Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday B, April 1, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; John 20.1-18.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we come together to celebrate the joyous occasion of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. This feast is the central feast of the entire Christian calendar and marks the turning point in human history, the day God’s new creation was launched. Why, then, do so many of us, like our forebears in the ancient church at Corinth, struggle to believe that the Resurrection was an actual historical event and/or try to make the Resurrection into something it is not? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
We start with our epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 15, the longest and most detailed exposition on resurrection contained in the NT. In our reading, St. Paul reminds us of the Good News he preached. He emphasizes that the most important aspect of the Good News is that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that God raised Jesus on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. In other words, Christ’s death and resurrection are the two primary markers that confirm Jesus is who he claims to be: Israel’s Messiah and King. Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled what the OT said was going to happen (a different topic for a different day). What I want us to see today is the integral connection between the cross and the empty tomb. I wish the Lectionary would have included the next eight verses because they serve to illuminate what Paul has just said about Jesus dying and rising again in our morning’s lesson. Here is the punchline from those verses:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? …For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins [emphasis mine]. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished (1 Corinthians 15.12, 16-18).
Did you catch that? No resurrection, no forgiveness of sins. We are toast and so are our loved ones who have died in the Lord. The cross needs the resurrection and vice versa.
I can see some of you starting to squirm and mutter under your breath. What’s this stuff about the cross and forgiveness of sins on Easter Sunday, Father? You’re supposed to be preaching happy stuff, not all the gloomy jazz we heard about on Good Friday. Patience, my ignorant ones. We are talking about the good stuff because the cross is part of the good stuff. Here is what St. Paul is saying to us. When God raised Jesus from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures, this vindicated Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah so the apostolic and ancient Church’s proclamation about the cross was true. And what was that first proclamation after the resurrection of the Son of God? That on the cross, Jesus willingly and in full cooperation with God the Father, absorbed the outpouring of God’s wrath on our sins so as to spare us from having to experience that terrible damnation. For this to be of any use, God also had to break the power of Sin over us, Sin being defined as an enslaving, hostile power that has kept us prisoner to its will and grip ever since our first ancestors were expelled from paradise. If Sin’s power over us isn’t broken, then Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross would be rendered essentially useless. We would still be enslaved by Sin’s power and would never be able to come close to living as the fully human image-bearing creatures God created us to be. But this is exactly what the apostles and the early Church proclaimed: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin. As a result, we are reconciled to God and each other and have real peace, not to mention life that will continue on forever, even after our mortal death. As St. John writes in his first letter:
Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5.10b-12, NLT).
Without the Resurrection, none of this would be true. Jesus would simply be another failed Messiah who was psychotic in his beliefs and claims, and we should treat him as such (as those who do not believe in him often do). So the cross needs the empty tomb, but the empty tomb also needs the cross, precisely for the reasons we’ve just discussed. Without the forgiveness of sins, there would be no point of resurrection, new bodily life. We would still be dead in our sins and without hope for a future. Jesus’ resurrection would be no more than a dazzling display of power on God’s part and an in-our-face reminder that we are still toast. Look at me, says God. I can raise the dead. Too bad you aren’t gonna be among them. Hahahahaha! Losers. To repeat, the cross needs the empty tomb and the empty tomb needs the cross.
And let’s be crystal clear about what we mean when we say resurrection. Resurrection does not mean life after death. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. It does not mean some spiritualized existence where we live in a disembodied state. It does not mean the immortality of the soul, which is a Greek concept, not a biblical one. It does not mean continuing to exist in some form in our loved ones’ memory. These are all variations of the ancient heresy of gnosticism, a belief that at its core sees things spiritual as being good and things material as being bad. Neither is resurrection resuscitation, where the dead are brought back to life, only to eventually die again.
No, resurrection refers to our body being raised from the dead and transformed, never to die again, just like what happened to our Lord Jesus that first Easter morning. Consider the various NT testimonies about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He was able to eat and drink. The disciples could hear him, talk to him, and touch him. Yet he could appear to them suddenly behind locked doors. Clearly Jesus had a body, but while there was some continuity with his mortal body, there were also some radically different qualities about his body. So when we speak of resurrection, we are talking about new bodily existence that is impervious to death.
And if we know the overarching story of Scripture, this should make total sense to us. According to Genesis 1-2, God did not create us as spirits. God created us as body, mind, and spirit. We were created as a package deal because as the creation narratives make very clear, God values God’s created order. The material created order matters to God as evidenced by the fact that when God finished all his creative work, with his image-bearing human creatures being the pinnacle, God pronounced it all very good (Gen 1.31). This is why we say that our Christian dead, despite their souls being quite alive in the presence of their Lord Jesus in heaven, are still dead. Their bodies have not yet been raised. They still lie mouldering in the grave, separated from their souls. And a moment’s thought about this helps us truly understand the truth of this claim. Think of someone you have loved but lost to death. If you are like me, when you think of that person, you miss seeing his face, hearing his voice, feeling the warmth of his embrace. You miss hearing her laughter or seeing the beautiful things her hands and mind created. You miss looking into her eyes and seeing a love for you burning brightly there. No sanitized version of a disembodied heavenly existence comes close to this or will ultimately satisfy because God made us into creatures and to desire the goodness of creation. We long to see our dead loved ones and to embrace them once again. Jesus’ resurrection promises that for those of us who are united with Christ by faith and love will get to do just that one day. It wasn’t some disembodied spirit that Mary embraced in the garden. It was her risen Lord. She heard him and touched him and spoke to him, just like we will get to do on the day of our Lord’s return, thanks be to God. Amen? As Christians, let us embrace the original goodness of creation and things material, just as God the Father did when he created it all, including us, before our sin ruined it.
