Isaiah 25:69; Psalm 118: 12, 1424; 1 Corinthians 15:111; John 20:118
It is wonderful to have all of you here for what is the highpoint of the Christian year. This is the one day every year when just about everything seems over the top—trumpets, timpani, and flowers everywhere, extra chairs in every corner, lines of people waiting to get in. I have to admit we clergy have been known to say to ourselves, “Why can’t it be like this every Sunday?!”
If you are going to choose one day a year to come to church, this is the one. The music is magnificent, and everything here looks its best. And this is the day when we explore the central claim at the heart of Christian faith—that death, hatred, and loss are not the final reality in our world.
Even though we are celebrating Easter today, it doesn’t take much looking around to see a world that looks more like Good Friday than Easter. Our world is burdened by the weight of war and divisions about war, by the weight of hunger and disease around the globe, by an earth now seriously at risk from dramatic climate change.
And we all have our list of personal tragedies—a friend struggles with depression, the endless search for a new job goes on, the cancer is now untreatable. In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says that we spend our whole lives trying to avoid the one fact that haunts our existence—that our time is short, our bodies are fragile, that everything we care about will end in a grave. Death casts a long shadow over all of our lives.
- “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes.
- “Death is the absurd arch-contradiction of existence,” says the theologian Karl Rahner.
- “Do not go gently into that good night, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” says Dylan Thomas.
- Woody Allen says: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my art. I want to achieve it by not dying.”
(Quotations from the Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon “Life Ahead,” 4/23/2000)
All love eventually fades, wrinkles deepen, we’re saying good-bye all our years. Our lives seem imprisoned inside a materialistic space-time-mass box. Physical existence seems to be all there is. The new breed of attack-dog atheists writing inflammatory books deriding religious faith would say that we’re all in fantasy land today, telling us ourselves a fairy tale we wish were true. Socio-biologists tell us that evolution and species survival drive everything. Social Darwinists say all life is really a struggle for survival of the fittest. And many of us assume that intelligent, thoughtful people ought to be sober, disillusioned realists, not inclined to expect too much out of our world.
It was early on Sunday morning, three days after the world had performed as usual. A wandering rabbi, a prophet, the Messiah, some said, had been hung on a cross. One more unjust death in Palestine. Nothing new there. A woman named Mary Magdalene made her way to anoint the body for burial in a sealed tomb. This rabbi had promised so much— life, hope, forgiveness, healing for everyone. Now he too was gone. But when Mary Magdalene arrived the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran back to the disciples exclaiming that someone has taken their Lord away.
And that launched a scramble with Simon and another disciple sprinting to the tomb, only to find it empty. They went home, leaving Mary there, still weeping. Through her tears she leaned again into the tomb, and this time she saw two white figures, and as she backed up and turned around, she saw Jesus. But at first she thought he was a gardener, until he said her name, “Mary!” And she cried, “Rabbouni!”, which means Teacher.
In her shock she reached for him, but he held her at bay. “Do not hold on to me,” he said, and sent her back to tell the disciples the news that he was alive. And she returned to them exclaiming, “I have seen the Lord.”
Mary all of a sudden saw something that the world has been trying ever since to comprehend. The stone had been rolled away from the tomb of this world. The closed tomb of our material lives had cracked open. A world governed by violence and fear had proven not to be the last word.
I love all the trumpets and timpani of this day, the great booming hymns and alleluias. But that’s not what this moment is about. It’s fraught with confusion, mystery, the crumbling of a closed worldview. The players seem overwhelmed, even terrified.
But then how could they not be terrified? All of a sudden the world they had known had been broken open. The news they were hearing—that death is not the end, that there is power greater than hate, destruction and violence at work in the world—shattered all their assumptions.
If tragedy isn’t the final word, if hope and healing are always possible, then there is a new way to live—the way Jesus had lived—a way of generosity, compassion, and forgiveness. If our lives are not shadowed and defeated by death, then we can take the time to be, to love, to mend the torn fabric of a violent and suffering world. The truth they encountered was so overwhelming that still 2,000 years later we have a hard time getting our heads around it.
Many have tried to shrink this Easter truth back inside the space-time-mass box. The resurrection “really” meant that the cause of Jesus goes on, or that the spirit of Jesus was alive in the disciples inspiring them. Some have suggested that Jesus had been given a drug that made him appear to be dead. Others even said the resurrection was a hoax the disciples made up to convince the Roman Empire.
