Are You Celebrating Easter for All It’s Worth?

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday A, April 16, 2017 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; Colossians 3.1-4; John 20.1-18.

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

Today is Easter Sunday, the day we focus especially on the resurrection of our Lord Jesus and all that that entails for us. Sadly over the years, the Church has dropped the ball in teaching about the resurrection and we dare not let poor teaching about it diminish our faith and rob us of God-given power to live our days with hope and courage. Hopefully I will not contribute to that problem this morning as we begin to explore the breath-taking ramifications of Jesus’ resurrection and what that means for those of us who strive to live faithful lives to our Lord.

Our understanding of the resurrection must always begin with the crucifixion of Jesus. The two are intricately linked together. As we saw on Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, on the cross, God broke the power of Sin—defined as that alien, hostile, and outside power that has enslaved humanity and brought Evil and Death into God’s originally good creation—and the power of those who wield it against us for our destruction forever, thanks be to God! Jesus himself, God the Son, willingly took on the full brunt of its power to break Sin’s grip on us so as to free us to live as the fully human beings God created us to be and to reconcile us to God so that we can enjoy real life and peace in the living of our days, despite the chaos that rages around us and sometimes spills into our lives. This was God’s doing because God the Father loves us and only God has the power to break our enslavement to Evil, Sin, and Death.

And here is where we must get our thinking straight about the crucifixion. It was not a religious or godly act. Quite the contrary. It was a godless, savage act that represented the worst of humanity in all its brutality and fallenness, not to mention all the hostility that humankind manifests toward God. Without the resurrection, there is no way that the cross would ever have become a religious symbol or the symbol of God’s mercy and justice. So the cross needs the resurrection and the resurrection needs the cross because without the latter, the necessary solution to break the power of Evil and Sin over us, and bring about our reconciliation with God, would not have happened. We would still be dead in our sins and without hope.

But the resurrection did happen and we are no longer dead in our sins or without hope. As Paul tells us in our epistle lesson and more fully in Romans 6.3-5, we have died with Christ and are raised to life with him in our baptism. More about that in a bit. When God raised Jesus from the dead, it allowed the first followers of Christ to understand that the cross was more than a shameful and degrading instrument of torture and death for criminals. It was the power and wisdom of God at work to break our enslavement to Sin, even if we do not understand fully all of the ramifications involved. And in the resurrection, we see the love and power of God at work to destroy the ultimate form of Evil—death itself. But how? St. John tells us in our gospel lesson.

From the very outset of John’s gospel, with its distinct echoes of the creation narrative in Genesis 1.1-2.3, John wants us to see that he is talking about the beginning of God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth that God will bring in full at our Lord Jesus’ Second Coming. John starts off his resurrection account by telling us Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on the first day of the week, the eighth day. And why is this important? Think back to the creation narrative we read last night. What happened on the sixth day of creation? God created humans in his image as the pinnacle of his creative activity and declared all creation to be very good. God then rested from his creative activity on the seventh day.

Now consider John’s Passion narrative in chapters 18-19. What happened on Good Friday, the sixth day? Jesus was crucified and before he died declared that, “It is finished!” But what was finished? The reconciliation of God and humans, and the breaking of the power of Sin and Evil that God, through Jesus, brought about on the cross. In other words, the undoing of the original sin of our human ancestors that brought about God’s curse on us and on God’s entire creation, the curse we and creation have been groaning under ever since (cf. Romans 8.18-25)! In Jesus’s death, God was at work putting to rights all the wrongs that human sin and folly and the evil it unleashed has caused in God’s originally good creation. We all know what that looks like and it is awful. Now here is John telling us that God the Son has finished the work and will of God the Father, work that makes it possible for God to restore his good creation and creatures gone bad.

