017 Easter Sermon 2012
A sermon preached at St Peter's Anglican Church, Southport on Easter Day, 8 April 2012.
Today is not the occasion for a lengthy and complex sermon. However it is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the deep mysteries we celebrate today. It is a time to check our angle of vision, and to make sure that our focus is on the things that really matter rather than the more peripheral aspects of the Easter tradition.
Around the country today, thousands of sermons will be preached about the resurrection. What happened to Jesus will be affirmed celebrated defended and argued. However, it seems to me that many of the words generated about the resurrection will miss the point of Easter from the perspective of the earliest Christians.
So let me suggest what I think Easter was originally about, and what perhaps it should still be about.
In case you need to drift in and out while I am speaking, let me begin with a brief summary of the basic argument. Then you can relax and listen as closely or as loosely as you wish.
I want to suggest that the point of Easter is not to be found in what happened to Jesus, but rather in the surprising discovery that it was Jesus to whom these things happened. In other words, instead of focusing on the verb (raised/resurrected) and puzzling about what such a term might possibly mean in our kind of world, we should focus on the subject: who was raised.
Jesus was the person raised: so why was that, and what might it mean for us?
Now that may not sound like much of a difference. It may seem too subtle to be worth the effort. But I want to suggest that if we shift our focus—from the verb resurrected to the subject Jesus—then we capture fresh insights into the significance of Easter. That in turn will have implications for how we understand faith, and how we choose to live our lives.
Resurrection in the ancient world
As a first step, we need to go back in time; back to the very first days of Christianity. We go back to a time before 2000 years of tradition, doctrine and liturgy has wrapped itself around the Easter proclamation. We go back to when the Easter news was indeed news.
Is it possible to capture a sense of how this remarkable claim must have been experienced by the earliest followers of Jesus? And if we can do that, might we also recapture a critical insight into the meaning of Easter?
There are, of course, many differences between those first Christians and ourselves. One of the differences, and perhaps one of the most significant differences, is the way we see the world.
For modern believers the supernatural and miracles are rather problematic. We understand ourselves to live in a world governed by natural processes, rather than by angels and demons. We know that the explanations may be complex, but we are confident that there is a natural explanation for everything.
Given enough time, given sufficient research funding, and given sufficient intellectual effort we expect to crack every challenge that life throws at us. We will find a cure for cancer. We will find a way to put people on Mars. Nothing lies beyond our capacity to master.
For us then, the most challenging aspect about the Easter story is the idea of resurrection.
In our kind of world dead people do not come back. Someone who has almost died can be revived, and almost dead people can be put on life support systems that may keep them ticking over for months if not years into the future; but dead people do not come back.
For ancient people—whether believers or not—things were very different.
They lived in a world which they knew to be governed by angels and demons. In their kind of world dead people did come back to life, and quite often actually. Their literature had many stories of encounters between the living and the dead, including journeys to the place of the dead in search of wisdom and power to overcome problems in the world of the living.
Indeed for the ancients in the Roman Empire passing from this life to the next after death—and gaining a new status as one of the gods—was a routine political process. Shortly after an emperor had died, the Senate would assemble and somebody would move a motion that the recently deceased emperor had ascended into heaven and was now one of the gods. The term for this transformation from mortal to immortal, was apotheosis.
For the ancients, the message of Easter would sound fairly familiar. Both pagans and Jews had their own versions of this story.
Jesus had died an unjust death, a victim of intrigue by the powerful men that ruled the city in cahoots with the imperial administration. But Jesus was an innocent victim and did not deserve this terrible fate. God has therefore restored him to life and elevated him to a new position of authority and among the heavenly powers.
For Greeks, this was the myth of the hero. For Jews, it was the saga of the innocent victim. But there was a catch.
In the sacred mythology of the ancient world, the person who was vindicated and raised to divine glory after death was already a person of fame and status. Only the rich and powerful would enjoy such a public apotheosis, although the mystery cults of the ancient world offered similar salvation to more ordinary souls.
So perhaps already you can see where all this is going.
For those who first heard it, the Easter message was both familiar and disconcerting.
What was startling about the news was not that a dead person might come back to life. After all, Jesus was reported to have raised several dead people back to life himself. What would have been surprising, startling, and even shocking, was that Jesus was the one being raised from death to life.
Few people in the ancient world would have had a problem with the idea of resurrection and ascension ... but Jesus? That convicted and crucified a troublemaker from Palestine! Surely he does not have the CV or the connections for such a fantastic reversal of fortune.
While we might struggle to make sense of the verb, they would have been gob-smacked by the subject.
It was the choice of Jesus that was so remarkable, rather than what was supposed to have happened to him. That is hard for us to understand after 2,000 years of Christian tradition that emphasizes the Resurrection as the ultimate miracle.
