Why Easter Matters

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday B, April 5, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25.6-9; Acts 10.34-43; 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 celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the greatest and most joyous Christian celebration of all, Christmas included. But why? Why do we as Christians celebrate the fact that we are people of the cross and resurrection people? What does Easter have to do with all that is going on in our world and our personal lives? What does it have to do with us who live in the 21st century? It is these questions I want us to look at this morning.

In both our NT and epistle lessons, Peter and Paul proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to their respective audiences, who just happen to be Gentiles. Peter tells Cornelius and his household about Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, risen, ascended, and now reigning as Lord of all creation. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, was not quite as comprehensive, focusing instead on Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Christians, we need to be clear about what we mean by the Good News or gospel of Jesus Christ, in part because it will help us see why Easter matters. As we have seen before, news is not the same as advice. When we talk about news we talk about something that has happened and as a result our present and future are changed in significant ways. For example, when we receive the news that we are new parents, we celebrate and realize that our present and future are going to be different. When we receive the news that a loved one has died, we grieve and realize that our lives will never be the same. So news focuses on what is happening (or not happening). Its primary job is not to offer us advice or guidance (do this, don’t do that). It reports on important and life-changing events.

If we understand this definition of news, we are ready to better understand what Peter and Paul were announcing when they proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that we are saved by the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection while in our NT lesson, Peter does not explain immediately why Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and reign as Lord of all creation is Good News, only that it is. But we have other clues in the NT to help us.

Elsewhere, Paul tells us that on the cross, Jesus’ death brought about reconciliation between God and humans, that once we were estranged and hostile toward God because of our evil deeds. And as Scripture makes abundantly clear in both the OT and NT, our sin brought about God’s curse and our death (see, e.g., Genesis 3.1-19; Romans 6.20-23). But now because of Jesus’ death, we are reconciled to God and can enjoy peace with him instead of hostility because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us, thanks be to God (Colossians 1.19-23; Romans 8.1-4)! The Good News in this should be immediately obvious to us. Once we were dead people walking, cut off from our very Life Source (God) and without hope for any kind of real future other than the years granted to us in our mortal life. But now because of God’s intervention on our behalf in and through Jesus’ death, a real and historical event (i.e., news), we are people who have real life and hope because we have been reconnected to our Life Source, all because of what Jesus did for us.

I can hear some of you now. That’s all well and good, Father Maney, but isn’t this a sermon more appropriate for Good Friday? This is Easter, dude. Get with the program. Get to the good part about the Easter bunny and Easter egg hunts and baskets and stuff. Wait. What? It is precisely because of the resurrection that we can say and believe about the cross what we have just said. Without God vindicating Jesus by raising him from the dead, the cross would still be a sign of failure and shame, and we would still be dead people walking. There’s no real news in that because nothing has really changed. Neither can we find much Good News in the resurrection without connecting it to the cross. Without the atoning and sacrificial death of our Lord, his resurrection would only have been good news for him. Sensational news perhaps, but certainly not Good News for us, because without the cross we are still dead in our sin. That is why we must always view Jesus’ death and resurrection together.

Jesus’ death and resurrection announce to us that we matter to God and that he intends to rescue us and restore us to be the fully human creatures he created us to be. And Jesus’ resurrection announces that God’s new world has broken in on his old and hurting world, and that God intends to redeem and heal all creation just as he has healed and redeemed us in and through the death of Jesus. God has freed and healed us so that we can once again take our rightful place as God’s wise stewards to rule with Christ over God’s new world, just as God intended in the beginning when he created the cosmos (cf. Genesis 1.1-2.4; 1 Corinthians 6.2-4).

And since there has been so much bad teaching (or no teaching at all) about the resurrection, let us be clear about what the NT writers are talking about when they are speak of resurrection. Resurrection does not mean there is life after death, although as Christians we believe that our souls will go and be with Jesus (cf. Luke 23.43) until he returns and we are equipped with new resurrection bodies patterned after his. Even though this is true, the fact remains that until we get those new bodies, we are still dead. For you see, God didn’t create us solely as spirits. He created us to be physical creatures who have a body, mind, soul, and spirit.

