A sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT on Easter Day 2013.
Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
It would be easy to pick on the various people in the Gospels who have trouble believing in the Resurrection of Jesus. But the truth is, I have a lot of sympathy with their reaction. The scriptures use gentle words like “perplexed” to describe the reaction of the women who entered the tomb and found it empty. I can assure you, if that had been me, “perplexed” is not the word that would describe my reaction.
In the next verse following today’s Gospel reading, the disciples dismiss the witnesses of the Resurrection, because they think the Resurrection is an “idle tale.” After all, everyone knows that’s not how the world is supposed to work.
Easter has an uphill battle in our world. Not only do we have skeptics, but we have the attempts of consumer culture to take over Easter. Plenty of preachers will, this morning, be lamenting the commercialization of Easter, but I don’t mind that too much. For one thing, I love the candy. Anyone who was in the sacristy last night will have seen me dive for the jelly beans after we celebrated Easter at the Great Vigil.
But I also suspect that in stores everywhere across the country, little children ask their parents about the bunnies, the jelly beans, and the eggs, and there is an opportunity tell a tiny part of the Good News of Jesus Christ, even in Walgreens’ aisle #4.
I don’t think this whole Easter business is very easy to believe. It seems to me that one reason it’s hard for us to believe because we have domesticated Easter, even here in church. We gather and sing well-known hymns. We look for our favorite flowers and beloved rituals. We crave the familiar in a story that rejects everything familiar, right down to the laws of science.
You see, at its core, today we celebrate the scandalous idea that a dead person came back to life. And Jesus wasn’t just “kind of” dead. He was stone cold, really, truly dead. Not breathing, no heartbeat. Dead.
On the third day, he was raised to life again. He didn’t just “kind of” come back to life. This is not a zombie story! Jesus returned to teach his followers. He ate. He breathed. He was alive.
It seems to me that St. Luke could have been talking about us with his lines about perplexity or the idle tale. You see, I worry that it’s tempting for us Christians to stop with the idea, admittedly mind-blowing, that Jesus died and was raised to new life. We mentally check off this notion, and then never grapple with it.
There will be no show of hands, but my guess is that there are at least a few people here who, like I have at times, struggle with what Easter proclaims. I have some good news about the Good News.
It’s not easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Once I learned to read the scriptures more carefully, I began to understand that any attempt to make this all easy — whether it’s the Easter story or the Christian life — is doomed from its inception. Be wary of people with easy answers.
Yes, the scriptures say, Jesus was alive again. Jesus invited Thomas to put his hands into his wounds. He ate fish. But then again, Jesus appeared inside a locked room. One time he walked alongside his closest friends for a while and they did not recognize him. Jesus was surely raised to new life, but in his new life, he was different. Figuring all this out will take any of us at least a lifetime, and thanks to be God, we get fifty days to celebrate this great and joyous mystery.
St. Peter is one of my favorites. I love the fact that he messes up so many times, and he keeps trying. I also love that Jesus never gives up on him. It’s pretty encouraging to think that we can mess up pretty badly, and it’s still OK to follow Jesus. It’s a massive relief to know that Jesus won’t give up on us.
Just two days ago, on Good Friday, we heard how Peter betrayed Jesus three times the night Jesus was arrested. And, still, Peter is with Jesus’ followers when they learn that something amazing has happened. Two verses after our Gospel reading, we learn that Peter, upon hearing this almost unbelievable news, “got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in.”
Peter wondered if this extraordinary news could be true, and he went and did something. I don’t think we could hope for a better model.
If you ever wonder about the extraordinary and almost unbelievable Good News that Christians proclaim, Peter shows the way. It’s perfectly fine to get up and run to a church and look in. See what is revealed here. See how Christ is made real for us in bread and in wine. See how the Good News is proclaimed in word and deed. See how the people in church keep trying, even after they mess up. And if we’re honest, we all have our moments of struggle in faith, whether you have been coming to church every Sunday since you were born, or whether you are the person who is in church today for the first time ever.
Guess what, it’s not easy. Jesus never says it’s easy to be a Christian, and in fact he spends most of his time saying just the opposite. It’s a tough road. Easter, the central proclamation of the Christian faith, is not all that easy, if we peer past the flowers and banners.
But, here’s the thing. Jesus never gives up on us. Somehow, the early church got this into the fiber of its being, and a few dozen people changed the world. A few followers of Jesus, believing in the extraordinary events of the resurrection, became fearless. They shared this Good News of a God who never stops seeking our salvation, of a God who won’t even let death get between us and him.
Today is the first of fifty days to celebrate and even dive into the mystery of Easter. What happened on Easter morning was not just an isolated miracle. The empty tomb shows that God’s love is stronger than death, stronger than anything. A few dozen followers of Jesus proclaimed that faith and changed the world. Even today, Christian do extraordinary things when they are filled with Easter faith.
Easter faith comes about when we begin to believe that God’s love is stronger than death, when we act as if what we believe is true.
A few years ago, I heard Canon Andrew White, often called the Vicar of Baghdad, speak. He’s the priest in Iraq, in a parish where it is dangerous to be a Christian. Canon White told us that one year, several adults asked to be baptized. After preparation, they were baptized. Within a year, they were all dead, martyrs for the faith. When it was time the next year, a new crop of people begged for baptism, though they knew the dangers. That is Easter faith.
Look at reconciliation that has come in South Africa and Northern Ireland. That is Easter faith. Look at people who give sacrificially of their time and money for the welfare of others. That is Easter faith. Look at broken relationships made whole. That is Easter faith. Look at Christ made real in the sacraments. That is Easter faith. It’s not easy, but Easter faith is life-changing and world-changing when we manage to get it right.
The Good News is that God’s love is stronger than death. The next bit of good news is that we have a lifetime to figure out what that means and how to live in response. And, finally, there are plenty of companions here for the Christian journey. No one has to be a Christian alone.
There are a lot of ways to practice the Easter faith, and not all of them involve dangerous risk. The father of one of my friends answers his phone a bit differently in the Easter season. If you call his house this time of year, you won’t hear hello. Every time he picks up the phone, he says “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” I bet he has some great conversations about the Good News.
I hope we will all celebrate the next fifty days of Easter with reckless joy and boundless love. That would be a pretty good start to a life of Easter faith.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!