Sermon preached on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 65.17-25; Acts 10.34-43; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; John 20.1-18.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Easter, St. Augustine’s! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! Before we turn to this history-changing event, I want to read you a more sober passage from the book of Lamentations, a book written primarily to lament the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians. I want you to close your eyes and imagine you are the man whose voice you are about to hear in the text, a man who laments the destruction of his beloved city—and with it apparently his life as well [read Lamentations 3.1-20]. Now imagine this lament is a metaphor for your life with all its hurts, heartaches, failures, fears, sin, and brokenness. Imagine you, like ancient Jerusalem, stand under God’s righteous judgment with no prospect of rescue. And because God in his judgment has left you to your own devices, the forces of evil are going to win the day so that all the sorrow, pain, and hurt that have afflicted you are going to continue unabated with no hope of rescue. How does it make you feel? What does that do to your hope? If you are like me, it is an absolutely terrifying picture devoid of hope. The future, along with the present, is one of utter darkness and despair.
I am not trying to rain on your Easter parade. Instead, I am trying to get us to see vividly what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson this morning where he reminds the Corinthians (and us) what our world would be like without the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we understand what it means to be God’s enemy, when we understand what a world without the love of God would be like, given the human condition with all its sin and brokenness, and what results from that, we are ready to see the cross of Jesus for what it is—the very symbol of God’s love for his human creatures and God’s triumph over the dark powers and principalities. In other words, the power and wisdom of God. Because without the cross of Jesus, we are still dead in our sins and remain God’s enemies (cf. Colossians 1.20-23). And without the cross, evil has not been defeated so that the foundation of God’s promised new creation launched at Easter could be laid. That is why we can never separate Jesus’ death and resurrection and we must always keep the cross in view, even as we gather today to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.
“But wait!” you say. “Evil has not been defeated. Look around you!” All very true. So how could Paul and the other NT writers make such a bold and audacious claim? After all, Jesus had been executed as a criminal and everybody knew that meant Caesar and the dark powers behind Caesar were the real lords. Crucified Messiahs were failed Messiahs, not the Lord of the universe! So how could Paul and others possibly think Jesus was Lord and Caesar wasn’t? Because of the resurrection! In the death and resurrection of Jesus we see God in his sovereign, rescuing love dealing with the evil and pain of the world in a surprising way by bearing it himself, and also with the greatest enemy of his creation—death itself. By allowing the forces of evil and darkness to do their very worst to him, Jesus, the very embodiment of God, showed that he had defeated the powers on the cross when God raised him from the dead on that first Easter Sunday. Had the powers and principalities really won, if they were the true lords of the universe, Jesus would have remained dead and we wouldn’t be gathered here today as his people. But Jesus didn’t remain dead. As all our readings testify, God raised him bodily from the dead and in doing so demonstrated that not only had he dealt decisively with the forces of evil but had also defeated death itself. This, of course, is why Jesus is Lord and Caesar and the powers behind him are not. To be certain, the defeat of evil is not yet fully consummated, but it is assured. The empty tomb is God’s guarantee of that. This is why Paul called the cross the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1.18-25).
But so too is the resurrection the power and wisdom of God because as we have just seen, it signaled that the forces of evil really had been defeated on the cross and that God’s promised new creation that we read about in our OT lesson had begun. When God raised Jesus’ mortal body and transformed it into an immortal one, he gave us our first tangible sign of what our bodies in the new creation would be like. When God speaks into existence his new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will be fused together so that we will get to live directly in God’s presence. God will consummate the defeat of evil he achieved on the cross and raise our mortal bodies from the dead so that we never have to fear death or any of the other kinds of evil that afflict us now, thus bringing God’s kingdom in full on earth as in heaven. It is a glorious and breathtaking promise and we rob ourselves of the power of the gospel if we miss or dismiss it.
John wants us to see this very clearly in today’s gospel lesson. He starts out by telling us that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week and we need to pay attention to this because from the very beginning of his gospel, John has alluded to the great creation narratives of Genesis 1 and echoed its themes of light and darkness. As we think back to John’s crucifixion narratives, Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished.” What was “it” that was finished? The work of bearing the weight of the world’s sin and evil, the work of defeating the powers that had ruined God’s good creation. And this happened on Friday, the sixth day of the week. What happened on the sixth day in the creation narratives? God created human beings in his image to be wise stewards of his world. But we got it all wrong and our sin opened the floodgates for evil and God’s curse on both us and his world, of which the chaos and death we now experience are part. But now on the sixth day, the world’s only true human would do what was necessary to rescue us from God’s righteous judgment on our sin and defeat the powers of evil and darkness by going to the cross. And then what happened on the seventh day? The great Sabbath rest as Jesus’ body rested in the tomb, just as God had rested on the seventh day.
