Friday, November 16, 2018

What can we say April 21, Easter Sunday?

    Easter preaching. Fun! & so hard. So much cuteness and sweetness, lots of sightseers and visiting kin, all the flowers. The lectionary, having tracked Luke’s narrative this far, inexplicably leaps over to John 20, albeit with Luke 24 italicized just in case.  I will look now at Luke (which I’ll preach on), and then turn to John 20.

    Luke 24:1-12.  If you slow down, you’ll notice they waited until the “third day” because of the intervening Sabbath. You just don’t work on the Sabbath – even if it’s tending to Jesus’ precious body! After all, resurrection is the kind of thing only God can do, and only while we are doing nothing at all, while we are resting. I’m reminded to encourage all clergy to watch the best sermon for clergy I’ve ever heard  - and it’s on this business of the women, the tomb, and the Sabbath – by my friend Claude Alexander; a must watch – and don’t miss the song right after the sermon.

    While we welcome Easter as so pleasant, we should note that, unanimously, the first witnesses were flat out terrified.  And then the “He is not here, he is risen” reminds me of the many places we think Christ must be but he’s on the loose, not so blithely contained where we expect him to be.  Doug Marlette’s cartoon about prayer in the public schools is wicked funny – and probably not for the sermon proper but the preacher’s own edification and inspiration: 2 angels standing on the front step of the schoolhouse, telling people toting Bibles, "He is not here. He is risen." Or maybe for the sermon: where do we not expect God to show up? & where does God show up we don’t envision?

   The women Luke names as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and the angels’ report, are the very same women named in Luke 8 – those who underwrote, who funded the ministry of Jesus and the disciples! Despite that, these powerful women still have no credibility with the guys.  A whole sermon could be framed around “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The Greek, lēros, means something like “humbug” (think Scrooge!!!) or “nonsense.”

    You have to love St. Augustine’s comment: “Humanity fell through the female sex, human kind was restored through the female sex. A virgin gave birth to Christ; a woman proclaimed he had risen again. Through a woman death; through a woman life. But the disciples didn’t believe what the women said. They thought they were raving, when in fact they were reporting the truth.” Questions about when we listen (or don’t!) to women are intriguing – and in this case, how do we modern people scoff at notions of resurrection – real resurrection, not pie in the sky eternal life, playing golf or shopping in heaven.  How many people will you speak to on Easter for whom this is, in its robust, physical, transformative sense, “an idle tale,” “humbug,” “nonsense”?


   I am sure we trivialize Easter, and Christianity, when we make it about me and my eternal life. I cannot commend strongly enough Gerhard Lohfink's fabulous Is This All There Is? Resurrection and Eternal Life. He begins by dissecting how modern blather about death (that we live on in memory, or are forever digging whatever we dug in this life) isn't very different from ancient melancholy and resignation (like the common tombstone saying, "I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care"). Biblical hope is about incorporation into Christ’s eternal body, and participation in the redemption of all creation. Is there judgment? Yes - in that we will finally see with total clarity who we really are. This ultimate encounter with truth, in light of God's mercy, will strike in us our need for healing, and purification. Hell (for Lohfink) isn't something God imposes. God loathes hell. “If there be such people who with the fundamental choice of their existence seek only themselves and reject everything else, God must leave them to themselves, to their own closedness-within-the-self. God cannot overpower them and certainly cannot assault them. Such a person then would really have nothing but his or her own self – and that precisely would be hell. We can only hope that there is no such person, that even in such cases God’s grace will prove victorious by tearing open the self-created prison of that person’s own existence. We can only hope that hell is empty.”

   As empty as Jesus' tomb. Resurrection, in Scripture (as Lohfink explains), isn't only of soul, and not even of just my body. It is all of our life, books I’ve treasured, a garden I planted and tended, another person I loved, my unfulfilled dreams – all the great music, paintings, scientific research, any and all amazement ever by anybody. Resurrection incorporates me and you into all nations and peoples, with the unborn child you never knew, and all the saints - thankfully, as in eternity we will be granted "a full share of the patience of the most patient mothers, the wisdom of the holy, the courage of the martyrs, the faith of Paul, Francis, Teresa, the rapture of the great lovers." Big, this Easter hope.

     I wonder about the role of personal testimony at Easter.  I did this after the DaVinci Code came out, along with the other anti-Christian books that sell so well.  I clarified that for me, as a guy, not as pastor, not under instruction from the bishop, but just me, a naturally cynical guy: I really believe Jesus didn’t stay dead, but he rose, he appeared.  I can clarify various things, like It’s not a resuscitation, etc.  But I really believe this amazement happened.

    If I were asked for proof, I’d go for the one several others have advanced:  in those days, lots of great, heroic leaders died; some were even believed to be messianic.  After their deaths, their followers trudged home and gave up or looked for the next great thing to come along.  Jesus’ followers never went home, but launched out into the world, risking everything, and often winding up dead or hurt, because of one thing only: they had seen the risen Lord.  As Rowan Williams said in The Sign and the Sacrifice, “It’s hard to see how this new age faith could come into being without an event to point to.  The language of resurrection is historical, not speculative: it’s about earth before it’s about heaven.  The very untidiness of the resurrection stories is one of the main reasons for taking them seriously.  What’s going on is clearly people struggling to find words for something they had not expected.”

    I think I always like to turn to Paul’s logical plea (from this Sunday’s Epistle): “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). I think that speaks even to cynics.

    Or I am fond of what J. Christiaan Beker wrote in Paul the Apostle: “Paul’s church is not an aggregate of justified sinners or a sacramental institute or a means for private self-sanctification, but the avant-garde of the new creation in a hostile world, creating beachheads in this world of God’s dawning new world and yearning for the day of God’s visible lordship over his creation.”  N.T. Wright mirrors this approach in lots of his books, especially Surprised by Hope.  Does the D-Day analogy fit? Or is the carnage of war counter-intuitive for Easter?

    Preaching hinges on how we grow and are enriched personally, whether we ‘use’ the stuff involved or not.  Let me summarize what Rowan Williams has said: “Believing in the resurrection is believing that the new age has been inaugurated… The decisive difference has been made.  The destinies of all human beings are now bound up with Jesus.  They will find who they are, who they may be, and where they will be, in relation to Jesus.  The future is in his hands.  Christianity is not the Jesus of Nazareth Society – rather like the Alfred Lord Tennyson Society, looking back to a great dead genius. If Jesus is risen, there is a human destiny.  We were made with dignity and liberty so that, one day, we would be companions for Jesus Christ.  Human nature was endowed with all its gifts so it would one day be a proper vehicle for the transforming work of God the Father.”

    What a high view of humanity!  And then he invites us who preach to trust the message:  “Wherever we go, with the biblical story in our hands and the vision of Jesus in our eyes, there is an expectation that human beings will resonate with what’s being spoken of.  They may not quite know how they do it or why…  We go on in mission, because of that conviction that there is such a thing as the human heart and human destiny, and thus that these words will find an echo.”


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