Our Easter Hope: We Need it Now More than Ever

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday B, April 4, 2021 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 15.1-11; St. 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. Sadly there is a lot of muddled thinking about the Resurrection and I blame the Church primarily for that because it capitulated to the forces of secularization and so-called “enlightened” thinking, thinking that dismisses Christ’s resurrection as made-up fantasy. To put it bluntly, the Church for the most part, at least in the West, has lost her bold voice and failed to proclaim and live out her resurrection hope, and we suffer because of it. We can’t expect the people of God to proclaim and live their Easter Faith if Holy Mother Church doesn’t teach them what that faith is and what it is supposed to look like! So this morning I want us to look at exactly what the first Christians proclaimed when they proclaimed Christ’s Resurrection. Why? Because without the Spirit-filled power of an informed and robust Easter Faith, given the crazy state of our world today and the patients who are trying to run the asylum, we as Christians will inevitably succumb to the destructive Zeitgeist of this age and in doing so bring harm to ourselves and dishonor the Name of the One we profess to follow.

On Friday we looked at what was so “good” about Good Friday and saw that the cross of Christ is a tangible sign of God’s great love for us and his desire to offer us forgiveness, irrespective of who we are or what we have done or failed to do, thereby establishing the necessary conditions for our reconciliation with God, a message echoed in today’s reading from Acts. This is quite necessary if we ever hope to find real healing and peace. Without the healing and forgiveness of Christ found only in having faith in him, no matter how imperfect that faith, it is impossible to be a faithful disciple of Jesus where we can love and serve him in joyful obedience, even in the face of the suffering we must inevitably endure for his sake. Simply put, we cannot love and serve Christ and others if we are distracted by our guilt, failure, and fears. And so forgiveness is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be a a follower of Christ and the cross is God’s everlasting promise to us that we have that forgiveness. How do I know this is true? How can you know this is true so that you can stake your very life on it? Is it because I’m a smart guy? Well yes I am (good looking too), but that’s not why I know it’s true. We all can have great confidence that this is true because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead! Without the Resurrection, we never would have heard the name of Jesus let alone worship him, and without the cross, the Resurrection would not be possible because we would still be dead in our sins, alienated and hostile to God the Father, and deprived of any real hope. Simply put, the new heavens and earth will not be open to those who are still sin-stained. More about that anon. As St. Paul took pains to remind us in our epistle lesson, Christ’s death and resurrection were historical events, the crucified and risen Christ being witnessed and experienced by hundreds of people, and with it the turning point of history had arrived, the very essence of NEWS, Good News. The old order was done for; God’s new order had arrived, and with it God’s healing love and forgiveness. So the first thing we need to say about Christ’s Resurrection is an historical event inextricably tied to his saving death on the cross. This is critical for a vibrant Easter Faith.

Second, and equally crucial for us to have a meaningful Easter Faith is to have a clear understanding of what resurrection means. When the NT writers and early Church proclaimed Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, they didn’t mean that Jesus had gone to heaven to be with God. It didn’t mean that Jesus was somehow available to them in a new spiritual way so that they could commune with him. That’s an ancient gnostic heresy that is still the darling of many today, including sadly many Christians. In both instances, our Lord would still have been dead and gone, his body presumably moldering somewhere, but certainly still a corpse. This focus on spirituality and life after death is emphatically not what the NT writers meant when they proclaimed Christ was raised from the dead. If Christ was merely available to his first followers in some mystical or spiritual sense, what difference would that really have made to them? Think about it. When our own beloved die, we might draw some comfort and solace if we think there really is life after death. But the fact is, they’re still dead. We can’t see them, touch them, talk with them, hear them, smell them, or interact with them in any meaningful way. Neither does our hope that our dead loved ones somehow survive after their mortal death generally have the power to change our lives much. We must adjust to life without them, and if we had any meaningful relationship with them in this mortal life, our lives going forward are always poorer because they are no longer available to us as they were in this mortal life. No, if Christ’s Resurrection was simply about a new kind of spirituality, the first disciples wouldn’t have been running all over the place that first Easter Sunday, full of wonder, excitement, and fear. I know I don’t have that kind of reaction when I visit the graves of my loved ones. They’re  dead and gone and my life is the poorer for it, forgetting for the moment my Easter Faith. So to repeat, resurrection is not about dying and going to heaven or life after death or spirituality.

So what is resurrection? When the first followers of Christ proclaimed that he was raised from the dead, they were talking about new bodily existence and this is where the brilliance of St. John as a theologian and storyteller shines brightly. As we read last night at the Easter Vigil, creation has always mattered to God. Scripture proclaims that before God created there was nothing but darkness and chaos, but that God created goodness and order to replace that. Genesis declares very clearly that God’s original creation was good and God’s creation of his human image-bearers to run his good creation made the whole enterprise very good. Here we see a good God speak into existence a good created order, complete with his image-bearers to run the whole thing. 

