One of our traditions greatest preachers began his Easter sermon with these words:
Are there any here who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any here who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any here this morning weary from fasting?
Let them now receive their due!
First and last alike, receive your reward.
Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day!
You who have kept the fast, and you who have not,
rejoice, this day, for the table is bountifully spread!
Feast royally, for the calf is fatted.
Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the banquet of faith.
Enjoy the bounty of the Lord’s goodness!
Let no one grieve being poor,
for the universal reign has been revealed.
Let no one lament persistent failings,
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the death of our Saviour has set us free.
The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.
The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encountering you below.”
Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed.
Hell was in turmoil having been mocked.
Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.
Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead.
For Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(From The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom)
It all sounds great but we get to wondering………Is it true? Did it really happen?
How can Christ be risen? How can hell and all the evil it represents be defeated – especially given the world we live in?
Of course it’s easy to just stuff those questions back down into that black box of things never to be dealt with, the issues of life and ourselves we don’t like much. But that doesn’t do our faith much justice, and it sure doesn’t do Jesus or Easter Sunday any justice.
No doubt we question because the Church doesn’t seem to. We’ve got the creeds that make it pretty matter of fact, “ On the third day he rose from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” We sing of resurrection in soaring hymns, and hoist empty crosses all over our church chancels. And we’ve got this seasonal spring fling, were we’ve been showing up on sugar highs, in new clothes, walking into flower bedecked buildings for as long as we can remember. We celebrate the resurrection sure enough, and it coupled with the tragic drama of Holy Week, can if we’ll let it provide some sort of meaning for our common human frailty and lives.
Trouble is, we present resurrection as the sort of event that ought to hit us square in the forehead. I just can’t remember, however, the last time that happened to me or anyone else for that matter. It seems like we have no context for resurrection. It’s like it doesn’t fit any of the spare compartments I’ve got left in my brain. And so the questions come.
The standing traditional joke about times like these is that when all else fails; you could actually open the bible and read it!
And it’s a funny tale you find there. At its heart the bible is about the relationship between human beings and God. A relationship defined mostly by freedom! You likely expected me to say something else – so let me explain.
Starts right there in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament; we’ve got God freely choosing to create the heavens and the earth and you and me. God didn’t have to create the world you know, God could still be God without us. We learn some things about God in creation – God was lonely and so created us, God became vulnerable in creation through giving us freedom, and God loves us in and through creation.
Lots of folks have trouble with God’s love. They’d prefer just about any other relationship with God: master-slave, leader-followers, doctor-patient, expert-beneficiary, helper-helped, parent-child. Trouble is none of those relationships require love. God could have chosen any of those means to relate to us – God chose love. And for love to be real there can be no coercion, no forcing – love to be love must be freely given and freely received.
The bible tells of Jesus freely giving up his life for us – motivated by love. And what but love motivated God to resurrect the Son? Easter is the grand display of God’s love, and of God’s ultimate freedom in creation to love as God chooses to. The church was meant to be a place where we gather to learn to love as God loves. But that’s hard. And so for too many of us faith was taught not as love and freedom but as a bunch of rules to follow; morality and faith got all mixed up in a rather toxic stew.
That’s how we get preachers and people who scream out it’s wrong to kill a fetus, but they’ve no problem with the death penalty. People who express admiration for businessmen who pray aloud before their lunch meetings and then go back to their desks to rip off whoever they can for however much they can. Or this pearl of man who sits as a judge in one of the Southern United States, he finds himself presiding over a lawsuit brought by the United Farm Workers against a multinational corporation. In the midst of his testimony a witness for the Union finds himself being dressed down like a first grader for saying “For God’s sake.” I will not tolerate such blasphemous language in my court room bellows the judge. Later in his private chambers, he tells the following joke: “ Do you know how to make a (you can insert whatever group of people you feel the need to put down this morning) omelet? Well, first you have to steal three eggs. . . . .The judge is a good Christian man they say – trouble is his Christianity got all messed up with a bunch of rules – he keeps the rules as he sees them – trouble is he seems to have forgotten about love for his fellow human being.
The good news on Easter Sunday morning is that God – unlike the good judge – hasn’t forgot to love humankind in all of our created diversity. Resurrection has to be the great affirmation of God’s love for us all – if it’s anything at all.
And you know, there is one interesting thing about the stories of the resurrection that we should note; they all follow pretty much the same pattern: there is a brief announcement (Jesus is risen, he’s not here ), and then some allusions to the church’s common life – to preaching, Lord’s Suppers, forgiveness, shared life in faith, a sense of ‘calling’ and all of them pretty much incorporate a “go tell!” somebody commissioned to go and do something! It’s why it always strikes me odd that when we do something new around the church so many people get upset. I guess some folks are just more comfortable with death than they are with resurrection!
