This past week a massive fire burned part of that great Cathedral, Notre Dame. People immediately started talking about what a great tragedy it would be if the Cathedral was a total loss. I have been to Notre Dame. It is massive and majestic. It is moving to walk through the buildings and consider all her history. It would, indeed, be a tragedy if all were lost. Thankfully, though the fire did extensive damage, the building was not a total loss. There is no doubt in my mind donations will flood in across the world to rebuild this awe-inspiring church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, said, “Just as the cross didn’t have the last word, neither will this fire have the last word.”
In a short period of ten days, spanning the end of March and the first of April, in one neighborhood in Louisiana, three historically black churches, dating back more than one-hundred years, were intentionally burnt to the ground. All three were a total loss. This was also a tragedy! A twenty-one-year-old, white supremist, was arrested and charged with both arson and a hate crime. While I have not been in any of those churches, I have been in dozens of black churches. Like Notre Dame, they are also awe-inspiring and full of history. Donations have already started pouring in to rebuild those churches. Rev. Gerald Toussaint, the pastor of one of the destroyed churches, said, “The church is not that building…the church is alive and well. We can rebuild the building as long as we stay together.”
Our world is full of tragic events. Furthermore, no single person will live a tragic free life. If you live long enough, you will experience heartache, and if you don’t live long enough, well, that would be a tragedy in itself. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Life is full of ups and downs, good and bad, success and failure. The secret of life is finding meaning in the sufferings. No tragedy is wasted if you learn from it, and become a better person. Sometimes, what starts off as a tragedy becomes the best thing that could have ever happened to you.
Lessons from Easter
The greatest tragedy in the world occurred two-thousand years ago, on a hill far way, on an old rugged cross, when an innocent Man, the Son of God, was crucified for you and me. Yet, on that cross, Jesus taught us some valuable lessons. If we will learn from what He taught us, and accept His sacrifice as our own, we will be better people, and His death will not have been wasted. If you learn these lessons, what started off as a tragedy can become the best thing to ever happen to you.
What does the cross teach us?
- The cross teaches us hate doesn’t have the last word.
It can seem, at times, hate is everywhere. It could be a white supremist burning down a black church, or a black man throwing a toddler from the third floor inside a popular mall. Hate is not bound by race, economics, or geography. Hate can be seen in religion, and in politics, and in our neighborhoods, and in our homes. Hate can be seen in road rage, and at sporting events, and even in line at the grocery store. There is bitterness and jealousy and envy and anger and greed and gossip and backbiting. It can seem hate is everywhere, and if you let it, hate will overwhelm you, making you cynical and apathetic.
But what the cross teaches us is that love is greater than hate and love conquers hate. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And again, He said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 14:3). Someone rightly said, “It was love, not nails, that kept Jesus on the cross.”
This week, you will come face to face with hate. How will you respond? Easter tells us to respond with love. The temptation is to respond with more hate. But that never works! Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” How can you use the power of love to overcome the impotence of hate? If you answer that question, and learn this lesson, you will become more like Jesus.
- The cross teaches us it is better to die for your enemies than to retaliate against them.
This lesson builds on the first lesson. It’s human nature to fight back, to retaliate, to get even. But Jesus taught, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 4:33). Then, He demonstrated this type of love by saying, while suffering on the cross, to those who were responsible for His suffering, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The Apostle Paul reiterated Jesus’ point by writing, “But God demonstrates His own love us in this: While we were still sinners, (while we hated God) Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
This week you will be given the opportunity to retaliate, to get even, to even the score. Don’t do it! Allow Jesus to come into your life and teach you this important lesson—it is better to die for your enemies than to retaliate against them. It is better to be humble than to get even. Maybe you are thinking, “That is not humanly possible!” You are right, that is why, through His Spirit, Jesus gives us the courage to live supernatural lives. Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
- The cross teaches us everyone, regardless of their past, or their present position in society, have dignity and deserves a second chance.
One of my favorite stories from the cross is the story of Jesus’ interaction with two criminals. We know them as “thieves,” but that is somewhat inaccurate. There is a really good chance, that instead of being common thieves, they were actually insurrectionists, out to overthrow the government. The Romans would have called them terrorists. More than likely, Barnabas, a Jew, whom the crowd chose to set free over Jesus, was a “freedom fighter,” fighting to overthrow the oppression of the Roman occupation. His crime was taking up arms against the authorities. Likewise, the two “thieves.” At the very least, their thievery was in the cause of insurrection.
Jesus’ interaction with the two criminals who were crucified along with Him is found in Luke 23:32-43. There is a legend in church history that says the name of the one criminal, the one who defends Jesus, was Dismas, and he was a childhood friend of Jesus. In other words, according to the legend, Jesus and Dismas grew up together. Over the years they went their separate ways. Dismas, however, had heard about the exploits, teachings, and miracles of his childhood friend. Now, after not seeing each other since they were young, Dismas and Jesus are reunited at Golgotha. When the other criminal started insulting Jesus, Dismas took up for his friend, saying, “Don’t you fear God…since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man (whom he had personally known his entire life) has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). To His friend, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Oh, how we need to learn this lesson! In our self-righteousness we can become judgmental and insulting to others. We can deceive ourselves into thinking we deserve all the good things we have received and so others deserve all the bad things they have received. We fail to recognize that everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, or what they have done, has been created in the image of God and has dignity and needs to be treated with respect. Yet, Jesus never defined someone by the worst day of their lives or by their position—high or low—in society. When we learn this lesson, as well as the next lesson, we become more like Him.
- The cross teaches us no one is so far gone God’s grace cannot reach them.
I’m sure you have heard the ole saying, “Accept for the grace of God, there go I.” Well, I’ve got news for you: You have already gone there and done just as bad as anyone else; and it was only God’s grace that brought you out of it. The grace of God was there for Judas the betrayer. God’s grace was there for Peter, the betrayer, and the grace of God was there, and is there, for you.
In less than a month, the State of Tennessee is scheduled to execute Donald Johnson. Mr. Johnson did something horrible. But God’s grace reached into death row and saved Don. He has been transformed. He is a leader. He is an elder in The Church of Life, a ministry of our church, the church our ordained minister and fellow inmate, Kevin Burns, pastors. He has been redeemed by God’s grace, forgiven by his victim’s daughter, and needs to be granted clemency by our Governor. The execution of Jesus should have been the last state sponsored execution in history. Why? Because the cross teaches us no one is so far gone God’s grace cannot reach them, and everyone, regardless of what they have done, has dignity.
- The cross teaches us death is not to be feared because death is not the end.
In case you have not heard, or you have forgotten, Jesus did not stay dead! Satan thought he had won. Hate thought it had won. Fear thought it had won. Death thought it had won. But on Easter Morning, Jesus woke up, the stone was rolled away, death was defeated, and Christ had won. The Bible goes on to teach us that because Jesus was resurrected so we will be resurrected. Death is not to be feared because death is not the end but the beginning. The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
This is the hope of Easter.
This is the lesson of the cross.
This is the love of Jesus.
This is the grace of God.
 This happened the week leading up to the sermon at the Mall of America in Minnasota.
 Parenthesis added for emphasis.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.