Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunday
Text: John 20:17 Isaiah 25:6-9 John 20:1-18
Remember the Time Magazine cover story of Good Friday in 1966? It was controversial and set the tone for the Baby Boomer rejection of the Church. In an era of social movements, Christianity’s rejection was the most under-reported, and under-appreciated – except for this article.
The cover story was “Where is God?” It could just as easily have been Jesus’ followers question when they visited Jesus’ tomb in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden that first Day of the Lord.
Where is God in the face of the brutal injustice that crucified Jesus? Where is God when the great teacher from whom we learned about God’s love was hung on a cross to die?
The 1966 Time Magazine cover story in Holy Week was a sequel to an October 22, 1965 story it earlier published. That earlier story described a radical theology that was emerging across America. The 1965 radical movement was the “God is Dead,” movement. This movement didn’t begin with Baby Boomers. It influenced Baby Boomers.
In 1965, theology professors at Temple University, Rochester Divinity School, Syracuse University, and Emory University from the Methodist Church claimed God is dead. These professors were from the greatest generation who had fought World War II. Dr. Thomas Altizer from Emory University declared, “We must recognize the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.”
On Good Friday, six months later, other theologians opposed the God is dead movement. This article on Good Friday tried to defend the existence of God. The problem wasn’t God, they said. The problem was secularism. It was destroying Christian faith.
Secularism – that religious cancer that claims it represents rationalism and freedom from religious intolerance. What secularism really stands for is intolerance of religious belief and practice – particularly intolerance of Jesus Christ being the Lord of the Universe.
Here we are, 51 years later. Despite how dismal Christian faith appeared half a century ago, and how powerful secularism seemed, we’re here this Easter morning to declare Jesus Christ’s resurrection remains the most powerful inspiration in human history! Christ’s eternity is not diminished by human doubt or scientific reason.
Much has happened to Christianity and America during the last 51 years. We’ve reached the moon and discovered the DNA code through human ingenuity. We’re mapping functions of the human brain, and have sent interplanetary explorers to find life on distant stars.
We can live life in the palm of our hands, and can see life moving in the womb. The world is richer for the information explosion that’s transforming civilization. We are living on the threshold of artificial intelligence. We have made robots to replace much human labor.
But we’re no closer to ending the hatred afflicting humanity. All of our wisdom, all of our education, all of our efforts in shaping our environment, has failed to end war, murder, and suffering.
The injustice that nailed Jesus Christ to the Cross remains a stubborn foe to reason. The capacity of humans to render evil for evil continues its relentless opposition to faith, hope, and love. Secularism has not solved the problem of human sin. It tries to deny sin’s existence. But our experience tells us otherwise. Secularism can’t solve the problem of sin.
During the past 51 years, we’ve seen revivals of ancient religious conflicts against Christian hope that we thought modern secularism had vanquished. We’ve seen educated people be terrorists. Drugs continue their relentless march through families as a new generation succumbs to their hopelessness. In many places across our nation, we’ve given up on conquering drug abuse and legalized their use.
We’ve given up on the cancer of games of chance and legalized them. We’ve given up keeping the Sabbath day holy and legalized business and sports on the Lord’s day of rest.
Despite our wealth, our government that upholds the highest ideals of justice, a constitution that guarantees freedom that remains the world’s envy, and compulsory education that propels our civilization’s technological advances, America hasn’t lost its need for salvation from God. Our hope remains not in our own progress in human civilization. Our only hope remains in God’s intervention in our sin.
The empty Cross and the empty tomb are twin pillars upon which Christian hope builds Christ’s Church. God’s forgiving love from the Cross, and the evidence God gives of His love through raising Jesus Christ from the dead, remain the ultimate basis for the world’s hope. No other religious faith offers hope to a prideful world like faith in Jesus’ promise.
Back in the 1980s, when my ministry was on a mission to help youth with their addictions, I spent a week in St. Francis Hospital’s adolescent chemical dependency unit. I watched addictions’ counselors challenge the complex defenses used by teens to resist treatment. They lived in denial that they needed help. But they were on a death spiral they could not control. They are a metaphor for life on planet earth.