Now John tells us it is the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, the first day of new creation in which God’s promised future burst into our present to show us that death had been swallowed up in life and evil had been effectively defeated. That is why we are repeatedly told not to be afraid! This was completely unexpected because while most first-century Jews anticipated a final general resurrection of the dead and the defeat of evil at the eschaton (end times), nobody expected just one person to be resurrected before all the rest. We see this confusion very clearly in John’s gospel as well. There is uncertainty and panic with the disciples running around—literally. When Peter and the beloved disciple reached the empty tomb and saw the linen cloths, John tells us they believed. This doesn’t mean they believed Jesus had been raised from the dead because John tells us immediately that they did not yet understand the scripture, that Jesus must be raised from the dead. They didn’t go out and proclaim the resurrection. They went home. And then we see Mary not recognizing Jesus, mistaking him for a gardener. Mary of course was wrong on one level but quite right on another because Jesus was called to be the new gardener to bring order and new creation out of the chaos of the old. No, the first followers of Jesus did not expect to see a risen Messiah and all the gospel accounts reflect this quite authentically. They initially missed the power and wisdom of God because they were not expecting God to rescue us in this manner. They were (and we are) used to fighting evil and the forces of darkness on their terms and using their weapons. But God did not fight evil on its own terms to defeat it. He defeated evil by the power of love as demonstrated on the cross.
So what do we do with all this? What difference does this make for our lives right now, to our marriages, our jobs, our families, and our loved ones who have died in Christ? First, it means there is nothing in this life that is beyond the power of God’s love and redemption. Nothing. Not us and not the brokenness and chaos of our lives. And that means we don’t have to imagine a world where evil reigns unchecked and where we stand under God’s just judgment like we imagined at the beginning of this sermon. Evil and death do not have the final say, but rather life and new creation, and we are called to be living signposts of God’s new creation by abandoning all the worthless junk of old creation—the lies, the various kinds of lust, greed, and anger that enslave and dehumanize us and lead to death. We as Jesus’ people are called to live in the manner of Jesus and to cultivate, with the Spirit’s help, the fruit of the Spirit to show the world that a new day has arrived, even if not yet completely, and that God has not abandoned us but is actively involved in his world and intends to redeem us. If we want to be Easter people, the way we live our lives that imitate Jesus will be the telltale sign that we are.
Second, because Jesus’ resurrection signaled the beginning of God new creation, we have a hope and a future that should call forth wild celebrations. If we really believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the turning point in history, and for the good, why would we not celebrate wildly during the 50 days of Easter? We as a church will be doing just that and you will hear more about this during the announcements. Simply put, our Easter celebrations ought to put our Christmas celebrations to shame.
But I also want to sound a note of caution lest I be misunderstood and you think I am simply being Pollyannaish. I know that while the Easter hope sounds good on paper, we all have our doubts and fears, in part, because evil, sin, and death are not fully defeated, and I am not asking us to put on a happy face in the midst of deep sorrow or to act happy when we are not. There is a massive difference between being happy and having a deep, abiding joy that is not based on the circumstances of life, but rather on a relationship with the risen Jesus.
As we have seen, the first followers of Jesus did not put on a happy face because they did not expect to find a risen Jesus that first Sunday. They simply didn’t expect to encounter the wisdom and power of God in this manner. But the resurrection is just one of many examples in the Bible, albeit the most important of them, where God acts in unexpected ways and God continues to do so today. So if you are particularly afflicted this morning, I encourage you to do this. Pray through our gospel lesson this week. Meet Jesus in the garden with all of your doubts and fears, your hurts and your heartaches, your sin and your brokenness. Bring them to Jesus just the way Mary did that first Sunday and ask him to help you hold your mind open to the sovereign God who does unexpected things, just as he did when he raised Jesus. Ask Jesus to help you see God’s wisdom and power, not just in Jesus’ death and resurrection but in your own life right now, and then dare to claim the hope and promise of Easter. Then commit to memory some of the words from our hymn today, This Is My Father’s World, “Let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet…the battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.”
As you begin to grapple with your Easter hope, I want to close where I started, with a passage from Lamentations. Pay attention to what the writer says and remember this is the same man we heard at the beginning of the sermon [read Lamentations 3.19-26]. The challenge of Easter is not to say all is well when all isn’t well. The challenge of Easter is to have the faith, wisdom, and knowledge to recognize the wisdom of God and the power of God contained in the Scriptures and at work in our lives so that at every turn we can be reminded that in Jesus, God has defeated the dark powers that have ruined his good creation and set us free from sin and death so that God’s future is here among us right now, and that not even death can separate us from that future or the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And when, in the power of the Spirit, you are able to recognize the wisdom of God and the power of God consistently, you will surely have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!