The Resurrection: History’s Turning Point

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday C, March 27, 2016, 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; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; John 20.1-18.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Easter Sunday, the day when we as God’s people in Jesus celebrate his mighty resurrection from the dead. It is quite simply the turning point in history. But why? Sadly in the last 50-100 years, the Church has done a terrible job in teaching its people about the resurrection so that there are all kinds of screwy ideas about it. I suspect many, if pressed, could not articulate what the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ really is, and as a result we are left impoverished as God’s family in Jesus. So today I want to remind us why Easter matters, not only to us as Christians, but to the whole world, and why it is the turning point in history.

Paul gives us the reason in our epistle lesson. Alluding to the strange and haunting story in Genesis 3.1-19 that we read at the Easter Vigil of how human sin and rebellion thoroughly corrupted God’s good and beautiful creation, opening the door for evil to enter God’s good world and bringing death to us as God’s image-bearing creatures, Paul tells us what we already know all too well. We live in a corrupted world beset by sin and evil, which leads inevitably to our death. To be sure, most of us find pockets of happiness when life seems good. But then disaster strikes, whether in our personal lives or in our world, and we are reminded otherwise. Without some dramatic intervention on our behalf, sin and corruption of all kinds is our lot and death is our destiny. How do you like this joyous Easter sermon so far? Pretty uplifting, isn’t it?

Enter the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. As Paul further reminds us, when God raised Jesus from the dead, the final Great Reversal has begun. Death is no longer our destiny. Yes, barring the return of our Lord Jesus in our lifetime, we will all die. But we will not remain dead forever. Like our Lord Jesus, those of us who are united to him in baptism and faith are destined for new bodies patterned after his (cf. Romans 6.3-5). More about that in a moment. Elsewhere Paul and the other NT writers talk about how on the cross, God dealt with our sins and destroyed evil (see, e.g., Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.18-23, 2.15). But without Jesus’ resurrection, they could not have made such bold, audacious claims.

So let’s be clear about the Christian Good News here. News, of course, is about something that has happened, either for good or ill, and as a result everything changes. The news of the terror attacks on Brussels, for example, means that for those directly involved (and those of us indirectly involved), everything is different. Loved ones have been murdered. Our sense of security is diminished. This is news, bad news. The Good News about which Paul and the other NT writers speak is the resurrection. Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the dark powers and principalities had apparently usurped control of God’s good world from God and were ruling over it, corrupting it and us, and causing massive suffering and misery, mysterious and enigmatic as that is. Sin and death were the order of the day. Since we all have sinned, and since sin leads to death (Romans 3.23, 6.16), this was our awful fate.

But now because of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, everything is different. And here we need to pay close attention to what Paul tells us because it helps us establish appropriate expectations about what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through the resurrection of Jesus. Paul tells us there is a proper order to God regaining control over his good creation and redeeming it and us. First came the resurrection of Jesus. And let’s be clear about what resurrection is. Resurrection means bodily resurrection. It refers to the transformation of our mortal bodies so that they share some of the properties of our old mortal bodies but also have totally new ones. For example, the risen Jesus was able to eat and drink with his disciples. They saw the wounds he bore on the cross. They were able to touch him and hear him, just like we are able to do with other living people. But there was a difference about Jesus’ resurrected body. He was able to appear and disappear at will. Initially his risen body was in a form such that the first eyewitnesses were not always able to recognize him. He was able to pass through solid objects such as walls and closed doors, none of which our mortal bodies can do (cf. Luke 24.36-43; John 20.19-20). More importantly, as the NT writers make clear, Jesus’ resurrected body was no longer subject to decay or death (see, e.g., Romans 6.9). Contrast this, for example, to Lazarus’ body after Jesus resuscitated him from the dead. Lazarus would eventually die again. Jesus never will. As Paul and John both tell us, each in his own way, Jesus remains alive and reigns over God’s creation until he returns again to finish the work of new creation that he started with his death and resurrection. This is the first step in God’s unexpected and startling plan to rescue his world and us from evil, sin, and death: Jesus is the first (or as Pauls says, the first fruits) to be raised from the dead.

