A lesson from a childhood sunrise service
Early Easter mornings usually take my mind back to a sunrise service of my childhood. In those days, the sunrise service would begin in the pre-dawn darkness, and we would finish as a hint of pink light crowned the eastern sky. And we would declare to the wakening world, “He is risen!”
But this year wasn’t service as usual, for it featured special visitors. Very early in the morning, my father drove a few miles down the road to pick up a worshipper for the service. It was so early in the morning, that he happened to pass two drunks on their way home from the local bar. They had stayed to last call, and weren’t feeling any pain. But Dad rolled down his window and offered them a ride. They said, “Sure, preacher!” But once they got in the car, Dad invited them to church. “What, church this time of morning?” they asked. “It’s a sunrise service,” Dad replied. “And you’d be welcome!”
And so they came to church, their first time in years.
They managed to stay awake, so I’ll have to give them credit. But when it came time for Dad to read the scripture lesson, we nearly lost it. For that morning, Dad read from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, at her graveside vigil. The old Authorized text reads something like this: “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven devils…”
As soon as Dad read the words, “out of whom He had cast seven devils…,” one man turned to the other and said, in a dramatic, drunken stage whisper,
“THAT SOUNDS LIKE YOUR WIFE AND MINE!”
It echoed through the little church in stereo, and nearly brought the house down. I’ll never forget that service!
Looking back, we just have to laugh. But it raises a serious point of human nature. It is so human: two guys sitting in sunrise service, battling the sin of drunkenness, yet focused on the infidelity of their wives! Not their own evident issues, but the perceived issues of others.
Even at sunrise service, even at Easter, when we see our Lord’s rising from the grave, His victory over sin, we still cope with our own sinfulness. It’s the fallen human condition. This is our condition – maybe not drunkenness, or infidelity, but something: a lack of discipline, judgmental spirit, broken word, or relational failure – and it’s far too easy to see another’s need, before our own. This is our natural state, but it is not our true state.
And so, we can get discouraged. The cross truly shows us the destructive power of sin. Sin separates us from God, from one another, and from ourselves. Even in Holy Week, we struggle with separation. Even in sunrise service, we ask,
“Is sin the last word for me? Is separation the last word for my life?”
And here is where our Easter morning text speaks so loudly:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God…
The resurrection of Christ means something radically new for human life. Yes, we have been bound over to sin in every aspect of our being. But now, in the risen Christ, our life is in a very real sense bound up in God. Bound over into sin, yes, but now bound up in Christ to divine life. The verse says we are “hidden with Christ in God.”
The text goes so far to say that Christ is our new life.
Christ is the fount and reality of new, real existence. As Augustine said when he came to the knowledge of new life in Christ: “O God! When I was outside you, I was outside myself!”
Our true self is a risen self. Truly the text says: Christ is life, new life.
And it goes on to give a list of powerful sins, which Christ can help us conquer: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness. Or, putting it in modern terms: Living life treating bodies like objects and treating objects as the essence of life, living as a slave to things we taste, touch and feel, devaluing others in the process. Isn’t this our world? Without Christ, we are only slaves to these things. With Christ, we can break free from their power and control. As Augustine put it, in Christ we go from non posse non pecare to posse non pecare; or, “not able not to sin,” to “able not to sin.”
That is the power and hope of the gospel. Christ has defeated that which defeats us. As the psalmist put it, “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you are stronger than they are, and you will blot them out!”
When skeptics mocked the early Christians for believing that Jesus could rise from the dead, the Christians merely responded: If Christ is not raised, how then can He give us the power to live this new life? The skeptics could not answer…
There is something about the life of Christ which wins for us a possibility of new life.
The proper response before the risen Christ is not “your wife and mine,” but rather your life and mine – a life of great need, yes, but also a life of great possibility, because our Savior has power over our sin, and our grave…
Jesus is risen, and stands among us this morning in the Holy Spirit, offering us a new beginning, offering us our true selves.
As we die with Him, we are raised to new life.