Defined by grace and mercy
I preached at all three services this morning at Christ Church in Glendale, OH. Since several people asked me about my sermon, I have decided to post it here. Perhaps it will offer a word that’s helpful. The primary text is John 20:1-18.
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
There is great danger lurking among us this morning. It’s not a great physical danger, but rather a spiritual danger. We run the risk today of domesticating the shocking proclamation of Easter amidst our familiar and comfortable traditions. We must never let lilies or new Easter clothes or beloved music get in the way of what this day celebrates. As much as we love all these things, they are not the point. They are meant to help us celebrate the point.
The shocking and world-changing truth that we celebrate is this: a man named Jesus willingly offered himself for us, going to death for our sake. That man Jesus was executed like a common criminal and buried in a tomb. He was fully and completely dead, not just kind of dead. And then, on the third day, he was raised to new life. He was fully alive, not just kind of alive. Jesus did not emerge from the tomb as a zombie, and he most certainly did not live on as a mere metaphor.
But how do we know this? It seems difficult to believe, and if we aren’t struggling to comprehend what happened that first Easter Day some 2,000 years ago, we might not be taking it seriously.
How can we confidently say that Jesus died and rose?
For one thing, we have scriptures — written by several authors, some within 20 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even skeptics of the Christian faith generally agree on the antiquity and authenticity of scriptures.
To be sure, no one has unearthed a plaque from ancient Jerusalem, and it all happened twenty centuries too early to have Instagrams. But we do have some evidence that aligns with what the scriptures record. If you travel to Jerusalem, you can visit the places where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. A few years ago, archeologists examined the place where tradition says Jesus was buried. Sure enough, scientists could confirm that it is a tomb hewn in the first century. What archeological evidence we have lines up with what we should expect to find.
But there is a better way to know that Jesus rose from the dead. Almost immediately, those who called Jesus Lord were willing to die for their faith. People twenty centuries ago were not simpletons. No one would have died cheerfully for an idle cause or a metaphor. They knew that Jesus had utterly conquered death, and so they did not fear to die.
That is what Easter is about. In the events of the cross and the empty tomb, we see that death and evil are utterly defeated. No power in this world is stronger than God’s love, not even death.
But still, what if we struggle to believe this? What if we struggle to know how to live in light of the fact of God’s sovereign love? We are not alone.
Among others, we are in good company with those to lived with Jesus. Mary Magdalene struggled to make meaning of the empty tomb, and she didn’t recognize Jesus at first. If you read the Gospels and Acts, you’ll see a theme: the disciples — people who were closest to Jesus, saw him perform miracles, and even heard him promise he would be raised on the third day — often failed to recognize him after the resurrection. They just couldn’t fit this new reality into their minds.
Here Mary Magdalene is our example. She went to the tomb that first Easter to care for the body of her Teacher and Lord. Not finding him, she quite understandably struggled to comprehend what had taken place. That would happen to any of us, too! But then she met Jesus. Amidst the chaos and sorrow, he was there. And as he called her by name, she recognized her Lord. She then became the first witness of the resurrection, the Apostle to the Apostles, when she told the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
She doubts. She wonders. She finds Jesus. And she proclaims Good News. We should do the same thing when we are lost. We can doubt. We can wonder. We can find Jesus. And we ought then, like Mary Magdalene, proclaim the Good News.
We can meet Jesus. St. Matthew tells us that when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit prisoners, we are doing these things for Christ himself. We meet him here, every week, when we receive him in the Holy Eucharist. We see him in this place, because the church is the gathered body of Christ. Amidst the chaos and sorrow of our world, Jesus is here.
When you are lost or when you doubt, come here and meet your Lord. Be nourished by the sacraments, refreshed by God’s word, and encouraged by his body, the church. Come and meet Jesus, and then join Mary Magdalene in saying, “I have seen the Lord.”
Jesus died and was raised 2,000 years ago, and he is here with us today. Death and evil have been vanquished. But you may well wonder how I can stand here in the pulpit say death and evil are vanquished given all that’s happening in the world today. It’s a faithful and necessary question.
Death is defeated not in the sense that there is no death, but rather that death does not have the last word. The end of our earthly life is not the end of our lives. We can have confidence in eternal life, no matter how short or long we enjoy this earthly life.
Evil is defeated because evil never gets the last word. The mighty Roman Empire did its best to extinguish perfect love on the Cross, and yet Jesus walked out of the tomb to proclaim grace and mercy. Grace and mercy got the last word.
Let’s be clear about our world today. For those who follow Jesus Christ, our world is not defined by violence and hatred. Our world is not defined by the very wealthy who exploit others for their own gain. Our world is not defined by lies. Our world is not defined by human-made divisions among people along lines of race, or sexuality, or gender, or any other way people are sinfully divided. We should see and celebrate the diversity of ways God has made us in his own image, but we should never believe the lie that some are less than others because of the way they are made. We must not let our world be defined by those who would divide us and set one over another.
Instead, our world is defined by a God who has loved us since the foundation of the world, who loves us now, and who will love us for all time. Our heavenly Father sent his Son into the world to live as one of us, to die for us, and to be raised to new life. In Jesus Christ, death is defeated. Evil never has the last word. Grace and mercy always, in the end, prevail.
My friends in Christ, our world is defined by grace and mercy. That is the Good News of this Easter Day.
When we see hatred, division, exploitation, lies, or violence, we can and should resist them knowing that God has our back. We can be confident that God knows our sorrows and never abandons us. All of us who are baptized are buried with Christ in his death and raised with him to new life.
When Jesus was lowered from the Cross, it might have looked for a moment like death and sin had triumphed. But when Jesus walked out of the tomb, when Christ was risen, so too grace and mercy were raised up. Christ is risen, love is risen.
The Lord of life has put death to flight. The Lord of love has redeemed us from sin. The Lord of hope is among us.
We have seen the Lord, alleluia.
If you are looking for more Eastertide content, please check out my book: Easter Triumph, Easter Joy: Meditations for the Fifty Days of Eastertide. You can buy the paper book from Forward Movement or Amazon, or you can get instant gratification on Kindle.