Welcome to the New You - An Easter Sunday Sermon

Inspired by Matthew 28:1-15

Since last Sunday, at each of our Holy Week services, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter last night, welcome has been the name of the game. All week we have been exploring how God welcomes us, through Jesus, as seen through the events of Holy Week. We started with Welcome to the Red Carpet last Sunday, Welcome to the Table on Maundy Thursday, Welcome to the Dark on Good Friday, and Welcome to the Light, last night.

And today, Welcome to the New You. It’s been quite a ride this past week, I for one am very thankful to be here with you today, because that means we made it through Holy Week alive and intact! Not unlike someone else I know but we’ll get to Jesus in a second. As I mentioned last week, the reason that the concept of welcome has been on my mind is because it’s been something that Bethlehem has been exploring for quite some time now. And in January, that work culminated in the adoption of a new welcome statement, which you can find on the back of your bulletin, and I would like to read out loud now.

As followers of Jesus who aspire to create a safe community that communicates God’s unconditional love for the world, we welcome all.

All abilities
All ages
All ethnicities
All gender identities
All life circumstances
All sexual orientations

No matter who you are, where you’re from, what you’ve experienced, how you believe, how you doubt, who you love, no matter what, you will be welcomed here and the message of God’s unconditional love is for you.

So with a welcome statement that beautiful, it’s no wonder that welcome is on my mind. But this week has been all about the many ways that God welcomes us, and less about how we welcome others, because God is the originator of welcome, God invented it! And so today I’m wondering, how does God welcome us on Easter Sunday? And what are we being welcomed to? And before we get into that, we have to ask a more basic question: what is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus all about?

An even more common question you hear a lot this time of year is, what did Jesus have to die? But today we ask, why did Jesus have to rise? I mean, couldn’t the story have ended on Good Friday, with Jesus’ death? That was a pretty powerful day, right? And I bet that his death would have still founded a new religion, Christianity, even without the resurrection.

Not to mention the fact that it would be a simpler more believable story! I mean, for two thousand years we have had to defend this fantastical belief that some guy was dead and buried for three days and then came back to life! It’s a hard sell! So, why was it so important? Why did Jesus have to rise? For that answer, we have to go to the beginning. No not Genesis, but the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Here at Bethlehem we have been reading through the Gospel of Matthew since just before Christmas.

So it makes sense that we would have to return to the beginning to make sense of the end. So, we have to go all the way back to  a character by the name of John the Baptist. He was that weird guy who wore camel hair overalls and ate off the land, which meant locusts and wild honey. He’d fit right in here in California! Anyway, his central message as he was preaching and gaining thousands of followers was simple, “change your hearts and lives!” Simple as that, “change your hearts and lives.”

Now, this message also made him a few enemies among the religious and political elite. So much so, that he was eventually executed for it. But before that happened, Jesus comes along and takes over his ministry. John already had thousands of followers, which allowed Jesus to hit the ground running. John was kind of like Jesus’ own Kickstarter account. So Jesus takes over, and, if you were Jesus you’d think he would have changed the message a bit, right? I mean, it got John killed.

But what does Jesus do, he starts preaching the same exact message, “Change your hearts and lives.” That was Jesus’ central message as well, and even more than his central message but the end goal of faith. This might gain me some heretical points but I really don’t think that Jesus intended us to have faith and go to church just so we could get to heaven. That’d be pretty self-centered wouldn’t it? And that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.

Ok, stay with me, we’re almost there! So, how does that connect with the end of the Gospel where Jesus rises from the dead, you ask? Great question, I’m so glad you asked! If the end goal of this whole faith business, is to change our hearts and lives, what better way to demonstrate that, than rising from the dead! Does change get any bigger than that? Does change get any more dramatic than that? It’s no wonder that symbols like a caterpillar emerging as a butterfly, or eggs hatching baby chickens, have become synonymous with Easter. They are symbols of change, symbols of new life, symbols of transformation, symbols of that old central message of John the Baptist and Jesus, to change your hearts and lives.

And why is that so important for our faith? Because the world has lot of needs and the only way they are going to be met is if we, together, change our hearts and lives, change from our default positions of self-centeredness, always looking out for number one, which is really at the heart of most of this world’s problems, and instead, live out lives in such a manner that changes this world for the better. But I thought Jesus loved us just the way we are, pastor! Why would Jesus want us to change if Jesus already loves us? Well, that’s like starting a job at an entry level position and five years later when your boss asks you why your still in the same position, “Don’t you want to advance?” and you say, “Well this is what you hired me to do!” Well that’s true, but it wasn’t meant to be forever!

My friends, God does indeed love you, just the way you are, faults and all, imperfections and all. But God did not intend you to stay there. God welcomes you to be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. God welcomes you to the new you. Every morning you wake up. And not so God will love you more. God could not love you more than God already does—but so that we, together, you and I, can change the world for the better—so that we can change the hearts and lives of the world, after our own have been changed. That same central message, exemplified by Christ at the empty tomb, and lived out by you and I, not for our sakes, but for the sake of the world, always for the sake of the world. That’s our calling. That’s Easter. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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