Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday C, April 21, 2019 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; Easter Anthems; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; Luke 24.1-12.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest day in all history. Why do we believe this? Because Christ’s resurrection signals that death, our last and greatest enemy, will be destroyed. Yet many of us are skeptical about this central and foundational proclamation of our Christian faith. Why is that? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
Earlier in the liturgy we exchanged the Easter Acclamation: Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. We will be acclaiming this historic truth throughout the fifty days of Easter and we can trace it back to the very beginning of the Church. But do you believe it? It seems that many folks today, church goers sadly included, have gotten the idea that they can’t believe in the Resurrection and be a sophisticated, smart person they style themselves to be. After all, dead people don’t come back to life. We all know that. Moreover, organized religion is getting an increasingly bad name. We read stories of clergy abuse and folly and so become skeptical of the story they are supposed to tell. We are told that the Christian faith is repressive, exclusive, and controlling. The cumulative effect of all this bad publicity and hostile thinking tends to make even the best of us a bit timid about proclaiming the central truth of our faith: that Jesus Christ, crucified, died and buried, has risen from the dead. We are reluctant to proclaim that only in Jesus Christ is there life and freedom from our slavery to Sin and Death because we will surely be accused of being fundies, intolerant of other faiths, reactionary, judgmental, and all sorts of other crimes against enlightened thinking and PC.
And it seems we are not alone in our unbelief. In our gospel lesson this morning we read that the women came to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning to anoint his dead body and we need to be very clear about what St. Luke is telling us. The women didn’t come to the tomb expecting to find a risen Lord. They came to the tomb, like we go visit the graves of our dead loved ones, expecting to find a corpse. Otherwise, why bring spices to delay the decay of death? There was no expectation of a resurrection. They weren’t prepared to sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today. There were only painful memories of his naked, bloody, mutilated, and pierced body being laid in the tomb that previous Friday. Even in the first century, everybody knew dead people don’t come back to life.
Now here they are at the tomb and become alarmed at finding it empty. Being “perplexed” is a poor translation of the Greek word apore?. Imagine if you went to visit the grave of your loved one and discovered his/her body was no longer there and you had no idea what happened to it. You would be more than “perplexed.” You would be alarmed, consternated, anxious. Their anxiety quickly turned into terror when they were confronted by two angels who asked them why they were looking for the living among the dead. Whatever could that mean? The angels then reminded the women that Jesus himself had told them—six times in Luke’s gospel to be exact—that he would be crucified and raised from the dead. The women remembered his words and only then apparently believed, even if they didn’t fully understand what had happened to Jesus, because they went back and reported it all to the disciples. The disciples in turn were skeptical because St. Luke reports that they considered the women’s report of an empty tomb to be utter nonsense. The English translation for “idle tale” understates the case as well. The Greek St. Luke uses means the story of someone who is either deliriously out of his mind in pain or who has lost all contact with reality. Like the women before their angelic encounter, Jesus’ closest friends did not expect that he would be found alive.
And here is where we dare not be timid in our proclamation of the Resurrection. We are often told that the Resurrection is unimaginable and impossible for humans to believe, and from a human perspective that is quite true. We can’t imagine the Resurrection because it is not within our power or realm. We can’t undo death and so we don’t look for the living among the dead. But the Resurrection is not about human power. It is about God’s power and God’s realm, the same God who created this vast universe out of nothing and who raises the dead (Romans 4.17). Many can’t imagine Jesus being raised from the dead because we are not God, much as we want to be. The women did not come to believe that Jesus was alive by their own power and accord. They didn’t believe until God revealed it to them through an angelic intervention and by being reminded of Jesus’ words found in Scripture. Likewise, the disciples didn’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead until God chose to reveal it to them as St. Luke makes clear in his poignant story of the two disciples’ encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples later that day (Luke 24.13-48). St. Peter tells us the same thing in our NT lesson, attesting his belief in the Resurrection because God’s intervention made it known to him.
