The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
We gather this morning and throughout this day for the central Feast celebration of the Christian community—greater than Christmas, greater than Pentecost. It is the Queen of the Feasts of the Christian community. And we gather because Easter is central to our convictions about faith, about hope, and about love.
Hope is a bit different than faith. Faith is a rational process that we find just enough evidence or commitment to doctrines, dogmas or creeds or apologetics or philosophy. For example, we cannot prove God, but there are rational reasons to accept the existence of God. The created universe clearly has an intelligent order that can be seen, measured, calculated. And even those things that seem random we understand that we simply do not have the tools or the equations or the theorems to understand them.
For example, the Creed gives us a sense of that difference between the intuitive nature of hope, that which makes not much sense, but somehow there is that gentle tug in our lives, in our souls, that pull us, enable us, that we might move into uncertainty when often it makes not much sense.
After each sermon in the liturgy we always have the Creed. It always follows the sermon. Dr. Charlie Price, the late and great theologian of our Church and Professor at Virginia Seminary, used to say that this is ”never the less.” But the Creed states “We believe in One God; we believe in One Lord Jesus Christ.” There’s some evidence for these things. “We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the universal Christian community.” But when we come to the Resurrection of the dead, we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” It is a hope. It is an intuitive confidence that because we believe that Jesus is risen, we hope then, in that resurrection, for our own resurrection.
Many of us, we love the music, the liturgical drama and some of us wax nostalgia about childhood memories and other traditional associations so intimate with Easter. And although we find theological confessions such as bodily resurrections sometimes beyond our fidelity, we respect, if not that particular belief, we cherish the values and respect the values of Christian faith. Some can accept that the Disciples were speaking metaphorically. Others believe it was an apparition. Some believe it was a therapeutic dream for them to deal with the grief of losing both a dear teacher and a friend.
The Gospel of John recalls that they clung to Jesus because they knew that they had given up everything to follow him. He was right for them. And yes, they did need healing. And when other Disciples had left Jesus, Jesus turned to the core group and he said, “Will you also leave me?” And Peter spoke up and said, “Lord, if we leave you, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. It is in you that we have hope, not just with this life, but for the life to come.”
Now John Dominic Crossan, scholar, has helped us to understand that neither bodily resurrection nor apparitions were the unique claims of first-century Christians. Greek literature such as Homer and Virgil’s literature and myths of the dominant religion, which was Roman paganism, all included ideas of incarnate deities who were brutally killed and unjustly killed, and then appeared again. And the Old Testament gives us examples such as when Saul wanted to speak to Samuel and Samuel was called forth from the dead again. We also know that many first-century Jews believed in a resurrection. Martha, when Jesus came to the grave of Lazarus, and she was very unhappy that he had delayed, and when she challenged Jesus, he said, “Well Martha, your brother will rise again.” And she said, “Yes Lord I know he will rise again; he will be resurrected in the last day.” In fact, one of the beliefs that separated Pharisees from Saducees was that the Pharisees believed in a general resurrection on the Day of Judgement, the Last Day.
And so one’s body, or soul rather, was in sheol, in this darkness, until the day when God would come back and establish judgment, deciding where souls would go.
All this is to say that for the Disciples to simply argue that Jesus’ bodily resurrection, in many circles would not have had too much of a stretch for many first-century persons in Palestine. In fact, the response would perhaps be, “So what?”
The real issue for the Christian community, the real issue for the Romans and for the Jewish officials was, “What would a resurrected Jesus mean in this particular case?”
Now for first-century Christians and many of us who are present-day Christians, including me, we believe that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead by God. As the Gospel writers often phrase it, “Jesus whom God raised from the dead.” It was not in his power. All he could do was to offer himself in faith to God and submit himself to the cross of the dead. But indeed, God raised him from the dead.
But more powerful than a belief that Jesus rose from the dead is the meaning of his resurrection. The Disciples understood that in the resurrection of Jesus it was the stamp that this individual was a unique being of God, not just another philosopher, not just a moral prophet, not just a miracle worker. But there was something uniquely transit in Jesus and his incarnation. Something so transcendent that God would not let it die. Pagan myths have come and gone. Great prophets and great philosophies have come and gone, but the power of Jesus Christ and his ministry and his message to inspire and change the lives of human beings continues to live. Whatever the experience of these first-century Christians, they risked to tell this story because they knew the power of his life and his ministry was living on even in them.
Secondly, I believe that the meaning of his resurrection is to understand Jesus as the love of God, the spiritual presence of God that sometimes touches me and I’m sure it touches you with the human hand and human expression. Sometimes the hand of the love of God touches us embodied as the Christian witness in a friend or in a stranger. It is as thought they were sent by God to be the presence of God’s word and love acting and healing in our lives and in the world. We can see that same spirit that was in Jesus Christ evident in friend and stranger.
But other times, it has been disembodied. Have you ever had times of sorrow? Times of despair? Times of great disappointment when it seemed that all that you dreamed for and worked for and lived for was crumbling before you? And you felt despair and not where to turn, and maybe you were not praying, but you could feel your soul groaning in prayer? And you felt as though you were enfolded by arms of comfort and love? And even though the crisis was not resolved you found a sense of comfort and strength to go on. The human hand of the immaterial God is the presence of Christ that is with us in trial and rejoicing.
