Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day April 24, 2011

Acts 10:34-43                                                                      

Colossians 3:1-4                                                                  

John 20:1-18

On all the Easter Days before I was ordained, when I sat where you sit, listening to Easter sermons rather than preaching them, I always came to church with one great question: Will this fellow, the preacher, say that he believes this stuff – really believes – or will he waffle? Will he (it was always a he in those long ago days) just go on about new life and new energy, resurrection as metaphor or image or inspiring story? Or will he say, Jesus really rose from the dead, the tomb was really empty, he really appeared to his disciples, this stupendous and supernatural thing really happened, and I, preacher man, really believe it, really stake my life on it? Which kind of sermon am I going to hear? Coming to church like you, that was always the question I had in my mind.

So this is my last Easter sermon, probably the last one I will ever preach, and I want to tell you right up front that I really believe this stuff – that it really happened, empty tomb, bodily resurrection, miraculous appearances and all. I really believe it, and I really stake my life on it. So there you have it, and the rest of what I’m about to say is all by way of explaining what I’ve just confessed.

Let me begin by telling you that my journey to “really believing” has been a long and gradual one. I started life, was baptized, as a Presbyterian, the faith of my Scotch Irish father’s family. When it came time for Sunday school, my parents took me to the Presbyterian Sunday school, but after the first week I refused to go back because the children there ate paste. (That was in the days of that white library paste made of flour and water. I must have been a fastidious little three-year old prig.) So my parents switched to the Unitarian church (on such things is the spiritual life determined!), where Jesus was just one of many wise liberal teachers, along with figures like Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, and indeed might never really even have existed – like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. At the Unitarian church we didn’t have Easter, we had flower Sunday. You brought a flower from your garden, put it in a big bowl at the church door, and took someone else’s flower home with you. Nice, but safe.

So it was later on, and gradually, that I began to learn who Jesus really was and what the Bible said, and other historical documents pointed to, and all the rich traditions and customs that together make up orthodox Christian faith and practice. And what I learned was that the Resurrection wasn’t just a nice story that the Church concocted on top of all the teachings of the historical Jesus, a sort of mythical summing up of the wise teacher. The Resurrection was the starting point for it all. Without the Resurrection, there would be no Christianity, no Church. The very earliest believers in Jesus believed in him because they actually experienced these things, actually experienced Jesus risen from the dead. They preserved all his teachings and doings and wrote the New Testament because they knew Jesus to have risen again, not the other way around.

That’s hard for rational modern people like us to come to terms with. We don’t have supernatural imaginations. We’re tied to the prove-it world of here and now. And it has its problems. To believe it, you have to believe that God is a God who sometimes really does intervene in natural events in a supernatural way. Not often, but sometimes. And that belief can have a downside. You can end up thinking this is the only way God works. I remember a woman in a previous parish whose family had lost all its money and whose husband was a drunk and unemployed. This woman needed to get off her bottom and get a job. But she just kept praying that God would somehow save her – do another empty tomb trick. So believing in a God who can do supernatural things can lead us into a spiritual passivity where our faith is centered only on praying for God to work magic tricks in our personal lives.

But the answer here is that when you look at God’s supernatural interventions in the Bible, you see that they all evoke responses from people. God does something and then people do something in response. It’s not isolated magic tricks. It’s partnership events. It’s more like lighting a fire or wind blowing on the sail of a boat – which is maybe why fire and wind are symbols of the Holy Spirit. God starts something, but that something then picks up, carries on, expands.

So with Easter, Resurrection doesn’t end with the empty tomb and Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden. Easter begins with these supernatural interventions by God. The rest of Easter, which we will get to in the weeks to come (remember that Easter in the Church goes on for fifty days), involves people reacting, people picking up the ball, people moving out from their own tombs of fear, their own doubt and disbelief, to become a worldwide movement. It’s like the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe: it’s still going on, still expanding. As I like to say, Easter begins back 2,000 years ago with Jesus at the tomb and expands outward to Pentecost, to the coming of the Holy Spirit, to today and to us. The real Easter is in the future.

So in that sense, the preachers who talk about Easter as metaphor or image or inspiring story are right. (And I want to be clear that I don’t think you have to believe in a “literal” or “real” Resurrection to be a Christian. It’s a big tent; at least Anglicanism is.) For Easter to be really real, it can’t remain just the supernatural beginning; it has to be, as I said in the beginning of this sermon, the thing we stake our lives on. We have to become, each of us and all of us together, Easter people, Resurrection people.

And here’s my ending: my personal confession to you in this last Easter sermon. The real reason I believe, really believe, in Easter is that this belief and only this belief has the power to radically change my life, radically change who I am. Ask yourself: if these things really happened, are really true, how can I just go on being the same old person I’ve been, leading the same old, same old life? If Easter really was, and really is, true, doesn’t this change everything for me and my life?

It’s looking at Easter that way, putting Easter to myself as this question, that has led me after all these years to say without hesitation, “I have seen the Lord. Alleluia. Christ is risen. And I am risen indeed. Alleluia.”

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