Easter Is Not Like Christmas

Easter Is Not Like Christmas

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

I’m not sure if social distancing and spending more time with the people we’re closest to are making us more or less honest. But I’m an optimist. And, if we’re being honest, one of the first thoughts I had when all this started was, “Thank God it’s not football season.”

Maybe it will be eventually; I definitely would’ve had a different answer if we lost last year’s basketball season, when Tennessee had a real chance to win it all. Still, losing opening day, The Masters, and the NCAA Tournament is sad. But losing football season? We’ll do anything to keep that from happening (and we might get our chance to).

Football drives life in the south in ways you can’t escape, even if you don’t care for the sport or the idea. It weaves its way toward December, a three-month lead-in to another inescapable truth: Santa Claus.

This is a more universal concern, even in the south: “Thank God it’s not Christmas.” So much of what we actually look forward to in December – presents, presence, etc. – would’ve been lost to unemployment and quarantine. And no doubt, even nine months from now, there’s no guarantee things will be the same as they were before.

But for now, football and Bethlehem are safe. Instead, college basketball is over. And Easter might be next.

I’m a United Methodist pastor; all of our churches, at least in our East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia conference, were closed by our bishop. I’m not sure anyone knows what it will take to reopen them right now. In Virginia this week, the governor put a 30-day ban on gatherings of 10+ people, which would carry us a week past Easter on April 12. Meanwhile, the president is using Easter as a hopeful restart date for the country.

There’s a sense that Easter could grow into a significant point of tension. For churches, sure, we’d like to meet in person! Along with everything we miss from every Sunday we’re together and all of our vibrant Holy Week traditions, there’s the practical: Easter is always the most-attended Sunday of the year. That often makes it one of our best Sundays for giving; losing in-person worship on Easter might mean losing a big piece of an already-thinning financial pie.

But the truth for most of us, even us Christians? We’d rather lose Easter than Christmas.

And I get it. Me too.

I’m not here to shame you for caring more about Christmas than Easter. I’m here to say, if you’re consumed with worry over losing Easter? Or if you’re propping it up as something we absolutely, positively have to have in person, no matter the cost? Because celebrating the day Jesus rose from the dead matters more than anything?

We might actually be selling that day short.

We might be missing the fullness of resurrection.

Do you know why we have church on Sunday mornings?

It’s not the Sabbath. Our Jewish friends would be quick to point out that Sabbath takes place from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the seventh day of the week, when God rested.

In the resurrection accounts in the New Testament, only a few details show up in all four gospels:

  • Women and at least one angel were there at the tomb.
  • The stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.
  • And all of it happened in the morning on the first day of the week.

Which is Sunday.

Which is why you go to church on Sunday.

Easter is not like Christmas. This is true for our personal reasons that make us secretly grateful this is happening now and not then. But it’s also true theologically.

Christmas is an event we celebrate on December 25, plus a month of build-up (if you’re a good person; more than that if you hate Thanksgiving and love Hobby Lobby and Hallmark). One of my wife’s grandmothers, born on Christmas Day, often shares a saying from her mother: “Nothing is ever quite as over as Christmas.”

But Easter? Resurrection is not an event we celebrate on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox, and then move on to the next story. Resurrection is the story.

If I stood in front of you holding a candle on Christmas Eve and asked you to live every day like it was Christmas, you’d appropriately roll your eyes. But living every day like the tomb is empty is exactly what we’re called to do.

Alongside the resurrection accounts in the gospels, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 are the most thorough New Testament argument for the importance of resurrection. Listen to the way he talks about it:

  • “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
  • “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (verse 17)
  • “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (verse 19)
  • “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (verse 32)

Essentially, if there’s no Resurrection, let’s move to Vegas, baby, for tomorrow we die.

But that’s the thing:

  • “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (verse 55)

Resurrection is not a thing we celebrate one Sunday a year. It is the reason for Sundays. It is the reason for everything.

This is not a matter of secondary importance, and not some obscure thing we believe. The Apostles’ Creed, a shared statement of faith for churches of so many different names from one century to the next, spends more time on this than anything else. Our core doctrines and most meaningful truths – who is Christ, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life – are all held together by resurrection.