Here’s the point. The first disciples didn’t come to believe on their own or by their own thinking. They didn’t have that in their intellectual or experiential matrix. No human does. They came to believe because God chose to reveal his risen Son to them and by reminding them that Christ’s death and resurrection were predicted in the Scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. If you are wavering in your resurrection faith because you have never encountered the risen Christ in the manner the first disciples did (no one living has), pay attention to these stories (stories as history, not fiction). Apart from a personal encounter with the risen Christ, the same means of knowing him are available to you, just as they were to the first disciples (I can’t say first witnesses because nobody witnessed the Resurrection). So if your faith is tepid, instead of blaming God for that or trying to look sophisticated to a world that can only offer death, perhaps look at your own house first to see if you are really availing yourself to God’s power contained in God’s Word, the sacrament of Holy Communion and made available to you in the presence of the Holy Spirit. When you do, you will discover (or rediscover) why today is the greatest day in all history. By the grace of God you will have discovered the real power of God.
This is what happened to St. Paul. There was no more vehement scoffer than St. Paul was before his encounter with the risen Christ. Despite the pressures he faced (like we do) and the persecution and great suffering he endured for his Lord’s sake, St. Paul never wavered or was intimidated in his bold proclamation that God the Father had raised Jesus Christ from the dead. We see it in our epistle lesson where the apostle found disbelief and muddled thinking about the Resurrection in the church at Corinth. Why are you saying stupid stuff like Christ has not been raised from the dead? If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then your faith is futile and you are still a slave to the power of Sin and your destiny is death. Why? Because Jesus’ resurrection showed him to be God’s Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. If God did not raise Christ from the dead, then Jesus was just another lunatic and all that stuff about atonement and forgiveness is nonsense. We would still be God’s enemies and remain under God’s terrible judgment. And if that’s true, our faith is based on a lie and we are to be pitied most of all because we will still suffer as Christians always have for our faith.
But, proclaims St. Paul, Christ has been raised from the dead just as God always planned, to heal and restore his sin-sick world and human creatures. The resurrection has already begun when God raised Christ from the dead. This is what St. Paul meant when he referred to Jesus’ resurrection as the first fruits. Christ had to be raised first before those who belong to him because only in Christ do we find life. This had been God’s plan and intention all along. Christ had to die for us because we are all enslaved by the power of Sin and our sin leads to death. As we read last night at the Vigil, our first ancestors got us kicked out of paradise because of their rebellion and their sin-sickness has infected everyone ever since. There’s something desperately wrong with the world and our lives and all but the most delusional know it in our bones. Want examples? Consider the heartbreaking stories of those on our prayer list. Or just ask anyone who is growing old if life’s a picnic, or a desperately lonely young person with no hope of finding companionship, or the family whose child is a drug addict and who lives in constant danger of relapsing and dying, or the person who struggles with a disease that very well may kill her but not before ravaging her body and afflicting her with pain. There may be pockets of happiness and of course the arrogance of youth that lives in a state of perpetual denial of the reality of things, but this is what happens when we live in a world cursed by Sin and enslaved by the powers of Evil. This is what Paul meant when he spoke of death coming through one man (Adam). If Christ has not been raised from the dead, this is the world we are condemned to live in forever. But in raising Christ first, and because Jesus is fully human, God signaled his intention to destroy the powers that corrupt and dehumanize us and lead to death. Because God has annihilated death when he raised Jesus and because Jesus has destroyed the power of Sin over us and freed us from God’s just condemnation of our sins on the cross, those of us who have a real relationship with the risen Lord and really believe God raised him from the dead are made alive because we will share the same destiny as our risen Savior. For those who don’t have a relationship with Christ, only God’s fierce judgment and death awaits.
But we wait our turn to be raised. For those who have died believing that Jesus really is the Son of God whom God raised from the dead, they too will share in his resurrection when he returns to finish the work he started. Why this has to be a two step process, we aren’t told. We have to accept it as God’s wisdom at work as we muse on his power. In his eloquent and emotional sermon on Good Friday, Father Bowser spoke of spiritual warfare being waged and won on the cross. Here we see St. Paul speak in similar way. He makes the most astonishing claim that the fruits of Christ’s resurrection will become so far-reaching that it will actually bring about the end of history as we know it and allow Christ to consummate the Father’s kingdom by destroying all the dark powers of Evil and ultimately the final evil of death. Elsewhere, St. Paul sums it up like this:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15, NLT).