And those of us who are baptized into Christ and have faith in him, will one day experience the same destiny as our Lord at the general resurrection of the dead. Before that, we will all die and go immediately to rest with our Lord Jesus (cf. Luke 23.43; Philippians 1.23). In other words, we will survive our bodily death. But this is not our resurrection. Our resurrection will come only when Christ returns and God raises and transforms our mortal bodies. Only then, as Paul reminds us, will death be defeated. This is why we need to be clear in our thinking about what resurrection really is all about. It doesn’t refer to life after death. Even our loved ones who have died in the Lord are still dead. They are no longer with us. We cannot see or hear or touch them. They are dead, albeit resting with their Lord in heaven. But when the Lord returns, those of us who are united to Christ will have our mortal, decayed bodies raised to new life and we will receive new bodies patterned after Jesus’ body, never to die again, never to be afflicted again, thanks be to God! Amen? As Bishop Tom Wright says, resurrection refers to life after life after death. Our new bodies will be part of God’s new creation in which evil, sin, and death are vanquished forever and we are restored to our original purpose of being God’s faithful image-bearing stewards over his new creation, just like God originally intended for us.

This is why Paul says we are most to be pitied if there is no resurrection of the dead. If that’s true, then Christ was not raised and we will therefore not be raised. To live this mortal life without the hope of new embodied life in God’s new creation forever makes us pitiable people indeed. It means we are living a lie and a delusion. It means we are suffering needlessly for a dead guy who in no way rules over this world. It means we are trying to put to death our sinful nature when we should be trying to grab all the gusto we can because tomorrow we will be dead and gone. This is why Jesus’ death and resurrection are Good News. God has intervened decisively in his good but corrupted creation to break the power of evil, sin, and death, and to bring about new life, new creation that is forever good, beautiful, and uncorrupted. If you cannot find meaning and purpose for living in this hope and promise, I frankly don’t know of anything that will ever give you meaning and purpose for living. This is why the resurrection is the turning point of history and this is why we as Christians must be clear in our thinking about it so that we can embrace it and let it fill our lives with meaning, purpose, and joy.

John tells us essentially the same thing in his gospel if we have ears to hear and minds to grasp his brilliant and sophisticated theology. Recall how John begins his gospel—In the beginning… This, of course, is patterned after the creation narratives found in Genesis 1. How do they start? In the beginning, God… And in John’s gospel we hear something very similar—In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. Fast forward to the crucifixion narrative we heard on Good Friday. Jesus is on the cross and his final words are, “It is finished!” (John 19.30). But what was finished? John tells us in his chronology and overarching narrative. In Jesus’ death God has dealt with our sins and the evil that has corrupted his world. Evil, sin, and death have been dealt a decisive blow in Jesus’ death on the cross and God has reclaimed control over his creation, unlikely as that appears at times, all because of Jesus’ saving and healing death on the cross.

John goes on to tell us that Jesus was then laid in a newly-hewn tomb. And on what day did that happen? The sixth day, the day before the Sabbath rest or seventh day. Just like God rested from his work on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2.1-3), Jesus rested from his redemptive work on the Sabbath. Now in today’s gospel lesson, John makes it a point to tell us that the story continues early in the morning on the first day of the week, the eighth day, the day when God’s new creation bursts forth with the raising of Jesus from the dead. Note the same motifs we have just talked about. Mary comes to the tomb to anoint her Lord’s dead body. She doesn’t come there expecting to find Jesus alive. She comes there to take care of the dead. That is why she is so perplexed about finding an empty tomb. In all likelihood it meant that Jesus’ body had been victimized by grave robbers, not that he was raised from the dead. Peter and the beloved disciple are just as perplexed in finding the empty tomb with its grave clothes neatly folded. John tells us the beloved disciple believed, but not what he believed. Surely it wasn’t that Jesus was raised from the dead. Otherwise why would they have returned home?