Ultimately, the common need of the human spirit for God’s help was the only means of successfully penetrating an addict’s denial. Through offering genuine love, a forgiving love, teen addicts found their way out of addiction’s darkness into the light of new life. It’s the same love found on the Cross and in the empty tomb. It’s the love of Jesus Christ for the world!
Regardless of how far humanity thinks it has progressed, we remain our own greatest threat. Our knowledge has made the stakes higher. One person with a vendetta to satisfy can launch a nuclear strike that can unleash a chain-reaction of retaliation that cannot be controlled.
Barriers of denial resisting God’s help are raised by the world’s secularists. Their confidence in the human capacity to resolve life’s injustices without God has not born fruit. We’ve been on secularism’s road for over two centuries without ending humankind’s capacity for waging war and denying human rights. We’ve seen the fruit of secularism in state-sponsored atheism and idolatries of nationalism.
Only Jesus Christ offers dignity for every human being. He alone is the path to global reconciliation and peace. God’s message of universal human dignity is heard in the words, “He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!”
From the injustice of Jesus’ Cross, God raised His Son to eternal life to show every person on this planet facing their own Cross that God promises new life to those who trust and have faith in Jesus and His love.
Since secularism has no answers to prevent injustice on earth, and is a cause of global slavery to fear and death, Communism has fallen across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Because the resurrection is the promise of a better life for all humanity, Christ’s Church throughout Eastern Europe and Russia has risen from atheism’s rubble to resume her witness. She offers new life through Jesus Christ for future generations to be reconciled.
Friends, Christian school teachers continue to be challenged by Western secularism to hide their crosses. Yet it’s the Cross of God’s love that’s the world’s hope! From the Cross of God’s love, God offers proof of the eternity of His love. From the question of “where is God” that is asked by people in despair, there are Mary and Martha crying out, “He’s not here! He has risen from the dead!”
Wherever there are children and youth who are asking “Where is God?” there are Christian youth ministers and youth group advisors lifting high the Cross as their inspiration for hope. Wherever there are people declaring “God is Dead,” there are mature followers of Jesus willing to lift high the Cross as God’s sign that points to His eternal life!
The Cross is not simply a symbol that represents Christianity. It’s the sign post directing people who question God’s existence to find God’s hope. When Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev died, and was lying in state in the Kremlin, Red Army soldiers prepared to close the lid on his coffin, before it was to be carried to Lenin’s tomb. Brezhnev’s wife stood silently beside the coffin, peering at her husband’s body.
Then, just as the soldiers drew up to the casket to close its lid, she placed her finger on the center of her husband’s chest. There, in the citadel of secular, atheist power, she made the sign of the Cross. In that one brief act of Christian faith, she made one last statement to her husband about how wrong he had been about the real source of human hope.
Real hope doesn’t lie in secularism. Hope doesn’t lie in the dream of economic equality enforced by a totalitarian, secular, atheist state.
Real hope doesn’t lie in status or wealth. Elvis Presley was adored by America’s youth. He was a ‘60’s icon of secular success: the King of Rock ‘ n Roll – handsome, musical, and an entertainment darling. Many looked up to him as greater than life. But in his mind, Elvis Presley lived in a prison.
His step-brother, Rick Stanley, tells the story of Elvis’ final night. Elvis life of fame depressed him. He had millions of dollars and girls swarming him but was dependent on drugs. His step-brother talked with Elvis about a girl he had met who said she was praying to Jesus for him. Rick told Elvis about her faith in Jesus and the hope Jesus gives. Elvis told his step-brother, “What she’s telling you is true.”
Elvis Presley, for all of his fame and fortune, for as miserable as he was in the midst of living in the public eye, for as much as the world lifted him up as a cultural idol, believed that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He knew what the Cross of Good Friday did and what the hope of Easter Day meant.
This was Elvis’ last testament before he died.
Real hope doesn’t lie in world of wealth without faith in Jesus Christ. Real hope isn’t a form of escape from the real world by diving into the fantasy of entertainment.
Real hope, saving hope lifts high the Cross. The Cross of Jesus rises above the world of suffering and pain. It points upwards to where Jesus’ resurrection reveals the new life that’s eternal. Jesus’ Cross lifts our vision up to God’s heavenly Kingdom, where one and all sing with one voice, the Hallelujah Chorus. This is Easter’s hope.
Lift high the Cross for the hope of the world in Jesus Christ our Lord!