Resurrection: What It Means for Me – Easter Day, April 16, 2017
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
They came expecting to complete the prescribed burial anointing that was hastily begun the day before. They expected to find a body and instead found an empty tomb. No matter what our personal belief system or faith tradition may be or even our lack of belief, this is a compelling story. Still, it’s hard to grasp. Our human experience of death makes it almost impossible to fathom and that was true for the women on the first Easter.
Michael Patrick O’Malley, Jr. opened the morning newspaper and was dumbfounded to read in the obituary column that he had died. “How many Michael Patrick O’Malley, Jr’s could there be,” he thought and he quickly phoned his best friend James Finnerty. Did you see the paper?” asked O’Malley. “They say I died!!” Yes, I saw it!” replied Finnerty. “And where are ye callin’ from?”
Poor old Finnerty! We don’t expect to get a call from the deceased. The idea of resurrection is both astonishing and wondrous but it is not that easy to believe. Yet the author of the Acts of the Apostles in the first reading today recounts how Peter preached to the Gentiles assuring them that “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” And we believe that this account was written within 30 to 40 years after the resurrection. And our parish patron the Apostle Paul goes so far to say that if Christ has not been raised and our proclamation of the Resurrection has been in vain then our faith has been in vain.
The accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels should be comforting because they are very frank about how difficult it was for Jesus’ closest friends and followers to understand and accept it. The first Christians were not expecting the resurrection. They did not believe it when the women first announced it to them. They had all scattered and hidden when Jesus was condemned and executed.
It was the two Mary’s who first believed it was all real. They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Don’t we all know that experience? Something breathtaking and amazing happens to us, an almost unbelievable development, and we are both full of excitement and yet scared of what it might mean for how our life will change and still we can’t wait to tell someone.
The early community that had followed Jesus during his three years of teaching and healing were stunned by their loss and almost paralyzed by fear. All of what they knew to be normal was crushed. The burial was not normal—few people who were crucified were buried at all and Jesus who owned nothing and was an itinerant preacher was placed in a rich man’s grave. Then the tomb was empty. And they began to see him again, talking with them and eating with them.
Jesus had been transformed, had defeated death and now life was changed everywhere and they had experienced the restorative power of God. That same restorative power that was responsible for the transformation of Jesus begs us to expect that God’s presence may amaze us by showing up in strange and even alien places and in surprising ways.
An adult study group in a church was in deep discussion about difficult Christian beliefs. Someone brought up the struggle in believing in the resurrection of Jesus. They found this a farfetched possibility. “Life from death?” he asked, “How can that be credible?” A woman in the group spoke up, “Well, I do believe in the resurrection. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. When my husband walked out on me, I could have died. I did die. My life was over. Dead end. But then, by the grace of God, with the support of a wonderful church community and the coaxing of good friends, I came back. I came to life. I got a whole new life. I believe in the resurrection because I have lived it.”
Last week a woman stopped me in the aisle at the grocery store. “You’re the priest at St. Paul’s?” I did not recognize her and I was not wearing clerics. She said what a great church this is and then told me that she has just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and would I please pray for her.
Encounters like this always move me deeply, heighten my awareness of the fragility of life and how easily we can take it for granted. It was a few minutes later at the checkout when it really hit me. “It was nice seeing you, Father,” she said. “Happy Easter!” Here is someone facing a scary, life-threatening, and yet for her resurrection has meaning. She was still able to proclaim it in that simple salutation, “Happy Easter!”
A Christian monk tells of an encounter he had with a teacher of Zen. As part of a retreat he had a private session with the teacher who sat before him, smiling from ear to ear and rocking gleefully back and forth. Finally the teacher said: “I’d like Christianity. But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection.” The monk later said that with his directness, what the Zen teacher was telling him is: “You are a Christian. You are risen with Christ. Show me what this means for you in your life—and I will believe.”
Today we will hear these ancient words recited: “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” What we are really saying is that we believe that resurrection goes on and on that God continues to resurrect lives. Every time we let Jesus rise in our hearts, every time we see Jesus in places where we did not recognize him before, every time raise up some oppressed person from “the tomb,” Jesus rises again.
The story of the resurrection may sound unbelievable, even outlandish to some and I certainly cannot prove it really happened. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus because of the historic testimony throughout the ages of countless persons. As long as there is life on earth there will be people talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But mostly I believe in the resurrection, because I have seen it in its transformative and restorative power working in the lives of those around me.
I will tell you that this story continues to shape my life, to influence my story in ways that are sometimes startling, but always life-giving. If I could give you a wonderful Easter gift today, I’d give you a deep and abiding hunger for more of the story and more of the God whose story it is.