Easter Day, 2013
Bet you think that every time you come to church on Easter Day you hear the same story. You don’t. Not here at least. If a story called “Easter” is in your head, chances are it is made up of several strands of story that come from various places, maybe even from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. It’s not unlike what we do at Christmas. We roll shepherds and wise men up together, throw in some barnyard animals and an angel or two, and call it the real thing.
Today’s story from Luke is quite a bit different from last’s years out of Mark. And while it could be that you couldn’t care less about who says what, wanting only to hear, maybe, some affirmation that what we are celebrating on Easter actually has something to do with you, sit down with me and listen to what Luke has to say.
He starts off as others do in the darkness of early dawn, the women coming to the tomb bearing spices for anointing the body of Jesus. When they arrive, the stone has been rolled away. The women are perplexed because they find no body. Apparently they are still in the tomb, which is something like a mausoleum, replete no doubt with the typical little ante-room for mourners to gather, when two men (not one young man, as in Mark, or one angel as in Matthew) in dazzling clothes appear. The women bow, afraid, startled. The men skip telling them what we have come to expect, “Do not be afraid,” and go straight to the point with a question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
That is the hinge on which swings Luke’s entire proclamation. Why do we seek the living among the dead?
There are good answers to that question, which might not be as rhetorical as it sounds. We seek the living among the dead, first, because we generally have no clue as to the difference between what is living and what is dead. In the primer of Christianity, the very first lesson is that things are not what they seem. What appears to be dead is often very much alive. What appears to be a dead end—the sudden loss of a job maybe, a tragic accident, the blindness and deafness of a Helen Keller—is frequently the surprising opening to amazing life. On the other hand, what seems to be life-giving and happiness-making is seldom more than a fiction. It only takes a few years to get to the point where you can begin to attest that what people call “the real world” may be real, but it is not so valuable or so delightful as it is cracked up to be. For all sorts of reasons—the way we are brought up and educated, where we have our investments, what seems to be common sense—humans find it generally absurd to kick over the traces and renounce this world and all its promises in favor of something which on the surface is as flimsy as resurrection.
And that, of course, is a second answer to why we seek the living among the dead. It has to do with what we deep down intuit will be the cost to us if we start buying tales from strange men in funny clothes. Anybody beyond childhood has a fairly reliable program which tells us, to start off with, that family, friends, colleagues, even those who are our fellow alumni in the Jesus School of Religion will hear our report as an idle tale, empty talk about an empty tomb or something of the sort. And then where will we be? Alone, alone, all, all alone. That is our biggest fear. But be sure that no one will ever think us crazy for looking for a corpse in a cemetery. That “the real world” fully understands.
The hardest thing about resurrection, including preaching about it, is not that it is so out-of-this world, but that it fundamentally means something different from what the majority of people take it to mean. Trying to explain it in everyday terms, or in scientific terms for that matter, is another venture in seeking the living among the dead. It is not too much of a stretch to run to the tomb and look for yourself to conclude that what you have heard is not an idle tale told by idiots signifying nothing. But to get from there to rearranging your life because the resurrection that happened to Jesus fundamentally alters the way you think about yourself: that takes some doing. That is why, I am sure, so many Christians have constructed a way of thinking about resurrection that has a minimum to do with life here and now. You do know what that way is, don’t you? It goes like this. Jesus died because you sinned, and rose from the dead so that if you believe both that he died and rose again, you will rise from the dead too. Not as he did, of course, but after you die. And you will get to live forever doing pretty much what you most enjoy now or wish you could enjoy, probably with the people that you most like now or wish liked you.
Now there’s a story that is guaranteed to keep us looking for the living among the dead. Look at all the things it does. It places resurrection so far in the past or so far in the future that it has nothing much to do with the present. Moreover, the whole story gets told in terms of your sin, not your relationship with God or anybody else. Beyond that, it pretty much says that the way you enter the game of rewards and punishments is by believing two things that require you to suspend nearly everything else you know about how the universe works. And during it all, you get to choose whom you love and whom you hate, how you live and what you buy, with nary a thought about Jesus’ resurrection.
You may think I have just knocked the props out from under the Christian message. But I assure you that St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians the passage you heard this morning, would think that the little story I just told summing up the Christian faith was weird indeed. To be sure, if it is only for this life and this world that we set our hope on Christ, we are pitiful. But for Paul, resurrection is not just something that opens up everlasting life for us; it is a reality that completely alters the way we live now. When he says that “in Adam all die,” he is talking about the very world that keeps urging us to seek the living among the dead, to chase after foolish goals, mistaking the real for the convenient, swapping the spiritual for the ego-driven. And when he says, “…in Christ all shall be made alive,” he is talking not only about eternal life, but about a daily living in a reality that Christ’s death and resurrection has inaugurated—a new relationship with God and with others. In other words, once you get straight about how the resurrection impacts you in this life, then you can begin to see how the wall between this life and the life to come has been knocked down.
Sometimes we call Sundays “little Easters.” Beyond the obvious connection—celebrating the resurrection on the first day of the week—I yearn for the day when every time we unpack the gospel, no matter what the subject, we will see that it has everything to do with resurrection. Resurrection is not the last chapter of Jesus’ life, and certainly not an appendix to his teaching. It is his whole life—feeding, healing, forgiving, loving, praying, having dinner with the outcasts and the pariahs of society, teaching, washing, and even dying. After they have asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the two men tell the women to recall how Jesus had said that he would be handed over, crucified, and on the third day rise again. If the women indeed recalled that, they might have remembered that it was then and there that Jesus had also said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:23-25)
There you have it: resurrection. It is not a promise. It is a reality. It is not a reward. It is a way to live, truly live. Taking up your cross sounds like a pretty grim affair, and it can be—until you realize that rather than being nailed down to it you are freed up by it. Taking up the cross is living in the resurrection: they are the same thing! To take up the cross is to learn to let go of worrying, to practice trusting in a provident God, to be more spontaneous, to school oneself to tell and speak the truth, to respect your own limits and also to push beyond your boundaries. The cross looks so heavy when you just stand staring at it. But pick it up and see how light it is. It is light, this cruciform yoke of Christ, because it itself supplies the power by which it is lifted: resurrection power. Walking the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. Lifting it with resurrection power is to be able to do impossibly wonderful things. It is to love the haters when they are hating. Carrying the cross is using your voice and your brain and your talent to take a stand for justice. Living resurrection is seeking Christ among the living, loving your neighbor as yourself, respecting the dignity of every person whether the head of the NRA or the victim of gun violence, caring at least as much about the future of creation as you do about yourself. And never forget that taking up the cross gives you the power to repent and return to the Crucified and Risen Lord when you mess up.
The other day our daughter Anne overheard her five-year-old son Grady saying to his sister and a little friend, two and four respectively, “We’re small, but we’re powerful.” Yes we are. We are powerful because by our baptism we have been buried with Christ. We are powerful because by our baptism we have been raised to share Christ’s resurrection daily. We are powerful because when we have been signed with the cross and sealed by the Spirit and welcomed into Christ’s Body by saints and angels and ancestors and every vibrating string of creation and by you yourself, God, there is nothing that matters more than singing your song of Love to every creature under heaven till we are changed into your likeness in glory, fully alive, fully free.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013