Easter Day April 12, 2009

Acts 10:34-43

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

When I was a little boy our family went to the Unitarian Church. In a lot of ways it was a good religious beginning for me. I learned to love and honor God’s creation, to respect other people and their beliefs, to value justice and peace, and maybe most of all to appreciate the importance of rational thought. Unitarianism, at least in its American form, grew up with our Nation in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was about casting off the superstitions and hierarchies of the Old World and building a New World based on enlightened values. But one thing we didn’t have at the Unitarian church, at least the one my family went to, was Easter. We had Jesus; he was a good man, a wise teacher, an example for life—like Moses, the Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But he was not the Son of God and he did not rise from the dead. Those were just myths, and belonged to a primitive past we enlightened Unitarians had moved beyond. What we had instead of Easter was Flower Sunday, on which everyone brought a flower from their garden and added it to a huge vase at the front of the church and then, at the end of the service, took home one of the flowers someone else had brought. Flower Sunday was about spring and new life, and about community and sharing—a Unitarian Easter. I always looked forward to it, and tried to bring home a bigger and better flower than the one I had taken.

All of this was back in the years right after World War II. Having just defeated Nazism and fascism and looking forward to peace and prosperity under Dwight D. Eisenhower, I suppose the grownups in the Flower Sunday congregation could be forgiven for believing that their enlightened, rationalistic faith would be adequate to the challenges of life. It was President Eisenhower, after all, who made the famous statement that, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief—and I don’t care what it is.”*

 

There could hardly be a sharper contrast with what we are here this morning to celebrate. Our gospel account of the first Easter is from Mark, the earliest of the four gospels to be written. Chapter 16, verses 1 through 8 is the original ending of Mark. Later on people tacked on a few additional verses about appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. But what we just heard is the earliest account of what happened that Sunday morning some 2000 years ago.

 

Three women, followers of Jesus, have gone to the tomb where his body was laid before sundown Friday—the intervening day being the Jewish Sabbath, when no work could be done. The women have come with spices and oils to embalm the body. It seems to be the task of women through history to do the practical things, pick up the pieces, and this is what these three are about. The male disciples, Peter and the others, are back behind locked doors in the city, grieving the loss of their leader and his cause and scared to death that they will be arrested next. The women have a practical worry: how will they roll away the stone sealing the mouth of the tomb?

 

But exactly there the practical, the rational, is broken off—broken off in a shocking, reality-reversing way. There is no stone, there is no body. Where the body lay there is a strange young man in white—an angel? a symbolic neophyte, dressed in baptismal robe, pointing forwards to the community that would form around the Resurrection?† And this young man bids the women to tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus has risen and has “gone ahead of them” to Galilee, where they will see him.

 

So we have this, and then the final sentence of Mark’s gospel: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The original Greek text ends with the word gar, meaning “for”—a breaking off in mid-sentence, because Greek syntax would never end with gar.

 

So here is our first Easter: broken off in mid-sentence so to speak, in terror and amazement, fear and silence. Nothing could be farther, could it, from Flower Sunday? We are offered nothing nice, nothing rational or enlightened, nothing that can easily be blended with the way we customarily think and live our lives. Instead we have this raw reversal, this monstrous fact. This event we so inadequately call the Resurrection.

 

One of the great bishops of the Second Vatican Council, Leo Joseph Suenens of Belgium, once said that Christians should live lives that make sense only if Jesus died and rose again for the salvation of the world. Reason, enlightenment, the values of civilization carry us only so far. Two generations have passed since a little boy carried his flower home from Flower Sunday. The world has not got easier or better. Even the best and the brightest of human beings cannot save us. That little boy has come to realize: we can only be saved by God.

 

And so we gather once more this Easter morning to stand in awe and worship before a greater and deeper Mystery—and act not of human beings, but of God. We cannot explain what happened that first Easter. It transcends our human categories. We cannot translate the Resurrection into easy terms. We cannot unpack the Resurrection. The Resurrection unpacks us. Our only response can be to commit ourselves anew to live our lives as best we can in ways that only make sense if Jesus died and rose again for the salvation of the world. Through us, as Easter people, God can yet save the world.

 

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*Quoted in Terry Eagleton, “Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terror,” Commonweal, March 27, 2009. The statement by Cardinal Suenens later in this sermon is paraphrased from memory; I would be grateful to anyone who could provide the original.

†Mark’s gospel is full of “pairings.” Scholars have suggested that the young man in white at the tomb is a “pair” with the young man who ran away naked, slipping out of his tunic when it was grasped by one of the temple police, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:52). We remember that baptisms in the early Church were by immersion. Candidates were stripped of their old “worldly” garments, baptized, and clothed with new garments of white (the ancestors of the white albs clergy wear today, and of white christening gowns). So this “pairing” is a beautiful symbolic pointer towards baptism as the entry into the risen Easter life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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