And make no mistake, despite our denial of death and our frantic efforts to avoid it at all costs, it is our ultimate enemy. Our neighbor’s 49 year old son died suddenly of blood clots in his lungs last week, one day shy of his 50th birthday. He had just fallen in love with a woman. The two were planning on getting married and having a future together along with his fiancé’s two daughters. Now he is dead and the family is devastated, heartbroken beyond repair. Or consider the memorial of the Columbine massacre yesterday. The families who lost loved ones that terrible day have been changed forever. There is nothing in this world that is going to make any of this right, no memorials, no celebration of life, no flowers or sympathy offered. Nothing. The only thing that can make this right is the resurrection of the body.
Here again we must be crystal clear in our thinking and bold in our proclamation about the Resurrection. We are talking about dead bodies being raised to a new and transformed life patterned after our Lord’s. His raised body had characteristics of his mortal body. His wounds were visible and he could eat and drink. He talked with his disciples and cooked them breakfast. He could be touched, seen, and heard. But his body also had new characteristics. He could appear suddenly behind locked doors and disappear just as suddenly. He wasn’t always recognizable. But he had a body nevertheless. When St. Paul proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ, he and the other NT writers weren’t talking about life after death or some disembodied state. Neither were they talking about Jesus dying and going to heaven or arguing that he had an immortal soul or that he existed in some spiritualized state about which the disciples eventually became aware. They weren’t interested in any of that baloney because this did not reflect the reality of God’s power in Christ. His mortal body had been raised and transformed, i.e., they were talking about new bodily life. That’s why there was an empty tomb. That’s why the women were chastised for seeking the living among the dead
And if we understand the whole narrative of Scripture that tells us how God is going about rescuing his sin-ravaged world and its people, the resurrection of the body ought to make perfect sense to us. God didn’t create us as spirits. God created us with a body to house our soul and our bodies are what make us human. So why wouldn’t God recreate our bodies in the manner he created us in the first place? Bodies matter to God and they should matter to us. They allow us to develop deep relationships with each other. We can talk to each other, hold each other, procreate and enjoy sexual intimacy in the context of married life. Think about the patterns of your best beloved and how you would miss those patterns terribly if that person were dead because those bodily patterns helped make the person present to you. That is why death cannot finally be destroyed until Christ returns and raises those of us who belong to him back to new bodily life. While those we love who have died in Christ are with him in heaven, they are still dead. Their bodies lie mouldering in the grave and we cannot talk to them or see them or touch them or feel their warmth.
Not so when Christ returns to raise the dead to new life. Only then will we be reunited with our loved ones and really have them back, never to worry about losing them again. Death will be destroyed. Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this? On the contrary, we can scarcely begin to imagine it, for it does not come from human imagination but from God. All our sins wiped away, all evil done to death forever, the devil and his minions destroyed, our loved ones restored to us, all the injustices and wrongs of human history made right in a new heavens and earth. These things are neither humanly possible or religiously possible. But nothing is impossible for God. The Resurrection proclaims that everything is new! Changed! Our sinfulness exchanged for his righteousness, our mortality for his immortality, our sorrow for his joy, our bondage for his freedom, and our deteriorating human body for an altogether transformed one that will be impervious to death, disease, aging, and deformity, a body that will be our very own and no one else’s, a body with which to love others and be loved in return with all the love of Christ himself. This is the hope and power of Easter, my beloved. Is it your hope and power? If it is, nothing in this world can rob you of the joy (not happiness) that must accompany your resurrection faith because you know that while mortal death awaits, it has been swallowed up in life, all by the love and mercy and power of God. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and raised from the dead.
I promise you this. On my watch here, you will not hear a tepid, half-baked, human-oriented or over-spiritualized (gnostic) gospel preached, despite the fact that we have Fathers Sang, Bowser, and Madanu on staff, nor will St. Augustine’s be ashamed of the gospel, despite the fact that we are a quirky bunch of ragamuffins. We worship and proclaim a God who creates new things out of nothing and who raises the dead. This God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has sent his Son to restore us fully to himself and makes himself known to us in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the God we proclaim and love, and this is what makes today the greatest day in history. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! (Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!) Alleluia!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.