A sermon for Easter Day
Last year was a big year for me. Not only did I go to Istanbul and Canberra, but I also went to Israel. For a Christian this is supposed to be the Holy Grail, the place that Jesus lived, died and was raised. In so many ways it was a profound trip. To visit the Sea of Galilee, and the many places around this area where Jesus taught, and ministered and lived out his calling was amazing.
Yet Jerusalem was something different, it was a place of extremes. It is hard to get a sense of the human Jesus within this incredible city. Over the centuries many people have come to see where Jesus was executed and buried, and where he rose from the dead. The traditional place is now in a small chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an overwhelming building erected in the 4th century by Constantine.
There is an alternative site in Jerusalem that we and many others visited, the so called garden tomb. This is much more in keeping with our images of where Jesus was buried. Here the tomb is carved out of the rock, set in a garden, and has pathways and seats for meditation. It is a much more spiritual place in so many ways. The problem is, the archeological evidence that this is the place of Jesus’ burial is dubious, even if we would like to think otherwise. It was only established in the 19th century. Yet many Protestants tend to go to the garden rather than the Holy Sepulcher, where many Catholics and Orthodox Christians practice their rituals, and which can get pretty wild.
However, as Allan Davidson remarks, “at the end of the day what does it matter whether we opt to visit the garden tomb or the Holy Sepulcher, both or neither. Cemeteries and grave sites only have continuing significance through association that people bring to them. The Easter story and the Christian faith are not dependent on a fourth century or nineteenth century archeological location and an empty tomb. “
In fact it doesn’t even hinge on the stories of the resurrection found in the bible, for these vary.
Today we heard from the gospel of Mark, where the account of the resurrection ends much more abruptly than the others, with no appearance stories to follow. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are more embellished with earthquakes’ and physical appearances of Jesus and all of them date more than 40 years after his death. The earliest account is actually from Paul’s writings.
Paul has pride of place in these Easter traditions because his writings are the earliest text, 20yrs after the crucifixion and after his conversion to Christianity. What he says actually points to something a bit different to the gospel accounts and we heard it today in the Corinthians reading. His resurrection account is less concerned with the empty tomb but rather sees Jesus as having become a life giving spirit at his resurrection. Not a physical body. For Paul resurrection involved transformation not resuscitation and included all who identified with Jesus.
Clearly there are real differences in the accounts. But between Paul and the Gospels, there was a great war, the Jewish Roman war of 66-73 CE. Here Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. As Greg Jenks says “both Jews and Christians alike found themselves picking up the pieces among the ruins of a world gone forever”. The gospels come out of that experience and they reflect a new political and social situation long after the time of Jesus. So to say the stories are history is to miss the point. The writers were defining not just history, but who they were as human beings and as a society and as a fledging church and this varied.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century, you may ask.
Like the Native American storyteller quoted by Marcus Borg, we may find ourselves saying:
“Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
Because regardless of what questions we modernists ask about the facts of the story, the truth of the resurrection is not in the details but what occurred afterwards. And what happened is that God became real to people through Jesus in a way he wasn’t before. Jesus became a living presence, symbolising what life lived in God should be like. His early followers believed that “in his words were God’s words and in his action were God’s actions”. The love, and compassion and justice and peace of Jesus, his words and actions were not defeated by the worldly powers of hatred, corruption and greed. His vision of a new empire, which he lived out with them long before he died, could not be killed by an executioner or cross. This is the message of Easter. There is crucifixion but there is also resurrection.
As Clarence Jordon says, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not an empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave but a spirit filled fellowship. Not a rolled away stone, but a carried away church.”
So for me, Jesus did not go to the cross as some sort of player in a cosmic master plan, or as a supernatural sacrifice to appease an angry God, which has been some of the understandings of our faith. Rather he went defiantly as the gospels would attest, knowing that God was on his side. His followers responded, recognising that the life, love and hope they had experienced with Jesus was not ended but had been affirmed by God in their own lives. They believed this revelation so totally that this experience set their hearts on fire, freed them from fear, superstition, and a dependence on ritual and legalism and motivated them to spread the good news to everyone, Jew or gentile.
Yet it could all have stopped there, remaining as a little subgroup of the Jewish religion. Instead Jesus is remembered as the Son of God and God’s ultimate revelation for us. For in and through him lies the truth about life. Jesus was a particular man in a particular time, but he birthed a universal message of love that has lived on well past his humanity. The particular became the universal.
Today the truth of the resurrection is that God is present here in us, this day and this hour. For Jesus is not different from us in kind, just in degree. God is not missing in action, or only present in a few who believe certain things or only visible 2,000 years ago. The love, spirit and energy that shaped Jesus shapes us. We are to follow his way and his message if we and all people are to live full and complete lives in the presence of God. As Paul said in Ephesians “there is a power at work within us that is able to accomplish more than we can imagine”. (Ephesians 3:20).
We are called to practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry says in his poem and as the first disciples and the early church did. We are to live as though resurrection is always possible, within ourselves but also within others, and within our world. And work towards it with God’s help, transforming life out of death, hope out of suffering, compassion out of apathy and community out of profound alienation. To create a new society, a new creation based on love. This was Paul’s early interpretation of the resurrection, a transformation rather than resuscitation. God transformed Jesus and he transforms us.
This Easter may you open your whole self, mind, body, heart and soul, to Gods calling to new life and renewed love. To practice resurrection as though it is a contemporary reality, practice it as though God is and always will be present with us, practice it as though this is the way to fullness of life. And when we practice it our lives will become drawn into the web of all life and into the life of God underpinning all of creation.
To finish I would like to read a quote that has been on my pinup board for some time. It’s been there so long I don’t know where I got it from. But it sums up Easter day beautifully for me and hopefully for you,
“In the end Easter is not something to talk about, it is something to do, it is an attitude towards life and other people, it is a lifestyle. Whether what we say and sing fully represents our rational comprehension of what Easter is about, is relatively unimportant. What is important is that we are Easter people, that is, people of transformation and renewal, people of hope, people of trust, people who not only believe but know deep down within their experience that love comes again and that love makes all the difference.”
This I believe is the good news brought by Jesus to the world, for as Nev says, if the good news is not for everyone, it is not good news.
I would like to acknowledge the blog of Cal Gregg, for introducing me to this poem and to Clarence Jordan.
Excerpts from Wendell Berry’s Poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer liberation Front”
When they want you to buy something they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear close,
and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.