If you’re in the church business, life doesn’t get any better than this. A beautiful spring day, flowers everywhere you look in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the best music we’ve got, all of you dressed to the nines, and a full house at that. We clergy dream about days like this.
If there’s any one day to be in church, this is the one, because today we are dealing with the biggest, most urgent topic of all—life and death—and the most startling claim imaginable—that nothing, not even death itself, can ever finally defeat us.
Now let me acknowledge from the start that conveying this is a hard sell; our usual categories and language just aren’t big enough. According to a recent Newsweek a week ago, some 80% of Americans believe in heaven and, by the way, nearly all of them believe they will get there one day! But the number of people believing in the resurrection has dropped 10% in the last decade to 70%. Belief in reincarnation is up and so is the ancient Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. But resurrection—a dead man coming back from the tomb, changing the course of history, and opening the way of hope and healing for everyone—for many that’s just too much. We preachers are aware on Easter Day that we have our work cut out for us.
It’s tempting to take our next few minutes to roll out an airtight case for the resurrection. But that would miss the point, and besides, it wouldn’t work. Writer Eugene Peterson recalls a minister in his childhood church preaching a sermon entitled “Thirteen Incontrovertible Proofs of the Resurrection.” It went on for an hour and a half, he said, and by then no one really cared any more.
For all the exuberance of this Easter Day, it’s easy to forget that the first Easter morning was anything but that—it was confusing and disturbing. It began at a tomb. Three women made their way to the burial place of their Lord. The trauma of the past three days was over. The man who had been their teacher, leader, and friend, who had given so many a vision of a new world God was building, was dead. They were coming just to finish up the good-byes. Another good man put to death. Why should anyone be surprised?
Tombs. Dead ends. That’s where this story begins, and that’s where so much of life takes us. It wouldn’t be hard to make the case that death is the real ruler of the world. Every flower fades, every tree falls, every love ends, every human being dies. Everything we love and cherish will pass away.
Preacher Fleming Rutledge says that she looks forward to Easter more every year as she gets older, because there isn’t anything we can do about death. “It’s so damned inexorable and I do mean damned,” she says. “We feel its power as a hostile invading power.” The hardest part of growing old, an older friend said to me, is seeing your closest friends die one by one (from Help My Unbelief).
“Man is in love, and loves what vanishes, what more is there to say?” the poet William Butler Yeats once said.
There are many tombs. Tombs of loneliness and isolation, one of the major social afflictions in our country, in spite of our hyper-connectedness. Tombs of a life we put together carefully that unravels before our eyes—a job lost, a house foreclosed, a marriage ended, health unravels.
Today there are the tombs being prepared for the four innocent people gunned down here in D.C. just three days ago. There are the victims around the world—of hunger, violence, and brutal injustice. Haiti, Darfur, East Jerusalem, and Gaza weigh on our hearts.
And all of that can be enough to leave us, like those women, not expecting that anything different can happen. Maybe the best we can do with news so bad is shrug and change the television channel, and bring some oil to anoint the dead. Things can’t really be better. We just shouldn’t expect much.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and another Mary came that early Sunday morning expecting a sealed tomb. But instead they found something utterly unexpected, something that had all the marks of a strange new world they would never have imagined. The body they had come to prepare was gone, and instead they saw two men in dazzling clothes who said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here he is risen.”
The women were terrified and ran back to tell their companions the disciples, who called the women’s report ridiculous, “an idle tale.” Except for one. In a few moments Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself, and then a new light began to dawn.
That’s it. That’s all there is to Luke’s version of the first Easter. No Hallelujah Chorus, no fireworks, no booming organ. Instead a confusing, slowly dawning awareness that something entirely unexpected, something inconceivable, had happened. A whole worldview of lives locked in tombs started to crumble piece by piece as those earliest followers began to glimpse the unimaginable—that death had not destroyed their Lord.
The disciples began to see a new creation taking shape. The worst that human beings could do had been done to their friend and it had failed to destroy him. And if Jesus was alive, so was his dream of a world of hope, peace, nonviolence, and healing for everyone. If Jesus was alive then no walls between races, no walls between rich and poor, no walls between religions could ever be the last word. ‘Go’ the risen Lord said to the disciples. ‘It’s your job now, and I promise to go with you.’
