Pastors share their thoughts on the meaning of Easter

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

In popular culture, Easter is the holiday of chocolate bunnies and egg hunts.

For Christians, it's the most important celebration of the year, the basis of their faith: On Easter, Christ rose from the dead.  We asked local pastors how the message of Easter was relevant in a secular world.

The message of Easter: "A second chance, a new beginning."

By the Rev. Michael Jackson, New Life Assembly of God, Janesville.

Have you ever needed a second chance? I have.

Mark, in the New Testament, gives us a thrilling account of the resurrection of Jesus. He begins by telling of the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning. When they arrived, they were surprised to find the tomb empty. An angel informed them that Jesus was no longer there for He had risen from the dead. Then the angel commanded, “But go, tell His disciples -- and Peter -- that He is going before you into Galilee….” (Mark 16:7).

 If you are not careful, you might just miss here two of the most thrilling words found anywhere in Scripture. The words? “And Peter.” In some sense, we have the whole Bible residing in those two words.

Why didn't the angel say, “Go and tell the disciples – and Pilate, Herod, and the chief priest?” They were the ones guilty of the Lord's death. Shouldn't they have been told that their evil plans had been foiled?

The angel could have said, “Go and tell the disciples – and the local news media. We want to get the news out. Go get a camera crew. This is big news!” 

I know people today who might have said, “Go and tell the disciples – except for Peter.” Peter denied even knowing the Lord when Jesus needed him the most. In the process, he cursed, he lied, as well as cowered before a servant girl. Peter failed miserably.

Instead, the angel said, “Go and tell the disciples -- and Peter.” I would think that Peter might well have thought that the Lord would have disowned him -- and deservedly so. However, instead of rejection, Peter was offered a second chance.

Someone once wrote: "Jesus was hung for my hang-ups. Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, so I can quit nailing myself to the cross."

Sin can do a lot of things. Sin can wreck hearts, homes, plans and people. But it cannot cause God to stop loving you.

Perhaps Louisa Tarkington said it best: “I wish there were some wonderful place called the land of beginning again where all of our mistakes and heartaches and all of our selfish greed could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never put on again.”

There is such a place. It is called Easter. Easter means a second chance, a new beginning.


The message of Easter: "Evil doesn't triumph"

By the Rev. Steven Ekblad of Good Shepard Lutheran Church, Janesville

Pretend you are a little Jerusalem mouse. It is Good Friday late. Jesus of Nazareth is crucified and verifiably dead.  You quickly scurry to the home of Caiaphas the High Priest and listen as he gloats, “We are rid of Jesus. He was bad both for temple business and for our authority. But we got him! We stirred up the crowds, paraded false witnesses, and manipulated the Roman governor. He's dead and gone forever!”

Your next stop: the home of Pontius Pilate. “Wife, I did the right thing, didn't I? You yourself said, 'Have nothing to do with that innocent man, Jesus.' So what if I gave in to the crowd? A riot was starting!  Anyway, it is all over now. One more messianic pretender crucified.”

Lastly you find Peter, Jesus' disciple, who is still sobbing. “The master knew me better than I knew myself. He said that I would deny him and I did -- three times. Well now, Jesus is dead. It's over.”

Everyone in the story gives Jesus thumbs down. That is, everyone but his Heavenly Father! On the third day, the Father raises His Son. The resurrection is the loudest “yes!” ever shouted. God the Father vindicates His Son and His claims by raising Him from the dead on the third day -- Easter.  God will not allow evil to triumph.

In our world today it often appears that evil is winning. Then as now, power is abused (the High Priests), self-interest ignores the innocent and allows suffering and death (Pilate) and sinful weakness traps us in despair (Peter). But God will set all things right in the bright day of the final resurrection.

Evil may not know it, but it is on life support. Its days are numbered. Like the brief burst of energy of a dying patient in bed, evil may seem to be sitting up and even thriving. But evil will one day end just as suddenly as that stone was once rolled away from the garden tomb on Easter.

In the meantime there's hope for us all. The Easter story does not end in the cemetery in Jerusalem but the Risen Christ appearing again on a beach in Galilee. In forgiving grace, Jesus finds and commissions Peter with these words: “Do you love me?  Feed my sheep!”


The message of Easter: "The freeing promise of life"

By the Rev. Dr. George D. Calhoun of Milton Seventh Day Baptist

Of all the fears that plague the heart and mind of every person, none is greater than the fear of death. Let's face it: We are afraid to die and afraid of what happens when we die. Death is a fundamental human problem.

