had risen from the dead, that Mary and the other disciples came to understand what the crucifixion really meant.  Before the resurrection, before they knew that Jesus was alive, Mary and John and Peter and the others could not see any good in the death of Jesus on the cross.  But after the resurrection, after Jesus had risen from the dead, after they had met the risen Christ face to face, they began to make sense of it.  Only after the resurrection did they begin to understand the purpose for which Jesus had died, and what his death really meant.  Later, when John wrote his Gospel he summed it up by saying, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

Without the resurrection, the death of Jesus on the cross would have made little sense.  Without the resurrection, the crucifixion would have been little more than just another tragic miscarriage of justice, another innocent victim wrongly condemned and executed, another good man put to death by people of evil intent.  Jesus lived a noble life—there was no question about that—but without the resurrection, his death would have been nothing more than the tragic death of a godly person, even the tragic death of the Son of God.  But the story did not end with Jesus buried in the tomb.  If the story had ended with Jesus in the grave, there would have been no Easter, there would have been no church, there would have been no reason to celebrate today.

We are gathered here this morning because of the resurrection.  We are here today because Jesus who died on the cross was raised to new life by the power of God.  We are here because death was not final, the grave could not hold him, and Jesus is with us even now.  Let us consider what Easter means.  The resurrection of Jesus from the dead has powerful positive consequences for our lives in three dimensions—past, future, and present.

First, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead means that our past is forgiven.  Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, but if Jesus had stayed dead, his sacrificial death on the cross would have had no power.  It was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that gave the cross its power of atonement.  In some churches you will see a crucifix, a statue of Jesus on the cross, but in most Protestant churches you will not find a crucifix.  In most Protestant churches the cross is empty, because we recognize that salvation and the forgiveness of sins are possible not by the death of Jesus alone, but by what happened after Jesus died, namely the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It was not the martyrdom of Jesus that saves us, not the crucifixion alone, but the resurrection as well.  The crucifixion signifies God’s love, but the resurrection signifies God’s power.  As a sign of God’s love and God’s power, the empty cross is a symbol of our salvation from sin.  The resurrection means that our past is forgiven.  Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but only through his resurrection from the dead is our forgiveness made complete.

Second, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead means that our future is secure.  “Now we need not fear the grave.”  We need not fear the grave because our future is secure.  For all who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, our future is secure with God.  Death is not the end of life for those who believe in Christ.  The end of life for the believer is a new vista of life with God.  In a sense, there is no end of life for the Christian.  Life on this earth will one day come to an end for all of us, but life with God beyond this earth will have no end.  What we do now will echo in eternity.  The decisions we make about following Jesus will have consequences far beyond our brief sojourn on this side of life.  For the Christian, there is another dimension beyond death, a future life with God beyond the grave that is greater than anything we could imagine.
Third, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead means that our present is filled with meaning and purpose.  Here’s why:  Jesus is with us even now.  Jesus is not visibly present but the Spirit of the risen Christ is with us.  Jesus was raised from the dead never to die again.  It happened almost two-thousand years ago, but the effect of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead continues today.  Jesus is still alive, still with us, still present to us to fill our lives with meaning and purpose, still living to lift our hearts to hope.  As the hymn says, “I serve a Risen Savior, he’s in the world today.  I know that he is living, whatever men may say.”  That ultimately is what separates Christianity from every other religion.  We believe that the founder of our religion is not dead and buried, but the founder of our religion is still with us.  Jesus was not just an historical figure who died in the past, but is a living presence in our lives and in our church and in our world today.  We believe that he is living, and that the power of his resurrection is available to us, both for our future life in heaven, and for our present life upon this earth.

A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother.  His father returned from worship holding a palm branch.  The little boy was curious and asked, "Dad, why do you have that palm branch?" The father explained, "You see, when Jesus came into town, everyone waved Palm Branches to honor him, so we got Palm Branches today."  The little boy replied, "Wouldn’t you know it?  The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday Jesus shows up!"

Jesus showed up that first Sunday after the cross, but Mary didn’t recognize it was Jesus.  She thought he was the gardener, the caretaker of the cemetery where Jesus’ body had been laid to rest.  It was an understandable mistake.  Nobody expected Jesus to be alive.  They all knew he was dead, and they expected him to stay dead.  But Jesus did not stay dead.  Jesus showed up that first Sunday after the resurrection, and Jesus has continued to show up Sunday after Sunday, day after day, moment after moment since then.  Our problem is that too often, like Mary, we do not recognize the presence of our Risen Lord in our midst.  We forget that Jesus is alive and present and with us even now, filling our lives with meaning and purpose.  This is why we celebrate today:  our past is forgiven, our future is secure, our present is filled with meaning and purpose.

Last night at the appropriately named Fort Bliss, Texas the seven American Prisoners of War who had been freed from their three-week captivity in Iraq received a hero’s welcome.  Many had feared that those soldiers missing in action were dead, but a light armored detachment of U.S. Marines on their way north to Tikrit got a tip from local Iraqi citizens that the POW’s were being held in a private residence.  The Marines burst in on the captured soldiers and found they were all in good condition, although three were recovering from wounds suffered during their capture.  The local Iraqi police who had been watching over the POW’s turned them over peacefully to their American rescuers without a fight.  One of the former captives, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young, a helicopter pilot, exclaimed with joyous exultation:  “We feel like we won the lottery of life.”

On this Easter Sunday morning we join with Christians around the world in exclaiming with joyous exultation that we have won the lottery of life.  Rather, Jesus has won the lottery of life for us.  He burst the bonds of death through his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the grave.  When we accept Jesus as our Savior and Lord our past is forgiven, our future is secure, our present is filled with meaning and purpose and hope and joy.  “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”  God in Christ is with us all.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
April 20, 2003

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