Resurrection

(sermon 4/21/19 – Easter Sunday)

empty tomb

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Well, today is the day! From the standpoint of the church, this is the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and Oscars night all rolled into one. All around the globe, churches have made sure the grounds are clean and pretty, there are plenty of visitors’ brochures ready to go, choirs and other musical groups have been putting in extra practice, and all the soap dispensers and paper towel holder have been checked and double-checked. And for most of us, whether we’re here almost every Sunday or only now and then, we’re here for this day, Easter Sunday. This is the day that we show up to proclaim Jesus Christ, the one born into this world to proclaim God’s favor and love for all of humanity; a message that so threatened and terrified the powers that be that they had him arrested and executed as a political prisoner, a threat to the empire –  but that on this day, Easter Sunday, God refused to let that death be the final word. Rather, God raised Jesus from the dead, as a validation of his life and his message, and of the entering in of the kingdom of God into the world. On this day, God refused to let that message of love and justice and hope die. That’s what we come here today to profess, and to celebrate. This day, we come together to show our true colors; to show what team we’re playing for, what we stand for, what we believe.

But… it’s that last part, what we believe, where maybe we get a little nervous about this day – when we celebrate the most illogical, irrational, unlikely thing that could ever be imagined – the raising of the dead. Resurrection – the mysterious transformation of a beaten, tortured, stone-cold dead body into a fully alive, improved, eternally transformed, physical person. We can be honest with one another here. We can admit that the whole idea sounds pretty ridiculous – even laughable.

It’s a bit ironic that on this, the holiest of all days in the entire Christian tradition, we confront the intersection of our greatest joy and probably our greatest doubt. On this day, maybe more than others, we hear that voice that we try to push back into the recesses of our brains, to keep buried in its own dark tomb with the stone firmly over the door – but still, the little, disquieting voice still manages to sneak out, and we hear ourselves wondering, “Is the resurrection real?”

I wasn’t there at that tomb in the pre-dawn darkness with the women who’d gone out there that morning. I didn’t see resurrection that day. I didn’t touch it; I didn’t feel it. But in the midst of this Easter intersection of faith and doubt, my heart still overflows with joy and gratitude, because I can still definitely say that I’ve experienced resurrection. I’ve seen it.

Mary experienced it that morning at the tomb, and so did the other disciples later that same day and in the days to come. It was the reality of resurrection that convinced their hearts that Christ, whom they’d seen killed, was indeed risen and alive. It was the reality of resurrection that transformed them from a group of people fearing for their lives behind locked doors, to a group so energized that they had to come out from behind those locked doors and to go out into the street, and ultimately throughout the world, proclaiming the good news that Christ, and his message, and the incoming of the kingdom of God, was alive and well.

It’s the reality of the resurrection – this undeniable encounter with the very living Spirit of the same God who lived as one of us, and walked as one of us, and died as one of us – that we experience when we see the transformation of the lives of countless people in amazing, otherwise inexplicable ways. Giving them the strength to get through difficult situations so terrible that that by any reasonable measure should have crushed them like a Dixie Cup. Giving them the ability to overcome the insurmountable; to forgive the unforgivable; to love the unlovable.

And also we see the reality of the resurrection in the life of love, and support, and affirmation that we all experience together as a community of faith – seeing the risen Christ in the faces of others, and seeing how Christ has transformed them, just as Christ has transformed us, as well. We see the reality of the resurrection when we recognize that through it, we are transformed, but not only transformed – we’re also called to be transformative  – to be the reality of resurrection to others around us.

syria puppeteers

Do you see this? This is a gathering of children whose lives and homes have been destroyed in the ongoing war in Syria. There, in the middle of the rubble that used to be a village they’re gathered around to watch a spontaneous puppet show staged by two puppeteers. Their own lives must have been every bit as destroyed as the children’s, but they still decided to bring at least a moment of laughter to a handful of kids who couldn’t otherwise afford that luxury. Can you imagine that? It’s illogical. It’s irrational. It makes no sense. It might seem small, an insignificant drop of joy in an ocean of despair, and maybe it is, but make no mistake – the greatest evidence of the reality of resurrection is the reality of hope in this world. Every time you see goodness rising in the wake of evil, you see the reality of the resurrection. Every time you see people finding ways to bring light into places of darkness; compassion into places of indifference and heartlessness;  justice into places of injustice and inequity; truth into places of dishonesty and deceit; and healing into places of brokenness, you are witnessing the eternal truth and reality of resurrection. All of it is in one way or another, even if it isn’t recognized as such in the moment, a witness to the reality of the resurrection of Christ – a witness to the reality of God’s validation of Christ’s life and message of love for the world.

So on this, the holiest of all days, celebrate the resurrection. Sing out with your boldest, loudest voices, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Feel the love and the unity embodied in the bread and cup of Communion. Clap your hands; dance like nobody is watching, or whatever the closest thing to that is for us Presbyterians. Enjoy the fellowship of being here together this morning, and feeling the Spirit of the risen Lord who is present here among us. And maybe a few hours from now, enjoy that traditional Easter dinner that you have planned, full of whatever your own personal traditional Easter foods are. Snack on the leftover candy, and savor the love of family and friends gathered together. Take the time to feel the love in all of this day. And in the midst of it all, recognize that while you might not know all the technical details, the biological, physical aspects of what happened inside that tomb on that fateful first Easter Sunday, you have experienced, and you know, that we worship a God who always brings life from death, hope from despair, and love from hate. Friends, that is resurrection, and resurrection is real. Resurrection is you. And it’s me. Because first, resurrection was Christ. Hold onto that great, eternal truth in your hearts, and let it show in your lives, today, and every day.  Amen.