With all this in mind, we are now ready to see why so many struggle to believe in the Resurrection, Christians included. Jesus’ death and resurrection remind us that we are not ultimately in control of the most important things in our life. We aren’t in control of life or death. Because we are thoroughly infected by the residual power of Sin, that outside enslaving power that once held us in bondage, we are unable to fix ourselves so that we are reconciled to God our Father. This means we are still unable to stand in the presence of perfect Goodness and Holiness, and are doomed to destruction without outside help. That outside help came from God the Father, who in perfect cooperation with God the Son, freed us from our sins and made us fit to live in God’s presence forever. Or as St. Paul put it, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. We are reconciled to God only through the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. As St. John put it in his Passion narrative we read on Good Friday, the final words out of our Lord’s mouth were, “It is finished!” (John 19.30). What was finished? God enacting the ultimate Passover by freeing us from our slavery to Sin and reconciling us to himself, just as God always promised to do. In other words, we are seeing the power, wisdom, and love of God the Father for us miserable rebels to claim us for himself once again. None of us deserve it, but we may claim it nevertheless because of the great love the Father has for us. And we couldn’t proclaim this truth if it weren’t for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus.
Paradoxically, this is what makes many of us reject the Resurrection. We don’t want to acknowledge our helplessness or acknowledge the power of God acted out on Calvary for us. And if Jesus really was raised from the dead, it means that the Christian faith is radically different from other religions and this offends our worship of the false god of inclusivity. Now to be sure, if we love God and humans, we would wish that all might be saved from destruction, even the worst of the worst. So in that regard, our desire for inclusivity is not bad. But this is not the testimony of the first eye-witnesses of the Resurrection. Neither is it the testimony of the early Church or the writers of the NT, not to mention Jesus himself. We want to think that there are many paths to God, but there are not. There is only one way to God, as Jesus himself claimed, and that is through Jesus. This is true for the reasons we’ve just seen. Only in Jesus do we find reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus said so himself when he told Thomas that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that only by having a real relationship with him do we have any hope of going to the Father (John 14.5-7). We want to protest. That’s not fair! But our protestations are futile and indicative that we have not considered fully the seriousness of our sin, which can find resolution only in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. When we are united with our Lord in baptism, we are promised that we will share both in a death like his—we all must die and struggle in the power of the Spirit to put to death in us all that keeps us hostile to God—and a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-11). Only Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Resurrection is not a concept, my beloved. It is a person and his name is Jesus.
There are other reasons why many of us struggle with the idea of resurrection. We are troubled that the path to life is so narrow (Jesus) and we are frankly skeptical of the notion of new heavens and a new earth where we will live with immortal bodies forever in God’s direct presence. After all, who among us has ever seen a dead person raised to life? That’s why I refused to recite the clause in the Apostles’ Creed about believing in the resurrection of the body when I was a young man. Cemeteries were still full and my loved ones were still rotting in them.
Despite all this, as both St. Paul and St. John make clear in our epistle and gospel lessons today, the resurrection was an historical event. There were eyewitnesses to an event that was totally unexpected. Mary didn’t go to the tomb expecting to find it empty. In fact, that’s what threw her into such a panic. She thought Jesus’ body had been stolen and the thought of that, heaped upon her already intense grief over his awful death, was unbearable. We can relate. But all four gospels proclaim that God did raise Jesus from the dead and in doing so, inaugurated God’s new world and new age, the promised new heavens and earth that would be devoid of any pain, suffering, and evil, including the ultimate evil of death itself. It’s a promise and hope that is available to all who accept it by faith. Not a blind faith, mind you. Rather, a faith that has weighed out the evidence, listened to the testimonies and stories, and come to know that those stories are true, even if we don’t fully understand all the ramifications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s why we are resurrection people, people of hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come based on things that have already happened, not wishful thinking. And without hope, we die. Our resurrection hope is the only hope that can ultimately satisfy because only in God’s new world will perfect justice be enacted. In this world, we can punish evildoers but we can’t undo their evil deeds, especially the wickedness of murder. In God’s new world when the dead are raised and all evil and injustice is forever expunged from it, the victims of injustice will finally receive full justice and those who perpetrated evil will receive their just reward, barring repentance on their part. Harmony will then be fully restored, the whole point of justice in the first place. If this hope is not enough to strengthen and encourage you in the living of your days, even in the darkest of days, I fear nothing will ever be able to, my beloved.
I’ve focused on the future. But what about the present? Time doesn’t permit me to talk about living out our resurrection hope here in this world that is still corrupted by Sin and Evil. Even when we believe with all our heart and mind that the resurrection is true, we’ll still be greeted with bad news when we leave this place. We will still carry with us our hurts and pains and sorrow. What are we to make of that? Hopefully Father Gatwood will piggyback on today’s sermon and pursue this topic with you next week. But being the Loser he is, he probably won’t. That notwithstanding, let us seize the gift of life offered to us in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, especially during these next fifty days of Eastertide, and seek to find the joy that accompanies that knowledge, a joy given by the Spirit. As Christians, we are first and foremost resurrection people who have Good News to offer, both to the world and to our sometimes doubting and despairing hearts and mind, now and for all eternity. Let us not be bashful or afraid of sharing this Good News, the best news of all, so that others can hear, believe, and join the biggest and best party of all time and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.