Sermon - Matthew 28:1-10
"A New Heart"
I grew up like many of you going to church. My mother took me even before I can remember. I went to Sunday School, VBS, revivals, etc. Whenever the church doors were open, we were there. I grew up in another church tradition and I joined the church and was baptized at the age of ten. Up to that point I could tell you a few stories about God and Moses and I had seen "The Ten Commandments" on TV several times. I knew the story of Noah (the G-rated version), the story of Jonah, and the disciples. I knew the song about Zachaeus. I had memorized John 3.16 and Matthew 28.19-20, "the great commission." And if I had gone through Confirmation like in our United Methodist tradition, then I could have told you some of those things that I believed in. And most importantly, I believed in Jesus. I hope by now this is something to which we can all relate. Many of us had similar experiences and even now as we continue in church we profess our faith in Christ. We participate in worship and sing the hymns of the Christian tradition. We recite the prayers and creeds, "I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord." And all of these are part of the Christian experience and they're all important.
But there is one thing still missing from all of that, I think. The things that I mentioned are all about mere "belief," a mental ascent or a verbal acceptance. And what's more, they deal with belief in a Jesus prior to the resurrection. We can all say we believe in Jesus of Nazareth, his teachings, his healings, his example. But what about the Jesus after Easter. Do we know this Jesus? Have we moved from belief in Jesus to belief in what the risen Christ can do? To me, this is what Easter is all about.
To move from a mere belief in Jesus to a relationship is like getting a new heart. Marcus Borg talks about such a change of perspective: . . . the post-Easter Jesus is not just the product of early Christian belief and thought, but an element of experience.
Indeed, this seems to me to be the central meaning of Easter. Beginning with Easter, the early movement continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death, but in a radically new way. After Easter, his followers experienced him as a spiritual reality, no longer as a person of flesh and blood, limited to time and space, as Jesus of Nazareth had been. Rather, Jesus as the risen living Christ could be experienced anywhere and everywhere. Increasingly he was spoken of as having all the qualities of God. Prayers were addressed to Jesus as God, and praise was offered to Jesus as God in Christian worship. In short, his early followers experienced the risen Christ and addressed the risen Christ as the functional equivalent of God. . . . So it has been ever since.1
The risen Christ needs not be left on the pages of our Bibles. The risen, living Christ is an experiential reality, and not just the object of our belief. And so it has been since that first Easter, and so may it be for us today. Today in our worship, in this very service, in this very place, Jesus has been raised! Jesus is real!
I went through periods in college and beyond where I struggled with my faith. As I studied theology and historical evidences about the Bible, I had questions. I continued to strive to believe all the right things about being a Christian. I thought that doubt and questions were bad things. But now I think being a Christian is not only about believing. I came to realize that the central issue of being a Christian is not just what we believe about God, or about the Bible, or about church doctrines and teaching. All of those things have their place, but they're not where the water hits the wheel. I am convinced that being a Christian is about being in relationship with God as revealed to us in Jesus, the risen, living, ever-present Christ!
When I came to this realization it was like getting a new heart. It was like I had never really understood before. I think it was what John Wesley - the founder of Methodism - meant when he said his "heart was strangely warmed." It means that you move from trying to believe all the right things and you start try to do the right things. It means that you don't expect to change everyone to believe the same as you do, but you allow God's spirit to change you. It means that you no longer grapple and struggle with merely following the law, but you begin to sense the power and presence of Christ still in our midst.
Getting a new heart takes place when we see the radical following of Jesus. We realize that we really can live as Christ calls us to. We really can learn to pray for those we just as soon write off. We really can learn to love the ones who get on our nerves the most. We really can become the church that accepts and embraces and welcomes all people regardless of things that make them different. We really can - as Christ did - learn to love those we don't yet understand and therefore fear. We really can be transformed by this living presence and power of Christ. If we don't believe all these things are possible then, as Paul said, our faith is pointless.
Experiencing this life-changing reality of resurrection is not only possible, but it is real. It takes place not just on Easter Sunday, but everyday. It's not limited to places of worship, but it can happen anywhere.
I saw an episode of Chicago Hope a few years ago that really caught my attention. It was about a man who received a heart transplant from a young mother who had died. The man wanted to talk with the husband of the donor, and though it was not usual policy, he got to talk to him. He said this to the husband, I've been thinking a lot about your wife, like I know all about her, like maybe she's a part of me or something. . . .alive inside of me. Your wife, she liked Chinese food. All of a sudden I've got this taste for dim sum, I got no idea where it came from. There are things about me now. For instance, I catch myself tilting my head a lot . . . like this. I even dream where I'm talking to your wife. . . . The husband becomes a bit angry and says, You got her heart! Isn't that enough! . . . My wife is dead! She's dead!
And the doctors are split on this issue. One is totally against the man talking to the donor's husband. It's not the usual policy for organ donations. Another research physician is open to research that says maybe a body can take on traits from DNA, etc. The man tells one of the doctors, I think his wife is kind of a part of me or something. . .
I've been happy; it's like I'm a different person. . . . I read Aristotle once said, "Change in the body can cause change in the soul."
The husband returns to the research physician and his attitude changes a bit. He begins to believe that there may be something to what they're saying. So he returns to the heart patient and they have a very moving exchange:
H: She exercised . . . a lot . . . my wife. You've got yourself a strong heart there!
M: Unfortunately, the doctor is not sure it'll make a difference.
H: What do they know?
M: I'm starting to believe the same thing. All these smart doctors . . . alphabet soup, degrees; I can't get a straight answer from any two of them. All I know is what I know. Your wife, she changed me. I don't mean just by giving me another heart. I mean her heart. . . changed me inside out.
H: I always thought it'd be nice if there were more folks in the world like my wife. . . . I don't know what's happening to you, but maybe somehow I got my wish, too!
M: Thank you. Thank you, both!
The two men shake hands and then the doctor who was against the meeting comes into the room. And she takes out her stethoscope and asks the husband, Would you like to listen to your wife's heart?
Getting a new heart is like that. It changes us from the inside out. We look at life with a totally new perspective. Things around us aren't the same. We are awakened to a whole new world of possibility and love. This is what resurrection is about. This is what Easter is about. It's about experiencing, embracing, and then sharing the reality of Jesus in our midst!
When was the last time you got a new heart? The horizons of possibility are more than we can imagine. If we as individuals and as a church would truly encounter Jesus on this Easter day, and all our days together, what would happen?
The Lord is risen! Thanks be to God! Amen.
Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), p. 16f.