Guest post by Dr. Maxie Dunnam, Minister-at-Large
In Protestant churches, the Sunday after Easter is often called Low Sunday because the attendance is much less and the worship dramatical less festive. In the Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches it is called Divine Mercy Sunday. Interestingly, many protestant pastors, having labored so intensely and having been so emotionally involved during Lent and Easter Sunday, take off from preaching responsibilities on “Low Sunday.”
In my years as a minister when I did not have pastoral responsibilities in a local church, I was often invited to preach on “Low Sunday,” never on Easter Sunday. I relished those opportunities. Out of that experience, I write/preach this blog post/sermon.
There is an old story about Noah Webster, who wrote the famous dictionary that bears his name. As you can imagine, he was a stickler for the precise use of language. He was also something of a womanizer. One day he was in the pantry kissing the maid when Mrs. Webster walked in. Mrs. Webster said, “Why, Noah, I’m surprised.” Noah said, “No, my dear. We’re surprised. You’re amazed.”
Noah was trying to divert attention from himself with his semantic point. My point is this: The Easter word was spoken Easter Sunday; did you hear it?
Many wonderful, inspiring, challenging words were spoken in sermons and teachings during Lent and Easter. I have a notion the one I reflect on was at least mentioned; it was clearly in Gospel readings. Lest you missed it, I focus on it during these “Low Sunday” days. “This is eternal life, that they know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” (John 17:3)
The right word for Easter and all the days after Easter Sunday is Jesus Christ alive! Alive! Alive forevermore and, hopefully, alive in you and me. “I in them,” Jesus prayed. This was no new message. It was His prayer that what He had taught would become a reality. Remember His beautiful metaphor in John 15—the vine and the branches—in which He tells us who He is in relation to us and who we are in relation to Him: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
That message—abiding in Christ—became the primary message of St. Paul. His prayer for the Ephesians and for us is the same. I pray “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)
Take note of that radical petition: “That you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Phillips translates it, “May you be filled through all your being with God Himself.” The New English Bible has it: “So may you attain to fullness of being, the fullness of God Himself.”
That’s the Easter word. Jesus Christ — alive and wanting to live in us.
Back to our story of Noah Webster, caught by his wife kissing the maid. “Why, Noah, I’m surprised.” “No, my dear. We’re surprised. You’re amazed.” My hunch is the story is apocryphal. Mr. Webster was a stickler for the right word, but when you look in his own Webster’s dictionary he says surprise is a synonym for amaze. Amaze is the stronger word. Easter is both surprising and amazing. Here is God’s ultimate act of love and power. It is an act of love that has gone to its limit in Jesus’ gift of Himself on the cross. It is an act of power that burst the tomb and announces to the world that love is stronger than hate. Good prevails over evil, and life is triumphant over death.
So, how do we appropriate the Easter word? “This is Life Eternal,” He said, “to know the Father and to know me whom the Father has sent.”
Let’s use Jesus’ claim about Himself as our way of allowing the Easter word to become flesh in us. Earlier in His conversation with the disciples there in the Upper Room, He was trying to tell them about His death and resurrection, about His going away to prepare a place for them, about sending His Spirit as Counselor and Comforter, but it was all so overwhelming to them—mystifying, confusing. “We don’t know where You’re going,” they said, “so how can we know the way?”
Jesus put it in one cryptic sentence: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Let that be our clue for appropriating the Easter word. Consider it this way. One: You may not know where you are going, but no matter where you go, there will be the Way. Two: You may not know all things, but no matter what you know, there is always the Truth. And three: You may not live upon this earth a long time, but you can have the promise of Life tomorrow.
Reflect on those claims.
One: You may not know where you are going, but no matter where you go, there will always be the Way.
Robert Fulghum wrote a runaway bestseller entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He contended, “Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school. … Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.”
I don’t diminish Fulghum’s claim. It is also true that so much of what we learn in kindergarten is practical, elementary Christian teaching. Yet, if we are going to appropriate the Easter word, we can’t leave it there. In Jesus, we have our way to be and do. And that way is not learned in kindergarten, as important as those kindergarten lessons are. “The poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies… Turn the other cheek… take the last seat at the banquet table… bless those who curse you… forgive that you may be forgiven…” that’s the Easter word. That’s the Way. You may not know where you are going, but no matter where you go, there will be The Way. That means that where you are going is not nearly as important as how you get there. Jesus is The Way. And The Way that He offers is a life with Him: “Abide in me and I in you.”
Register it solidly in your mind and heart. You may not know where you are going, but no matter where you go, there will always be The Way.
Two: You may not know all things, but no matter what you know, there is always the Truth. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth…” Let’s nail a stake down here, “I am the Truth.”