Life is short and can be very uncertain. A person can be here today and gone tomorrow! The Bible hits it on the head when it says, “you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)

Some say that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. I don't know about taxes, because I've seen many find a way around them, but death, never! George Bernard Shaw said, “The statistics on death have not changed. One out of one person dies."

I read recently another statistic stating that 155, 000 people die each and every day. If my calculations are correct, that's 6,500 per hour, 107 per minute, and 1.8 per second. The Greek playwright Sophocles said, “Of all the great wonders, none is greater than man. Only for death can he find no cure.”

On this side of the grave, we have little to go on besides the familiar words of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to be born and a time to die." (Ecclesiastes 3:2) Visit any cemetery and you can't really tell much from the few words on the tombstone as to whether the person was young or old, male or female, rich or poor, famous or infamous, a churchgoer or a nonbeliever.

But what about the other side of the grave? Is death the end of the story or is there more? Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25)

The Bible tells us what lies ahead for those who put their trust in Jesus. In Him we can be free and healed from our past hurts, comforted and guided through our present problems and secure and assured in what our future holds.

What happened at Easter applies today because it takes the fear out of death and gives life to those who are willing to trust in Jesus for both sides of the grave!


The message of Easter: "Hope"

By the Rev. Stephen J. Umhoefer, Nativity of Mary Parish, Janesville

The message of Easter is simple and well known -- “He is risen!”  The angel first said it to the women who arrived early in the morning.  The women ran and reported it to the disciples, and it spread through the early Christian community with the speed of hope, faith and a little incredulity.

Some believed it immediately because they so desperately wanted to it to be true and those who excitedly spilled the words were well known and trustworthy.  Others couldn't imagine how it could be possible.

In the days to follow, however, Jesus appeared to so many people in different circumstances, that the early Christians became united in their belief.  We might imagine that so many of them were so familiar with Jesus that it was easier for them to reinforce one another's faith.  In today's world, however, not so much.

So many of us are so discouraged by disappointment and unfortunate familiarity with falsehood that we may be unwilling to get our hopes up.  It's just too risky to expose our vulnerability. 

These thoughts and concerns, however, will never get us anywhere. The resurrection of Jesus cannot be debated scientifically, nor can it be proven in a court of law.  

We believe because we are believers in one another.  We hope because we need to hope. The more we recognize that despair is not a viable option, the more we can see the positive energy in those who can say with conviction:  “I believe.” This is what provided the energy of faith that made it possible for our ancestors in the faith to go forward. 

Abraham believed he would father a nation. Moses believed that God would help him stand up to Pharaoh. These, and so many other Biblical examples, however, seem to be too far removed from our own crises and challenges. Yet, we may be able to relate to the father who asked Jesus to cure his son, even though his faith was weak. “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)  Such a humble prayer to be able to believe is an expression that, in fact, we do believe. 

The message of Easter is that death has died with the everlasting life that Jesus offers us. 


The message of Easter: "Strength and grace"

By the Rev. Bruce Jones, First Presbyterian Church, Janesville

Easter Sunday represents the climax of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Christians around the world gather to celebrate God's triumph over death. We believe God raised Jesus from the dead to give us eternal hope. When we die, we expect to rest in the loving presence of Almighty God. Until then, our Christian faith transforms our perspective on living in the modern world. We believe our God will walk beside us every day.

As a person of faith, my faith filters by perception of current events. I don't expect, as a disciple of Christ, that life will always be a “rose garden.” I'm not immune from difficulties, illness, and struggles, but I do look on them as part of life's journey. As a pastor, I see people who turn to God when they face challenges and then walk away when things go well. Many churches witnessed an increase in attendance following the tragedy of 9-11. Yet as further threats waned, so did people's need of seeking spiritual answers.

We live in a world full of natural and human tragedies. People died or were displaced by mudslides in Washington and earthquakes in Chile. People died and were injured by shootings at Foot Hood, TX; Overland Park, KS; and Newtown, CT. Those events may seem too far away to impact our lives. We've all been touched by cancer, Alzheimer's, and catastrophic disease. We've known someone who has experienced abuse, addiction, or who associate with people who cause us distress. These can wreak havoc in our relationship with family, friends, and others.

Christians experience these things, too. We are not immune to trials in life. We approach these challenges with God's constant help. We experience the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Knowing Jesus and being in a relationship with the Creator of the Universe gives us strength to face these challenges and even more. We trust that God will walk with us on the journey of life, help us through the low points, and celebrate the victories. In Jesus, we see the unique character of God's love, grace and truth. Jesus allows us to see the very nature of a Holy God. God becomes approachable and we encounter forgiveness in our failures. God joyfully embraces us, actively engages us, and transforms our lives as we trust the Lord. We celebrate this gift of grace at Easter.



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