And what happened on Saturday, the seventh day, in John’s gospel? Echoing Genesis 2.1-3, Jesus rested in the tomb, just as his Father had rested from his work on the seventh day (John 19.42). Now it is Sunday, the first day of the week, and St. John tells us that Mary has discovered the empty tomb. Jesus is not there, the angels tell her. He is risen, i.e, God’s new creation has begun! Death has been abolished forever! And let’s be very clear about what that means for John and the rest of the NT writers. The only way death can be abolished is through bodily resurrection because only in bodily resurrection can we find the full manifestation of what it means to live as humans in God’s promised new world. The whole story of Scripture is about how God is putting to rights all that is wrong with God’s creation. God has always been faithful to his original creation and intends to  restore it fully. But the OT writers only got a glimpse of this. It wasn’t until God raised Jesus from the dead that the NT writers began to comprehend the wonder and beauty and power of God’s promised new heavens and earth, the time when heaven (God’s space) and earth (human’s space) will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation that will erase fully God’s curse and restore God’s creation to its original goodness and beyond. To live in God’s new world, a physical world, means that we will need to have new bodies that are suited for it and Paul lays this out in detail in 1 Corinthians 15.35-57. I encour-age you to read and reflect on this breathtaking promise during the Octave of Easter (the eight days of Easter ending a week from Monday). You will be filled with hope and power if you do.

Only when we are raised from the dead and our souls are reunited with our Spirit-animated bodies that are patterned after our Lord’s resurrected body will death be finally destroyed. Listen to St. Paul describe it:

For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15.53-57, NRSV).

So while it is true that those of us who die in Christ will go to be with him in heaven until the day of our resurrection, the fact remains that between the time of our death and that day, we are still dead because our mortal body lies mouldering in the grave, dead as a doornail—just like you are when you hear Fathers Gatwood and Sang preach.

When Scripture talks about life, it has in mind a physical existence, not some disembodied spiritual state.  That’s a Greek and gnostic thingy. And this is where the Church has dropped the ball over the years because it has succumbed to its enemies’ skepticism. Bodily resurrection (the only kind of resurrection) is such a fantastic notion that many refuse to believe it. I remember being a young man and not reciting the clause in the Apostles’ Creed that states, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” How could I believe that when my ancestors were lying in their graves? Who’s seen a resurrected body? But this is exactly the testimony of St. Paul (1Corinthians 15.3-6), our earliest witness, and the gospel writers! Jesus’s body was not in the tomb. It wasn’t in the tomb because it had been stolen, but because God had raised him from the dead, the first fruits of God’s promised new world, a physical and spiritual world combined, not some disembodied heavenly existence! And for those of us who are in Christ, who believe he is who he says he is, who believe he is the embodiment of the living God who came at the Father’s good will to rescue us from the clutches of Evil, Sin, and Death, and who have a real and ongoing relationship with him, the astonishing promise is that we too will be citizens in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, thanks be to God! No other religion promises this magnificent and sweeping view of creation and history. Only the Christian faith promises us that creation, along with us, have a real and tangible future in Christ!

If you have ever seen the ugliness of a body ravaged by disease or death or by hunger, thirst, or exposure, or the ugliness of a mind ravaged by mental illness, or those who struggle terribly with deformity or infirmity, or witnessed the immense cruelty and ugliness in this world, or when nature turns ugly, this mind-boggling, breath-taking promise of resurrection should give you real hope, comfort, and purpose for living because it reminds us that all that is wrong and awful with God’s world has been defeated and will be fully restored one day. Try as best you can to imagine the beauty of this world and all that is beautiful in and among humans without any of the evil or wickedness. Try to imagine having a body so beautiful that it defies description. Try to imagine a world where there is no hurt or heartache or sickness or sorrow or crying or loneliness or anything else that despoils us and God’s current creation. Try to imagine living in God’s direct presence so that you can always experience his love for you. If you can begin to imagine any of this, you can begin to grasp the implications of living in God’s new world with your new resurrection body, a world that Jesus’ resurrection announced and launched. If you cannot find reason to rejoice and celebrate over this, my beloved, if you cannot find real hope and purpose for living in the resurrection promise, I fear there is nothing in all creation that can bring you real hope and joy, and you are most to be pitied.

To be sure, the promise of new creation has not yet come in full. Ugliness and brokenness remain. Death is still with us. But our Lord’s resurrection witnesses to the fact that God’s restoration project has begun and we are called to live in the already (of Jesus’s resurrection and the beginning of new creation) and the not yet (the completion of God’s restorative work begun in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection). And we can be assured of its testimony because the resurrection is based in history.