The raising of Jesus must have seemed remarkable to the followers of Jesus, and especially after the events of Good Friday. They were not expecting such a great reversal.
Jesus had failed. Jesus was dead. God had not rescued him. The Romans and their allies amongst the Jewish leadership had destroyed him.
But the surprising, staggering news, was that God had raised that Jesus. The one who had lamented, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” had received a remarkable and surprising answer.
God did not abandon Jesus. Jesus was raised, vindicated, exalted.
My suggestion is that we focus on Jesus as the kind of person God would choose to raise, rather than worrying about how this could have happened, or what kind of evidence might validate the stories about an empty tomb, or our belief in the Resurrection.
When the focus moves to Jesus as the unexpected subject of the Easter action, further interesting questions come into view.
Was there something about the way Jesus responded to God in his own life which elicited this kind of response from God at Jesus death? What if we chose to live that way as well? Might we then become people who experience resurrection? Any maybe not just at our death, but over and over again as our choice to live as people of faith is affirmed by that Love which is at the heart of the universe.
In asking questions like that, we are not seeking information about the past, but looking for wisdom to live that way ourselves here and now.
Over the past week our liturgical journey has invited us to walk deeply into the Passion of Christ. We have reflected on his authentic, whole-of-person response to God. We have noted his passionate connection with those around him, and their response to him. We have remarked on Jesus’ own faithfulness to God's call on his life one step at a time, one fateful decision after another. And now we can see that the death on Good Friday marked not simply the end to his life, but the transition to a new life.
Jesus has not come back, but gone on! And where he goes, we go as well.
So now we find ourselves standing on this side of the cross and wondering what we are to make of it all. We are not debating the events of Easter, but we are awe-struck at what all this means for Jesus and for us. If God would do that for Jesus, just maybe also for me?
We are choosing not to be snookered by the skepticism of our age.
Instead we find ourselves standing in the presence of mystery, and we acknowledge the mystery, without seeking to explain it.
As when we witness a child's birth. We stand in the presence of mystery. We understand the genetics, but where did the life come from? Or when we sit with a dying friend and finally they pass over. They are no longer with us. We understand the biology of what happens, but where did that life go? Or perhaps that mysterious dynamic we experience when someone extends extends a hand to us in friendship and love just at the moment when we are vulnerable.
The execution of Jesus by the Roman powers in ancient Palestine was not the end of him, much as they expected it would be. Jesus was dead; well and truly dead. But Jesus lives. The crucified one has become the risen one. The risen one has become the Spirit present in the gathered community. And all of this, for people of faith, is the work of God.
So we go back to the question of what was it about the life of Jesus—and Jesus’ response to God in his life—which elicited this remarkable turn of events? What are the characteristics of a life that even death itself cannot quench? Here are some that we can see in the historical data about Jesus:
- a life of faithfulness lived for its own sake …
- a willingness to pour himself out for others …
- a courage to follow the call of God upon his life …
- a capacity to see the power of love trumps the love of power …
- a quiet confidence that God’s empire belongs to the least of these …
… these are the ingredients of a life that even death itself cannot quench
What if we lived like that?
Encountering the risen Jesus
In today's gospel reading the women come to the tomb to complete the process of preparing Jesus for burial. They had no expectations of divine intervention to turn upside down all that had happened to Jesus on Good Friday.
To their surprise they find the tomb empty and a messenger waiting to speak with them. The messenger tells them they are looking for Jesus in the wrong place. The angel reminds them of Jesus’ words that he would meet them in Galilee, and sends the women to get the men and return to Galilee.
Galilee was home for those disciples, both women and men. Go back home, there you will see him. Just as he told you! Get back to everyday life, for there the Risen One will be encountered.
They were looking for the body of Jesus, but went to the wrong place. We can make a similar mistake. If we are seeking the presence of the risen Jesus, look around us!
Each Eucharist we say:
We are the body of Christ.
His Spirit is with us.
But have we really listened to the words we say?
If we are seeking the outcomes of Jesus’ life of faith look around this church.
After almost 2000 years, his work continues. To use the haunting words of Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, ‘the church is the community where the dangerous memory of Jesus is kept alive.’ We keep alive the dangerous memory of a Jesus who cannot be stamped out by those who prefer power over love, a Jesus that even death cannot silence, and a Jesus whose simple faithfulness to God’s call on his life is the wisdom we need for a life worth living.
Easter is a festival of transformation, and transformation of the most surprising characters. Not the rich and powerful, not the most religious, not the best connected—but those who live with simple trust like that of Jesus.
This morning we celebrate the transformation of Jesus.
This morning we celebrate the transformation of ourselves.
And we celebrate the transformation of the church as it keeps alive the dangerous memory of Jesus.