Weekly Preaching: Easter Sunday 2019

April 15th, 2019

Easter preaching. Fun! yet 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).

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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 — 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.  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. 

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, l─ôros, 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. 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 and all the saints. Thankfully, 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." It's big, this Easter hope.

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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.

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.

I am also 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 counterintuitive 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... 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 can we say April 21, Easter Sunday? originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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