I think the gospel writers knew right well what they were doing when they wrote their respective tracts. There is an appeal being made here – it’s in the details –– you have to look for them . In life Jesus preached, taught, forgave sins. In life he commissioned his disciples, broke bread with them at table, and formed a common life with them – he hung out with them. And in the wake of Good Friday and the empty tomb this morning the followers of Jesus discovered the sense that these same activities were taking place among again in community; what once had been the work of Jesus alone was happening again amongst them all.
So the early Christians proclaimed Christ risen, and, at the same time, they were surprised to find his life and purpose continuing. So in the end, what we’ve got in the gospels are resurrection stories scribbled between confessions of faith and an astonished self-awareness amongst Jesus’ followers – his life was forming, his presence was once again in their common life together.
And that may not sound so exciting. But it really is the truth of the resurrection. It’s a truth discovered when we break the bread of Eucharist, when the Good News is preached, where sins are forgiven, children and adults are Baptized and when the stories of the church are told – the ones in the Bible – and the legends of the place.
The amazing thing about this day might be: that you and I can dare to name these things to each other as the work of the Risen Christ among us. And we can sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” and mean it for right here right now! Jesus Christ is Risen!
But you want to say can’t be – not here – not in Toronto – not at stuffy old St. Margaret’s. The preachers had too much chocolate this morning! Just give me a chance though.
Flip the pages of Paul’s letters and what do you find ? Conflict in the church in Corinth, intellectual corruption in Galatia, what we would call new-age nonsense in Colossae, and in general a whole lot of simple heresy, infighting, and pettiness. It drove poor old St. Paul crazy and his reply to it all went something like this,
“ Not many of you folks are smart, not many of us are V.I.P.’s, there is not a lotto 649 winner amongst us.” But here is the kick, St. Paul says to us, our all too human shortcomings and failures are really a gift, because they let us spot our Lord Jesus Christ Risen and at work among us every time we rise above ourselves.
So when new possibilities dawn on us, when we catch glimpses of higher and greater things here on earth. When the unexplainable things happen in our lives, when we dream dreams of loved ones who’ve died, when we catch the smell of something familiar in the air, when you’re talking to a friend and the hair all stands up on your neck for no obvious reason and you know you should be listening and noticing everything in that minute. When something inside us says no – I can’t do that, not now, not anymore. It’s then, in those moments and encounters, when we can proclaim with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – “ He is risen !”
Now not all of us are good at being present for that kind of thing – maybe we can’t just say we’ve had any kind of experience we’d care to call religious. For us maybe it’s enough to remember what Jesus said to Thomas: “ Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And that’s every bit as true as the resurrection we celebrate this day.
And there is one more critical thing about this day that has to be said. Easter isn’t simply about our on going experience of Jesus. The Easter gospel is the account of vindication, of God’s “yes” to Jesus.
The world; political, social and religious all proclaimed Jesus guilty, wrong, misguided, and dangerous. God’s answer was to raise Jesus to his right hand, to make him Lord. And lest we forget how Jesus died, the Easter stories in John and Luke, remind us that the risen Jesus still carries the wounds inflicted by the world that killed him.
In the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth God says to you and I: Jesus is Lord, and the lords of this world are not. What Jesus preached is the truth and not the conventional wisdom of this age. The poor, the outcast, and the sinner – no matter who they might be – are part of the kingdom of God’s love just as surely as you and I hope to be. And on goes the story of Jesus, what he taught, what he dreamed, and how he lived and loved. On goes that story in us. And that is the real miracle of Easter; that God in Jesus would love us and choose us – as unworthy and as unlikely as we are – to make his love present and known in the world today.
Jesus Christ is Risen today – and the miracle and proof of Easter is sitting in the pew beside, in front and behind you ! We and our ordinary church and our less than saintly lives are the canvas on which Jesus is Risen and present. And I know that’s a lot to believe; Jesus present in you and I – but I ask you – is it any less hard than believing in an empty tomb !
Truth is there would be no Easter without both – our experience of and faith in a Risen Lord – and the empty tomb we celebrate this day. Who would have thought it – the miracle of Easter – you and me – and this Church of ours warts and all. It truly is amazing.
But then again Easter is about surprises – empty tombs – faithful, ordinary folks – and a humble carpenter, his teaching, life and stubborn faith all of it caught up in God’s dream for this world, this place and time, you and me. We are all God’s Easter miracle.
If only we could believe that – we’d change the world !
After all Jesus did – and Jesus is Risen – in you and in me !