Trinity

“The fine preacher George Buttrick was once on an airplane scribbling out sermon notes on a legal pad. The man next to him asked what he was doing and so Buttrick said, “I’m working on next Sunday’s sermon–I’m a preacher.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied, “religion! I like to keep my religion simple–I don’t like complicated doctrines. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule–that’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what is it that you do.” “Well, I teach in the science department at the university. I’m an astronomer.” “Ah yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get very technical about such things. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy–why would anyone ever need more than that!?””1

I sympathize with both parties in that little story, and by my third year in seminary, reading 900 page books on whatever complicated theological we were learning that week, my heart was with the astronomer. But the fact remains that theology, the study of God, is a big part of the fundamental work of the Church. Bad theology begets bad worship, bad pastoral care, and broken people. Good theology begets just the opposite.

Why am I talking about this? Because it is once again Trinity Sunday, perhaps the most theologically challenging Sunday of the year. The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to grasp, and always was, because an infinite and all-powerful God is just difficult to grasp with our finite and less-powerful minds. Faith and belief can be hard, even when you stare God in the face. St. Matthew just told us that the eleven disciples were on a hill, Jesus Himself shows up, and most of them worshiped Him, but hey, some doubted.

“We are not told what exactly was doubted. What did the doubters doubt? Their own eyes? Possibly. Did they doubt the continuity between the Jesus they once knew and whoever this was before them now some days after the death of their former Master? Possibly. Or did they doubt even more fundamental things? Did they believe this was their old friend Jesus all right but then wondered if he had really died after all? Did they believe this was Jesus but thought they were seeing a ghost, a vision, an apparition of Jesus from the other side but not a newly alive, flesh-and-blood person?

It is difficult to say. But whatever the precise nature of the doubt, we cannot escape the striking fact that on the very day when the most famous commission of all time was given to the then-budding Church—and on a day when the Triune formula for the divine identity was given as unambiguous an expression as anywhere in the entire New Testament—right then and there on that very day, there was doubt. There was uncertainty and a hint of skepticism.”2

Thankfully, the act of having faith and the act of being absolutely sure all the time are not the same act. I think that’s what goads us into the work of theology, the need to take the relationship we have with the living God and make it better on our end, to know Him more fully, so that we can love Him for who He really is.

Fr. Haynes reminded us this week that our great statement of theological doctrine, the Nicene Creed, “makes three primary assertions: “I believe in one God:  the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; . . . I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord; . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and giver of life.”

“The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is at the heart of our faith: God, who is One, is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, the Son is God; but Father, Son and Spirit are all distinct. Not merely a theological abstraction, this is the reality that lies behind, beneath and above all things. Affirming this faith helps to keep us from believing only in an eternal creator, or only in a dying god-man, or only in a spiritual intelligence that pervades all things. God is all these things:…an eternal community of divine love.”3

Can Trinity Sunday seem a bit academic, the doctrine remote? Sure, if we let it be that way. But what it really is is the full revelation of God’s very nature to us, His beloved sons and daughters, so that we too can be caught up in that community of divine love. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

1Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/trinity-sunday-a/

2Ibid.

3Fr. J. Connor Haynes, from the St. Mary’s Newsletter, June 8, 2017

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Pentecost

This weekend, we will do a dangerous thing. We will admit four of our young men to Holy Communion. What power and mystery they will be confronting at that altar rail. I’m sure you join me in hoping that the act of receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord will become central to their lives, their source of comfort and power, solace and refreshment.

This weekend is also, obviously, the feast of Pentecost, dangerous in it’s own right. Being baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit sounds warm but not cuddly. Being baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit can change a person.

“Barbara Brown Taylor notes we can see that Jesus was the Messiah when we think about his followers in a kind of before-and-after set of pictures.

“Before Pentecost they didn’t fully recognize who Jesus was, even though he ministered and lived with them for years.
“Jesus’ disciples didn’t stick with him when he got into deep trouble with the authorities, instead abandoning him as quickly as they could. Then, when he, just as he had promised, rose from the dead, they struggled to fully believe that he was alive again.

“On Pentecost, however, those very same slow, timid, bumbling disciples become utterly fearless leaders. Jesus’ disciples proclaim the gospel in front of both large crowds and menacing authorities. After Pentecost, they heal sick people and exorcise demons. Jesus’ disciples even go to jail gladly where they sing hymns that shake their prison’s foundations.

“That miraculous transformation begins with what Acts 2:1-21 describes. Among the last things Jesus told his disciples before he ascended to the heavenly realm was to wait in Jerusalem for God to keep his promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. So with what we suspect was little idea of what Jesus meant, Jesus’ disciples obeyed him by returning to Jerusalem.

