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Easter Services, Sermons, and Prayers
By Kenneth H. Carter Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE IMPORTANCE AND MEANING OF EASTER
It makes sense to focus on Easter. The resurrection is both the fulfillment of prophecy and the event that transforms disciples into apostles. Easter has historical meaning—the details are given in gospel narratives, each writer offering a version shaped by different nuances. Easter has indirect meaning that is also historical—Peter, who denies that he knows Jesus, later becomes a bold witness to the faith. These historical events take on mystical overtones, even within scripture itself, as in Paul's remembrance of an encounter with the Risen Lord:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)
Easter is foundational to the Christian faith. Without Easter, there is no Pentecost. Without the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, there would be no continuing narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. Without an empty tomb, there would be no hope of life after death. And without a risen Lord, there would be no great commission. Easter is foundational to the Christian faith. As the apostle Paul wrote, "if the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
And yet there is more here than historical meaning. The living Christ continues to appear to his disciples, men and women of every age, race, and nationality. In each generation the Easter story is renewed, an empty tomb is discovered, a risen Lord speaks, and a new gathering of apostles is sent forth with a message of transformation and hope.
LIFE AND HOPE
Two of the important themes integral to the Easter narrative are life and hope. The discovery of the empty tomb is a reminder of God's victory over death. The themes of life and death are explored in a variety of ways in this book: in baptismal liturgies, in the Easter vigil, and in the sermons. Luke Timothy Johnson has explored this fundamental question in a very helpful way in his book Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (New York: HarperCollins, 1999). A noted interpreter of the New Testament, Johnson offers the following insight:
It makes a big difference whether we think someone is dead or alive ...
The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?
If Jesus is simply dead, there are any number of ways in which we can relate ourselves to his life and his accomplishments. And we might even, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, hope to learn more about him. But we cannot reasonably expect to learn more from him.
If he is alive, however, everything changes. It is no longer a matter of our questioning a historical record ... If Jesus lives, then it must be as life-giver. Jesus is not simply a figure out of the past in that case, but a person in the present ... What we learn about him must therefore include what we continue to learn from him. (3, 4)
Christians affirm the refrain of the revival hymn "Because He Lives." And his life transforms our lives, in the present. This gift of life leads to a second profound theme in the Easter story: hope. Had the death of Jesus been the end of the story (as the two journeying on the road to Emmaus suspected; see Luke 24), the Christian story would have been a hopeless one: a good man unjustly persecuted, the good deeds of a healer now concluded, the voice of a master teacher and rabbi now silenced.
And yet the Christian narrative is filled with hope precisely because of Easter. The death of Jesus is real—indeed, he shows his hands and his side to the disciples after the resurrection. The resurrection is not about the denial of death. It is about God's victory over death: the stone is rolled away; the grave clothes are cast aside.
Our hope in Christ leads us, quite naturally, to a hope for the present, for he is the Living One, and his resurrection becomes our resurrection. We are people of hope. My own experience of Easter has been shaped by an affirmation written by Kennon Callahan, legendary consultant to churches and theologian of God's mission in the world:
Hope is stronger than memory.
Salvation is stronger than sin.
Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness.
Reconciliation is stronger than hatred.
The open tomb is stronger than the bloodied cross.
The Risen Lord is stronger than the dead Jesus.
We are the Easter people.
We are the people of hope.
We are the people of the empty tomb, the Risen Lord,
the new life in Christ.
(Used with special permission of the author, Kennon L. Callahan, Ph.D.)
Life and hope are among God's greatest gifts to us. People gather at Easter, seeking a greater measure of life and hope in their present experience. Many of them feel as if the door to life is closed; the voices for justice and righteousness are silenced; the common good outweighed by violence, corruption, and greed. And yet they show up for worship at Easter. Perhaps God has placed a desire within them (within us) for life and hope.
It is a high and holy calling of the preacher to stand before a gathering of people, announcing the good news of Easter: "He is not dead. He is risen." Because he is not dead, there is life. Because he is risen, there is hope.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)
The importance and meaning of Easter cannot be overemphasized. You might be a pastor or a worship leader or someone who cares about the faith enough to reflect on this season. In any case, I simply remind you that something important, even essential, is at stake in our celebration of the resurrection. It merits thorough preparation, faithful prayer, and our best creativity. If we are attentive to the Easter celebration, God's story, in and of itself, has its own authority and power to give life.
As you make your way through these pages, my prayer is that these liturgies, sermons, and ideas will incite something within your own imaginations. The book can be read and used a variety of ways:
The solo pastor can read this book in preparation for Easter. (This can follow a reading of the Just in Time! book Palm Sunday and Holy Week Services by Robin Knowles Wallace.) Chapter 2, Prepare to Extend Hospitality, will help you to think through many of the acts of the church in welcoming guests and members into the Easter experience. The chapters on worship services (chapter 3) and liturgies (chapter 4) will prod your thinking about particular ways to celebrate Easter. And the teaching sermons in chapter 5 will guide your preparation in choosing biblical texts for the task of proclamation. Easter worship is one of the moments in the Christian and cultural year when people are most attentive. Chapter 6, The Easter Mission, explores ways to carry the meaning of resurrection beyond Easter morning toward the transformational power of Pentecost. Reading this book once through will help you in the journey toward a meaningful experience of Easter.
The pastor can read this book with key leaders in the congregation staff, if appropriate; musician(s); and lay leaders in the areas of evangelism, communications, and welcoming ministry.