With regard to truth, too many of us are as a young student’s response to an assignment made by her teacher. She was told to write a paper on the truth concerning the life and accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin. Here is what she submitted:
“Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, but he soon got tired of that and moved to Philadelphia. When he got to Philadelphia he was hungry so he bought a loaf of bread. He put the bread under his arm. He walked up the street. He passed a woman. The woman smiled at him. He married the woman and discovered electricity.” Now all of that is probably true, but there’s a lot more truth to Franklin’s life than we find in those words.
So it is with Jesus. We may remember Jesus in our favorite ways, recalling His words and His parables, putting it in any way you want—all these things together into some kind of historical record, and still miss it. When Jesus becomes the way of being and doing for us—when He becomes the Truth—how we perceive life is forever shaped by His Spirit.
A young boy was playing left field in a Little League game when a man yelled over the fence, “Hey son, who’s winning?” The little boy replied, “We are!” “What’s the score?” “They have 23. We have 0.” “They have you 23 to 0?” The man was confused. “They have you 23 to 0. I thought you said you were winning.” “Oh, we are,” explained the little boy. “You see, we ain’t come to bat yet!”
It was easy for the disciples to quit. The one in whom they had placed their hopes was dead. It was 23 to nothing in their life that Easter morning.
Likewise, we are sometimes tempted to quit. Jobs don’t go well. There is strife in our marriage. A doctor’s diagnosis is dismal. Children do not become what we dreamed they would be. The ominous clouds of the Coronavirus hover heavily over us. Remember, it may be the eighth inning, but there’s still the ninth. It’s not only Easter, Pentecost is coming when the Holy Spirit’s power makes resurrection life possible for all. When Jesus becomes the Truth, then the way we perceive life is forever shaped by His Spirit.
Three: You may not live upon this earth a long time, but you can have the promise of Life tomorrow.
Jesus said, “This is Life Eternal, that they know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” This is not the only way He stated His promise. “Because I live,” He said, “you will live also.” And even more dramatically and specifically, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live.”
Now there are two ways of looking at this—or maybe there are just two sides of the same coin. One is the promise of resurrection now: “This is Eternal Life…” That’s present tense, and when Jesus said, “Because I live, you will live also,” that’s present tense. When we look at it this way, the proof of the Resurrection is not the empty tomb—but the incredible transformation in the lives of the disciples. That’s a matter of record. They remained ordinary men after the Resurrection, but they began to live extraordinary lives. Something had happened to them—something had come over them—they were living the Resurrection now.
There was a line right down the middle of their life, before and after. After the Resurrection, no matter what happened to them, and worse things happened, they were convinced that it is love that is the strongest power in this world, and death is not the victor. As Paul wrote, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which we saw in Christ Jesus.”
I could tell you in detail, story after story, of people I have known and know, who are living that kind of faith. A mother rearing two children alone but in her loneliness and frustration is sustained by a presence and power not her own. An alcoholic who lives one day at a time in commitment to Christ and celebrates this week 11 years of sobriety after far more years than that in hopeless despair. A young man who fights desperately a pitch-heat battle with drug addiction, and praise God, by his dependency upon Christ, is winning the battle.
Then there are the countless ones whose stories are not so dramatic. They cope with fear and depression, the pressure of a demanding job, the energy-draining calls upon their lives as parents; teenagers who are refusing to let the world around them squeeze them into its mold; couples who could easily throw in the towel on a difficult marriage but are determined to make it by the grace of God.
For all of these, as for the disciples, God has not resuscitated persons and the old world, He has given birth to the new. They are living resurrection life now.
But there’s the other side of the coin to Jesus’ soul-bracing promise: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will never die.” That’s the future emphasis.
When my dearest friend, Buford Dickinson, died, it was John Birkbeck, my Scot Presbyterian preacher friend and spiritual mentor, who gave me this beautiful word, “For the Christian, death is not a period in the written sentence of life, but a comma, for eternal life is our gift.”
So it is. Death is not a period, but a comma. I’m looking forward to that comma of death to the rest of the sentence: tomorrows of eternity, with my loving parents of course, but with my brother Lloyd and brother-in-law Randy, both who died in their early 40s, and my preacher grandfather Lewis whom I never knew. Tomorrow! You may not live upon this earth a long time, but you can have the promise of life tomorrow.
Review and rehearse. What’s the Easter word? Jesus Christ — Alive and wanting to live in us. And how do we appropriate that Easter word? By remembering and acting upon three truths: One: You may not know where you are going, but no matter where you go, there will always be the Way. Two: You may not know all things, but no matter what you know, there is always the Truth. And three: You may not live upon this earth a long time, but you can have the promise of Life tomorrow.
The Easter word has been spoken. Have you heard it?