But then came human sin and rebellion, and that allowed the powers of Evil and Death to enter God’s good creation to corrupt and disorder it. The whole story of Scripture, then, is about how God is rescuing his good created order (us included) from our bondage to the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death. Fast forward now to St. John’s gospel, which as we saw at Christmas, purposely mirrors the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2, but with the focus specifically on the Son of God, Jesus Christ. As we saw Friday night, Good Friday represented the culmination of God’s redemptive work in Christ, the sixth day of God’s (re)creative process, mirroring the sixth day of the original creation narratives that represented the pinnacle of God’s creative activity as he created humans. On the cross, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures as St. Paul declares in our epistle lesson, and his dying words were, “It is finished.” But what was finished? As we saw above and on Good Friday, what was finished is God’s redemptive work to reconcile us to him through the blood of the Lamb so that we could once again take our rightful place as God’s good and wise image-bearers to run God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. This was always God’s creative intent. And then on the seventh day, Christ rested in his tomb, paralleling the seventh day of creation when God rested from his creative work. Now here we are, the first day of the new week, the eighth day. St. John clearly wants us to see that when God raised Jesus from the dead on that day, God ushered in the new world, the new heavens and earth. It’s so important that the evangelist repeats it later in this chapter as we will see next week. Christ died to make all things new and break the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death so that we would no longer be enslaved by them. Why? Because creation matters to God. We matter to God, and Scripture testifies consistently that it has always been God the Father’s intent to heal and restore his good but corrupted created order, us included. 

And so this is what the first followers meant when they talked about Christ’s Resurrection. New bodily life, a new created order. As we saw in our gospel lesson, Mary tried to grab hold of Jesus. You don’t do that with a ghost or disembodied spirit. Christ’s new body had both similarities to our mortal bodies as well as new characteristics. His followers could see him, hear him, touch him, converse with him, and eat and drink with him, just like they could in his mortal life. Yet his body was different. He could mask his identity as he did initially with Mary in the garden and with his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. He could appear and disappear behind locked doors. All of this would certainly have produced the kind of commotion and fear the gospel writers all report happening that first Easter Sunday because it was something totally unexpected. And let’s be clear about that too. The women didn’t come to Christ’s tomb expecting to see him risen from the dead. They knew, as we do, that dead people don’t come out of their graves. They came instead to mourn his death and anoint his body to slow down the inevitable decomposition that accompanies death. 

So why is this all critical to us and our Easter Faith? Well, if, as Revelation promises in its closing chapters, God’s new world is a-coming, the day when the dimensions of heaven and earth are joined together in a new created order, we will need new bodies to inhabit it. Why? Because the new creation will be a material order, but also something entirely new, a world devoid of all the evils and hurts and heartaches we must endure in this mortal life, and it will last forever because Death will be abolished forever. Therefore we need bodies that will last forever, the kind of bodies that are patterned after our risen Lord’s body, suitable to live in God’s new world. St. Paul spells this out in detail later in 1 Cor 15 but that will have to wait for another day. The critical point here is that when the first Christians spoke of Christ’s Resurrection they were proclaiming new bodily life, and that is so much more satisfactory than some disembodied spiritual existence. 

Why? Because without a body, human relationships as we know and value them would be impossible. Take St. Peter’s restoration for instance. When our Lord restored St. Peter after the latter’s disastrous denial of Christ, he had to be embodied for it to have a lasting impact on St. Peter. Our own spiritual struggles validate this. Unless we hear an tender voice speaking to us, unless we can look into another person’s eyes and hear the tone of his or her voice and feel the person’s gentle touch, we will never be quite sure if we are forgiven or restored. We ask forgiveness in prayer and we are assured that we receive it because Christ lives and intercedes for us. But we receive it by faith. Unless we hear his voice or receive a clear intimation from him, there is always the possibility of doubt. Are we really forgiven? I suspect St. Peter’s catastrophic denials were so severe that nothing less than an encounter with his risen embodied Lord would do it for him. God, of course, knows best what we need to receive his healing love and forgiveness, but the point remains that without bodies we do not have what it takes to be truly human. And if we are not truly human we are not God’s image-bearers and God’s original and eternal intent for us is destroyed. If we believe in an omnipotent God, a moment’s thought will confirm to us what a ridiculous proposition that is. What Christ’s resurrection announced to his first followers and to us is that the old world order of Sin, Evil, and Death is defeated, that a new day has dawned—God’s new day, the beginning of the new heavens and earth. That day is not yet consummated but the war has been won and we are the beneficiaries. The rest, as a cabbie once said to N.T. Wright, is basically rock and roll, isn’t it?

