by Chris Ritter
Norma Day is one of the dear saints of our church. Look her up when you get to heaven. She will be the one with all the stars in her crown. Norma left a voicemail for me this week to thank me for a little devotional I wrote for those confined in retirement centers, nursing homes, and care facilities this Holy Week. She wanted me to know that it was uncanny… My words went right along with her own Holy Week celebration. Norma planned her own personal Easter.
As the big day approached, Norma realized that she would be confined to her room. She is not a computer person, so she doesn’t even have access to our online service. “This is my 85th Easter,” Norma said. “I certainly should know how to do it by now. I got out the Gospel of John and I have been walking right along with Jesus.”
Norma knows how to Easter. Do you?
Before her message I never really thought of Easter as a verb: “Dude, do you even Easter?”
Here is the truth: The first Easter was more like Norma’s than the Easters to which we have become accustomed. For all the Easter Traditions we cherish, we find none of them on the First Easter Day. There were no grand worship services, Easter baskets, egg hunts, or children dressed in their Sunday best. What we find are individual encounters with a Risen Jesus.
Easter 2020 might be the most authentic Easter you or I have ever celebrated.
Each Gospel contains Easter encounters with Jesus and is followers. In Luke, two disciples were traveling by foot to the little town of Emmaus. On the road they met a stranger that answered so many of their questions and gave them new insight into the Scriptures. We they stopped for supper, they begged the stranger to stay with them. When he broke the bread, the recognized it had been Jesus all along. And then he disappeared.
We are told that Jesus appeared to Peter on Easter morning. That encounter is not narrated for us, but we can only imagine that this conversation was filled with forgiveness and new beginnings. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Now he receives a second chance. Easter is all about new beginnings, fresh starts, and do-overs.
But I want to focus today on the encounters we find in John 20. We are told the Mary Magdalene went early to the tomb while it was still dark. She found the grave open and the body missing. She ran and got Peter and John who came running. John entered the tomb “and believed.” Believed what? Peter and John return home and leave Mary Magdalene behind.
14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.John 20:14-18
Like It Was Before?
Mary’s life had been a total train wreck before she met Jesus. How overjoyed she was to have Jesus back with her. She clung to him. It is human nature to want to go back to when life made sense.
But Jesus tells her to let go. The future will not be like the past. He is ascending to The Father. He will send the Holy Spirit who will guide the church for now on. As for Mary, she is sent as the first herald of the Resurrection.
During the COVID-19 Lockdown there is a lot of talk about getting back to normal. We list the things we miss doing. (I do that, too.). But there is a real danger that longing for yesterday will cause us to miss what God is doing today. Romans 8:28 is in effect:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
God’s good work does not happen AFTER all things. It happens IN all things. God is working in the midst of the COVID-19 Lock-down. Let’s not miss what he is doing. He is not waiting for yesterday to be restored. He is building a new tomorrow.
Easter on Lock-Down
There is another conversation in John 20:
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”John 20:19-21
Where were the disciples on Easter Day? They were on Lock-Down! They were living in fear that their lives would end.
Jesus shows up behind locked doors and speaks his peace to them. We are told that he breathes his Spirit on them. And then he sends them forth: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”
This is the Great Commission text in John’s Gospel. We are sent as Jesus was sent. How was he sent? Vulnerably… Jesus came as a baby and send out his followers like sheep among wolves. Unexpectedly… Jesus was sent to unusual people, unusual circumstances, using unusual methods. Relationally… Jesus was all about relationships. His entire ministry was relationships.
My advice for those on lock-down is simple. First, don’t cut your own hair. Second, focus on relationships. Use the tools you have to stay connected to those you lose.
A great question to ask ourselves during the COVID-19 Lockdown is this: “How is Jesus sending me today?”
There is one more conversation Jesus had on Easter that is very famous. He spoke to a disciple that was away when Jesus appeared to the rest of his followers. I am talking, of course, about Thomas:
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”John 20:24, 25
Thomas earned the name Doubting Thomas because of his unwillingness to believe. But I think that title is a bit generous. When I think of a doubter I think of someone struggling to believe. Thomas was not struggling. He had decided that Jesus was still dead and would not be moved from that position except by empirical evidence.
Our problem is not always our lack of belief. Sometimes it is that we believe the wrong things… about ourselves, about God, and about others.
Some people call these “Limiting Beliefs.” I’ll give you and example.
Someone might comment that they are terrible with money. They probably have lots of evidence to conclude this is true. Their checking account is in the negative. They have overdue bills. Their credit cards are maxed out. But “I’m no good with money” is also a free pass for changing behavior. There is something about me that makes attempts to change futile. This is a limiting belief.
You can have a limiting belief in Parenting. “I just cannot connect with this child. We are just so different from one another.” This keeps us from believing and working toward a different end.
You can have a Limiting Belief in marriage. “I want my marriage to be better, but…” We usually go on to say something that happened, something about ourselves, and something about our partner.
Limiting beliefs create low expectations. And that can be very comfortable. We don’t have to try. We don’t have to dream. We just accept death instead of believe in life.
Let’s look at what Jesus did with Thomas’ Limiting Belief:
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”John 20:26-28
Jesus calls Thomas beyond his limits. Jesus is alive. Don’t wallow any longer in disbelief. Thomas’ Limiting Belief was blown away by an Unlimited Savior.
I have a Professor in seminary named Thomas Thangaraj. I knew very little about Christianity in India when I took his class, but he was very willing to enlighten me. He said that the name Thomas is highly revered where he is from because the Apostle Thomas is credited with bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the sub-continent. He did not stay a doubted. He believed.
Thomas’ response to Jesus was “My Lord and my God!” He was actually the first to declare the full divinity of Jesus.
Friends, Easter is a game-changer. We are not victims. We are more than conquerors. We are not locked down, we are sent. We are not trapped by our past, We have an open horizon. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in you and me. When Easter gets personal… that’s when it gets powerful.