Sermon preached by The Rev’d Nicholas Lang
You may have heard about the four-year-old in Sunday School whose teacher asked: “Does anyone know what today is?” The little girl held up her hand and said, “It’s Easter.” “That’s wonderful,” said the teacher. “Now, does anyone know what makes this Sunday Easter?” The same little girl responded, “Yes, today is Easter because Jesus rose from the grave,” and before the teacher could acknowledge her answer, she added, “but if he sees his shadow…he has to go back in for seven weeks.”
A little confusion about resurrection? Why not? It’s a bind-boggling concept.
Isn’t it asking a great deal of people like you and me to believe in something so astonishing and as mind-blowing as the resurrection of a dead person? Yet, if there is any one aspect of the Christian faith that stands above all others it is the Resurrection of Jesus. Writing to the early Church in Corinth, Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
So today we tell the story that has been told around the world for more than two thousand years. All four of the Gospels—ancient texts that teach us who Jesus was and what he said and did—give an account of what happened on the Sunday after Jesus died on the cross.
Today we hear the evangelist Mark’s account of the three women who come to complete the burial ritual hastily begun the previous day because it was the eve of the Sabbath. They bring sweet spices to anoint the body but on their way they realize that the tomb had been covered with a huge stone. How will they get in? Who will roll away that stone? When they arrive, they discover that, mysteriously, miraculously, the stone has already been rolled away. Cautiously, they peek inside. There is someone sitting there – a young man dressed in a white robe – who stuns them with this news: “Jesus has been raised from the dead. He is not here…Go, and tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you into Galilee, as he promised. There you will see him…”
It’s a great story but how do we know it’s real? Well, I can only speak for myself. I will tell you unabashedly that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus because others have told me about it, in fact, many other—in the historic testimony of countless persons throughout the ages who have declared the validity of the resurrection. And I believe in the resurrection because it has stood the test of time. Fame fades and new fads and fashions emerge. 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 experienced it. I believe in the resurrection because I have seen the God of resurrection at work in your lives. I have seen the risen Christ raise people from the death of despair to the joy of new life.
Each of us, however, must come to terms with our understanding of the resurrection in our own way. In her book Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher writes about a friend sitting on a Trailways bus who looked up from the book she was reading and believed in the resurrection. “I was saying the Creed from the daily office with the prayer book open on my lap and looking out the window at the telephone poles zipping by. When I came to the words, ‘I believe in the resurrection.’ I don’t know what happened. I really believed it completely for an instant.
“I mean I knew without a doubt it was true. I was in a pretty black depression over the lives of my daughters. I thought they were all headed for disaster. In that instant what I knew was that all my rational ideas about my children, all the things I’d learned from my parents and the Church about, ‘If you do that, this will follow,’ were not necessarily true. The rules didn’t hold. It was just enough to allow me to let go of my terrible fear, to see the goodness in my children and to believe in the potential for good. The resurrection means that nothing is hopeless anymore.”
Nothing is hopeless anymore. In this strange, uncertain, nerve-racking time in our history, hope is a commodity for which we all hunger. We see so many images of evidence that we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world: the lines of people outside unemployment offices, the foreclosure signs on homes, the weeping faces of the relatives of those killed in Binghamton, New York last week, the rows of hundreds of coffins in L’Aquilla, Italy, during the funeral service conducted yesterday—many of them topped with tiny white coffins of children, the devastation of homes in Arkansas in Tennessee. And have you noticed the frequency of TV commercials that address teen suicide? Oh, we very much need this Easter Day and its message of hope!
But what is hope? It is not optimism. We are optimistic because things are going well and assume they will continue to do so. Hope does not rise from a pattern of success. Hope can spring forth in the midst of the worst kind of gloom. Hope does not arise from the situation itself but from something on the outside. Jesus did not raise himself, but “was raised” by God. Easter is a metaphor for hope because it promises that God will do for us what God has already done for Jesus. His resurrection two thousand years ago was not the end, but the first of many other resurrections to come.
Hope tells us that there is a power at work outside ourselves that will help us carry on. Hope gives us the capacity to struggle even when we’re not sure about the proximity of the light at the end of the tunnel.
The first witnesses of the resurrection were stunned by the loss of Jesus and paralyzed by fear. All of their normal expectations had been smashed like broken glass. The burial was not normal. Crucified criminals were rarely buried. An itinerant preacher would never have been entombed in a rich man’s grave. And now, very early on the first day of the week, they found the tomb empty.
What happened there that day? Transformation. Life changed everywhere and it eventually changed the world. Somehow Jesus had defeated death. And this transformation opens up the possibility that we can expect God’s presence in strange places and in unanticipated ways. What we need now in our nation and in the world is transformation—transformation of our hearts and spirits, our attitudes and priorities—transformation of our approach to life and our recognition of what is truly important in life.
The Reverend William Sloan Coffin, one time Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York City said “What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice. Justice is at the heart of religious faith. When we see Christ empowering the poor; scorning the powerful, healing the world’s hurts, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work.” That’s resurrection.
There are many people – right here in our own community – hungry for justice, hungry for healing, hungry for affirmation of their worth, hungry for relationship, hungry for employment, just hungry for food and for shelter. They are waiting for someone “to roll away the stone” to release them whatever it is that keeps them in the tomb. You and I can be the agents of resurrection by sharing from what God has given us. We can use our resources to move the stone that keeps people on the margins of life and withholds dignity and justice for the oppressed, proclaiming the power of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ by living into our own transformation.
Today we will say these ancient words once again: “We believe in Jesus Christ…who rose from the dead.” 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 God’s love rise in our hearts, every time we see Jesus in places where we did not recognize him, every time we accept a call to live life anew, every time raise up some person from the deep hole in his or her life, we have experienced the miracle of Easter—in fact, we are a part of it. On Easter, the words Jesus uttered from the cross on Good Friday, “It is finished,” becomes “Now it begins.” Christ is risen. And because of that truth we are able today to claim the blessing of new life, abundant life, life transformed.