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Sermons

The Turning Point

March 27, 2005

Bible Reading

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.'" Then they remembered his words.

(Luke 24:1-8)

Reading from Swedenborg

Since in a strict sense "morning" means the Lord, his coming, and therefore the approach of his kingdom, it follows that morning also means the arising of a new church, since this is the Lord's kingdom on earth. This applies in a general way, specifically, and even in detail. Morning happens in a general way when some church on earth is revived again. It happens specifically when we as individuals are reborn and become new people, since then the Lord's kingdom arises within us, and each of us becomes a church. It happens in detail whenever the good of love and faith is at work with us, since this is the time of the Lord's advent. That is why the Lord's resurrection happened on the third day "in the morning" (Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). All these events involved the fact that in specific and detailed instances, the Lord is rising in the minds of regenerate people every day, and even moment by moment. (Arcana Coelestia #2405)

Sermon

Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. (Luke 24:5)

We are almost two thousand years and perhaps some six thousand miles removed from that first Easter scene. Millions of other things must have happened on that day--births, deaths, marriages, accidents, arguments, reconciliations, wars, political decisions, casual conversations, sales, dinners, journeys--but only this one event spans the millennia and the miles to speak to us where we are.

It is particularly striking because in a sense, no one actually witnessed the event. No one saw the Lord rise from the tomb where he had been laid. Of all the people on earth at that time, only a very few even saw the risen Lord, and they were not "important" or influential people by any usual standards. Yet this event made them some of the most important and influential people who have ever lived. They were lifted out of the utter despair that followed on the crucifixion, and were transformed. They were inspired to go out into the world as witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:22), and the effects of that witness are still with us.

It does not really make political or sociological sense. Any knowledgeable, fair-minded observer who looked at this little band of enthusiasts and listened to what they had to say would probably have written them off as just another band of fanatics, perhaps nicer than most, but still not really significant. Significant things might be happening in the palace, or of course in the imperial court at Rome. That was where the movers and shakers gathered, after all. But these people had no money, no troops, no status whatever. Transfer the situation to the present time and to midcoast Maine, and you have a dozen lobstermen. How significant could they be in comparison to the White House and the Pentagon?

The significance of the apostles, obviously, did not depend on their wealth, political clout, or social standing. It did not depend on them as individuals. It rested solely on the immense importance and power of their message--or to be more precise, on three characteristics of their message: it touched on the very heart of reality itself, it was true, and it was good.

If we stop to think about it for a moment, we cannot help but realize that many of the things that seemed desperately important to us a few years ago have faded from our memories. If we extend this thought beyond the limits of our earthly lives, the implications are clear. To put it bluntly, what is important to Caesar Augustus now? The Roman Empire is long gone. What is left are his relationships with the human beings closest to him. What matters most to him is what he loves most, and that is what the resurrection is all about.

This is the basic message of our reading from Swedenborg:

[Morning] happens in detail whenever the good of love and faith is at work with us, since this is the time of the Lord's advent. That is why the Lord's resurrection happened on the third day "in the morning" (Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). All these events involved the fact that in specific and detailed instances, the Lord is rising in the minds of regenerate people every day, even moment by moment.

Whether we talk of the Lord's advent, the establishment of a new church, or the resurrection, we are talking about essentially the same thing: about a time when "the good of love and faith is at work with us." Three four-letter words and one five-letter word: "good," "love," "faith," and "work." What could be simpler? There is none of the abstruse language of psychology, none of the obscure terminology of academic philosophers. Just four simple words; four common words; four words that everyone knows.

The trouble is that it can be hard to find two people who agree on what they mean. Whenever we choose to do something, we are in effect calling it "good." We may be all too aware that it is not perfect, but the fact that we choose to do it says that in our judgment, it is the best we can do under the circumstances. This "good," then, ranges all the way from the compassionate service of Mother Teresa to the slaughter at Columbine High.

If we then look at what has been done in the name of love, we are on no surer ground. This ranges from the deepest tenderness to the most smothering possessiveness. As for faith, we can look at the clarity of vision of a Gandhi or the blind trust of Jonestown; and as for work, the range is from the joy of service to the bitter taste of slavery.

There is, though, one thing that all these meanings have in common. They all go to the heart of the matter. They all address the essence of what it is to be human. By comparison, Caesar Augustus and Napoleon, Lenin and Churchill, the White House and the Pentagon, are fighting with shadows. They may be big, black shadows, but the bigger and blacker they are, the more sense it makes to try to see what is casting them and what can dispel them. What casts them? "Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander" (Matthew 15:19). What can dispel them? Can anything dispel shadows but light?

The power of the Easter message rests in part on the fact that it does go to the heart of the matter of being human. On the simplest level, it reminds us that we ourselves are immortal, and that the things that matter most are the things that matter forever. On a deeper level, it tells us that what is truly deathless is love, and that the Lord is the perfect embodiment of that love. If we would see the essential meaning of those simple words, "good," "love," "faith," and "work," we need look no further than the Gospels.

The other source of the power of the Easter message is its truth. It is virtually unthinkable that the apostles could have succeeded if they were trying to perpetuate an illusion. Their message was unprecedented and utterly unlikely. If it was not true, it had nothing going for it. Because it was true, though, it worked. It wrought transformation in people's lives. It did not just deliver them from the fear of death; it awakened them to the actual nature of life.

Take a very simple illustration. You ask someone for directions. You follow the directions, and arrive at your destination. You have no doubt that the directions were true. It is not a matter of theory or of agreement with the map--the basic test of truth is that it works. If there is anything seriously wrong with the directions, they will not work.

The message of the resurrection is that if "the good of love and faith are at work with us," life will be truly worth living. The apostles went out with that message, and the people who understood and believed what they were saying found out for themselves that it worked. The Lord was not just someone who had taught some disciples a few years earlier. He was someone who was with the apostles as they spread the good news, someone who was waiting to be born, to rise up, in the heart of anyone who would accept him.

We believe that the resurrection was the turning point in human spiritual history. It was the dawn, the first glimmer of light. Dark as our own days may seem, we have come a long way since the time of the Roman Empire. In the last century, when Germany and Japan set out to conquer the world, the response was one of moral outrage. When Caesar set out to conquer the world, this was simply normal behavior. It was what emperors were expected to do. War was a primary source of wealth and slaves, the foundation of national prosperity. But the Lord did come: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it" (John 1:5).

The third source of the power of the Easter message is its goodness. The meaning of the resurrection for the disciples was inseparable from their years of discipleship. The Lord had been teaching them, and they had been learning. He was not just anyone; he was a particular kind and quality of person--one who understood them as they had never been understood before, and loved them as they had never been loved before. He was one who cut through the confusion of a noisy and brutal world, one who brought light into their minds and their lives. He did not simply tell them to love each other; he showed them how to do it. And as they "did his words," they found them good.

There is no time limit on the Easter message--no expiration date. We may think of turning points in our own lives, to be sure, but we should not forget the last detail of our reading from Swedenborg: "The Lord is rising in the minds of regenerate people every day, and even moment by moment." We need not think of some great reversal of the whole tide of our lives. We need think only of the countless times when we may turn toward each other; when in love and faith, we may work at some small good. It is at such times that the Lord rises within us, building that new church that is his kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Prayer

O Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as we rejoice in the fact that you are risen, we pray that you will also rise among us and within us today. Rise among us in our churches, in our families, in our places of work and play, as you bring us together in mutual kindness and service. And rise within us, in our hearts and minds, as you renew our old and tired lives, and give us new life, new meaning, new reasons to go out and do your work with love and joy. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole