A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on April 24, 2011.
Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-11
Here’s the trivia question for today—how did the tradition of buying new clothes for Easter come about? Your cynical side of you might think the clothing industry came up with the idea but your cynical side would be wrong. Maybe it’s as simple as we just wanted an excuse to impress others with our clothes. And that’s probably true.
But there’s actually a theological reason behind the tradition of our brand new, brightly colored Easter clothes—a new Easter outfit is vivid, tangible testimony that a new Easter “self” is possible. Our new Easter clothes declare we can be changed from our drab, sinful selves into our new, truest selves by the greatest fashion designer of all time, Jesus Christ.
My, that kind of dramatic, deep-seated change sounds wonderful! In fact, it frankly sounds too good to be true, kind of like the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Six hundred years before Christ the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah voiced his own skepticism about the possibility of people changing. Jeremiah spent 40 years being God’s prophet of judgment against the sinful Israelites, and most of that time felt like a waste of time. For all his preaching and prophesying, the Israelites hardly budged from their chronic sin and rebellion, prompting Jeremiah to ask these two, famous rhetorical questions:
“Can Ethiopians change their skin
Or leopards their spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23)
Today, despite our Easter outfits, I wonder how many of us are just that cynical when it comes to our own ability to change. It may be easier to believe God could raise Jesus from the dead than generate dramatic, down-deep change in us. We can change some things about ourselves with relative ease. Our schedules. Our diets. Even our jobs.
But our deeply-scripted patterns and destructive habits?—that’s another matter. Maybe we’ve tried to eliminate our flaws a thousand times, and we’ve fallen on our faces a thousand times. Maybe some time ago we quietly gave up hope that we could change anything about ourselves other than at a superficial level. Ethiopians will always be black, leopards will always have spots, and we will carry our deepest flaws to our graves.
Friends, listen to the good news of Easter! On this day, we not only celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead. We also celebrate that God can change us at the core of our souls, from the inside out, through the power of the resurrected Christ. In fact, for centuries Christians have called this deepest level of change “spiritual transformation.”
With all due respect to our cynicism, Easter not only says, “Christ is raised from the dead!” Easter also says, “We can be changed!” In fact, let me take this line of thought even further—if you leave church today having celebrated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, only to return to your life tomorrow utterly unchanged, now and forever, then you’ve not only simply gone through the motions of Easter. You may have stepped even further away from God and the true self God made you to be.
See, the great spiritual masters of the Christian faith maintain that we are being formed in our spirits all the time through all that happens to us. Some experiences bring us closer to God and our truest selves, while others move us in the opposite direction. Going to church to see and be seen can deepen consciously or unconsciously your cynicism about the faith, while going to church to engage with other believers at a deep level of Bible study, personal sharing, and worship can bring you closer to God and your truest self. My hope today is that regardless of how deep-seated you believe your flaws to be, you’ll leave this Easter service clear as day that Easter means you, yes even you can be changed.
Now, to be sure, the fundamental change we celebrate on this most important Sunday of the Christian year is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Early on the first Easter Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and John, journeyed to the grave of the crucified Jesus just to view his tomb one more time. Maybe they thought one more visit to his grave would soften their grief.
Did it ever!
An earthquake struck and an angel from heaven rolled back with ease the ponderous stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb. Then, in an almost whimsical way, the angel sat on top of the relocated stone and said to the two terrified, stupefied Marys—“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”
Here is the mysterious, mind-bending reality that changed all of history. The crucified Christ, who had been dead as a doornail and confined to an inescapable tomb was a) raised from the dead; and b) gone from the tomb.
We don’t know what kind of molecular change took place in Jesus lifeless corpse. We do know in just a few moments the Mary’s will take hold of Jesus’ feet and worship him. So clearly, the Risen Christ is not just a spirit—he is a body, too. But a very different kind of body, what the scripture calls a “spiritual body”, that is at once recognizable and unrecognizable, still marked with the holes of nails yet able to pass through walls, occupying visible space and speaking with an audible voice yet able to cover vast distances in the blink of an eye.
We also know that this change in Jesus’ body foreshadows a change of our bodies when we die. “Listen,” says the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed…in the twinkling of the eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed”(vv.51-52).
This is news beyond compare for every Christ-follower! We no longer have to live in fear of death! We and those Christ followers we loved will be raised from the dead like Jesus, because Easter says in the end it’s death that dies.
But as wonderful as this news is, says Paul, it is only part of the Easter story. Easter also says we can begin to experience the resurrection life here and now, on this side of the grave. Because the same God who raised Jesus from the dead can raise is to a new, spiritually transformed life.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who think Jesus’ sole mission in life was to get us ready for life after death. But that point of view shortchanges Jesus big time because a great deal of his ministry was devoted to transforming people before they died. The fact that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water into wine serves as a powerful metaphor for a ministry dedicated to changing people at the deepest levels of their being.
According to the Gospel of Mark, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth at the outset of his ministry were, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The word “repent” in the Greek (metanoia) means to change your mind. Essentially, what Jesus is saying is “Let God change your mind, your heart, your life so you can enter the kingdom of God” No sooner had Jesus said this to Peter, Andrew, James and John than they dropped their fishing nets and followed Jesus. Why? Because the power of God changed them, transformed them into disciples.
And this kind of thing happened throughout Jesus’ ministry. In fact, just before Jesus died a thief who hung next to him on another cross had a change of mind and heart, and he was the first to follow Jesus into heaven. And just after Jesus died, a Roman centurion standing guard over Jesus had his own moment of “metanoia” when he shouted out, “Truly, this is the son of God!”
But all of this life-change was just the warm-up act for the wonder-working, life-changing, resurrection power of The Risen Christ. From the moment Jesus is raised from the dead, people undergo incredible transformation.
The two Marys are changed from humble, grief-strickenwomen into the first to witness the Risen Christ, the first to worship the Risen Christ, and the first to witness on behalf of the Risen Christ. And by the way, notice another huge shift in this moment after the resurrection — women can never again be viewed as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.
Meanwhile, proving that not everybody is transformed for the good in the face of the resurrection, the soldiers assigned to guard Jesus’ tomb, says Matthew, were scared to death and became like dead men. Later, those same soldiers would accept bribes to spread the lie that Jesus’ body was not raised by God but stolen by his disciples. Regrettably, these guards who were eyewitnesses of the empty tomb chose to do an end-run around the resurrection, and their souls became even more dead than they already were.
In time, the Spirit of the Risen Christ would change the disciples from fearful deserters of Christ into courageous evangelists for Christ who would eventually sacrifice their own lives for kingdom. Peter, in particular was a marvelous case study in spiritual transformation. The Peter who used to put his foot in his mouth at a moment’s notice will eventually preach the first sermon of the Christian church and win 3000 to Christ in one day. The Peter who had nothing but disdain for Gentiles will eventually proclaim that God does not play favorites, but warmly welcomes Gentiles to his kingdom.
Meanwhile, a persecutor of Christians named Saul meets the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and the change in Paul’s life is breathtaking. It isn’t just his name that changed—so did his whole life and character.
Paul reflects on this dramatic change in Colossians 3. In essence, Paul offers the startling observation that on the first Easter every follower of Jesus was in principle buried and raised with Christ. That means the same divine power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to raise us out of the tombs of our deepest flaws into a new kind of transformed life.
Before we get too excited about this we should note the precondition for our change. Like Jesus, we must undergo a painful death. We must die to our dark side—our lust and greed, our out-of-control anger, our slander and our lies. In truth, we cannot eliminate our dark sides by ourselves. We can and of course should seek counseling if need be. We can and should change our ways and our habits that indulge our dark side. But most importantly, we should invite God directly into our personal darkness to help us put to death those things that prevent us from being our truest selves.
Remember, Jesus did not raise himself—God made this change happen. And you will not change yourself. God will slowly but surely put your sins to death if you give him time and opportunity through such spiritual practices as self-examination and confession. Likewise, as you spend time with God in silence and solitude, in prayer and meditation, in intimate community and public worship, God will slowly but surely raise you to newness of life.
Now, let me offer my own Easter confession. For years I sounded more confident in my preaching than I actually felt about even my own potential for change, much less yours. I could preach and teach about transformation all day long, especially on Easter Sunday. But I privately wondered why I couldn’t see more change in my own life. Until, I finally decided to take the ancient rhythms and disciplines of the Christian faith more seriously.
Today, I stand before you to say you can be changed. Not because I’m paid to say it. Or because the Bible says it. Or because it sounds good on Easter Sunday. I say it because I’ve been changed in ways I never thought possible by the same Jesus who was raised from the grave that first Easter Sunday.
Listen, again, to the good news of Easter. Christ has been raised from the dead. And you can be changed!