“In Jerusalem, while they waited, these assembled people prayed “constantly.” They may even have asked God to tell them about just what they were waiting for. After all, John the Baptizer had said something about how Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It probably sounded dangerous.

“Perhaps thankfully, then, Jesus’ disciples had to wait only ten days for God to answer their prayers. On the day of Pentecost, a festival the Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover, the disciples received what Taylor calls “a crash course in power.”

“First there was what Luke calls “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Then there were what looked like “tongues of fire.” Finally, God filled Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit, so that they began to talk in all sorts of foreign languages.”1 The bystanders who first encounter the disciples after all of this supposed they were all hammered, and since it was 9 o’clock in the morning, they were pretty vocal in ridiculing them. But the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, not distilled spirits, and their boldness and power went on display.

What happened next? Well, the Holy Spirit scattered the disciples around the world to witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of them were at some point imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and eventually killed, save John. Him they boiled in oil but he wouldn’t die. Thomas, who we heard last week misunderstanding every word out of Jesus’ mouth, made his way through India. A few weeks ago I met a man after the Vigil Mass who is from Palayur, India, and was educated at the school attached to the Church of St. Thomas, consecrated in 52AD by St. Thomas himself. Thomas they killed with a lance.

And so Pentecost had and has consequences. Being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire can change a person. The Christian Faith is not for the faint of heart. C.S. Lewis famously said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” What we get instead is an actual relationship with the living God, whose Spirit, if we let Him, will take us places we could never imagine.

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Eater 6

The last time I was at my seminary, I ran into my friend Fr. Les Ferguson, who graduated a couple years behind me. He was wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering across the front, which I eventually identified as ancient Greek script. I asked what it said, since I barely passed Greek at seminary, and I immediately regretted asking. The words on Fr. Ferguson’s shirt said “It’s all Greek to me.”

St. Paul immediately regretted going to Greece, and arriving in Athens just amplified his regret. The “area was inhabited well before the 6th century BCE. The name Athens stems from the goddess Athena and is pluralized because it took in the territory of a number of smaller villages. The focal point of the city is the naturally raised platform Acropolis. In the early stages of development, while other parts of the ancient Greek world rose to spectacular levels of civilization, Athens was just one of many city-states. Around 620 BCE, Draco, an Athenian aristocrat, initiated the first steps towards order. His reputation for severity comes down to us in the use of the term draconian.”1

Athens became a cultural and educational hub, and also a target. The Athenians famously clashed with the Spartans and with many others, but even when they lost, they bounced back to greater heights. “In 146 BCE, Athens fell under the rule of the rising western power of the Romans who remained its master for over 500 years.”2

It was into this Roman controlled Athens that Paul arrived, and he did not like what he saw. Luke described Paul as being paroxyno. Remember that Luke was a doctor, and he used a medical term in his assessment of Paul: paroxyno describes the symptoms of an epileptic seizure. Paul was physically bothered by his surroundings. He was pitching a fit.

His surroundings? “An ancient historian once said of Athens: “It is easier to find a god there, than a man.” Everywhere Paul looked, there were altars, shrines, and temples. There was one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Ares, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Neptune, Diana. Athens was a veritable forest of idols.”3 Faithful Jews are not big on idols, nor graven images.

Like James Bond’s martinis, Paul was shaken, but he was also stirred. Stirred by the Holy Spirit, Paul could not abandon the people of Athens to their false gods. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Paul knew that what he had to say would not be particularly well received, so complimenting his listeners was a good start. Paul goes on to attach the Living God to a god the Athenians somehow sensed, enough to build an altar to Him, the unknown god, sensed but never knew. He made his argument, witnessed to the risen Christ, and made more than a couple converts that day.

We live in a time and space that’s not so different from first century Athens. Idols are all around, idols I’m too familiar with. In my case, they’re not named Ares, Jupiter, or Athena, but rather Iphone, artisanal meats, and Netflix. Christian values are not the assumed civic norm, and we have all heard of the rise of the “nones”, those who list their religious affiliation as “none”.

It is no longer enough to open the doors and assume people will just come in, though here that actually seems to be rather effective. To fully engage in the mission of Christ in Bordentown, it’s what we do when we go out those doors that will distinguish us. Proclaiming Christ to Bordentown in 2017 might take new approaches, and so we’re on that track. Social media might well be the new Areopagus, and so we post daily on Facebook and Twitter, and our Instagram game is getting stronger. Like Paul, we have to meet the people of Bordentown where they are, wherever that might be, however comfortable or uncomfortable that place might be for us.