Resurrection therefore means coming all the way through death and out the other side, just as Jesus did. It means God raised and reanimated Jesus’ body, a body that was no longer susceptible to death or illness or infirmity, a body that is physical and can be touched and seen and heard as Matthew, Luke, and John attest. This is because creation matters to God. That’s why he created it (and us) in the first place. And even though God’s good creation has become corrupted by human sin and evil, it has always been God’s intention to heal and restore his good creation and its human creatures gone bad. This is the essential overarching story of the Bible and in Jesus’ resurrection we see God’s rescue of his good world and image-bearing creatures reach its climax. To be sure, God’s rescue of us and his world has not yet been consummated. That is painfully obvious to one and all. But our rescue and healing have nevertheless been accomplished, if not yet fully implemented.

This is why Jesus’ death and resurrection is the turning point in history and why it is Good News. Before Christ, we were lost in our sins and God’s good world was thoroughly corrupted and without hope. But after Good Friday and Easter, everything changed, not only for us as God’s image-bearing creatures, but for all of creation. Now we are resurrection people who have a future and a hope. And because we have a future and a hope, so too does all creation because when we get fixed, so does all of creation (cf. Romans 8.18-25). As we have seen, this is why we are saved and this is what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed the rule or kingdom of God on earth as in heaven.

We see this theme of new creation presented powerfully in our gospel lesson, at least for those of us who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts and minds to believe. Think about it. John tells us it was the first day of the week when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. She didn’t come expecting to find a risen Jesus. She came to mourn and finish anointing his dead body. So why would John bother to tell us it was the first day of the week? Think about how his gospel opens. In the beginning… What other story opens with these words? The creation narratives in Genesis 1.1-2.4! On the first day God began his creative work. And what happened on the sixth day? God created humans, the pinnacle of his creative activity, to run his good world. But then humans sinned and we were banned from paradise, losing our intended place in God’s created order. What happened on the sixth day (Friday) in John’s gospel? Jesus died with the words, “It is finished!”. But what was finished? The reconciliation of God and his human creatures and the restoration of our full humanity, thus equipping those of us who follow Jesus to be rulers with him in God’s new world. And then what did God do on the seventh day? God rested from his work, just as in the tomb Jesus rested from his work on Holy Saturday, the seventh day.

Now it is the first day of the week, and John wants us to see it is the beginning of God’s new world because Jesus has been raised from the dead. God’s salvation of his broken and hurting world and its peoples had been accomplished and this is what Jesus tells Mary to go proclaim to his disciples. This is the resurrection faith that enabled the early church to grow like wildfire, even in the face of fierce resistance and persecution, because the first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were being called to live, not in the last days, but in the first days of God’s new world, and they were to proclaim it to others. More about that in a moment.

This is the Big Picture of Easter and this is why Easter matters. But let’s get a little closer to home. Why does Easter matter for us on a personal level? What difference can our Easter faith make for us as we live out our lives in a world that seems to be increasingly mad? To help answer these questions, come with me to Jesus’ tomb with Mary. Bring someone or something you know with you, someone who is hurting or afraid or broken—it might be yourself—or something that is causing you great pain. Let us stand next to Mary as she weeps and asks where they have taken her Lord. Now say with her, “They have taken away…” and fill in the blank (taken away my health, my hope, my dignity, my job, my loved one). Pause for a moment and let the tears come because tears are an appropriate and necessary part of grief, even for Christians. Then stoop down and look inside the tomb. Where did those angels come from? They weren’t there before. Could it be that we can only see angels through our tears and sorrow and fear? Maybe. Maybe not. But remember that in Scripture, whenever angels encounter fearful and hurting people, they tell them not to be afraid and ask why they are crying. Why is that? Do they know something we do not know or see something we do not see before we encounter the risen Christ?

Now turn around and see that strange figure standing by you and listen as Jesus calls your name or the name of the one you have brought with you. Listen to his voice and hear in it greeting, consolation, invitation, and a gentle rebuke (Really? Don’t you know me?) all rolled into one. Then let Jesus’ healing love wash over you and penetrate you in the power of the Spirit, and take it from there in faith. Realize that our Lord is available to you each and every day of your life through prayer, Scripture, the eucharist, worship, fellowship, and even the mundane circumstances of life. This, I think, is what Jesus was trying to tell Mary when he told her not to hold onto him, that he was going to be available to her from now on in a different way than she was accustomed, but that he was going to be available to her nevertheless.