Notice too that Mary does not recognize our Lord when he first appears to her. She assumes he is the gardener, and here we see John’s brilliance shine forth again. Think back to the first gardeners of God’s original creation. Adam and Eve took care of paradise before their sin got them expelled. Here Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, but in one sense she is quite correct. Here is Jesus, the new gardener and person responsible for the beginning of God’s new creation in which human beings will once again be able to live and care for paradise. This is hardly simplistic theology, my beloved. Notice too, that the story John tells us does not make much sense without our knowledge and understanding of the larger story of God’s creation, the devastating impact of human sin on it, and God’s subsequent plan to heal and redeem it and us through the family of Abraham and his ultimate descendant, Jesus the Messiah. And like Paul, John too alludes to the fact that Jesus will ascend to the Father to assume his rightful rule as Lord over all God’s creation. In telling Mary not to hold onto him, Jesus seems to be telling her that from now on, she will have to get used to interacting with him in a different way than which she was accustomed because he will no longer be physically present to her after he has ascended into heaven. But please do notice that she was able to touch him. This is resurrection.

So what should we take away from all this? Several things, but I mention three here. First, on a personal level our Lord’s resurrection reminds us that we and our loved ones who have died in Christ have a future and a hope. Our destiny is not death or a disembodied eternity, but rather new embodied life with new and meaningful work to do as God’s faithful stewards. It means that one day we will be able to embrace our loved ones again, to hear their voice, and feel their touch. It means restored health and vitality and endless goodness and beauty. I can’t speak for you, but that future is much more appealing to me than some Platonic, disembodied spiritual existence where we float on clouds and play harps for all eternity. Boring.

Second, on a broader scale, the resurrection of Jesus means that creation matters to God. We matter to God. We know this because he has come to us in the person of Jesus to heal and redeem his world and us, and has given us a glimpse of his new world in Jesus’ resurrected body. This means that creation and people had better matter to us as well. It simply won’t do to be lousy stewards of God’s good creation for the sake of our own personal aggrandizement. It simply won’t do to ignore human suffering and need when we are in the position to do something about it. Easter reminds us that creation and God’s creatures matter to God and they’d better matter to us as well as God’s image-bearing creatures.

Last, Easter issues a clarion call to us to learn to live like the truly human beings God created us to be. That means we must learn to live like Jesus lived. As we have seen, the final redemption of the world has begun with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is not yet consummated. That will come only when Jesus returns. So what to do in the meantime? Sit around and act snotty while we contemplate our navels? Hardly. No, our Lord calls us as his family to embody his healing love and presence in the world, which means we must take seriously his command to us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. To be sure, we are people with a real future and a hope, a future and a hope grounded in history, and it is critical that we understand this. We are not talking wishful thinking. We are talking history. We have Good News. Jesus’ death and resurrection really happened so we have a real future and a hope. But we still live in a world where evil is not yet dead and sin still remains. As we live our lives faithfully to Jesus, this means that we will run into suffering and opposition for his name’s sake, just the way he did. But we dare not lose hope or courage or our joy, precisely because we are people of hope. We are a resurrection people and we must live accordingly to bring the healing love of God to the world around us and proclaim the Good News of Jesus. We are living on this side of the turning point of history. God has reestablished his rule in and through Jesus. We sang it in our hymn, This is My Father’s World.

That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King, let the heavens ring!
God reigns, let the earth be glad!

What an appropriate hymn to sing on Easter Sunday!

So let us resolve to put to death in the power of the Spirit all that is within us that corrupts and dehumanizes us. This is not an easy thing to do and we are promised that we will suffer as a result of our new way of living because it reminds the world that its ways are corrupt and evil, and the world will try to whack us because of that. But think of it this way. Remember that our trials and tribulations for the Lord’s sake remind us that we are preparing to live in God’s new world when it comes in full, with it’s promise of new bodily life and perfect truth and beauty, where suffering, sorrow, and death are no more. May we therefore resolve to embrace our Easter hope and live faithfully to Christ, precisely because we are resurrection people who have Good News to share with God’s hurting and suffering world. To be sure, our faithfulness will not always bear immediate or even tangible results. That’s where faith comes in. But we are promised that to pattern our lives after our crucified and risen Lord ensures that resurrection is our future, not death. Let that hope sustain us as we attempt to live faithfully to our Lord.

In closing, this is why we must celebrate and party like it is the eschaton (end times) during these next 50 days of Easter and this is my charge 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 did 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.