Sermon: “The Gate of Everlasting Life” (March 27, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Gate of Everlasting Life” (Luke 24:5)
March 27, 2016 (Easter Sunday)
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Happy Easter!  It is a joy to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord with you today.

In Luke’s account of the resurrection several women go Jesus tomb early “on the first day of the week, at early dawn” with their spices ready to embalm the body of Jesus, but to their surprise, as Luke wrote, “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.”  Two angels then appear to them, instilling so much fear that they immediately bow down before them, “their faces to the ground,” and the angels ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:1-5).  Jesus is indeed risen, as we sing in the great hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788):

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!
(Hymn 207 in The Hymnal 1982)

“He is not here, but has risen”—“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!”

Today I am going to preach on just one of the many causes for joy that the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us—as we prayed in the collect—through his resurrection Jesus has “opened to us the gate of everlasting life” (The Book of Common Prayer 222).  Jesus has opened to us the gate of everlasting life.

Have you ever locked yourself out of your house?  Or have you ever gotten to a store just as it has closed, just as the door has been locked?  Each of us has moments when we are like Dave Bowman in the classic 1968 science fiction film, 2001 Space Odyssey, when he is near Jupiter trying to bring his space pod back to their ship only to be denied by the computer named Hal.  “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”  “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  The gate was closed.

In the hilarious 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation Chevy Chase plays Clark Griswold, who drives his family from Chicago to Los Angeles to visit Walley World, “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park.”  During their tumultuous journey they get lost in a rough section of St. Louis, endure the antics of the insane Cousin Eddie and the cranky Aunt Edna, encounter mid-life crisis temptation from a stunning young lady in a red Ferrari, and survive a car crash in the desert.  As their vacation continues to deteriorate Clark becomes increasingly obsessed with reaching Walley World—and somehow, the Griswold family gets there.

But the parking lot is empty, and yet Clark does not see anything wrong with that—“We’re the first ones here!” he exclaims.  Then the family runs to the entrance of Walley World in slow motion to the famous theme from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, only to arrive at the gate and see a plastic moose holding a sign.  Clark pushes a button and a goofy voice reads the sign out loud, “Sorry Folks!  We’re closed for two weeks to clean and repair America’s Favorite Family Fun Park.”  Clark is utterly beside himself, and punches the plastic moose, denting its nose.  After all the Griswold’s had gone through to get to Walley World, the gate was closed.

But a closed gate is not always so funny, especially when it comes to eternity.  While a closed gate at Walley World is not the end of the world, a closed gate to heaven is.  You may remember in Dante’s Inferno the inscription at the gate to hell that reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  But the good news on Easter is that our Risen Savior has “opened to us the gate of everlasting life”—which means all your hope need not be abandoned.

In our psalm for the day, Psalm 118, we learn something specific about this gate of everlasting life: “This is the gate of the Lord; he who is righteous may enter” (Psalm 118:20).  “He who is righteous may enter”—if only the righteous may enter the gate of the Lord, the gate of everlasting life, then we are all in serious trouble.

But that is where the unconditional love of God meets us because it is out of that unconditional love that Jesus died on the cross to atone for all our sins, or as the Apostle Peter put it—“Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).—or as the Apostle Paul put it:

The righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-24).

Because Jesus the Righteous died for all of unrighteous sinners, and because Jesus is risen, we are made righteous through faith because of God’s grace—and the gate of everlasting life is wide open.

Ultimately, the gate of everlasting life is open to us because of God’s love.  Early in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), a priest is talking about what real love is:

A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding…A true act of love requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life.  But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal, but indeed, seem even farther from it than ever—at that very moment, you will have achieved your goal and will recognize the miraculous power of our Lord, who has always loved you and has secretly guided you all along (Bantam Classic edition, 73).

Jesus’s death and resurrection are part of God’s “true act of love” that can give us hope in the midst of the journey of our lives that, like the Griswold’s vacation, includes, yes, hilarious moments, but also danger, difficult people, temptation, accidents and gates that are closed.

Our life is like, as Paul McCartney put it in the twentieth (and last) number one record The Beatles had in the United States, “The Long and Winding Road.”  I’ll never forget seeing McCartney and his band perform this song in Atlanta in 2002, a huge video screen behind them with footage from the rider’s perspective of driving down the long and winding road of life:

The long and winding road that leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

The wild and windy night that the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears crying for the day
Why leave me standing here?
Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried
Anyway you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried

And still they lead me back to the long winding road
You left me standing here a long, long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door
(from their 1970 album,  Let It Be)

And guess who will be waiting for you at the end of your long and winding road?  The same One who holds in a jar the pool of tears you have cried because of the wild and windy nights of your life, the One who knows the many ways you’ve tried, the One who will not leave you standing there, the One who said in the tenth chapter of John, “I am the gate…whoever enters by me will be saved” (John 10:9).

In 2015 Billy Graham published what will most likely be his final book, entitled Where I Am, in which examines what each of the sixty-six books of the Bible have to say about eternity.  He ends the book with the hope the Risen Jesus gives us for an eternity in heaven:

When we are with Him for eternity, we will inherit a new address—Heaven—and it is all the address we’ll need.  We will also inherit our new names.  And we will eat the fruit from the Vine of the tree that possess eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  No wonder He came—that we might come.  The great revelation for me is to know that when the Lord calls me home, where I am then, is where He will be, waiting in the place He has prepared from the beginning (Where I Am, 2015 259).

Back to The Brothers Karamazov for a moment…at the end of the book there is a funeral for a boy named Ilyusha who had died tragically.  After the funeral Alyosha Karamazov is walking along a long and winding road with some children, friends of the deceased boy, one of whom is named Kolya.  On the final page of the book, Dostoevsky points to the hope of the resurrection:

“Karamazov,” Kolya said suddenly, “can it be true, as our religion claims, that we shall all rise from the dead, come back to life, and meet again, Ilyusha too?”

“We shall certainly rise and we shall certainly all meet again and tell each other happily and joyfully everything that has happened to us,” Alyosha said laughingly, but at the same time, fervently.

“Ah, won’t that be good!” Kolya cried spontaneously (1045).

So on this Easter morning, regardless of where you are on the long and winding road of your life, you can rest assured in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, who loves you so much he died for you, whose grace enables you to have faith and be among the righteous to enter the gate of the Lord.

And as you awaken from your brief sleep of death to find yourself at your new address, Heaven, as Dostoevsky put it, “at that very moment, you…will recognize the miraculous power of our Lord, who has always loved you and has secretly guided you all along.”

He is risen, he is risen!
He hath opened heaven’s gate
We are free from sin’s dark prison
Risen to a holier state
And a brighter Easter beam
On our longing eyes shall stream
(Hymn 180 in The Hymnal 1982)

The stone has been rolled away—“He is not here, but has risen”—and Jesus has opened the gate of everlasting life to you.

Amen.