Critics, of course, deny the resurrection ever took place. I don’t have time to offer a defense for its reality other than to point you to a couple of things from our texts. One of the criticisms of the resurrection accounts in the gospels is that the accounts vary, and sometimes considerably. But this criticism often is based on the expectation that the gospel writers should write as 21st-century historians, and this is patently unfair to them. Scholars like Richard Bauckham have demonstrated that some of the differences can be accounted for because the gospel writers prized eye-witness accounts and we all know that eye- witness accounts don’t always agree on what happened. But that doesn’t mean their testimony is false, especially given the fantastic nature of the resurrection (first-century folks didn’t believe that dead people come back to life any more than we do). Take our gospel account, for example. When Mary came to the tomb that first Easter Sunday, she didn’t come there expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. She came there to anoint his dead body! And when she didn’t find Jesus’ body there, this helps explain all the running and fear and commotion. I don’t know about you, but I suspect that if we were to witness something of great magnitude for which we had no previous frame of reference, our various accounts would be all over the map. Had the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection all agreed to the letter, I would be much more suspicious that the story had been cooked instead of experienced. For those of you who wish to dig deeper, I commend a video on my blog that features N.T. Wright’s defense of the historical reality of the resurrection.

So what do we do with this reality that we have new life in Christ, the promise of living in God’s new world as God’s healed and forgiven people? We return to St. Paul and our epistle lesson and what he wrote about baptism in Romans 6.3-5. Those of us who are baptized are baptized into a death like Jesus’ so that we can share in a resurrection like his. In other words, Paul is telling us that this gift of new life in Christ begins right here and now and will extend all the way into eternity in God’s new world when it comes in full. This is God’s free gift to us because God loves us and wants us to live forever with him, enjoying a real relationship that will make us fully human again. So what are we to do? The first thing is to rejoice and party like it is the Eschaton—just like you do when you know that I am preaching! By virtue of our faith in Christ we are given new life, eternal life, resurrection life, a life that is hidden at the present time but is real nevertheless. It is the life we share with Jesus, whose body is in heaven, God’s space. Jesus is our life because only he is the resurrection and the life, and only in and through him can we have the hope of resurrection and living forever in God’s new world. That’s what Paul means when he tells us to set our minds on heavenly things where our Lord currently is, out of our sight. We are to work out what it means to live in ways that are patterned after Jesus’ life. We are to reject things that dehumanize and despoil us. We are to learn how to stop loving ourselves first and to love God above all, and neighbor as ourselves. This is what it means to share in Jesus’ death. As we learn to do this, we will discover that Jesus is with us and helps us in the power of the Spirit to put to death those things in us that need to die. As Jesus told Mary, we have to get used to dealing with him in and through the Spirit. While we will share a body like his, until Jesus returns, we must realize he is available to us in the power of the Spirit and therefore also in and through other people. That means we learn to live as though people and creation matter, and supremely. They matter because they matter to God, who raised Jesus from the dead and promises to heal and renew his creation and us. This means we are to live out our baptismal vows instead of forgetting about them, and that doesn’t happen automatically. We have to be intentional about it and set our mind on Christ through regular prayer, worship, fellowship, Bible study, and the like. We’ve been given the best gift of all, the gift of new life, eternal life, and we must learn to treat God’s gift with reverence and respect by leading lives that imitate Jesus. Is this your Easter hope and how you live it out in the living of your days?

And here is where I want to appeal to us to make Easter our primary and go-to celebration during the year instead of Christmas. Christmas is important but it needs Easter for it to mean anything to us as Christians. As we have seen, Easter, along with the crucifixion, proclaim the abolition of Evil, Sin, and Death, the beginning of God’s new world. Most of us treat Easter as a one-day event—today. But the season of Easter, Eastertide, actually lasts 50 days! And it provides us with wonderful opportunities to live out our Easter hope and joy in ways that can make others want to know what our secret is. How will we do that this Eastertide, St. Augustine’s? Whatever our answers are, do it we must because we are the recipients of God’s great love and future for us. Death is abolished and our future is life and beauty and love! So think of ways you can demonstrate your Easter (resurrection) hope to others, both as individuals and as Jesus’ body here at St. Augustine’s, and then get to work, proclaiming by your deeds and words the reality of our risen Lord and the impact it has on our life. There will be scoffers for sure because the world hates Jesus and those who follow him. But there are others who desperately need and want to hear the Good News that Jesus Christ is risen and Lord of this vast creation of God’s. Let us proclaim that, especially during these next fifty days, because we are resurrection people who have Good News to offer, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! 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.