Easter sermon

He was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed… 

This Lent, Father Tom McAlpine – a retired priest and Old Testament scholar who makes his home at St. Dunstan’s – invited us into deep study of a set of texts from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 

These texts are called the Servant Songs, and they probably date from about 500 years before the time of Jesus – with the rest of Second Isaiah.

I’ve just quoted part of the fourth and last Servant Song, found in Isaiah chapter 53.  If you’ve hung around churches for a while, you’ve heard bits of the fourth Song, especially during Holy Week.

“Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
so he did not open his mouth… an
d the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…

Even if you don’t remember hearing the words of the Fourth Song directly, its vocabulary and ideas are woven into the worship and theology of the church in so many ways. 

It’s a little hard to know what to make of the fourth Song in its original context. The idea of someone innocent suffering on behalf of others, in a way that somehow frees or absolves those others, is distinctive here. It has loose parallels elsewhere in the Old Testament, but nothing terribly close.

If your immediate reaction is to think that this text is unusual because it’s pointing towards Jesus, let’s tap the brakes. I don’t believe that Judaism is only fulfilled in Jesus. That all these pre-Christian texts and traditions just sat around waiting for their true and full meaning to arrive when Jesus was born. I don’t believe that and I invite you to not believe it with me. 

The Fourth Song meant something in its original context and it means something for Jews today.  That does not keep it from meaning something else, something additional, for Christians. And it has, and does. 

Textual study makes it very clear that early Christians interpreted Jesus’ life and death through the words of of the Fourth Song. There are hints, too, that Jesus himself understood his mission through these ancient and evocative words. Jesus knew the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible – very well. Perhaps he found in this song a poetic description of his call to suffer and die among and for God’s people. Much as one might hear a song of love or anger on the radio and think, That’s it. That’s exactly what it’s like. 

The Fourth Song speaks of death – but I’m bringing it up today because I want to talk about life.  About resurrection – Jesus’s, and ours. 

We think of resurrection – the Church’s fancy word for rising from the dead – as something that happens after we die. And the Bible and the church do speak about a new life in God for the faithful departed. I trust and hope in that promise. 

But the Christian Scriptures also describe baptism as a dying and rising with Christ.  At the Last Supper, Jesus describes his coming crucifixion as a baptism (Mk 10:38) – although he was also baptized with water in the Jordan River by his cousin John, much earlier in the Gospels. 

And early Christian writers repeatedly describe Christian baptism as a death to the old self, and a rising to new life in Christ. In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” And the author of the letter to the church in Colossae writes,  “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God… for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1, 3)

Our baptismal rite reflects this understanding, when we say, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

What is it like to think of myself as already dead?

What is it like to think of myself as already fully and eternally alive?

The Fourth Song of Isaiah and the Christian scriptures talk about this dying – and rising – as purposeful. It accomplishes something. In the Fourth Song, the Servant is not resurrected, but their death is redemptive:  “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” 

Jesus says about himself: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

The how of Jesus Christ’s redemptive death remains a mystery despite millennia of theologizing. That is another sermon for another time. Today we are talking resurrection. New life. Christ’s life in us. 

The resurrection we celebrate at Easter isn’t just Jesus’s.  It’s also ours. And it’s not just meant to free us from the power of death. We are baptized to become a certain kind of people. We are freed from death to live a certain kind of life. 

Our Prayer Book gestures at some of what that means – we’ll dwell with that shortly as we renew our baptismal vows. 

In our study of the Fourth Song and how Christians understand it, we read a little of the work of Rowan Williams, the theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was killed by the Nazis for his involvement with the resistance movement. He wrote about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. What our life in Christ is all about – in times of war, chaos and terror. 

Williams, reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s writings, life and death, argues that our life in Christ Jesus is fundamentally a life lived for the good of others. He writes, “The other person I encounter is already the one with whom Christ is in solidarity, and the death I must endure is the death of anything in me that stops me acknowledging that and acting accordingly…. We are to stand in the place where the other lives, so that we are vulnerable to what the other is vulnerable to; we are to risk what the other risks…”

Williams continues, [To follow Jesus Christ,] “we must learn to ask how we may act so as to relinquish whatever fashions, conventions and securities prevent us from standing with another, whatever self-images protect us from seeing the reality of another, whatever generalities block our attention to the particularity of another.” (Christ the Heart of Creation, Williams, 2018)

I want to be clear here that in their focus on life in Christ as a life lived for others, Williams and Bonhoeffer aren’t talking about letting someone harm you or take advantage of you. They’re talking about seeing and standing with those who are under threat or pushed to the margins in the world as it is. 

And I want to acknowledge that Bonhoeffer, Williams – and I – all speak and write from the position of people who could roll along pretty comfortably with the cultural and economic status quo. Some of those hearing my voice right now may feel yourself outside the “we” of the texts I just read. What you need are people ready to see you and stand with you. To risk what you risk, simply by being. 

There’s a prayer we prayed, here, last Sunday – a prayer we pray every Palm Sunday, as we begin our walk through the great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.It says, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…” 

This year, our work with the Fourth Song and its meaning for Christians has me asking myself: Whose life? Whose peace? 

I wonder if the author of that prayer – William Reed Huntington, in the late 1800s – actually had the Fourth Song, Isaiah 53, in mind. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole” – that’s actually the Hebrew word Shalom, often translated as peace – “And by his bruises we are healed.” – it’s not a big step from healing to life. 

Shalom and healing, life and peace. 

The Servant’s death was for the healing and peace of others. Jesus’ life, death, and rising were for the life and peace of others.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that as God’s baptized and resurrected people, the life and peace we are to be about is not our own… but others’.

As the author C.S. Lewis once remarked, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Bonhoeffer wrote, “My life is outside myself, beyond my disposal. My life is another, a stranger; Jesus Christ.” 

What is it like to think of myself as already dead?

What is it like to think of myself as already fully and eternally alive?

What makes this an Easter sermon, beloved friends, is that Jesus’ story doesn’t end at the tomb. Bonhoeffer’s story doesn’t end at the gallows.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story doesn’t end on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  Last night, at the Easter Vigil, we called on the saints, the holy martyrs, the faithful departed, to stand with us as we marched towards Easter. So many names. So many prayers for us, for our world, our lives, our discipleship, uttered – even now – in the presence of the One who is first and last. 

Love wins.

Life wins.

Whatever we spend, comes back to us – in this world, or another. 

Whatever it costs, it’s worth it. 

Whatever we pour out for the life and peace of another draws us deeper into Christ. 

For we are already dead,  and our life is hid with Christ in God. 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.