Take it from there with real hope because Jesus is your present hope and future reality. For you see, resurrection is not a concept. It’s a person and Jesus is available to you and yours right now to bring healing, hope, redemption, and new life in the power of the Spirit. Don’t misunderstand. The resurrection doesn’t take away magically the pain or loss or sorrow we all experience. Real hurt still hurts. What the resurrection promises us is this: In Jesus, and as his people united to him by faith and in the power of the Spirit, God has promised to heal and redeem our loss and hurt, and for all eternity. This is why Easter matters to us personally.

And this is our call as Easter people. Because we know that in Jesus’ resurrection, God’s new world has broken in on the old and damaged creation to heal and redeem it, we know that we too must follow our Lord’s example to help bring about the kingdom on earth as in heaven. We are called to be reconcilers and peacemakers and healers in the manner of our Lord. Part of the Good News is that the risen and ascended Jesus is now Lord of all creation and we are called to embody his healing love to everybody, especially our enemies. In other words we are called to be signs of new creation for a hurting and broken world that desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and be changed by it. Some will scoff at this and call into question Jesus’ Lordship under God the Father. If Jesus is Lord, they sneer, he’s doing a lousy job. Where’s the new creation? Look at all the evil that still exists in the world. Kids die of horrible diseases, injustice is rampant, wars never seem to cease. I bet those Kenyans don’t think Jesus is Lord or that God’s new creation has begun to break in on God’s world. If Jesus is Lord and God, why doesn’t he just flex his muscles and fix his world?

But if we think it through for a minute, this is not how God has chosen to work. As we have seen, the cross is a vivid example of how God works to defeat evil and bring about healing and reconciliation. As Paul would tell the Corinthians, the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing because they cannot come to believe that God can and does work this way. But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. We believe this because we have experienced God’s rescue and believe in a God who calls into existence things that do not exist and gives life to the dead (Romans 4.17) starting first with Jesus of Nazareth, our resurrection and life. In other words, we believe in a God who can easily do the impossible. We know therefore that our work in the Lord, our work to embody God’s love and be signs of God’s new creation, is not in vain. Evil, sin, and death have been defeated and the power of God has burst into his world in a new and surprising way in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is how we live out our Easter faith and this is what gives our life real meaning and purpose.

And if you doubt that Jesus is Lord or that new creation has broken in on God’s hurting world, I invite you to look no further than our little church. What a remarkable group of faithful Christians! Consider our various ministries and how they embody God’s love for his world and its people. See how we love one another and show it in tangible ways. Ask the Collins’ or Dowlings if you don’t believe me. See our wonderful fellowship at work in our various gatherings, especially when we gather to worship. Notice the indefatigable spirit we have about our mission and purpose, even when our work sometimes seems to make no difference at all. Look at the wonderful folks God has called together. None of this is by accident because God is intricately involved in the most minute details of our lives, both individually and collectively. Now by some standards of measurement, our size and scope of reach might suggest our work really isn’t of any consequence. But don’t try telling that to Jesus or Paul or any one of us for that matter. We are content to let God be God and to do the work he calls us to do so that we can be living signs of his new creation who bring God’s healing love to bear on the world. This is what it means to have an Easter faith and this is why Easter matters, not only to us but to all of God’s creation.

This is why we must celebrate and party like it is the eschaton during these next 50 days of Easter and this is my challenge to you this morning. What are ways we can celebrate God’s victory over evil, sin, and death and announce to the world that God’s new creation has been launched? How can we be signs of God’s new creation with an unmistakable and infectious joy? Most of us do Lent pretty well and that is to be commended. But this is Eastertide, the 50 days where we celebrate the beginning of God’s new world and our part in it, both now and in the future! How can we let other people in on the Good News so that they might stop and ask us why we do what we do and why we are so doggone happy in doing it. Whatever that looks like—and we need to have an ongoing conversation about this—let us do it with joy, hope, faith, and power, the power of people who have been healed and redeemed and called to be with Jesus in this world and the new world to come. During this Eastertide, therefore, let us live and work and speak as people who know unmistakably that we have Good News, not only for our sake but also for the sake of the world, 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.