Easter Sermon

Today we have heard the Gospel of the Resurrection according to Mark (Mark 16:1-8). Mark, the earliest Gospel, doesn’t tell of encounters between the risen Jesus and his friends; we never see the resurrected Christ, in Mark’s account. Mark knew about those encounters; he believed in a resurrected Jesus; but he made a literary choice to end his Gospel like this: with the bold, joyous proclamation of the angel, and with the uncertainty, confusion, and fear of those charged with the good news.

I think Mark’s Gospel is particularly apt for talking about the Resurrection. Because for a lot of folks, the idea of somebody literally coming back to life, after being dead – and dead for several days, mind you, not just coding on the operating table in a medical drama – that idea, in our modern, rational, post-Christian world, is frequently met with an uncomfortable silence and retreat – conversational, if not literal.

Resurrection is the church’s fancy word for rising from the dead – both the great single event of Jesus’ return, and the life beyond death that we believe awaits all God’s children, however you draw that circle. (Our church tends to draw it pretty widely.)

And resurrection is hard to talk about, hard to preach about. It’s Easter Sunday, after all – many of you are here as guests, visitors, seekers. Some of you may have drifted away from church and just don’t know whether you can swallow all this stuff anymore. Some of you have never really been part of a church, and wonder what it’s all about, what we’re all about. Resurrection is not the easiest place to start. But it’s Easter Sunday, after all – resurrection is kind of the main idea here. So.

What are we talking about when we talk about resurrection? Well, there’s the most literal meaning: rising again from the dead. Scripture and tradition teach us that Jesus, raised from death by the power of God, has defeated death, once and for all. In the language of our Easter Troparion, which we’ll sing later, Jesus “tramples down death by death.” The famous verse John 3:16, which was our Gospel a few weeks ago, says that God sent God’s son into the world so that those who trust in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. And today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah, an Old Testament text which the Church reads in light of the life of Jesus, says, “God will destroy … the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever.”

Of course people still die, in their earthly bodies. The Bible’s authors knew that just as well as we do. But Jesus talked a lot about eternal life, a new life in God beyond our earthly existence. So it became the conviction and teaching of the church that physical death is not an absolute ending, but leads into another kind of life. The resurrection of Jesus opens the door to the resurrection of everybody.

In 1 Corinthians 15, in the verses following today’s Epistle, Paul writes about the centrality of the Resurrection for Christians: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised,… then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”

Here’s the thing: it’s easy for us modern, rational, post-Christian Christians to think think that people 2000 years ago were superstitious and naive and didn’t really understand death as we do, so it was easier for them to believe that somebody would come back from death. Not true; if anything, they were probably more in touch with the realities of death than we are, in our world where death is handled by trained professionals, behind closed doors.

People knew perfectly well, in the first century, that people die and their bodies decay. Remember the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead? They warned Jesus, “Lord, it’s been three days; when you open the tomb, it is going to smell.”

Death was no mystery to the early Christians. They had to reconcile belief in eternal life beyond the grave with the obvious truth of bodily decay. Searching for an image to help us come to grips with the paradox, Paul offers the everyday magic of a seed sown in the earth giving rise to a plant:  “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed… For … this mortal body must put on immortality.”

Paul’s poetic reflection on the mystery of resurrection is echoed in the Eucharistic prayer we use at funerals: “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended….” With two thousand years of theology and science at my back, I don’t feel that I can really do any better than Paul at putting words to strange and elusive hope of the resurrection of the dead.  The belief that those who have left this life and this world live on, in and with God, is not amenable to proof or explanation. It’s one of the things we take on faith, no more and no less than the church did in Paul’s time.

So that’s one of the things we’re talking about when we talk about resurrection: Death still happens, but Jesus’ rising from death means that death doesn’t have the same grip, the same claim on us, that it had before. That we don’t have to fear death, trusting that those we love, and we ourselves, will have everlasting life in God.

But that’s only part of what it means to be people of the resurrection. Indeed, we are missing out on a good deal of what our faith offers us, and asks of us, if we think of resurrection as an idea that only comes into play in the face of death.

What about resurrection in the face of life?  As a daily orientation, a way of being? A few verses farther along in that same chapter, the apostle Paul writes, “I die every day!” There are so many areas of our hearts, our lives, our world, in need of transformation. Renewal. Resurrection.

A few weeks ago, I dug into the meaning of another of those words we use in church and don’t examine nearly often enough: salvation. I looked at the Greek verb behind that English word, sozo – and all the ways it’s used in the New Testament.

Sozo can mean to save from a dangerous situation. To heal. To make well. To restore. To deliver from an ordeal. To rescue. To free. To keep, preserve, or protect.  And it’s used in situations ranging from real-world illness, danger, or bondage, to the metaphorical and spiritual conditions that mirror those outward realities.

What the centrality of that word and concept in our Christian scriptures says, to me, is that this is God’s intention, God’s desire, God’s purpose for each and all,

in individual lives and human history. Sozo: what God does, stirring mysteriously in human hearts; acting in the spaces left by our freedom, our wills, our choices; subtly bending history’s long arc. To free, to heal, to make well, rescue, deliver. To save.

The word Sozo was on my mind again this week as I reflected on resurrection.

Resurrection faith is much more than simply believing that Jesus rose from death, or even that we will rise from death. It’s believing and trusting that this is the kind of God, God is: the kind of God who acts, sometimes invisibly, sometimes dramatically, to bring wholeness from brokenness, freedom from bondage, life from death.

The tenth-century theologian Symeon wrote that when Jesus becomes fully alive in us, “everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in Him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in His light.” That’s resurrection faith. (Read the whole poem here.)

The 20th-century theologian and leader Martin Luther King, Jr.,  wrote, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” That’s resurrection faith.

And living as people of resurrection faith means seeking resurrection in this world, this life. Expecting renewal, reconciliation, restoration. And more than seeking and expecting: colluding with it. Becoming a co-conspirator with God in the ongoing always-and-everywhere work of transforming the world towards hope and healing, justice and mercy, love and delight. That’s what church is all about, what we’re all about. Bearing witness to resurrection. Being agents of transformation.

In a few moments, we will renew our baptismal covenant, affirming again the promises that are made every time a child or adult is baptized in an Episcopal church. We renew our baptismal intentions at Easter because one of the ancient meanings of the baptismal rite is passing through death into new life in Christ. And also because this day, Easter Day, is a wonderful time to re-commit to the practices that sustain and strengthen us as people of resurrection. People who seek and strive and hope for new life, not only in the next world, but in this one, here and now.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.