Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31.1-6; Acts 10.34-43; Colossians 3.1-4; John 1.1-18.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Easter, St. Augustine’s! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! So what do you think? Is our gospel lesson this morning about Jesus being raised up and going to heaven? A lot of people would say yes, that’s what Easter is all about. But as we look carefully at what John’s gospel and our other readings have to say, we will discover that Easter is much more than Jesus rising from the dead so that he could go to heaven and this is what I want us to look at briefly on this joyous morning.
John makes it very clear that when Mary went to the tomb that first Easter morning, she was expecting to find Jesus’ body lying in it and we all get that. After all, who among us has ever witnessed a body being raised from the dead? Last time I went to the cemetery to tend to my family’s graves, everybody (no pun intended) was present and accounted for. In fact, there was a time in my life when I refused to recite the clause in the Apostles’ Creed about believing in the resurrection of the body for this exact reason. I didn’t have a clear understanding of the biblical hope of resurrection and chose to come up with my own version of life after death that conveniently omitted this fantastic and frankly unbelievable notion of bodies being raised from the dead.
So we can appreciate Mary’s anxiety as she approached Jesus’ tomb—doubtless with the awful images of Jesus’ naked, pierced, and bloody body seared into her brain and grieving the death of the One whom she hoped was God’s promised Messiah—only to find it empty. Being a good Jew, Mary would have believed in the resurrection of the body but that wasn’t something that Jesus’ contemporaries generally believed would happen until the Last Day and that Sunday morning certainly wasn’t it. Alarmed, Mary ran to tell the disciples that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, adding insult to the injury and grief with which they were all dealing. John reports that Peter and the beloved disciple ran back to the tomb to check it out and when the beloved disciple saw the folded grave clothes, he believed.
But what did the beloved disciple believe? He believed that Jesus was alive again. But at this particular moment, the beloved disciple believed by faith because John tells us that he did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Once the beloved disciple saw the risen Jesus with his own eyes, ate with him, and heard Jesus unpack the scriptures for them, faith was no longer necessary. But for the moment, it was.
To help us understand how seeing folded grave clothes would have helped the beloved disciple believe Jesus was alive, think back to Jesus’ resuscitation of Lazarus. When Lazarus came out of the tomb, his body had to be unwrapped by others. But Jesus had left his grave clothes behind, a powerful indication that something radically different had transpired. Lazarus would be raised to face death once again. In fact, John tells us that the Jewish authorities sought to put Lazarus to death on account of Jesus. But here John is telling us that Jesus had entered death and emerged from it as a new creation where death was abolished forever, swallowed up by life at its most abundant.
How do we know this? Pay close attention to what John says at the beginning of our lesson. Being the brilliant theologian and subtle and nuanced writer that he is, John starts his account of the resurrection by telling us that Mary came to the tomb on the first day of the week. Remember back to John’s prologue with its echoes of the Genesis creation narratives, “In the beginning…” Throughout John’s gospel we are presented with seven signs that demonstrate Jesus is indeed the Word of God who has come into the world to save it and us. And what was the seventh sign? Our Lord’s crucifixion.
This is significant because John tells us that Jesus’ last words were, “It is finished.” But what was finished on the cross? The decisive defeat of evil and the dark powers that have corrupted and despoiled God’s good world and its creatures, albeit a victory over evil that is not yet fully consummated. And as Peter tells us in our NT lesson, on the cross we see God the Son bearing the awful and deadly wrath of God the Father on our behalf so that we can enjoy reconciliation with God and the peace that flows from it. Earlier in the passion narrative, and without explicitly stating this, John had reported that Barabbas was the first beneficiary of Jesus dying in his place and we too have been offered this same life-saving and life-giving grace.
And this all happened on the sixth day, the day before the Sabbath. We note in the creation narratives of Genesis that on the sixth day God created human beings in his image, the consummation of his creative activity, and declared them to be very good. Sadly we remember that humans rebelled against their Creator and sin, evil, and death entered the picture, effectively hijacking God’s good creation and creatures away from him. Now here in John’s narrative, we see God the Son rescuing his sinful and fallen human creatures from the ravages of evil, sin, and death by defeating evil and bearing our just punishment.
Then on the seventh day, just as God rested from his creative activity in Genesis, God the Son rested in his tomb after his saving work. Now it is the first day of the week, the eighth day so to speak, the day of new creation and new beginnings, and we see Jesus bursting forth from his tomb to conquer the last enemy, death itself. In other words, John is telling us to look carefully because we are witnessing the launching of God’s new creation in which he has begun to take back his good but corrupted world to heal and redeem it and us completely.