And he did. And the disciples walked through a door into a new world. Frightened, discouraged, grieving men and women became bold, hopeful bearers of a good news they could not stop talking about. Good Friday people, still in their tombs, became Easter people living their days in the confidence that there was nothing to fear and no threat that could hold them back.
Eugene O’Neill once wrote a play about first-century Christianity called Lazarus Laughed. In it he tells the story of Jesus’ bringing his friend Lazarus back from the dead. From the first time Lazarus’s friends see him after he has been raised they are amazed at his exuberance and laughter. “What did you see on the other side of death?” they asked. And Lazarus answered, “There is no death! There is no death! There is only life!”
Then after Jesus’ own death Lazarus preaches about the living Christ who can free people from the fear that death brings. Before long Lazarus is arrested by the Roman ruler Caligula, who threatens the young man with torture and execution. But in this final scene Lazarus looks squarely into his face and says, “Death is dead, Caligula. Death is dead.” The biggest change in Lazarus’s life was that he wasn’t afraid any more. That is maybe the biggest gift resurrection brings us. Death is dead, and therefore there is nothing finally to be afraid of anymore.
If all this is true, if Christ actually was raised from the dead, then Easter is not simply about something that happened 2,000 years ago but something that’s happening now. If Jesus is alive, then God is at work in every tomb of our lives opening new possibilities for healing our world.
No one needs to tell you that this is a gloomy time in the life of our country. People fear for their jobs and their futures, we wonder about the future of the country itself, we see a divided world with terrorism and fundamentalism aplenty, we see our planet’s climate at grave risk with little will to make the sacrifices necessary to protect it for our children’s future. And you can’t help but sense these days that many in our country have lost any sense of a larger purpose working in our lives. But what would it mean to our fears and worries if our lives could be rooted in an unstoppable power of love, a power we can trust to hold us, and a power committed to building a new world?
Does this sound like too big a claim to be “realistic?” Of course, none of this is “believable,” if we are going to depend on common sense for our beliefs. After all, if anything is supposedly certain it is that dead people don’t come back to life. In fact, all the accounts of the disciples meeting the risen Lord describe the witnesses as frightened, doubtful, incredulous. It was as hard for them to believe at first as it is for us today.
Believing in the resurrection, though, is not about being convinced by a logical argument but beginning to trust a different way of seeing life. You don’t decide to trust someone you love through logic. You hear them call your name, you begin to trust them a little, and then slowly you find them more and more trustworthy. That’s how faith happens too. Someone called us by name to get us here today, even it was a nagging spouse or parent. And being here, experiencing this service, and then another and another, can build our trust in a life and hope far deeper than we had imagined.
For many of us Christians trusting this resurrection claim has taken time. It is such an assault on the airtight space-time-material box our age has us trapped in, in which something isn’t real if you can’t see it, touch it, or find it on the internet. In our frenetic lives we have squeezed out the realm of the spiritual. For most of us we need to start slowly, worshiping, going to a class, coming to Eucharist, learning to pray. And slowly, like that first dawning trust in the resurrection, you can begin to sense that someone’s calling your name, that Christ is risen and is with you.
I recently heard that amazing Christian Archbishop Desmond Tutu discussing his new book Made for Goodness on public radio. At first the title seemed to me uninspiring. After all, what’s riveting about the idea of being good? But when I heard his talk I changed my mind. He recalled some of the hardest events of the last thirty years—apartheid, Communism, Rwanda, and many more. He spoke of the horrors he had seen in South Africa. But strangely he kept coming back to “goodness.” “We are all made for goodness,” he said, “and deep down we know it. We may run away from it. We may deny it. But we know it.” He seemed to use the word “goodness” as a way to reach across religious divides and across the gap between believers and unbelievers to reach the human core we all share. “We’re made for goodness.”
That’s the resurrection news. We are made by Goodness, for Goodness, and at the depths of life is a Goodness that will never let us go.
Today we’re being given, even in this world of tombs and dead ends, a chance for real joy and goodness. Christ has been raised from the dead. He will meet us wherever truth is spoken, and injustice is confronted, and people struggle for decent lives. He will meet us in the bread and wine we’re about to receive, he’ll meet us at work and at home next week as we struggle to love and care and work for a more hopeful world. He will meet us in this church community as his Spirit draws us together.
Death is dead, my friends. No tomb, no loss, no dying will ever be the end for you or any of us. The walls of this world have been blown open.
Because Christ the Lord is risen.