— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Easter Sunday ~~~
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
It had been a very painful, mournful week. The extended family gathered for breakfast as usual on the High Holy Days – bread, cheese, hot tea were the luxuries they could afford. Aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers… arrived and could only say things like – “Can you believe it?” and “We took this all for granted and now it is gone…” and “Will we ever be the same again?” Breakfast for this poor family on this particular holy day was somber. Grief filled the room and overcame even the smell of dark, strong tea and recently baked bread. It was the morning after death.
Then, breathlessly, through the door came the three aunts who had gone to the site to pray. “You will not believe what has happened? The barriers are down! The guards are gone!
There were two men dressed in all white who told us the news. We went in to see for ourselves.” The family was anxious to hear what had caused delirium in these pious women. “We thought you just went to pray and grieve?” The aunts replied, “We did, but when we got there nothing was as we expected.”
Aunt Mary told the story… “It was restored, resurrected! You could still see the burn marks on the ceiling, but it was all just as it was! The church spire was back up like it never had fallen into the nave. The thorny crown was back where it had been. We could walk in and pray like we have done all our lives. It’s like Notre Dame rose from the ashes! It’s a miracle! In three days the whole cathedral has been raised to new life!”
Cousin Pete jumped up to run from the house to the cathedral to see if what his aunts had told him was true. The rest of us felt a little sorry for our aunts who, in their extreme grief over the fire, had become delusional. Their story was an idle tale at best.
Confusing, right? What would you think if you lived in Paris and on Sunday morning members of your family came rushing into your brunch to say it was all restored? President Macron has made an ambitious commitment that Notre Dame will be restored within five years. Three days, impossible! Right?
The least confusing thing about the resurrection story – in all the ways it is told in the gospels, and there is quite a variety in the ways that it is told – is that the story was considered by those who first heard it to be an idle tale. Resurrection – Jesus being raised from the dead – is confusing and disorienting.
Death unites us; death is the one thing from which none of us escapes. When we go to a grave-side it is death that we are engaging, not an empty tomb, not a raised body. Of course it would be confusing and disorienting to find resurrection instead of death.
The resurrection of Jesus may not be so disorienting to us now after two thousand years of telling, re-telling the story… it’s as common for us now as Easter eggs and chocolate. But whatever happened that day so long ago would be akin to finding Notre Dame fully restored and opened for prayers and worship on this Easter Sunday.
Lest we forget, the gospel writers had difficulty with telling this story. They each told it differently. It was a confusing story to tell. Frederick Buechner captures some of the diverging points brought out in the telling of the story by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He has written:
The Gospels are far from clear as to just what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had been rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man she thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came, too, with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that there were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of “fear and great joy.” Confusion was everywhere. There is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did he say? What did he do? (From Whistling in the Dark by Frederick Buechner).
Here’s the point…whatever happened, however it happened, and just what it all means are questions of faith and our answers should be infused with humility and wonder before the great mystery that is God’s abiding love for all the world that cannot be buried. Our answers, however humble and acknowledging of the mystery of it all, have the power to change our lives.
The resurrection of Jesus is not a trivial matter, an idle tale, a casual belief. We might say to someone who asks if we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus – “Sure, sure I do.” But in our minds we are wondering about our stock portfolio, our tee time, our political candidate, our clothes, our reputation… We can accept as a doctrine, as a propositional matter, that Jesus was raised from the dead and then move on to things in our lives that really matter to us.
[If you receive the White Country News you may have noticed a page length advertisement on the back page of the A section of the paper. At the top it said: “Easter Sale” and then went on to explain how there will be 20% off men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, mattresses, furniture, appliances, and guns on Friday and Saturday…then in the middle of the full page there are pictures of eleven different kinds of guns – handguns, long guns, automatic weapons. The ad is completed at the bottom of the page with Matthew 28:6 – He is Risen just as He said.]
Resurrection as a statement of belief can matter very little to us and have little to no impact on how we live our lives.
Resurrection understood as God’s unrelenting love for a broken world is a radical thing to accept. Resurrection fully embraced re-orients our lives. To embrace resurrection is to embrace a God who suffers with and for those who are broken, oppressed, heavy laden with guilt and shame. To embrace resurrection faith is to accept that we are reconciled to God and we are called toward reconciliation with neighbors near and far. Resurrection is God’s never-ceasing, all-excelling, steadfast love!
Resurrection is divine love that cannot be silenced.
Resurrection is divine love that can be rejected but cannot be killed.
Resurrection is divine love that will not stay buried.
When I was transferring my ordination from the United Methodist Church into the Presbyterian Church (USA) I had to meet with the Committee on Ministry to be examined in my beliefs. Mr. SmithT – a name I did not know existed; Smiths who decided to differentiate from other Smiths by adding a T on the end of their name – anyway, Mr. SmithT, the father of a casual friend of mine, who had warned me that her father had a rather gruff nature and was living with a certain anger about the direction of the PCUSA, was on the committee and he asked me in the meeting if I believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Mr. SmithT – I think now – was representing a political wing of the church and felt obligated to carry a certain banner with him when entering into these types of meetings. His question was a litmus test he felt compelled to ask. I now have some sympathy for Mr. SmithT because I, too, have been expected to carry, unquestioningly, certain banners every now and again.
Anyway, Mr. SmithT was looking for a one word answer. He was not looking for a theological or spiritual explanation of what it might mean to say one believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Mr. SmithT wanted me to check a box. Well, I can check boxes with the best of them, and I truly was just trying to make it through this meeting and be approved so I could go onto work in a congregation where we would wrestle honestly with what it means to follow the crucified and risen Lord. I wanted to make it through the meeting and prevent Mr. SmithT from throwing up a road block to my transfer, but I could not bring myself to give a simple “yes” for an answer.
My answer was not much more than a simple “yes” and it was enough to get me through the committee with a vote of approval (not sure how Mr. SmithT voted?). I said in response to the question about the bodily resurrection of Jesus – “If God can create the world out of nothing then God can raise a man from the dead.”
The longer I have lived and have sought to live my life following the crucified and risen Lord, my answers to such questions have become a lot more conversational. I want to explore the nuances and the impact on my life that acknowledging the resurrection of Jesus has. I want to hear what difference it makes to others. How has believing that Jesus was raised from the dead changed your life, my life? Does such a believe mean that life changes in some ways?
Now, let me say this…I could have given a one word answers to the following questions if these were the ones Mr. SmithT had asked. I invite you to consider your own answers:
Do you believe God loves the world?
Do you believe God loves all people?
Do you believe God’s love can be rejected
but not finally extinguished?
Do you believe God’s love is steadfast and
will always rise up from the many ways we try to bury it?
And finally and maybe most importantly…
Are you willing to let this resurrection love guide your life?
If your answers to these questions are “yes”
then I say you and I are followers
of the Crucified and Risen Lord who goes before us;
The Lord who says to us –
Peace be with you.