Message by Pastor Pokora – Easter Sunday

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

One evening many years ago I received a phone call from Jerry Johnson, Bishop of the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. My wife and I lived in Springfield Illinois at the time, while I was on leave from the seminary and working for the Illinois General Assembly.

Johnson wanted to know, if I would lead Sunday worship services at two small, rural church near Meredosia, Illinois sixty miles from our apartment. I was happy to do so.

Early the following Sunday morning Gwen and I packed our daughter Ann into our, yellow Volkswagon bug and began a journey to the rolling hills of the Illinois River Valley where the church was located.

We discovered the white clapboard church with tall steeple situated atop the bluffs and surrounded by woods and cornfields. It was picture perfect, like a calendar photograph.

Next to the church building lies a small cemetery not much larger than our sanctuary. On a spring or summer day, when the church windows are open, the singing of the congregation drifts out over the tombstones. I have often thought how members of that church never leave each other, but remain united through their earthly and heavenly journey.

I’ve walked through that cemetery many times and recognized the names of people who welcomed us to that church the day we arrived. Fred and Hazel Heitbrink, Edwin and Doris Ommen, Ed and Lena Rausch have long passed away, but they still greet us when we return. It’s quiet and peaceful on that hill.

This Easter that rural cemetery reminds me of the one in Jerusalem where they buried Jesus on Good Friday. Both are small places where memories waft among the tombstones.

We know the grave of Jesus belonged to a man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea. He went to Pontious Pilate and asked to retrieve the bloodied body of Jesus from the cross on Golgatha. Joseph, Nicodemus the Pharisee and several women tightly wrapped the body with strips of linen cloth and then sprinkled spices over the linen strips. As the sun sank below the horizon, the body was placed in the grave and a great stone rolled across the tomb entrance. The women stood nearby weeping. Then they left for their homes.

The next day was the Sabbath and nothing could be done, according to religious law. But on Sunday, when the dawn sun barely appeared above the eastern horizon, Mary Magdalene and the other women rose from their beds and went to finish the job of anointing the body. They were still in a state of shock and grief. Each lost in their own thoughts.  The possibility of a resurrection was the last thing on their minds.

But when they reached the tomb, they immediately noticed the seal had been broken and the stone rolled away. The grave was empty. An angel stood before them and said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is risen. Just as he said.” The women were stunned and afraid. They weren’t sure what they ought to do next. They ran back to tell Peter and John and the other disciples what they had just seen. The disciples were incredulous. They ran out of their house and down the empty streets to the garden tomb. Scripture tells us they went to the tomb and indeed found it empty with only the linen cloth left behind.

Mary would meet the resurrected Lord, as would two disciples on the road to the village of Emmaus. Jesus appears among the twelve disciples hidden in their room. Even appearing to the Apostle Thomas who doubted he would see the wounds of the Risen Christ. More than five hundred people encountered Jesus after his resurrection. Their common testimony echoes through the century. They cry out to this day, “He is Risen. He is risen indeed.”

Two years ago, I led a grave side service for my mother at Oak Ridge cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. After the service, my wife and I greeted our family, who came to be with us, and then walked through the cemetery looking for the graves of my grandparents. We have all participated in this ritual one time or another. A family says goodbyes to their beloved mother, grandparents and great grandparents. We ponder the grave and casket, wondering where it all goes from there. Is the resurrection the next chapter? Can the Easter story be true?

Today we proclaim good news from the cemetery. Scripture tell us this news through the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Thessalonika: “For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.” We believe in the resurrection by our faith in the testimony of those who were there on that first Easter Sunday two millennia ago. That news echoes across centuries of time right to this very day.

Several years after my wife and I left that small church in the country, we received a phone call one day telling us a good friend had passed away and his funeral would be in a couple days. We decided to drive back to the church for the service. After the service, the casket was taken out of the church and into the cemetery for burial. I spoke to the widow and said how sorry we were her husband passed away. He was a wonderful man and father. She turned and said to me that all was well. Her husband was now safe in the hands of God and one day she would join him there. She had every confidence in the resurrection and it gave her consolation in the face of death. May we testify to our own faith, as she did.

Today we proclaim the tomb of Jesus empty. But more than an empty tomb of Jesus, we proclaim death has lost its hold on all who have died in the faith. Easter teaches us God is loving and gracious. By the grace of God, the power of death is broken and we receive new life. A lesson from the book of Romans is often read at a funeral service and says, “nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” That is the one true message of Easter. The love of God has triumphed for us and nothing takes that victory from us.  Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.