Easter Sunday morning, 2010
Once the live video feed is playing, Jim pushes back in the desk chair and pulls open the business section. Around the edges of the paper, Ann can see the sanctuary full of thousands of congregants that is, in real space, about four miles behind her back. The volume is low, but she can catch the melody of a familiar hymn– “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” –and hums the harmony quietly, so as not to disturb her husband’s reading. Her accompaniment is itself accompanied by the soft swish of long fingers on yarn as she absently rolls a chaotic skein of colorless wool into an organized ball.
The song ends. In the silence the screen shows a broad-chested man in a black suit climb the stairs up to the pulpit. As the congregation sits, Jim shoves his paper aside and stands as he hurriedly turns up the volume before moving across the room to his armchair. The pastor is introducing the text for the morning as Jim sinks heavily into the overstuffed leather, kicks up the footrest, and focuses on the preacher.
The minister arranged his notes and cleared his throat roughly before glancing up at the masses before him. “He is risen.”
“He is risen indeed,” comes the unified response.
“I’d like you to open your Bible to first Corinthians chapter fifteen verse three. If you don’t have a Bible of your own, there’s one available on the pew in front of you and the page number is on the screen. We’re starting near the big number fifteen, and look for the little number three. It’s near the top of the page.”
Ann reaches across the table for a scissors. Jim keeps his hands folded over his protruding belly.
“While you’re searching for that, I want to preface. This message didn’t originate with me, nor did it originate with Paul. He received it and passed it on, as I have received it and am now passing it on to you. I am handing you a story that has not been changed one bit, and that fact is of first importance. Now I’m going to tell you an even more important message. Ready? Here it is. First Corinthians fifteen verse three:
“‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.’”
Two of those statements are the message, and the other statements are evidence. The first statement that comprises the gospel, which is a word that means ‘good news’, is that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. The burial is evidence. The second half of the message is that Christ was raised on the third day according to the scriptures; the evidence is that he was seen. I want to just talk about the message. ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.’”
Ann is quietly cutting out the pattern for her next project, occasionally glancing at the screen to fulfill the obligation of attendance. Jim’s smoke-ruined lungs strain for breath beneath the weight of his hands, his head a constant bobble. Raised in the church and a lifelong Christian, none of this information is new for him, but as the preacher says, ‘Christ died for our sins’. An hour a week is the least Jim could do.
“Now, Christ is a title for the man we know as Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago in the nation of Israel. He was killed on a cross, just like thousands of other people, and died, just like every other human. That part is not debated; every scholar, every historian, agrees on that much. The difference is that Jesus’s death was for our sins according to the scriptures, he died for our sins in accordance with a plan that God had written down long long before that death. It’s in a book of the Bible called Isaiah, which tells us that God was not punishing him for his own failures but for our sins. He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his cuts, we get healed. It’s what God had in mind all along: to crush him with pain to pay the debt of our sins, all the things we do wrong, our adulteries, our alcoholism, our lies, our lust– so that we could see life. Those things we do, he died because the penalty for them is eternal separation from God. The penalty was eternal damnation in Hell. But Jesus died for us. We were the ones who deserved to be there, but Jesus did it for us. God demanded a debt, and God paid it in the death of Jesus Christ. If we accept this, this is good news that saves us from that punishment!”
Jim’s eyes are at the line where the wall meets the ceiling, anything to help the tear ducts dry out. He is such a sinner. He is so guilty. He might as well have held the hammer and nails himself. Ann hastily removes a pin from its cushion, hand-embroidered with a lamb.
“Now, the rest of the message: ‘He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.’ This is what we’re celebrating this Easter Sunday morning along with millions of others around the world. This man Jesus was raised back to life! In that way, also, his death was unique. Because he died not for anything he did wrong but for the things we did wrong, God raised him. That’s the message that changes lives, that rescues, that forgives our sins.
“My question for you is: What are you going to do about that message? It’s not enough to say ‘that’s great.’ That won’t help you! It’s not even enough to say you believe it. You must receive it. You must believe that Jesus died for each of our sins, and that this is a truth that doesn’t only apply to others but applies to you as well. You must make a decision to know that it was your sins that put Jesus through suffering and nailed him on that cross. You have to say ‘Jesus died for my sins.’ You must know that God is not happy with sin, and apply that to you: God is not happy with your sin, and you are in danger of eternal damnation. If you can apply this belief to yourself, you have hope for eternal life in the presence of our Lord and Savior. You must realize that others are living happier, better lifestyles because they believe this, and you can too.”
Some of Jim’s tears are escaping his control as the guilt of his sinful status meets the privilege of having been one to hear, believe, and profess, like the opposing fronts that create a tornado. Ann glances at the screen again and takes a sip of coffee.
The pastor pauses significantly, looking over the crowd with conviction before barking, “He is risen!”
“He is risen indeed.”
“God bless you and may you live in light of that truth. You are dismissed.”
The struggle to rise from his chair before crossing the room and closing the internet browser gives Jim a chance to compose himself, clear the emotion from his face.
“That was a nice Easter sermon,” chimed Ann.
Jim turned to her. “You entirely missed the point, Ann! There’s nothing nice about it—the whole point is that our sins killed Him!”
“Oh. I guess I didn’t catch that,” she shrugs as she places the pin through the lamb’s thread paw.