Well isn’t that special, you say. But what’s that got to do with us? Get on with it, dude. We’ve got Easter brunch to catch and rounds of golf to play! From a future perspective, Jesus’ resurrection and the bursting forth of God’s new creation means that our destiny as God’s people in Christ is literally new bodily creation, not some kind of disembodied spiritual existence. Peter makes it very clear that the resurrected Lord ate and drank with his disciples. They were able to see and touch him. But there was also a difference. Jesus was able to appear suddenly to them behind locked doors. He was able to disguise his appearance so that his followers often didn’t recognize him immediately. Clearly Jesus’ body was equipped to live in both the dimension of heaven (God’s space) and yet interact with humans in our space (earth). When the new creation comes, the dimensions of heaven and earth will be fused together and our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and patterned after our Lord’s. When that happens, death will be conquered forever, swallowed up by life and utter healing and wholeness. Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that God is faithful to his creation and intends to heal and restore it and us in the manner he promises through his prophet Jeremiah. Whatever the new vineyards look like in the new creation, they will be filled with God’s goodness, never to be corrupted or defiled.
But that’s the future. What about right now? Here is where we need to pay attention to Paul. Our epistle lesson this morning is part of a larger pericope in which Paul talks about dying and rising with Christ in and through our baptism. In our baptism we share Jesus’ death so that we can share in his resurrection. In other words, Paul wants us to understand that when we are baptized, we are utterly joined with Christ, to be with him and to share in his new and risen life.
When Paul talks about our life being hidden with Christ, he is not saying that our relationship with Jesus is gone or extinguished. He is talking about God’s intention for us to share with Jesus all the things God has given him. It’s like a lover saying to his beloved, “I want you to be with me wherever I am so that we can share together all that is good and wonderful in this life!” We are to enjoy new life and one day rule with Christ in God’s new creation when it comes in full. This life with Jesus is “hidden” because currently he is hidden from us, dwelling in and ruling from heaven, God’s space. But one day when Jesus reappears and the dimensions of heaven and earth are fused together, our life with Jesus will no longer be hidden because he will be fully revealed to all. This is probably what Jesus was trying to tell Mary when he told her not to cling to him because he had not yet ascended to the Father. He was telling Mary that she must get used to having a relationship with him in a new way because he would soon be hidden from her in heaven. And that way, of course, is through the Spirit that would dwell in her and us.
This union with Christ in our baptism is why we must never take our baptism for granted or see it as a one-time event. Rather, we are to work out what our relationship with Jesus looks like in the power of the Spirit. We are never to look at the cross or our baptism as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. Seeing it this way means that we haven’t really set our minds, i.e., our desires and will, on following Jesus by patterning our living after his. Instead, we are merely interested in saving our hides, and that is no kind of relationship. Think about it. Would you want someone to engage in a relationship with you only for what you could do for that person? Me neither.
But Jesus’ resurrection promises us so much more than a get-out-of-jail-free card! Because we are in Christ, his death and resurrection remind us that we are freed from our bondage to sin and death to live fully human lives in the manner God intended for us when he originally created us in his image. When we set our mind on Christ, we resolve to put to death all our disordered desires with the help of the Spirit, things like our desires for autonomy, wealth, power and control over others, and happiness of our own making, so that we can truly be free to live life fully like Jesus. The hope and promise of resurrection challenges us to live in the power of the Spirit to bear his fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and all the rest—in all aspects of our life: money, family, work, sex, friendship, politics, neighborliness, and attitudes. In other words, the hope and promise of our baptism and resurrection is a clarion call to repent of all our disordered ways and reorder our lives in ways that imitate Jesus who is alive in heaven (hidden from us) and available to us in the power of the Spirit. What in your life needs Jesus’ healing touch? Whatever it is, seek his touch with confidence because you know he is alive and reigns!
In patterning our life after Jesus, we are also living out each day our hope for the day when God’s new creation will be fully consummated. In living out our Easter hope, we are promised that God will use our work to build on the foundation of the new creation that Jesus’ death and resurrection established. As Paul tells the Corinthians, we are to remain steadfast and immovable in our good works in the Lord, i.e., in setting our minds on Christ who is hidden in heaven, because we know that our work in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15.58).
This clearly takes faith on our part, just like it did for the beloved disciple that day at the tomb, because it is not always evident that our good works are not in vain. And that is why we need to be very clear in our thinking about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as our own baptism in them. Christ’s death and resurrection mark the turning point in history where evil, sin, and death have been decisively defeated and we are called into new life that not even our physical death can defeat. Simply put, is the basis of our faith. With the resurrection, everything changes, and for the good. But if the resurrection did not occur, we are still dead in our sins and without hope. That is why I am going to preach a two-part series on why we can have confidence that the resurrection did occur and is an historical fact. I will begin the series the week after Bishop Ames visits and hope you will plan to check it out.
Finally, the resurrection of Jesus is an invitation to the Church to hold a fifty day party. As Jesus’ people we are living signs of God’s new creation and I therefore challenge each one of us to think about ways in which we as a parish and as individuals can embody our resurrection hope to a world that desperately needs to hear real Good News and see it embodied. Of course, living the Christian life is more than a fifty day proposition. But you get the point because your life is hidden in Christ’s so that you can live with him now and be confident that one day you will be raised with him to continue sharing your life with him in the new creation. If you understand this, folks, you surely understand what Easter is all about and that you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.