Weekly Preaching: Easter Sunday 2021

March 31st, 2021

For me, preaching Easter Sunday is tough, frustrating. Pre-COVID, we had mobs of people, most of whom I don't know, or vaguely know, for whom it's important or fun or cute or whatever to come on Easter. I've dinged them some years – but that doesn't help them. Glad they came – but can I call them into semi-deep discipleship? I can't say I've preached the sermon that has gotten this done – although a few each year return for a while.

Before looking closely at Mark, there's this: I'm wrestling this year with a terrific little book by Kavin Rowe called Christianity's Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope – which I'd commend to you. However, it raises enthusiastic hope while it deflates me a bit. Rowe points out the alarming, shocking, startling news that original Christianity was – but how to recover this mood? "If Christianity is anything at all like what the early sources claim it is, then woe to us if we forget its power, making it boring, and lose its surprise. Human life is just too hard to have a boring Christianity." Indeed, we've (clergy included!) reduced Christian faith to sentiment, personal preference, a voluntary society, a personal boost, a ticket to heaven, whatever. It's worth reclaiming, maybe at Easter, that before Christianity, no one thought of all people as of equal value, no one took care of the destitute, no metanarrative about everything, much less one supremely focused on just one person, with power over life and death and the hope of people and all of creation. Rowe engages with Charles Taylor and his thick, wise, important, and yet dense and almost inaccessible book, A Secular Age, which expounds over 900 pages his primal thesis that secularism is marked by the need, desire, and necessity to find meaning within me, in my own life – versus finding meaning outside me, beyond human interactions and achievement. That pretty much nails it – and I bet anybody showing up at Easter is craving something, anything beyond the secular, beyond what we can muster for ourselves.

Rowe notes the shock of Easter: "The power of the resurrection to provide hope has nothing whatsoever to do with being positive in the face of death, or fooling ourselves about our fragility and the fragility of what we love…. Our obedience on this side of death is ultimately good only because we will live, as does Jesus, with God on the other side of our deaths… God's power at work in the resurrection of Jesus makes more out of crucifixion than was there to begin with. It is re-creation; it brings surplus-life." He's right: to recover any sense of the surprise, the mind-boggling reversal of the known world, our "re-learning will require un-learning." Eternal life as automatic, as natural, holiness as determined effort to be pretty good, any sense that we are okay, that our political ideology just might deliver the goods, that diversion works: we have to walk our people, lovingly, calmly and yet confidently, into a shedding of cultural spiritualities and ideologies that can't finally deliver into the stunning (even to us!) realities of resurrection.

{On this business of "surprise," I'd commend to you Jason Byassee's Surprised by Jesus Again, in which he interprets the Bible "as a mystery of seeking to be surprised by Jesus again. Historical criticism tries to read without surprise. All the evidence is in. Robert Jenson said the difference between a dead god and a living God is a dead god can't surprise you."}

The lectionary gives you the option of John vs. Mark. As we're in the year of Mark, let's go with chapter 16, peculiar as it might be. How weird: if we allow that verses 9-20 are a later addition (and we should hope so, or we need to practice handling snakes), then Mark's book ends with a preposition, gar, for. No way to end a sentence, much less a book! Dangling. Everything feels incomplete, left hanging. Yeah. That's Christianity, not done, tied up in a ribbon, but incomplete, ongoing. The rest of the story is... today, tomorrow, my life, our church's mission. I'll play on this, noting how desperately people want to "get back" - to church, to normal. It's moving forward into, well, we don't know what just yet.

Then the negatives, literally "Say nothing to no one." No way to spread the Good News, being quiet. Easter elicits a lot of noise in our worship. The first Easter elicited silence. Jesus is risen. So, shhh. Be still and know. Ponder. Listen. Be still some more. Breathe. The silence is curious yet lovely and fitting. At the Transfiguration, the disciples are struck dumb. Just too great for words. Eternity has manifest itself – what words could rise to something so astonishing? I dream of the sermon where I talk, then stammer into a silent reverie, so amazed I just can't speak for a few seconds or minutes.

Notice Mark's only witnesses are women – in a day when people scoffed and disallowed women's testimony in court. Piece Mark together with the other three Gospels (and Paul in Acts 9 and 1 Corinthians 15!), and you have a tangled mess of inconsistencies and contradictions. William Placher (in his wonderful Narratives of a Vulnerable God) suggests (with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein!) it is as if one wanted to warn someone of terrible danger – with a riddle! Perhaps a riddle is the clearest and only way to convey this particular truth, the invasion of eternity into reality, the breaking of the bonds of death, the opening salvo in the redemption of all creation. Of course, the accounts are confused. I dream of the sermon that's a bit of an awestruck ramble. Placher is also wise (in his Mark commentary): "Theologically, the empty tomb secures the reality of the resurrection of Jesus' body… affirming that bodies are not something we should hope to cast aside." Bodies matter. God made them – and became one. Of course, they aren't just disposed of – and we'd best not disregard bodies (mine, yours, black bodies, women's bodies) now.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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