The state of the world might give us paroxyno, it might send us into fits, but like Paul, we won’t abandon our city to the forces bent on dominating us. Rather, stirred by the Holy Spirit, we will use every means our Lord provides to witness to the risen Christ.

2Ibid.

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Easter 5

If you’ve heard the words in our Gospel lesson today, you’ve probably heard them at a funeral. John 14 is by far the most requested passage for Requiem Masses, for obvious reasons. Jesus speaks these words in a grave situation, surrounded by the specter of death, the death that awaits Him, and yet it is His disciples who He seeks to comfort.

“He is helping them get ready for his suffering and death. They are stunned. Once he asked if they were going to leave him, as many others had. Peter said, “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Now the situation is reversed.

“So Jesus says a simple thing. “Do not let your hearts be troubled by this. You have faith in God, have faith also in me.” The straightforward meaning of this directive is, you know how to trust; you do it with God. So use some of that kind of trust with me.

“Good enough, and yet there is a much deeper meaning. He is saying in effect, “I, Jesus, am in complete union with the Father. I am a member of the Trinity. I am a revelation of everything that the Father is. When you trust the Father you are trusting me in the very same act. It goes right over their heads, as too often it does ours. So Jesus, the compassionate, tries an illustration.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I ever have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself. A nifty image. A physical place, where we can all be together again. He will come back and get us. Who could misunderstand this? The apostles could, and did. Fear and grief blocked it. Jesus tries a different approach. “Where I am going you know the way.”

“Thomas explains the practical difficulty with such a statement (this is Doubting Thomas, whose heart couldn’t take the risk of trusting without facts): “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Thomas, typically, has missed the deeper meaning. Jesus had often referred to himself as “the way,” as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “You can know the way to the Father because I am The Way.” It is a beautiful depth of truth. But it does not work.”1

There’s an old saying among priests that the congregation listens to you at funerals but not at weddings, that you could say blah blah blah blah for 10 minutes in a wedding sermon and get away with it. That’s mostly true, but the whole truth is that many people at funerals listen to the preacher but don’t hear what’s said, or can’t hear what’s said. After the death of a loved one we are, as the prayer in the funeral rite says, “in the midst of things we cannot understand,” and so we are to trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting.

But as we all know full well, most of us can’t make that leap right there, when our hearts are troubled. Perhaps that can give us some sympathy for the disciples, who’s minds and hearts were scattered, smothered, and covered.

Many if not most of us travel through life at least a little spiritually confused. We wonder where the Lord is, where He is directing us; we have trouble knowing hearing Him and so therefore trouble knowing Him.

The good news is that it was always thus. At the end of the teaching session we just heard a snippet of, Jesus might have been sitting with His head in His hands, wondering how He managed to surround Himself with such a bunch of dolts. Instead, Jesus loved them all the more; He gathered them again and again after His resurrection and entrusted them, the guys who couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag, into the world to change the world.

We are here at this time and in this place because Jesus sent that group, people just like you and me, to spread the Gospel. So the next time you’re in the midst of things you cannot understand, feeling scattered, smothered, and covered, remember that the Lord loves you all the more, and might be readying you to change the world.

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Easter 4

Good Lord, another sheep reference.  “I preach another sheep sermon over my dead body,” a preacher might say, and then turn looking to do a solid four minutes on the Collect of the Day.  The preacher would then find that even the Collect of the Day is sheep reference.

Growing up at Trinity Red Bank, the one large stained-glass window we had was above the altar; it was, you guessed it, Christ the Good Shepherd in Tiffany glass, beautiful if not especially Trinitarian.  Our image of the Good Shepherd make a bit more sense, this being Christ Church and not Trinity Church.  I love how that image contrasts with the image of the Christ Child that dominates the window, the vulnerable and the strong, the stillness and the action, the Child worth everything and the Man who gave everything to prove our worth.

I guess sheep references aren’t going anywhere, given the hold the image of the Good Shepherd has on the Christian mind.   Our language reflects it: words like pastor, pastoral care, they aren’t going anywhere.

Jesus was fond of the image and He was able to stretch the metaphor in His teaching.  Today we hear about how the “sheep approach the protection of the sheepfold through the gate.  Those who climb in by other ways—over the rocks and brambles—are either robbers or predators.  The true shepherd enters and leaves first, calling their names; at the sound of his voice they follow.  This passage is called a “figure” by (John the Evangelist).  And when (Jesus’ disciples) seem not to grasp the figure fully, Jesus goes further, offering them what many have thought a somewhat disconnected second metaphor.  All of a sudden, he is no longer the shepherd. He is the gate itself.  But this shift is not a mixing of metaphors.  Like many devoted shepherds, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.

