glory of god

glory of god

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Resurrection, Star Wars, and Special Effects: A Sermon for Easter Morning

Those who are regular parishioners at Emmanuel Church, and those who visit us often for big festival days—like Easter and Christmas—know that I am a major Star Wars fan. They know because I talk about it lots. In fact, I think some parishioners even place bets on whether (or how often) I will mention Star Wars in my holiday sermons. I don’t do it every Sunday, just so you know, but holidays somehow bring out my youthful enthusiasm. So, if you made such a bet this year, you definitely won. And since the next movie—The Last Jedi—is coming out at Christmastime this year, you can place your bets early that I won’t be able to restrain myself, and will be talking about it again then. Almost certainly

Well, the reason I mention Star Wars this morning—beyond the fact that an exciting new trailer was released on Friday, along with some behind the scenes photos of the filming, including some of our beloved late Princess Leia—besides all that, is because this morning’s Easter gospel passage from St. Matthew sounds to me like it comes directly out of a George Lucas script, with dramatic special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic: a great earthquake; the appearance of an angel, as bright as lightning; guards shaking and becoming like dead men; and the women looking on in stunned awe and wonder.

It’s a scene that would fit in any contemporary sci fi movie. And yet, as reported in the gospel, it is a story nearly 2,000 years old. So, either the author, Matthew the evangelist, had a spectacular imagination—even without the aid of movie special effects—or he was describing in the only way he could the phenomenal experience at the tomb on Easter morning. Personally, I tend to think it was the latter. It wasn’t just his especially vivid imagination at work here. Resurrection wasn’t something that someone just made up a long time ago and described in dramatic fashion. Rather, instead, it was a new, powerful, and truly earth-shaking kind of reality that many, many friends of Jesus, like the women there at the tomb, experienced as really real, even if the whole story was unbelievable and even preposterous to others.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes as time passes we can get caught up or tripped up in the fantastic language and imagery of spectacle, and we wonder if it could possibly be true—in the same way that we easily dismiss a science fiction movie as thrilling to watch, but very far from the reality we know. For example, I’ve never seen any dazzling, lightning bright angels, any more than I’ve actually seen Darth Vader. And I definitely haven’t seen my loved ones come back to life, much as I miss them and want to have them here with me again. So, then this Easter magic, is it really real, or is it a fanciful dream, or is it maybe just an impossible wish?

Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus is not something that we can prove in an empirical or scientific way. The first Easter was much too long ago for that. And besides, you can’t really prove matters of faith anyway—because they are just that, matters of faith. What’s more, all four gospels describe the resurrection somewhat differently, if you set them side by side—Matthew’s version is by far the most dramatic, with the earthquake and angel appearing like lightning—but they each seek to put into words that are ultimately too small and limited an experience, a reality, that probably was and is beyond words or adequate explanation.

You may have noticed that this time of year there are always TV specials that seek to prove or disprove that something in the Bible happened. I even recently read an article in the British newspaper the Guardian which dealt with whether Jesus was even a real person—apparently 40% of the adult British population question whether Jesus really lived. Despite this skepticism, the overwhelming evidence is that Jesus was real—which is not news to any of us here this morning. Though, sometimes the finer details his life can be elusive.

In any case, while all of these investigations can most definitely be interesting, I think they tend to miss the greater point in the biblical narrative. They get so bogged down in whether and how something was possible that they fail to recognize that the whole purpose of such stories is to reflect upon the belief that God was and is active in the world, and in particular that God was and is active in the lives of ordinary people, in the lives of people just like us.

What we know, beyond the earthquake, the lightning bright angel, and the divine special effects, is that belief in the resurrection, belief in the life-changing and even world-changing miracle of Easter has encouraged, sustained, and propelled people of faith for 2000 years—from the women at the tomb early on the first Easter morning, all the way to us today. Comfort and encouragement, empowerment and liberation, hope and new life are all the hallmarks of this fantastic day.
What the miracle of Easter tells us is that the God we believe in is more powerful than death. The miracle of Easter tells us that the God we believe in can and will and does overcome evil with new and abundant life. The miracle of Easter tells us that there is nothing more powerful than the love and life of God—not the cross, not the mightiest empire on earth, not the power of sin, not our own wayward desires and failings. Nothing. What’s more, this mighty, powerful resurrection is not something that God did once for Jesus a long time ago, while the rest of us wait and wait and wait. If it were just that, it wouldn’t have much meaning at all.

No, what happened on that first Easter morning was really just the beginning. It was the opening chapter, or maybe the first scene, in a powerful, dynamic, living story—a living story that God continues to write and direct, sometimes without so many special effects, but in real human lives, in lives just like ours. Jesus’ resurrection was just the beginning of a new age of life and love, of liberation and empowerment. But, like the women at the tomb, it is up to us to share the good news of this resurrection. It is up to us to witness to its power and earth-shaking truth. It is even up to us to make resurrection real.

We do that, we make resurrection real, by rising ourselves. By rising from the stone-cold tombs that we create and too often call home. We make resurrection real by living—fully, abundantly, and freely. We make resurrection real by giving ourselves over to God’s love: a love so great that it was willing to die for us, even as we, like Jesus, share God’s love in full measure. We make resurrection real by being, by truly being, the living and breathing Body of Christ in a world that desperately needs us, in a world that desperately needs the life-shaking, world-shaking, liberating, empowering hope of resurrection faith now more than ever. We make resurrection real by knowing and testifying to the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God—no government, no cross, no illness, no poverty, no evil, no death. Nothing.

That’s what resurrection meant 2000 years ago, on that first Easter morning, and it’s what it means even still, even now, even today. The special effects—earthquakes and dazzling, lightning bright angels—are dramatic, a nice touch to make us sit up and take notice. But they are not the real thing. The real thing is life. New life. Abundant life. Liberated life. The real thing is your life. It’s my life. It’s Jesus’ life. Life lived in and with God.

Be that life today. Make Easter real today. Make resurrection real.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Let’s join them as they run and shout, with our lives, Alleluia! Christ is risen. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD