glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What transformed doubt into faith and fear into joy?: A sermon for Easter Day

It’s wonderful to see you all here on this beautiful spring morning, when we celebrate and receive the love and promise of God: a love that was longed for throughout human history, from the moment of creation, and is so powerful that even the cruelty of the cross could not defeat it.  It’s encouraging to see the church so full, to have everyone dressed in their Easter finest, to be surrounded by beautiful flowers and wonderful music. It helps, too, after this long winter season that spring finally seems to be on its way, as evidenced by the brave purple crocuses bursting into new life on the church grounds.  They started springing up here at Emmanuel earlier this week, anticipating our Easter celebrations by just a few days and reminding us that new life, resurrected life is coming, slowly but surely.

And, you know, it’s wonderful to remember that it’s not only Emmanuel, inside and outside, that’s so full of life and vibrancy this morning, but churches all over the world.  Because today, people in countless languages and cultures, from any number of denominational backgrounds, are gathering with those they care for most, in the communities they care for most, to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s dazzling promise of new life, with music and flowers, with Alleluias and Easter eggs, with jellybeans and chocolate bunnies, and the real Easter bunny, and all sorts of joyful exuberance.  By the way, our kids here this morning, and their parents, can look forward to some of that exuberance a little later with the Easter egg hunt outside, just don’t stomp on the pretty little crocuses.  They’ve worked hard and waited a long time to come to life.  It’s their Easter, too.

But, all of these good and hopeful things don’t mean that Easter, in its own way, isn’t sometimes a difficult celebration to grasp and understand, since at its center is a story, a miracle, that requires us to believe in something that science and nature tell us is impossible—that one who was dead is now alive.  In fact, one of the online commentaries I was reading this week in preparation for this morning was titled rather bluntly, “If it’s not hard to believe, you’re probably not paying attention.”  Because the story of Easter is hard to believe.

That’s why the resurrection is a matter for faith and not science.  No one can prove the resurrection by science or logic or any other means.  And no one can explain how exactly it happened.  Even the Bible doesn’t try to explain it.  If you notice, it tells us stories of the resurrection, of how people heard the angels’ message and encountered the risen Christ, often when they least expected to see him.  But the Bible never explains how it happened, or what exactly happened—the stone is already rolled away and the tomb empty by the time the women arrive early on Sunday morning.  In fact, the gospels present the resurrection as something that’s very hard to understand—maybe even the hardest thing in the world to understand.  And yet, it’s the centerpiece of our faith.

One of the aspects of the various gospel accounts of Easter that I really appreciate is the fact that in every case the people who come to the tomb are surprised, perplexed, and don’t know what to believe.  You’ll notice that when they encounter the empty tomb and hear the angels’ say that they should not seek the living among the dead, they never immediately shout out joyfully “Alleluia!” or “Praise the Lord” or “Christ is Risen,” as we have done so exuberantly this morning.  No, instead they’re afraid, perplexed, shaken to the core.  They don’t know what to believe.  In fact, they can’t believe. 

Our Bible translation this morning says that the disciples thought the women were engaging in “idle tales” when they came and shared the news of the empty tomb and the resurrection. That sounds a bit like they women were gossiping maybe, but the original Greek could also be translated to mean that they thought the women were delirious or crazy. I suspect that when it actually happened in history the men really did think the women were off their rockers, delirious, or nutty.  I kind of like that, actually.  Not that the men thought the women were nuts, that’s a too little stereotypical and sexist (a reminder that the gospel was written by a man), but I like that the gospel stories of that first Easter Day are so honest, so human.  They might even be the most honest parts of the Bible, filled with doubts and fears and anxieties of so many kinds.  So, if you’re having trouble with this resurrection business, with these seemingly fanciful, idle tales, take heart and know that those who knew Jesus in person felt the very same way.

So then, what changed?  What transformed doubt into faith and fear into joy? 

Well, we can’t know for certain.  But here’s what I think.  I think that when the disciples—both the 12 apostles that we know the most about, like Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the rest, and the others, including the women in today’s gospel, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the rest—when they joined Jesus in his ministry of teaching and healing and touching and loving, they were yearning for something, anything, they were willing to try something, anything, to give meaning and purpose to their lives.  Life was so hard for them, extraordinarily hard, and they felt so beaten down by it, that they were willing to break any and every rule and assumption and convention to live in a different way, in a deeper way, in a Jesus way, in a way that was connected to God and each other. 

And Jesus, in his life and ministry, helped them to make that connection.  In fact, they believed that he was that connection—the bridge—between God and human life.  That’s why they followed him. That’s why they left everything and risked everything and endured everything, to be with him, to learn from him, to love him and to be loved by him, to find something really real and truly true in their lives.  And then when Jesus was crucified they thought that the bridge between God and themselves was broken, torn down, destroyed.  And their resulting grief was so profound, so searing, so shattering, that they forgot what Jesus had told them about the new life, the abundant life, the resurrection life that was to come.  They forgot it, or maybe they remembered it put they it aside as a fanciful dream, nonsense, and focused instead on what they knew to be really real and truly true: pain, loss, and death.

But eventually, not right away, but eventually, and amazingly, as they heard the angels’ message of good news, as they saw the empty tomb, as they searched their hearts and souls, they came to the realization, the belief, the conviction, that the only really real thing in life, or at least the most real thing in life, must be something that most people find unreal, just as Jesus himself had taught, showed, and lived, each and every day.  They realized, as Jesus had taught, that life is stronger than death, that hope is more powerful than despair, and that God always, always conquers evil.  And through that belief, and remembering Jesus’ teaching and the witness of Jesus’ life, they were able to believe in the resurrection as well.  In fact, they had to believe in the resurrection.  They had no choice but to believe, and no choice but to trust, and no choice but to know, that Christ is risen.  He has to be, because there’s no other option.

And the same is true for us.  If we try to understand the resurrection or explain it or submit it to the proofs of science and logic we’ll always be left disappointed.  There is no explanation; there is no proof.  And I suspect there never will be.  But on the other hand, if we search our hearts and souls we might just discover that the Easter story, and the promise of resurrection are actually quite easy to believe, not because of science or logic, but simply because we trust in the promises of God.  Because like the disciples who followed Jesus some 2,000 years ago we, too, believe that life is stronger death, that hope is more powerful than despair, and that God always, always conquers evil. 

And if we believe those things, well, then, a belief in the resurrection, a belief in Easter, a belief in new and abundant life, is not so hard to come to and grasp to after all.  In fact, if we believe those things—that life is strong than death, that hope is more powerful than despair, and that God always conquers evil—then we must believe in the promise of resurrection as well—not only as a great, miraculous thing that happened to Jesus some 2,000 years ago, but as something that God does among us all, each and every day, as we live in God’s love and as we live in God’s hope. 

That resurrected life, that Easter life holds us and sustains us, when life is hard and when it’s pretty good, too. It gives us courage to lay aside the struggles of the past look to tomorrow with hope and confidence. And it reminds us, as does this wonderful spring morning, with its beautiful flowers bursting into life, that what we see is not all that there is.  And that promise, that reality, each year and always, every Easter, leads us to shout with great joy,

Alleluia! Christ is Risen.  Happy Easter.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell