Tuesday, March 29, 2016

This Changes Everything!

…chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord: ...who by his death has destroyed death and by his rising to life again has won for us ever-lasting life.

These words, coming from the Proper Preface we will use in today’s Eucharistic liturgy, hint that this day is a day of incredible power.  Like Ford says in its commercial for its F150 pickup – This changes everything! 

Don’t believe it?  Let’s take stock of the mood permeating the first Easter morning.  Jesus’ followers are done.  A few women come to the tomb to cover his corpse with burial anointments and perfumes.   Two other disciples leave Jerusalem and head out of town on a road to Emmaus – a destination still unknown by modern scholars.  In a very real sense they are going nowhere – aimless and dispirited.  The rest of the disciples are hiding in a room with doors locked and shades drawn.  They are fearful, and with good reason.  The authorities might come for them next.  They might be tried and executed just as Jesus was.

It is a bleak picture, completely devoid of direction and hope.  There is nothing here – nothing at all – to suggest in just fifty days these very same people will be transformed into a dynamic, courageous group of witnesses who would carry the Good News of Jesus to every known corner of their world.  There is nothing here to suggest the willingness with which they will endure hardship, persecution, beatings, imprisonment, and even death itself in order to proclaim the truth of what they have experienced.  Their movement, which begins as a small sect with a few dozen adherents, grows in little over 300 years against all odds and adversities to become the official religion of the Roman Empire; supplanting centuries-old paganism, myths, and superstitions.

I don’t know what you think about this day.  You may be a devout believer in the Resurrection or you may be dyed-in-the-wool skeptic.  No matter where you fall, we all must acknowledge Easter liberated a tremendous power in the world.

Power is simply defined as the ability to get things done.  Whereas authority is the right to do something, power is the ability to do it.  A bank robber has power, but not authority.  A teacher has authority, but may not have power.  A police officer has both.

Back in 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven published a study on power in which they enumerated five different ways it can be manifested:

  Referent power is the ability to cultivate the respect and admiration of others so that they wish to be like you and follow you.  Thinking of the events unfolding over the course of Holy Week, you will note Jesus had referent power, while Pilate and Herod did not.

  Legitimate power, also known as positional power, is derived from a person’s given responsibilities and duties.  The temple officials lacked the legitimate power to crucify Jesus.  They had to convince Pilate to order it, because this power was seated in his position alone.

  Expert power comes from one’s skills, abilities, and expertise.  Imagine you are on a plane sitting next to a pilot and a plumber.  Each has a useful skill set you may not possess.  If the jet’s captain becomes incapacitated you know which of the two will immediately receive power to take over.  The guards who flogged Jesus had expert power.  They knew their craft and they were good at it.

  Reward power depends on the ability of a person to confer something of value to others.  Parents try to wield reward power even as we sit here this morning.  How many of you have said to your children, “If you sit quietly through the service, after church we’ll go get some ice cream”?  Judas had reward power.  He was able to tell the Temple authorities where they could arrest Jesus without making a public scene.  The Temple officials also had this power.  They paid Judas handsomely for his information.

  And finally there is coercive power.  It uses threats and punishments to achieve desired results.  This was Pilate’s main source of power.

On Good Friday we read this from the Gospel of John:

Pilate said to Jesus, “Do you refuse to speak to me?  Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”  Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”

When Pilate is unsuccessful in using his power to coerce he follows through on his threat.

This morning I want to draw your attention to two types of power.  One is as old as civilization itself.  It is the power to destroy.  Anyone can wield it: terrorists in Brussels, an abusive spouse and parent, a mean-spirited parishioner, a rude person in the checkout line, a Roman despot suppressing religious and human freedom.  The power to destroy is available to each of us.  All that differs is the scope and scale of the damage we can do.

Easter unleashes a new power.  It is a power not named or described in French and Raven’s 1959 study.  It is Easter power – the power to give life and hope and courage and purpose; the power to transform a person’s life.  It is a power far greater than all other powers in the world.  It is the power of resurrection and it fuelled the passion of the first Apostles.  It is a power which can and does liberate the human heart.  No power, no circumstance can overcome it.

A little over 250 years ago, a man named George was in as bad of straights as you can imagine.  Once an accomplished musician and composer who was favored by royalty, his health had failed.  A few years earlier a stroke left his right side crippled with paralysis.  He was impoverished and had to sleep on the cold, bare wooden floor of his unheated apartment.  Creditors had seized all his belongings and were threatening to have him sent to debtor’s prison.  He was 56 years old – my age.  I cannot imagine a darker, more hopeless place in life to be.  But there was a power working in George – the power of Easter – and it so enflamed his heart he sat down to compose.  Christians around the world today will sing what George Frederick Handel brought to life in spite of the circumstances I described… The Hallelujah Chorus.  Ask yourself how a person in such a downtrodden place could create something filled so profoundly with hope and praise.

In our own time we have seen this power manifested through the likes of Corrie ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, through Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, through Joni Eareckson and Lisa Beamer.  Each has made an incredible witness to the Christian faith and life in spite of obstacles and challenges that would cripple most and cause their spirits to crumble.  Paul confessed to the Christians in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”  Jesus told his followers, “I have come that you may have life.”  It is this life-giving power we seek and celebrate today.

Maybe you doubt the Resurrection.  Maybe it all sounds to fantastical, too far-fetched, too much like a superstitious tale concocted in an age of superstition for you to take it literally.  But if you have any intellectual curiosity and any intellectual integrity, the story of the Resurrection demands you make some kind of assessment of the power it unleashed.  Can you really chalk up the changed lives of every single disciple to something as simple as the power of positive thinking?  How do you make sense of the incredible witness of Christians down through the ages and in our own time; people who have endured against incredible odds with undiminished joy and faith and hope?  Either they are delusional or they are buoyed by some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, or they are caught up in the power of Easter that changes everything… a power available to you and to me if we embrace it, received it, and cherish it.

…chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord: who by his death has destroyed death and, and by his rising to life again has won for us ever-lasting life.