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The *Something* of Resurrection

(sermon 4/16/17 – Easter Sunday)

Mary Mag2 by bruce wolfe - old mission santa barbaraMary Magdalene, bronze, Bruce Wolfe, sculptor

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Mary Magdalene’s world had spun out of control. Everything she’d come to believe, everything she’d put her faith in, had come crashing down. Jesus was dead. Since Friday, she’d been nearly crushed with grief, and now, early Sunday morning, when she must have thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Now, not only was Jesus dead, something had happened to his body. She couldn’t even give him a decent burial.

She was almost paralyzed in her grief; she couldn’t even pull herself together enough to walk back into town with the others. She just slumped down on the ground, seeming to weigh a ton under the sadness, the dread, the fear.

And then, everything changed. There, at the tomb, Mary encountered the resurrected Jesus. There, in that moment, Mary experienced the power of resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus, and because of that, the resurrection of hope. In an instant, everything was new again – and not just as good as things were before Jesus was killed, but even better, exponentially better. You can just picture Mary making her way back into the city, laughing, giggling at the impossibility of it all, part walking, part running, part dancing, part flying, hurrying back to tell the others what she’d seen; what had happened.

That’s what this day is all about. That’s what we celebrate today – the great truth that we see in the resurrection that no matter how dark things may seem, no matter how much it seems like the wheels are falling off of everything, no matter how bad things might appear, God will never let Jesus’ message of love be defeated. God will not allow darkness, or fear, or evil, or even death, to triumph over love, not in this world and certainly not in the next.  And so today, we proclaim “Christ is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” and we hold fast to the hope and joy that comes with the resurrection, in good times, and especially in bad.

Resurrection is what our faith is all about. Resurrection is what our faith hinges on. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, if Christ hasn’t risen, then our faith is just a fairy tale, a pipe dream, and we Christians are the most pitiful people on the planet.

And still… still… we really are basing our faith, our hope, on what appears to be a pretty incredible story. People in Jesus’ time certainly knew that people didn’t just come back from the dead, and we’re far more sophisticated than them. We aren’t stupid; we know that things like this just don’t happen. Just this past week, someone said to me that the one real thing they had problem with in the Christian scriptures was the “miracle stuff.” It would all be so much more reasonable, more logical, more believable, without all the miracle stuff. And yet, here we are today, celebrating the granddaddy of all miracles – rising from the dead, and not just in spirit, but in body, and not just the old, normal body, but a new improved one, a transformed one; one that can apparently change appearance so even your closest of friends might not recognize you if you don’t want them to;  one that can seemingly appear out of nowhere or move through walls or locked doors. I mean, really, this is quite a story that we’re being asked to believe. And somewhere, in the middle of singing all the great Easter hymns, and cheering “He is risen!” a voice within us – I suspect within all of us, at some point, or in some way, asks, “Really? Is this really true? Or did someone just make all this stuff up, to feel better after Jesus was killed? Is all this just a house of cards, built on the foundation of this impossible thing?”

I know I’ve asked myself those questions. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, even though I know it’s illogical, and to put it mildly, highly improbable, to believe that a person could physically rise from the dead, I believe Jesus did. I suppose I believe it in part because the scriptures say it happened, but I believe it at least as much because based on my understanding of God, I believe that God is capable of, and maybe even enjoys, pulling off the impossible every now and then.

But even though I believe it, as odd as it might sound, it really isn’t the bedrock, ultimate deal-breaker of my faith. In other words, if tomorrow, some archaeologist in Israel stumbled across a first-century tomb, and inside it they discovered an ancient ossuary, a bone-box, and the box said, “Here are the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who claimed to be the Messiah, and the Son of God;” and if inside the box, in addition to his bones, there were Jesus’ original, long-form birth certificate, his high school yearbook, and his Social Security card – if it proved beyond all doubt that Jesus’ physical, earthly body wasn’t resurrected, I asked myself, would it destroy my faith? Would it significantly change my faith? I have to admit, it really wouldn’t. It wouldn’t substantially change my faith, because I know that, whatever it was, *something* amazing happened on that first Easter Sunday. Something that could only be described as miraculous happened that instantly turned Mary Magdalene’s soul-crushing grief into absolute joy. Something turned her life completely around and made her dance all the way from the tomb into the city. Something otherworldly happened to a bunch of demoralized, terrified disciples to make them believe they saw and touched the one they saw dead as a mackerel just days before, and to turn them into an emboldened, supercharged bunch ready to tell the world about the risen Jesus they’d encountered.  Something very real, and transforming, something life-changing and life-giving. That something – whatever its details – was resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection because of what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, and because of what I’ve experienced of God within myself. I believe in the resurrection because in the kingdom of God, sometimes what sounds like a fairy tale is actually the truest thing, the thing to really believe. I know that just as happened with Mary and the other disciples, the hope, the truth, of the resurrection has the power to change lives. To turn the deepest sorrow into the greatest joy. To turn the most hopeless of situations into the most hope-filled moments of our lives.

So this morning, if a piece of you – whether a small piece, or a large one – brings doubts and cries for logic on this, the most illogical of Sundays, that’s OK.  You don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of doubt within the Church, in pews and pulpits alike. But remember that even where there is  doubt, there’s still  faith. The two are absolutely inseparable. And even if our faith is imperfect, that’s OK, because Jesus’ faith is perfect, and it’s Jesus’ faith, not our own, that reconciles us with God. Remember that something that changed Mary Magdalene and the disciples. Remember that something that ended up changing the world – and that eventually has changed, and will continue to change, and give hope, and joy, and life, to you, and to me. Remember the something of resurrection – that indeed, Christ has risen! – and for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God!