So how can our Easter Faith assist us in the living of our days in this increasingly mad and bizarre world? Time limits me to two basic ideas to get you jump-started in our own thinking and reflections. First, Christ’s Resurrection invites us to look at our present world and evaluate it using different criteria. Instead of looking at the past and present to assess our future prospects, what if we use our future hope of new creation to assess our present world? When we assess our future prospects using the past and present, how can there really be any hope? The human condition hasn’t changed. Science and technology, while making our lives so much better and easier in some ways, has not changed who we are. Human rapacity, sin, selfishness, pride, greed, and lust for power (to name just a few) continue unabated and unchanged by any of our scientific advancements, the Star Trek myth notwithstanding. In fact, if anything, technology has exposed human wickedness in unprecedented ways. We have instant access to an unending stream of bad news and human madness and evil. Death still reigns. People still suffer. Old age and infirmity still come. We are still alienated to each other and the God-ordained institutions of marriage and family are crumbling before our eyes. Our nation becomes increasingly divided and there are very few voices of reason out there these days. Based on this, what is our realistic hope for the future? This is the old world order at its finest and worst, and with it comes darkness, despair, sickness, and death. 

But what if we really believe Christ’s Resurrection announced the in-breaking of God’s new world, a world in which Evil, Sin, and Death are destroyed forever? A world in which there is no more sickness, sorrow, suffering, alienation, despair, or want of any kind? A world that is dominated by the love and goodness of God, a world about which St. Paul spoke in 1 Cor 13? To be sure, that world has not yet arrived, but it’s coming in full one day and we are called by Christ to so order our lives in ways that will announce to the powers of the old order that their day is through. We do this locally as the family of God. We love each other, care for each other, and suffer with and for each other. We bear each others quirks and pricklies. We grieve with those who grieve and rejoice with those who rejoice. We worship together our risen Lord and Savior and eagerly await his return to finish the work he started in his death and resurrection. We refuse to take revenge and are quick to forgive, especially those who hate Christ and us for being his followers. This will inevitably produce suffering for us, but we have a real hope and future. We know a new world is coming some day. It may be a million years from now. It may be tomorrow. But that doesn’t matter. We assess our present and imitate our crucified and risen Lord because we believe that his Resurrection announced a new world order, a world order run by God alone, a perfect world in which we have been invited to live forever because of the love of God poured out for us on the cross and vindicated that first Easter Sunday. As the great bishop of S. India, Lesslie Newbigin, once said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” Exactly.

And on a more personal and emotional note, Christ’s Resurrection promises us that Death will not have the final say. If you have ever watched a loved one suffer and die or are enduring a loved one’s infirmity or terminal disease, you know how heartbreaking that is. But your Easter hope can help mitigate the heartbreak. Why? Because we know that the ugliness and suffering we and our loved ones are enduring (or endured) will one day be redeemed. Broken, weak, ugly bodies on the verge of death will be restored to new beauty and vitality unknown in this mortal life. Suffering, sorrow, and separation will be no more. We will once again get to see, touch, hear, smell, and converse with our beloved as fully restored human beings, perfect and beautiful in unimaginable ways, our relationships with them healed and restored. Who would not want that? But that day has not yet arrived. Until it does we must be content that our dead loved ones are taking their rest in their Lord who claimed them from all eternity, safe in his loving care in heaven as they await their new bodies. In the meantime hope remains, the sure and certain expectation of things to come, because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, announcing God’s promised new reality, helping us to endure the unendurable until that great and glorious day. The hope of resurrections fulfills our deepest longing for restored human relationships shattered by death.

If you are having a hard time imagining this, don’t worry. God’s power and love and beauty, which of course the Resurrection is all about, is hard for us mortal finite humans to imagine. But just because we cannot fully imagine it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This Eastertide, be living signs of God’s new world. Find ways to celebrate and imitate your crucified and risen Lord. And when the news of the day gets to be too much for you so that you find yourself despairing over the state of things in this country and/or your life, remember that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the present order are not (and that’s got nothing to do with politics, my beloved). I’m not talking about platitudes; I am talking about availing yourself to God’s power, a power that not even the darkest powers can overcome. But you can’t do this on your own because you will be overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of the madness of this world. So let us also resolve to remember and declare together that Jesus Christ is Lord and the dark powers that run this world are not. Their day is done, even if they are not fully vanquished. We know Jesus is Lord because he is raised from the dead and lives with God to intercede for us as his people. He calls us to be living signposts—tangible markers in this life pointing to our final destination, not the destination itself—of his healing love and redemption of the entire human race. So let us together as God’s people here at St. Augustine’s resolve anew to embody God’s great love and forgiveness, goodness and righteousness, to a world gone mad. As we do, let us resolve to worship God and the Lamb together in the power of the Holy Spirit and to rejoice in this gift of resurrection life. Let us come to Christ’s table and feed on him and so be strengthened for this arduous task. Let us have generous hearts with which to share the abundance of Christ’s love and blessings. Let us enjoy sweet fellowship together and take care of each other, always welcoming strangers and inviting others to join in the Paschal Feast. And let our worship and fellowship drive a renewed sense of service to a world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. Everything has changed because Christ has died and risen from the dead. Stake your very life on it and be bold in your living and proclamation of this new reality. And let us find ways to announce this Good News to the world, especially during these next fifty days. After all, we have hope for the present, no matter how bleak things become, because we know our future is secure, and not even the gates of hell can rob us of that promise. 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.