Sermon for Easter
April 01, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
This winter tested us, well, most of us; there were a few fortunate souls from this part of the world who waited out the season in warm places… and Jesus loves them very much. The rest of us had to get by with our resolve, our ingenuity, our strong spirits. But then, for many of us, right around the time we were told to expect a fourth nor’easter, those things started to stretch thin, wear out, or break down entirely, and all we had left was hope. Even those who suffered the worst seasonal despair could cling to a calendar and know, for certain, that warmer weather would come, even when there were no signs of it anywhere we could see. And our hope gave us enough courage to persevere, and find grace.
The passion and death of Jesus left no hope for his followers or friends. We know this because they acted like people without hope. Peter said he didn’t even know him. They got scared, ran away, and hid. Those dreadful, terrifying events hit them like a winter storm, but with no expectation of a thaw. Nothing Jesus had said, none of their memories of him, counted for anything while he lay in the tomb. There had been other teachers, leaders, heroes, and more would come, and go. Some of them claimed to have special relationships with God; some were known as miracle workers. All had their followers, for a time, but now their names are forgotten, or perhaps known only to historians of the ancient Near East. If Jesus had stayed dead, he would have joined them in obscurity, at best.
Mary Magdalene loved Jesus so much that, like a driver setting out in a blizzard, she went to the tomb of Jesus, walking through the city that had been clamoring for his death just two days before. Perhaps that’s why she went out so early, hoping only that no one would bother her. All she hoped to find there was a dead man. Instead, she met the living God.
The empty tomb alone would have been enough evidence to give some people hope that death had not gotten the final word. Encountering angels and hearing their message would convince most people of the fact. But Jesus wants more than for us to believe in his resurrection. Jesus wants to meet us in his resurrection, so that he can make us like him. Just as he always had, Jesus wants an active, living, transformational relationship with us, not our passive assent to ideas about him.
That doesn’t mean that correct doctrine is unimportant. His followers and even his enemies called him “teacher,” so I should make that clear. John’s Gospel, in particular, which had emphasized Jesus’s divinity so thoroughly up to this point, now goes out of its way to emphasize his tangible, bodily resurrection, and his ongoing relationship with his followers. In their turn, all the apostles proclaimed the same message, even though they argued about everything else, and even though proclaiming his resurrection brought them scorn, ostracism, and death. They all stood firm, their fear transformed into courage by their encounters with the risen Christ.
When God deems us ready: we too will be raised, not as ephemeral spirits, but as whole people who live and relate the only way we can: in our bodies. Flesh was good enough for God to take on in the first place, precious enough that its death could break the bonds of sin, overthrow death, and liberate the captives of hell. If Jesus had not returned in the flesh, it would mean that a part of him was still dead, that his victory was incomplete and death still got a say in the ways of God. The God I know was not about to let that happen. Jesus’s resurrected body defies our expectations and defeats our fears by being incorruptible, no longer limited or vulnerable. So too will we be. And so even now with our mere foretaste of the kingdom of God, our lives are renewed by hope, which gives us courage.
Living in the Christian hope means living with the same boldness with which the eyewitnesses to the resurrection and their successors lived. Jesus told that first eyewitness, Mary Magdalene, not to cling to him, not because he had stopped loving her, but because he was calling her to carry out a mission of proclamation, to tell their mutual friends what had happened, and what would happen next. The fact that Jesus asked Mary to tell the guys, and not the other way ’round, shows us that as much as he loved them, Jesus knew whom he needed to count on to get the job done. The guys might well have gotten into an argument over who saw Jesus first — and the story of Peter and John racing to the tomb suggests that’s exactly what happened — but Mary Magdalene understood what was really important: proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord.”
Do celebrate today, for God has done so much that is worthy of celebration. But also participate in the relationship that Jesus urgently invites us into with his resurrection. Expect to find him in unexpected places, both inside and outside, both in clamor and in stillness. Greet him with joy and thanksgiving for his almighty grace. And proclaim his resurrection, both with your lips and with your lives, as a people reborn in hope. For we who have set our hope on Christ no longer need to fear anything, for our ancient enemies have been vanquished. We have seen the Lord; he is alive, he is risen, and he dwells in us, and we in him. As Saint John Chrysostom put it,
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
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.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!