“I once heard a description of Middle Eastern sheep-herding practices that ties these two images together.  The sheepfold, especially one unattached to a larger settlement or dwelling, is a circular wall of stones, topped by barriers of briar. There is a small opening for the sheep to pass through.  Once they are all in, instead of closing a hinged gate, the shepherd simply lies across the opening, so that nothing or no one can get through without going over his body first, without confronting or even killing him.

“This particular kind of shepherd literally makes himself into a barrier gate, a role that requires not only care but courage.  If any marauders or predators are to get to the sheep, they will only do so over the dead body of the shepherd.”1

“Over my dead body,” then, becomes less of a threat and more of an expectation.  Thieves and robbers are bound to come, to do their best to steal and to kill and to destroy, for the sheep are of infinite value.

We have a baptism today, another reminder of the infinite value of even one of Christ’s little sheep.  She is certainly vulnerable.  It may be to much to ask for stillness.  No one would ever question her worth.  At that font she will find water and the Holy Spirit.  She will be cleansed from sin, clothed in Christ, made one Body with Him and with us.

She will find there her Good Shepherd and her sheep-gate, metaphors not so much mixed as stacked.  Starting there, she will learn to hear the voice of our Shepherd, to follow Him into the green pastures and beside the still waters.  She will learn how Christ laid down His life that we may have life, and how He rose to life again, that we may have life everlasting.

We re-learn these things every time we do these things, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  So remember that you, beloved of God, are of infinite value, worth the life of God, and so is the person next to you, and the person who needs a little help at the Acme, and all the people God sees fit to put in our way every day.  The sheep, it seems, are worth protecting, over Christ’s dead body.  Who do you know who needs to hear that today?

1. John Kavanaugh, SJ  http://liturgy.slu.edu/4EasterA050717/theword_embodied.html

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Easter 3

Over Lent, several of you enjoyed the series we did on Common Misconceptions, the stuff we get wrong that might actually effect our lives and our relationship with God and each other. We talked a lot about the spiritual mechanics of death; about how we don’t turn into angels and that Wendy Bradley poem that goes “God looked around His garden and saw an empty space” and how God doesn’t kill off our loved ones for His own benefit. A lot of what we get wrong, now and throughout the ages, comes from misreading the Bible, or reading it alone without our community, or just plain not knowing our Scripture well enough. I’m as guilty as anybody else, by the way, which is why I keep working on it.

Our Gospel story today, commonly called “The Road to Emmaus” has caused a bunch of problems, all because of the beforementioned issues. Our heroes “were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus when the risen Jesus joined them, seemingly out of nowhere, opened their eyes to the Scriptures, and then revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread.”1

Where exactly is Emmaus? I love Biblical archeology, as it so often illuminates history in fulfilling ways. Also, “this question helps move our reflection still further as we explore the “correct” understanding of Scripture. Pilgrims to modern-day Israel are shocked to learn that as many as six sites are identified as “Emmaus.” Here are the four more popular ones.

(1) Latrun. The tradition of identifying this place as Luke’s Emmaus reaches back to the historian Eusebius (330). The Byzantine tradition never doubted this identification, but it seems to have been forgotten when a plague wiped the village out in 639.

(2) Abu Ghosh. This is the village on the Jaffa road where the ark of the covenant rested for twenty years (at the time of Samuel…The crusaders, our embarrassingly ignorant, Christian, warrior-ancestors in the faith, did not know about Latrun. So in typical crusader style, they measured 60 stadia from Jerusalem and identified the nearest village as Emmaus.

(3) Qubeiba. Between 1114 and 1164, the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre founded a village here to intensify the agriculture of the region from which they drew sustenance. As frequently happens in the Holy Land, later pilgrims assumed this place was related to the life of Christ, and since it was sixty stadia from Jerusalem, they identified it as Emmaus.

(4) “Most probable” Emmaus. After the Jewish War against Rome in 66-70 C.E., Vespasian assigned eight hundred discharged veterans to live in a place called “Emmaus,” located about thirty stadia, or four miles, from Jerusalem. Their encampment completely overshadowed the little town, and the site was given the name (until recently) Qoloniya. Abandoned in 1948, it was located near contemporary Motza. The round trip between Jerusalem and this place is sixty stadia, or about seven miles, half of this being a very plausible distance allowing the disciples to get up from table right after supping with Jesus and to return immediately to Jerusalem (Lk 24:33).”2

This brief archaeology and geography lesson suggests that we need to read the Bible carefully and with open hearts and minds; to, as the Collect says, “read, learn, and inwardly digest” our Scripture, lest we, on the road to our Emmauses, arrive at the wrong destination. That’s why, in the Prayers of the People, we pray that all Bishops and other ministers may “by their life and doctrine,” set forth God’s true and holy Word, lest I lead you to that wrong Emmaus.