And when we have allowed ourselves through a deepening of our spiritual lives we can know instinctually that this life cannot be defeated by death. For the God that we know in this life is the God who walks with us in the life to come. Some theologians have said eternal life is life with the Eternal. So the presence of Christ lifts us to that place where our hope is strengthened in our faith of the resurrection.
But the love of God is even greater, for it says in Paul’s writings that there is faith, there is hope and there is Divine love. But he said, “the greatest of these is agape, the love of God. For faith in religious tenets and values, our hopes and our intuitive qualities of religion, are spiritual tools we use to make our way in life. But greater than all of these is to know that God loved us so much that he gave his Son, and then resurrected that Son that we might have the assurance of eternal life.
St. Paul wrote that love is transforming. “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind,” he wrote. It is something about knowing that we are loved by God and that not even death can separate us, not even tragedy. “For I am convinced,” he writes, “that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers, governments, or things present or things to come, powers, nor heights, nor death, or anything in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
And when we have through worship, through prayer, through meditation, through service to God, when we have opened ourselves to feel the presence of God, we find that assurance that we know nothing, not even death, can separate us from this love.
But that love does more than comfort us. For that love transforms not only the world, but it transforms us. The message and work of Jesus, his passion, his concern was that we might all be one, that somehow beyond those things that separate us and divide us, that we would be able to see through them, and see the kindredness of our spirits that make us brothers and sisters.
It’s amazing how the human condition can sometimes cause us to be divided by those things that bring about injustice. The Jews and the Greeks and the Romans believed that you were your body and you were your culture. That’s how you were defined. And as hard as it is to see beyond such things, even when we are moved by compassion to help those who are different than ourselves, the love of God still calls for a greater transformation. That somehow we, like Christ, can be resurrected to that place where we are able to see others as our brothers and sisters. Here’s what Desmond Tutu said. He said, “More than being my brother’s keeper, I must understand I am my brother’s brother.”
Look at the person next to you. Just look at them for a moment. You may know them. They may look familiar to you. Look at them. What do you see? Do you see an adult or a child? Do you see black or white or brown or red or yellow? Do you simply see Armani or Sachs or Penny’s or Hecht’s? Do you see male or female? Or can you see a kindredness, a living spirit in your brother or sister that says more than being male or female, rich or poor, black or white, I see my sister and my brother?
And in these times of political stress, times when we struggle when what it means to be moral and complete, can we look into the eyes of those that are different from ourselves? Can we look into the eyes of a conservative? A liberal? And beyond the graying ideology, we may feel they possess? Can we see the spirit, the kindredness of a brother and sister beneath it? Can we see a gay or a straight person, and see beyond their orientation? But to see a child of God just as I may be? In this time of war and conflict, can we look at a Muslim who is searching somehow to be submissive to God, but whose culture and style of religion, can we look beyond that and see someone who is loved by God for whom his Son died?
It makes a difference when you see a brother or a sister. And when we are resurrected we see no longer simply as human beings bound by culture or by body. We see someone, who like ourselves, are indeed children of God. We read in the Prayer Book, “Will you seek Christ? Will you seek your brother, your sister in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And will you respect the dignity of every person?” It takes a resurrected life to be able to see beyond culture, social location, gender, orientation, to respect the dignity of every person.
Finally, it is about justice. For to believe in the Resurrection is also to believe that evil exists. It exists in the works of individuals, in governments, in constructs, and social and legal structures. Injustice exists. The Disciples were even more convinced of the power of evil, but in the Resurrection they knew that the worst that human kind could do, the worst that government and political constructs could do, could not defeat the power of God.
So in the raising of Jesus was the inspiring of God’s love that I will not, I will not, allow death and evil to destroy my dream for human community.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Understood this. And when he was preparing protesters in the Christian Leadership Conference he spoke of this Easter hope. When he was asked by a reporter, “How is it that you go about this work of non-violent resistance with all the tensions and sufferings and the inevitable discomfort and danger?” And Martin Luther Kind responded with these words. He said, “Those of us who name Jesus Christ find something at the center of our faith which forever reminds us that God is on the side of justice and truth.” He said, “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumph of Easter.”
Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, justice. The work of justice, my brothers and sisters, is ours to do, but it is in partnership with God. And so we work not in despair but in hope, for we know that God will take the meager efforts that we make, the sacrifices that we make, and that God will ultimately as he did on the day of resurrection, resurrect truth, resurrect justice, every time, and give peace to his people.
And so we do not despair. Christ is risen. He has risen in our lives. He has risen in the hope and faith that empowers us. He is risen in the love that transforms us.
My prayer this morning is that each of us wherever we are on our pilgrimage of faith, whatever the depth or lack of depth of our faith may be, that we will go from this place determined to open ourselves to that transforming power of God, that we may know the great joy of Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrection, that not only gives us hope for the life to come, but gives us power and hope for the life that is.