This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Steve’s Grace by D. J. Mitchell.
“Christ is risen!” I begin. “Imagine the sorrow his mother must have felt, going to the graveside to mourn her son, whom she watched die just three days before. But instead of a grave and a memory, she finds an empty tomb and the question, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ What a shock that must have been!”
So begins my Easter sermon. I perform it for my family on Good Friday, two days before I will give it to the congregation. They seem to love it. Cindy and Zephyr both proclaim it the best one yet, and even Susan seems impressed.
That doesn’t keep me from being nervous Easter morning. I focus on each step of the service so I don’t obsess about the moment I will stand before the congregation and preach.
After the hymn, I read from the Gospel of Luke.
Then the moment comes. I stand before the congregation, spread my hands and arms upward, and begin.
“Christ is risen!” I proclaim.
Then I pause. The next line won’t come out. I know what I’m supposed to say, but I can’t say it.
I’m not expecting what happens next.
“Christ is risen!” I repeat. “He who was dead now lives. Christ is risen in me!”
I continue in a softer voice.
“He is risen in every one of us who was once dead through sin, yet now we live through the Grace of God and the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ! We have been redeemed, that we may escape the death penalty for our sins and live in Grace!”
“Do we fall short of what God wants us to do?” I ask. “Let’s be honest. I fall short far too often. How about you?”
I raise my hand. About half the congregation raises theirs, too.
“Do we try to play God in our own lives, and the lives of other people?” I ask. “I do.”
I raise my hand. More hands go up.
“Are we sinners?” I ask.
I open my hands, inviting an answer as I repeat, “Are we?”
“Yes!” they reply.
“Yes,” I agree. “But we found new life through Jesus Christ. Amen?”
“Amen!” they reply.
“Did you ever have an experience when something strange was happening in your life and you couldn’t figure out why? Then later, you looked back and realized it was God?”
I pause, and see heads nodding.
“That’s what happened to the disciples of Jesus,” I continue. “They were walking on the road to Emmaus, and a man joined them and talked to them. And it was only after they had walked for some time that they realized that man was Jesus.
“That’s a little odd, don’t you think?” I ask. “They spent three years traveling with Jesus. He was their teacher. They saw Him after the Resurrection. They saw the holes in His hands and feet. Yet here is a man they don’t recognize, and it turns out to be Jesus?
“Maybe he was in disguise,” I suggest.
Some people chuckle.
“Or maybe,” I continue, “Jesus appeared in a guise they didn’t recognize at first as being Him.
“Has this ever happened to you?” I ask. “Something in your life happens, and it seems so painful or wrong that it doesn’t even occur to you that it could be God working in your life? But later you realize that’s exactly what it was?
“It happened to me,” I say. “I was comfortable in an ungodly life, but God shook it up for me. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this could be God working in my life. I mean, I got into a situation where I did some bad things and almost lost my family over it. I should have gone to prison. How could that be God?
“And it wasn’t,” I say. “I did those things, not God. Just like the man on the road to Emmaus who was not Jesus. But he was. They saw the Risen Christ in a stranger. And I can look back now and see the hand of God even in that most despicable moment of my life. That’s what it took for God to get my attention. I had to fully live up to my capacity for sin in order to realize I needed God. Because how can I ask for redemption if I don’t know I need it?
“I am a sinner,” I say. “I was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. How many of you are willing to say that with me?”
“I am a sinner,” I repeat. “I was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ.”
About half of the congregation says it with me.
“Let’s say it again,” I suggest.
This time, everyone joins in.
“Christ is risen!” I proclaim. “His tomb is empty!”
Then, in a softer voice, I add, “And so is ours.