“Jesus was able to “correct” the misunderstanding of his followers only because they were already familiar with the Scripture…”3 Jesus didn’t implant Scriptural knowledge, He opened to them Scriptural understanding.

It works the same way for us; knowing our Bible, reading, learning, and inwardly digesting that story, our story, is an integral part of how we know who we are and who God is, and if we ask Jesus to walk alongside us as we learn, He will open our hearts and minds to understand the great mysteries of God, the mysteries of life. Let’s walk that road to Emmaus together, shall we?

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

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Easter

Happy Easter, everybody! It’s a beautiful day, thank God, and you all look phenomenal in your Easter best. It seems we have something to be joyful about; something, or perhaps better, someone, to celebrate. The Sunday of the Resurrection reminds us once again that Jesus has indeed conquered death, that His resurrection is the hope of our immortal life with Him. Easter reminds us that Jesus didn’t do the wondrous things He did for His own sake, but for us.

Immortal life has been in the new, by the way. Despite all the other things going on the world, humans are still preoccupied with death. I read a Newsweek article that said that “Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.” It’s hard to believe, though, since the human quest for immortality is both ancient and littered with catastrophic failures. Around 200 B.C., the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, accidentally killed himself trying to live forever; he poisoned himself by eating supposedly mortality-preventing mercury pills.  Centuries later, the search for eternal life wasn’t much safer: In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died after blood transfusions from three healthy boys whose youth he believed he could absorb.”1

Obviously these guys don’t get it; and note that they’re all dudes, right? Ponce de Leon’s wife Leonora most likely just shook her head when he took off for the fountain of youth. Death is, whether we like it or not, part of human life. And we are here today because death is, somehow, part of the life of God as well.

That’s because Jesus Himself did not avoid death. He died and then – and this is why we’re all here today – rose from the dead. As the rector of St. Thomas’ 5th Avenue put it, “But the Resurrection of Jesus is not the resuscitation of a corpse – if it had been, Jesus would have had to die again. The Resurrection is the breaking into time and space of God’s immense power and love. Suddenly, in a world of broken promises, of violence and sin, there is hope – hope for something greater and far more fulfilling than…the cheap lure of immortality in this world. Immortality for the Christian is to be caught up into the love of God;” it is to know that to the faithful life changes, but never ends.2
Not that it always feels that way, and it certainly didn’t feel that way for Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” on that first Easter morn. St. Matthew tells us that the two Mary’s went to Jesus’ tomb before the Sun even rose that day; St. Mark says they went to anoint the Body of Jesus, but Matthew says they just went to see the tomb, to be close to the Lord. Mary Magdalene we all know; the “other Mary” wasn’t the Mother of Jesus but rather her sister-n-law, Mary wife of Clopas, and so Jesus’ aunt by marriage. The Marys went supposing they were visiting the dead; instead they meet first a mighty angel, and then the Almighty Himself. It’s like God was thinking: this whole Resurrection thing is too much, it’s more than a little bit frightening; let’s have an angel tell them what’s happening before they run into the guy who was dead a few minutes ago.

How did the Mary’s react? Fear, of course, and trembling. They did better than the supposedly tough soldiers who were guarding the tomb – they just passed out and fell on their faces. The Mary’ were fearful, but what else were they? Filled with great joy. They fell on their faces too, but to what? To worship the risen Lord.

The Marys probably didn’t know exactly what was going on, but they believed in God and they believed in Jesus. If they had any doubts about who Jesus was and is after His death, those doubts were answered by His resurrected life.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. How have we reacted to the risen Lord? We have all somehow met Him – again, that’s why we’re all here – and we believe He is the Son of the Living God. But as John Wesley put it, It is one thing to believe that God is God, but that the moment of conversion comes when you sense that God is God pro nobis, God for us, God always reaching out for us.

And so the the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything, for us, if we follow Him. The Resurrection makes it possible for us to love in the midst of hate, to have hope in the midst of darkness, to be courageous in times of fear and uncertainty. In His death, Jesus has indeed destroyed death, and His rising to life again has won for us true immortality, everlasting life in Him.

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