Imagine a congregation that averages seventy-five persons in worship on a typical Sunday. That church might include a pastor, a choir director, a dedicated member of the church who gives a children's message, another member who passionately wants the church to grow, another long-time member who chairs the ushers, and a young adult couple who have recently joined the church. The pastor might lead this small group in a three-session reflection on the contents of this book. The first could focus on the importance of Easter and ways to extend hospitality. The second could focus on important themes in the teaching sermons. And the third could result in an action plan for shaping worship, evangelism, and hospitality at Easter and in the season that follows.
Imagine another congregation that averages seven hundred fifty in worship. The pastor might gather a similar group: key staff persons, the director of music, the coordinator of children's ministry, the chairs of evangelism and communications, leaders of ministries with young adults and singles. The same three-session outline could be employed.
Each congregation might be led to a very different decision: the church of seventy-five might consider offering a sunrise service near a lake which is adjacent to a park, where dozens of people gather each Sunday. The church of seven hundred fifty might offer an Easter vigil with an emergent feel to it, sending a targeted invitation to young adults in the community. In each case, the common reading and shared planning will have borne fruit.
Of course, this book can also be read by anyone who cares about worship or the church's witness in a postmodern world. A quick glance at these pages may yield an idea that will make a difference in the planning of worship, in the celebration of the sacraments, or in the preaching of the Word.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)CHAPTER 2
PREPARE TO EXTEND HOSPITALITY
Congregations have a couple of options in anticipation of Easter Sunday (or weekend, if you offer the Easter Vigil). The first is to dread the avalanche of strangers who pass through the doors. In this scenario the members are displaced, the ushers are overwhelmed by the chaos, the parking lot is filled, the nursery overflows with the children of these strangers, there are not enough bulletins for everyone, and a sigh can be heard, under a longtime member's breath, "Next week it will get back to normal."
What creates this dynamic? A simple explanation can be offered using the recent work of Thomas Bandy, Introducing the Uncommon Lectionary (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006). Easter is a match for seekers, disciples, and traditionalists. For different reasons, persons in each of these groupings are led to be in church on Easter Sunday.
And so we have the first option: we might call this "making the best of a challenging situation." There is, however, an alternative, and I invite you to strongly consider it for reasons I will mention later. In this option, the congregation prepares, months in advance, for those new persons who will come into the church on Easter. You might make these preparations in a variety of ways, but I would suggest a three-month timeline.
Three months prior to Easter, invite the following persons to participate on an "Easter Hospitality Team." Appeal to their desire to offer an inspirational service on Easter to those who come seeking hope and a new beginning. Mention also that you hope, as a group, to think creatively about solutions to perennial problems associated with larger numbers of worshipers on this day. Ask them for help! Remind them that their time will be used wisely, and commit to be in prayer for hope and new beginnings in the congregation's mission.
THE EASTER HOSPITALITY TEAM
Membership: Pastor, and decision-making representatives (staff or volunteer) from each of the following areas: Music, Evangelism, Nursery, Ushers, Greeters, Children's Ministry, and Communications. Note: This format can be adapted to a congregation that averages seventy-five in worship or seven hundred fifty! Be flexible and creative.
Three Months Ahead
Pastor—State theme of services and ask for prayer and ideas.
Music—Speak about plans for Easter Sunday, and share any special needs.
Evangelism—Talk about possible ways to extend invitations to the community (personal invitations from members to guests, coworkers, neighbors).
Nursery—Speak about need for more assistance on this day, and brainstorm with team about ways to give support.
Ushers—Speak about the need to be especially attentive to those who appear lost (new to the facility) and about encouraging persons to make space for guests seated near them.
Greeters—Plan for friendly members to be positioned at strategic places on the campus.
Children's Ministry—Share briefly about how the Easter message will be communicated to children.
Communications—Develop plan for announcing the service(s) in the community through advertising, news releases, posters, and e-mail messages.
SHOULD YOU ADD A SERVICE?
Kennon Callahan, in Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (New York: HarperCollins, 1983), writes about the experience of a church that is "uncomfortably crowded" (p. 94). If this is your experience, you may wish to add an additional service. Therefore,
If you worship at 11:00 a.m. (with a choir), you might add a 9:45 a.m. service with a soloist.
If you worship at 11:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., you might add a 9:45 a.m. service with a soloist.
If you worship at 11:00 a.m., 9:45 a.m., and 8:30 a.m., you might add a 7:00 a.m. sunrise service.
Encourage your longtime members to choose one of the less crowded and newer services, thus making place for guests. In the parable of the Great Judgment, Jesus says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35b). In welcoming the stranger, we are not only sharing the message and love of Jesus ... we are welcoming him into our presence!
The pastor is the essential interpreter and motivator in helping a congregation with its Easter mission to traditionalists, disciples, and seekers. Done well, with advance planning, steady leadership, careful attention to detail, and confidence in the greater purpose, the experience of Easter can be one of spiritual renewal for many within your congregation and beyond it!
EXTEND HOSPITALITY TO ALL WHO WILL ATTEND EASTER SERVICES
As you plan for Easter services, it will be helpful to acknowledge that the congregation will include a variety of persons who are present with different struggles, desires, and questions. While this is true for each congregational gathering, it is especially so at Easter. The following persons will show up this Easter, and while they might not verbally share who they are and where they are coming from, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, you will quickly discover them.
Excerpted from Easter Services, Sermons, and Prayers by Kenneth H. Carter Jr.. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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