But what Mary and those disciples saw won’t go back inside the old box. Something happened that turned cowering, defeated disciples into a band of followers so confident that their faith swept across the known world. In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a character explains with growing excitement the way that chaos theory has thrown the settled world of Newtonian science into confusion. And what he says sounds like the reaction of Mary and the disciples on Easter morning. The character says,
It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
That’s the impact of resurrection. It isn’t something we can insert into our old play-it-safe, give-up-hope, protect-your-own-little-life way of thinking. A Spirit of Love has been released. The walls of our world have been blown open. If the resurrection is true, everything looks different, including death.
I have to say, I don’t know anyone who started out being a Christian by accepting the notion of resurrection first. It’s too big, too outrageous, too much an assault on our shrunken modern worldviews. For most of us, actually trusting the resurrection comes slowly as we spend time learning about Christ, following him, coming to meals with him, slowly getting a sense of a dimension of holiness and love embracing all of life, including death.
My guess, though, is that everyone here has actually seen resurrection. We’ve seen tombs of people’s lives sealed tight. But then it has happened. Healing comes just where it seemed unimaginable. Call it a higher power, call it luck, call it a mysterious strength, or call it what it is, the Spirit of the risen Christ at work
The year 1989 was a year of resurrection. In that one year dictatorships fell across the world through nonviolent revolutions, driven in many cases by people of faith—from the Soviet Union to Romania, to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to South Africa, to Chile. We had thought Communism and apartheid would last forever. The tombs blew open.
Or I think of a close friend from my school days, who struggled through a death of alcohol and drugs for two decades, in and out of treatment again and again. He’s now been clean for nearly a decade. He says he was dead and now he’s alive.
Or I think of a woman dealing with the devastating end of her marriage. A lifetime invested in it is now over. Slowly, life and strength return. She still bears the scars of what she’s been through. But she is risen.
A woman gives up her secure job in the U.S. to work among the poor in Honduras. Her friends thought she was giving up her life. She will tell you that she has found the only one that matters for her.
We meet the Spirit of God in the thick of our losses and dying. Resurrection is never an evasion of death. It is the life that comes out of death when we can’t imagine a way forward.
A couple of years ago I presided at a funeral for a woman who knew the reality of resurrection in her bones. Her first husband died when they had three children under five, and she raised those children for sixteen years on her own. Two more times she married, and twice more she buried her husbands. She had a lively, searching faith all her life, a search that led her sometimes to other denominations and teachers.
She had been diagnosed with cancer, and her days were numbered when I visited her a few days before her death. “I’m ready,” she said. “I just wish I could go on and go. It’s like going on a long journey and not even having to pack. But I can’t wait to see what it’s like on the other side.”
And we talked on. “I’ve been through so much,” she said. “But God has always been there. Every time I’ve gone through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I’ve known he was there with me.”
That’s Easter faith, a faith shaped and deepened over a lifetime of being fed by the bread and wine of the Eucharist, exploring the scriptures, being part of a community of faith, keeping up the spiritual quest. It is a faith that has experienced resurrection time and again in this life, and so can trust the next mysterious stage of the journey.
And if Christ is risen, then even impossible things are possible. By the grace of God the hard work of bringing peace to Iraq will be achieved, and the rebuilding will begin. By the work of the risen Christ, people in the wealthy nations will at last decide that the daily dying of ten thousand of our fellow human beings from hunger and disease is morally unacceptable, and will demand that their governments commit the resources to end it. By the work of this resurrecting God the human race will do what must be done to resurrect this endangered planet
I don’t know any better words for God’s resurrection power than these words by the seventeenth-century poet John Donne:
He brought light out of darkness,
not out of a lesser light;
he can bring thy summer out of winter,
though thou have no spring;
though in the ways of fortune or
understanding or conscience,
thou have been benighted until now,
withered and frozen,
clouded and eclipsed; damped and benumbed;
smothered and stupefied until now,
now God comes to thee,
not as in the dawning of the day,
not as the bud of spring,
but as the sun at noon.
“He is not here. He is risen.” That is the declaration of the resurrection stories. Go back to your ordinary lives and watch for him—stirring you, calling you deeper, giving you strength. He’s loose. He’s on the move. Get ready.
Because Christ our Lord is risen.