And even when other parts of the calendar work to our advantage – “Thank God it’s Lent,” perhaps – resurrection still breaks through. If you gave up something for Lent and thought you signed up for 40 days, if you count the Sundays as well you’re actually getting 46 days. That’s because on Sundays – every Sunday – we celebrate the resurrection. And nothing – nothing gets in the way of that. When I was a kid I used to think this was cheating at Lent, and good Christians did the whole 46. Now I believe good Christians seek to understand and live the fullness of resurrection.

If we can’t meet in person on April 12, I’ll be sad. But the resurrection cannot be contained by one Sunday. If we think it’s only a story for springtime, we sell it short. When we’re consumed with meeting in person on that day no matter the potential cost to others, we misrepresent it. When we’re tempted to tether it to a political party or the health of any economy, even our own, we misplace it.

Resurrection is not just a thing we celebrate on Easter. It’s a thing we celebrate every Sunday. It’s our very life. As Eugene Peterson says in his paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15:30-33 in The Message:

It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live.

More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash

So much of the fun with these things is the build-up. And among these things – Avengers, Lord of the Rings, and whatever the next generation’s will be – Star Wars is both author and perfecter. It is the reason we make trilogies. And in many ways, it is the reason we have build-up.

In the fall of 1998 I sat in yearbook senior year and watched a trailer on the internet. Whatever you believe about The Phantom Menace, know that two minutes and twelve seconds of it were the greatest thing you’d seen in your entire life in the fall of 1998. The fact that you could watch any trailer online back then was amazing. The fact that it was Star Wars, for the first time in 15 years, was even better.

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Naked and Unashamed

Naked and Unashamed

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Genesis 2:24-25 (NRSV)

Nakedness was the first truth of Adam and Eve’s relationship. And when they ate the fruit, it became the first thing to go.

But I think there’s something in us that wants to get back to that place.

Nakedness is obviously compelling, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the implied intimacy in relationships as much as anything else—the fullness of who we are being seen by someone else without any presence of shame. The kind of intimacy that drives us toward the oneness described in this original relationship between Adam and Eve.

Nakedness, of course, can happen in a moment. Some of the shame that wants to define our sexuality can come from the fact that we sometimes get naked (literally and figuratively) much too quickly.

True intimacy always takes time.

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A Delight to the Eyes

A Delight to the Eyes

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

Genesis 3:1-6 (NRSV)

Why did the serpent choose this lie?

He didn’t tell Eve that God is really a cruel dictator or a figment of her imagination. And he didn’t tell her the fruit would give her fantastic powers, like flight or x-ray vision.

The serpent doesn’t tell big lies; those are easier to spot.

It’s the small ones that got Eve. The serpent pretending to be on her side. The idea that God might be holding out on her. The thought that there might be something better.

In his commentary on Genesis, Terence Fretheim notes the serpent asked the initial question in a way that is difficult to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to. Crafty, indeed.

Eve saw that the tree was not only good for food; it was also a delight to the eyes. These facts eventually became the center of her decision-making: If it’s good for food, it won’t hurt me. If it’s a delight to the eyes, it will give me pleasure. And that’s what is best for me.

We’ve been tempted to live that lie ever since.

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Be Fruitful and Multiply

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV)

At what point is one qualified to speak on relationships and sexuality?

When I started doing this job, single and in my mid-20’s, I was amazed that anyone would come sit in my office and ask me about anything. I spent those first couple of years just working on my poker face. (It did improve with every visit.) But 13 years later, I’ve yet to acquire the overwhelming confidence or accompanying facial expression that says, “Oh yeah, definitely tell me about your relationship stuff. I’ve got that down.”

I’ll tell you who I would trust when it comes to relationships:

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A Church Like That

A Church Like That

In the United Methodist Book of Discipline is a section called the Social Principles, which contains our denomination’s stance on seventy-six different issues. From abortion to bullying to sustainable agriculture to collective bargaining…you name it, we have some thoughts.

But the Social Principles are not church law. When you come forward to join our church, we don’t ask if you agree with our stance on any or all of these issues. We ask if you repent of your sin and confess Jesus Christ as your Savior. And we also ask if you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

So you can be a United Methodist (or a United Methodist pastor) and disagree with any portion of any number of our stances. With 76 items on the list, everyone does. This is one of the primary ingredients for the incredible diversity that can exist within our church.

