The Difference Easter Makes

by Dr. Carl Albert Gieseler

Good Friday 1960 is the 95th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death. Had he lived to finish his second term, the history of our country would no doubt have been far different.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” the great war President would have carried out his plans to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and as a peace President would probably have been successful in making the former slaves free indeed. But Lincoln was dead.

Good Friday is the day when Another died–One who did not remain dead. If Christ Crucified had remained in death, history would have been different too–and all eternity with it.

“But now is Christ risen!” Of this we are assured times without number in God’s inspired Word.

“Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.” At least a dozen times He appeared to one or more of His followers in the 40 precious days from Easter to His ascension.

As living Lord He was and is able to carry out the eternal plans of the Trinity “to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” Victorious in the strife with sin and Satan, the Prince of Peace assures us: “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

Good Friday and Easter

As Easter is meaningless without Good Friday, Holy Week has no comfort without Easter. Both belong together.

Many comparisons and illustrations have been used to explain the great difference that Christ’s resurrection makes in the proclamation of the Gospel, in the nature of our faith, in the life we live for the living Lord. It has been called the “receipt” which the Father gives for the work of His Son, who has “paid in full” the pains and penalties of our guilt.

Dr. C.F.W. Walther, the former great leader and gifted preacher of our church, preached an Easter sermon on the theme “The Resurrection, the Great Easter Amen of the Father to the Words of the Son: ‘It Is Finished!’”

A much-used story, which bears repetition, tells of a Mohammedan who came to a Christian missionary after an open-air service in a village in India.

“When we go to Mecca, our sacred city,” the Mohammedan said, “we find at least a coffin, the coffin of our prophet. When you Christians go to your sacred city, Jerusalem, you find nothing but an empty grave.”

The missionary smiled: “That’s the difference between our religions. Mohammed is dead–in his coffin. But Jesus Christ is not. He is risen. See the empty tomb!”

The Christian Easter festival is a victory celebration, proclaimed again in thousands upon thousands of churches, great and small, in open-air services, in radio and television presentations, and echoed in many tongues by choirs and congregations.

At the end of the First World War a prominent Protestant church in one of our large cities placed on its illuminated bulletin board these words of St. Paul: “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory.” What an abuse of the words of Scripture! True, God alone gives victory. But in the great resurrection chapter from which these words are taken the apostle is not speaking of a victory of the Allies over the Central Powers or of our Northern States over the Southern States or of any other war among earthlings.

Paul is giving thanks for the victory of Christ, for “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. … But now is Christ risen from the dead and become the First Fruits of them that slept.” That’s the great difference His resurrection makes.

Changed Disciples

No one can tell this better than St. Paul. Even though he had been indifferent to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, even though he had opposed Him and persecuted His disciples, when he saw the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, he became His greatest herald.

With Peter, James, and John and the other formerly so timid apostles, Paul in his missionary journeys now proclaimed Jesus Christ a living Savior and showed forth the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

In his History of the Expansion of Christianity Kenneth S. Latourette, a leading church historian of our day, says of the first Christians:

“It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted His followers out of the despair into which His death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by Him. But for their profound belief that the Crucified had risen from the dead and that they had seen Him and talked with Him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus Himself would probably have been all but forgotten.”

Does the knowledge and conviction of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead make any difference in our church and world today?

The Difference Today

Through the power of the Holy Spirit the preaching of the cross and of the empty tomb has brought about the perpetuation of Christianity. Of the total estimated world population of 2,800,000,000, about 850,000,000 bear the name Christian.

In our country alone the Christians are divided among about 250 denominations or sects, 80 percent of these in eight denominations. Practically all observe Easter, bearing witness to their acceptance of the resurrection of the One crucified.

Church attendance on Easter is by far the largest of the whole year (possibly excepting the children’s Christmas “program”). Does this mean that Christ’s resurrection has made such a difference and become the most important phase of Christianity in the lives of most Christians? Unfortunately not, if we compare the Easter church attendance with the number of church-goers on “regular Sundays.”

Easter Christians

We hear various anecdotes about this disparity: Two women in their Easter finery approach the church among the crowds of similarly attired people. Says the one to the other: “I wonder if we’ll get a seat. It seems to me that those who go to church every Sunday could stay at home on Easter so that those of us who do not come otherwise could find a seat.”

And there is the story of the blunt-speaking pastor who told his Easter congregation: “Since I shall not see many of you in church for some time to come, I want to wish you a merry Christmas!”

This is no laughing matter. So many “yearlings” in church on Easter poses quite a problem and constitutes a real dilemma for the preacher. The Easter message should be one of joy. How can these “casual Christians” truly taste this joy if during the year they show little interest in Him who died for their sins?

The preacher might be tempted to make his message a “scolding sermon” directed to the Easter-only churchgoers. He might find a good text for this in the ancient Easter Epistle, which begins: “Your glorying is not good.” But pastoral tact will restrain him.

He will rather emphasize the Easter joy in the light of Holy Week and Good Friday. He will open the floodgates of the Gospel in the words of St. Paul: “Christ was delivered [into death and hell] for our offenses [our past wrong-doings and negligences] and raised again for our justification [the gracious forgiveness of our sins].”

All Christians should then continue the soul-winning and soul-keeping efforts begun during the Lenten season that this Easter may make a big difference in the spiritual life of the church. At Easter we not only “come and see” but also “go and tell.”

Thus our Easter will be a continuous festival. It should be a weekly observance. The early Christians chose Sunday for worship because on that day Christ rose from the dead. They used the symbol of the cross, the bare, empty cross, to signify their faith in the risen, living Lord. Today the use of this “resurrection cross” rather than the crucifix (cross with corpus) is gaining in popularity among Christians.

Every day in our life should be an Easter day with a funeral and a resurrection. When by daily contrition and repentance our old Adam is drowned and dies, a new man should daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Indeed, Easter Day every day!

What a difference Christ’s resurrection makes!

About the Author: Dr. Carl A. Gieseler (1888–1965) graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1913 and received his Th.D. from Denver’s Iliff School of Theology in 1947. He served as a pastor in Detroit and Denver and as a professor at St. John’s College, Winfield, Kan., and Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind. He was a contributor to both The Lutheran Witness and Der Lutheraner.

Reprinted from the April 19, 1960, Lutheran Witness. LCMS congregations may reprint for parish use. All other rights reserved.

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