A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Easter Day, April 4, 2010
Text: Luke 24:1-12
If you were going to start a religion and wanted to make it attractive enough to win some adherents reasonably fast, about the last thing you would do (at least in 2010) would be to make its centerpiece the story of a person being raised from the dead. And even if you were to try that, you probably wouldn’t choose to have your chief religious hero have a criminal record.
It is no secret that the ancient world, and not just the part around the Middle East, was full of stories about dying and rising gods. It could be argued, and often has been, that there is nothing much unique about the Jesus story. You can find in Rome, Egypt, Persia, Babylonia, and a dozen other places stories about empty tombs, graveclothes, angels, post-resurrection appearances, even crucifixions whose subjects survived. It is more than likely that one or more of the disciples, maybe all of them, had heard such stories—and certainly quite likely that not a few Early Christians had heard and maybe even believed the factuality of such stories.
Maybe that is why the apostles in Luke’s narrative, on hearing the rather incredible report of the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty, dismissed it as “an idle tale” which “they did not believe.” Nothing in the story lends itself to easy belief, not now and not then.
You and I are here today celebrating Easter not because once upon a time there was an empty tomb or a couple of angels or a missing body, but because something about this particular story and this particular Jesus touches us deeply. A few of you might be here because, like Justin Martyr in the second century, you have undertaken a philosophical quest that led you to an intellectual conversion to Christianity. But many more of us are here because, whether we were born Christians or not, we have been moved, changed, altered by something far more real to us than an empty first-century Palestinian tomb. We might not be able to put it into words. We might not be able to give a coherent account of the whole ball of Christian wax. We might not even be too sure about some of the elements of the story—virgin birth, walking on water, angels, heavenly voices—but we find some chord within us vibrating with excitement, resonating with hope, maybe even aching to believe the glorious impossibility of it all because it is too good not to be true.
Resurrection is not a proposition to be argued, but a life to be lived. And the best kept secret in the Christian Church—if not the world—is that resurrection does not begin when we die. It begins now. It is not a future possibility; it is an eternal reality. The whole point of Jesus’ ministry, of his life and of his death, was the same as his rising. It was never about him, it was about God and us. Imagine that God is busily at work, continually creating, tinkering with, molding, perfecting the essence of who we are—let’s call it human nature. The pieces are there: intelligence, creativity, passion, instinct, giftedness. But there are some rough edges and dark corners thrown in. We are not so different in most respects from our primate cousins. In fact, we are remarkably similar to an even broader company of mammals, whose main instincts are for survival, and who arrange their lives largely on the basis of who fears whom and who needs what simply to stay alive. And there are days when we act much more like reptiles than we do dolphins. Even the best of our capacities turn dangerous when we get scared of losing power or when we are shamed or humiliated. Imagine that God sees that, yet sees possibilities in us for things far beyond ordinary reaction: the ability to give power away rather than hoard it; the capacity to forgive even those who mortally wound us; a willingness to see beyond the safety of sameness within our own tribes and families in order to embrace those different from us. And let’s say that God sees how we can practice almost unimaginable charity to the point where we even lay down our lives for not just our friends but our enemies. Imagine that God shapes a human being—Jesus—to model, to embody those things—indeed to embody God’s own nature. Imagine that God challenges him to trust totally in the power of love to the point of willingly enduring the worst kind of disgraceful suffering and death, including a complete collapse of trust itself, for the sake of breaking the hold that the fear of and fascination with death has on people.
But one thing is still missing. There needs to be a door through which we can go to enter into and practice the kind of life that Jesus lived, a God-soaked life. There needs to be a portal which opens onto a space in which God can continue to work out the kinks in human nature. And there needs to be a community defined not by blood relationships or race or nationality but by soul, by spirit, in which people are free to be real without the trappings of pretense or power.
That is what Holy Baptism is. It is the meeting place of resurrection and now. Baptism is the door into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Look at it. In a few minutes we are going to gather around the font where three persons, Marcus, Parke, and Lulu, are going to walk through that door, just as surely as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna went into the tomb twenty-one hundred years ago. As Jesus was buried and lay dead in that tomb, so will our brothers and sister symbolically be buried with Christ in his death. And as surely as Jesus was raised by God from the tomb, just as surely will they come up out of the water, dry off, and set about living and practicing the resurrection life which is nothing short of God’s life. It will be as if each one of them breaks out of a shell on this Day of Resurrection, ready to skip and play all over God’s creation. Each of them will be united to the great Lion of Judah as if they wore his very crown, burying their faces in his mane, resting on his great paws. By God’s grace we will help them. We will tell them the tales of how something bigger than all of life once lay in a manger and how once on a big rock outside a city wall there happened a death so powerful it put an end to the power of death. We’ll teach them how to be priests in this priesthood of ours where serving is more important that prestige, and where children and the poor and the maimed and the hungry are accorded the highest respect in the community.
They will get hungry. Their souls will growl for the milk and honey of a Promised Land. Their mouths will water for food and drink to sustain them on their journey. And that is what Holy Eucharist is. Around the table, week by week and day by day they will feed on the One who is so much the source of life that we call him our Bread, whose love he feels as blood and we taste as wine. And the more they take his life into themselves, the more they will see themselves becoming what he is, living as he lives, forgiving and caring and feeding others just as he. What he is by nature they will become by grace.
Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is not there. He is risen, and in him so are you, so are we. We have clothed ourselves with Christ and are become his body. And as unfinished a project of God’s restoring as we may be, that is enough to have us laughing and dancing and saying Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!
© Frank G. Dunn, 2010