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This Post is Sponsored by Jesus Christ

This Post is Sponsored by Jesus Christ

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

How do you talk about your church?

Last week a church marketing ad showed up in my Facebook feed. I clicked the link and traded my phone number and email address for a template that would supposedly solve all my problems following up with first-time visitors.

Nevermind the two texts, four emails, and one voicemail the company somehow left without actually calling me over the next 24 hours; I figured I was getting into some version of that. I was more surprised by the content of their can’t-miss strategies to reach visitors, like apologetic emails that know you’re busy but hey, could you maybe squeeze in church this week? Please?

Or emails designed to go out on Saturday with some form of, “I’ve been working on the sermon, and I’m excited about it!” Would a more honest version of this actually be more effective?

  • “Hey (name), I’ve been working on the sermon, and I just don’t know about this one.”
  • “Hey (name), it’s Saturday night and I’m convinced my sermon is trash, but sometimes that ends up being a good thing on Sunday morning. Come see which one it is this week!”
  • “Hey (name), I know I’m going to get an email from these three people about this week’s sermon. If you correctly guess how many additional emails I get this week, you’ll be entered to win the new car we’re giving away on Christmas Eve!”

All of this, plus the fact that their template encourages me to follow up with first-time visitors in various ways for six days in a row. If I met anyone for the first time and they contacted me each of the next six days, I would call the police.

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Believing, Belonging, and Behaving in the United Methodist Church

Believing, Belonging, and Behaving in the United Methodist Church

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Around 15 years ago, I attended a workshop led by the late Dr. Stanley Grenz. He wrote the textbook we used a few years later for theology and doctrine in seminary, but that first impression remains the most memorable. Dr. Grenz wrote three words on an old-school white-paper easel:

Believe. Belong. Behave.

And then he asked which order was best when it comes to being part of a church.

If your church is like mine, it often goes in the order listed above. If you want to join our church, we ask if you believe the things we believe. If you do, we’ll let you belong. And once you belong…we hope you’ll behave. It’s not in the official liturgy, but, “Please don’t rob any banks or otherwise embarrass us publicly,” is often implied.

Is this the best way for people to enter into a relationship with a church?

All three of these words are at the heart of the conversation happening right now in the United Methodist Church. In February, the decision-making body of our denomination will meet to discuss our stance on human sexuality. One potential change, on the recommendation of our Council of Bishops, would give United Methodist churches and pastors the freedom to host and officiate same-sex weddings, if they so desired. This plan would also give the freedom to ordain LGBT clergy to each local board of ordained ministry. (The full 231-page report became public last month, which also includes a traditionalist option and a proposal to create multiple branches within the denomination.)

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Only What You Take With You

Only What You Take With You

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

If you adjust for inflation, the first Star Wars film is the second highest-grossing movie of all-time. This means more people saw it in theaters than any other film in history, other than Gone with the Wind. And, thanks to successful sequels and merchandising – I don’t think anyone is asking for a Scarlett O’Hara action figure this Christmas – Star Wars has far more permanence. Those who saw it in theaters in 1977 could be buying their grandchildren BB-8’s this holiday season.

Its commercialization is fine and insanely lucrative, I’m sure. But what really makes it last – what really makes anything last – is story.

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Childlike Faith & Genesis 1

Childlike Faith & Genesis 1

Photo by Louis Blythe on Unsplash

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. – Mark 10:13-16 (NRSV)

How do they hear it, our children? How did we hear it when we were kids?

My wife is 36 weeks pregnant with our first child. The pamphlets at the doctor’s office are changing, from fun facts about pregnancy to how to keep a human being alive when you take one home from the hospital. This thing is happening.

In some ways I know we’ll be teaching our son about God and faith right away (and far more, I assume, that he’ll be teaching us). But at some point between Goodnight Moon and the 17 Star Wars books we got that I know he’s too young for but I’m probably going to read to him anyway…at some point, we’re going to open a bible. At some point, we’re going to get to tell these stories we’ve heard and lived for all these years to this new life.

How should we tell it?

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