He is risen!, Easter Day (C) – 2013

March 31, 2013

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12

He is risen! This is the proclamation for the day. This is the celebration that brings us here. This is the truth we know.

A number of comics that appear in the newspaper around Easter time can be expected to touch on themes of Holy Week and Easter. A “Wizard of Id” strip from 2001 was cleverly on target. The squatty little king comes upon a church with a sign out front proclaiming “Good Friday.” He says to the priest: “Lemme get this straight … God comes to earth as one of us … and we kill him?”

The priest says, “That’s right.”

The king says, “Your Lord is dead! … There’s a big earthquake, and the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom!”

“Right again,” says the priest.

The king: “What the heck is so good about that?”

Whereupon the priest says, with his hands clasped in front of him and a big smile on his face: “His curtain call.”

It is the curtain call we’ve come here to celebrate today. Think about all the Christian-themed movies and plays. This weekend alone a number will air on TV, and Charlton Heston will part the Red Sea as he does every year, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. Many films will depict Jesus’ short ministry and walk us through the drama of his last week, what we call “Holy Week,” from Palm Sunday’s entry into Jerusalem until Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb.

That is the drama, the main body of the play. The curtain call of his resurrection from the dead is so much more, though we need to be reminded that the New Testament offers no account of the act of the resurrection of Jesus. We have, instead, reports only of the empty tomb, and in the weeks to come, the weeks of Easter season, we will hear the stories of encounters with the risen Christ. But we have no stories, no account, no evidence, if you will, of the actual resurrection event.

What we have is an empty tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea claimed Jesus’ lifeless body and laid it in his own tomb, the one he had reserved for himself. The women saw this done, and then in keeping with Jewish law, left for the duration of the Sabbath, for the law prohibited any work on the Sabbath day.

And this is where today’s story begins.

The Sabbath has ended. It is the first day of the week, at first light. And the women come to the tomb with the spices they have prepared for the body. The great stone that had covered the mouth of the tomb has been rolled away, and when the women go inside, they find that the body is not there! Two men in dazzling array – heavenly messengers –ask, “Why do you seek him? He is not here! He is risen!”

The women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples and all the others. And that’s where today’s gospel reading ends, though it’s not the end of the story, and not even the end of this part of the story. Because when the women told their news to the apostles, what they had seen and learned inside that tomb, that empty tomb, the men didn’t believe them! “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” says one version.

There is a difference between standing in the tomb, as the women had done, and standing outside. The view is different. The perspective is different. One sees different things. One sees things differently.

The women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James – are named as being among the company that early morning. They had followed Jesus from his trial before Pilate to his crucifixion on Calvary. They had stayed with him at the cross and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus had said to his followers that they must pick up their crosses to follow him, and certainly these women had endured the cross while the men ran away and Peter denied even knowing Jesus. The women stayed at the cross, and later entered the tomb to follow him. Their view – their perspective – was an Easter faith. They had walked the path to Calvary and so had eyes to see the heavenly messengers where they expected to see their Lord, and ears to hear them ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!”

And they believed.

The men were frightened. They ran away from the cross; Peter denied knowing Jesus. When the women came to tell them the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, the men didn’t believe them! And when Peter – ever-impulsive Peter – got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself, did he go inside? No. According to the story we have received, he stayed outside, stooping to look in.

Much fun might be had with the gender differences in this story, and how later faith traditions developed understandings along gender lines that so disparaged the first to believe and exalted the authority of those who did not. This is a ripe field for exploration. But while there may be a point the gospel writers wished to make about such matters, that is not the point of this homily.

The point for today is: There is a big difference between standing inside the tomb in the place of the resurrected Lord, and standing outside the tomb, stooping to look in. One is the place of an Easter faith, a conviction of things known, though not seen.

The other place is stuck in the events of Good Friday, and can believe the horror, the fear, the death, but hasn’t quite made it to those things even more difficult to believe: the loving goodness of God, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, hope.

The difference between standing inside the tomb and standing outside looking in is the difference not of men and women, but of Easter resurrection triumphant over Good Friday death.

It is the triumph of a courage to believe over a skepticism that isn’t quite sure. It is the triumph of celebration and wondrous news over disappointment and despair.

It is the faith of Easter, which knows the agony of Good Friday, and knows that is not the end of the drama. There will be a curtain call.

When we stand in the place where Peter stood, stooping low to look into the tomb with our own doubt and our disbelief intact, what will we see? We will see a dark cavern, shadows and dust, an empty tomb.

But when we seek our Lord in that tomb and we stand with him in the darkness, what then will we see? Those same heavenly messengers in dazzling array? Probably not. But we will see the emptiness. And we will know its reason. It is an emptiness not of doubt, despair, disbelief, but an emptiness that signals something new, renewed, a triumph over the impossible, a hope and promise greater than our imagining. And when we look past the darkness of the tomb to the world outside, we will see light – dazzling light, blinding light, a shimmering curtain of light. The curtain call of Easter.

The light of Christ.

He is risen!

Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses, and making anything chocolate.

Resurrection needs to be practiced, Easter Day (C) – 2010

April 4, 2010

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12

In a recent essay, Nora Gallagher talks about practicing resurrection. It is a splendid phrase, “practicing resurrection.” She wonders whether we spend too much time in the church discussing whether we believe in the resurrection or do not believe in the resurrection. By doing this, she thinks, we may miss the point. She writes:

“When I think about the resurrection now, I not only wonder about what happened to Jesus. I ponder what happened to his disciples. Something happened to them, too. They went into hiding after the crucifixion, but after the resurrection appearances, they walked back out into the world. They became braver and stronger; they visited strangers, and healed the sick. It was not just what they saw when they saw Jesus, or how they saw it, but what was set free in them. … What if the resurrection is not about the appearances of Jesus alone, but also about what those appearances point to, what they ask? It’s finally what we do with them that matters; make them into superstitions or use them as stepping stones to new life. Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”

Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

“Practicing resurrection.” It is a splendid phrase. It is splendid truth. It is our Easter truth.

It does seem like in so many ways, people are longing for the practice of resurrection in their lives. A widow whose husband died at a much too early age. A man who is struggling with a new career at midlife and fears his ability to cope with new challenges. A colleague who falls into a deep, clinical depression and struggles to live through the day with meager energy. In so many ways, so many people are longing for new life, for the practice of resurrection.

I suppose one could say that the women who arrived at the empty tomb on that first Easter morning really needed to practice resurrection. Think about it. They had gone to the tomb on that morning to attend to Jesus’ body. This was to be the last, loving service they could do for their Lord. They had witnessed Jesus’ death. They knew that there was no time for a proper burial. So they came with spices to complete the burial rites. Their beloved Lord was dead. They could at least perform this one last act of love for him.

And yet their hearts must have been heavy. Their life with Jesus was over. The one whose call had been irresistible, the one whose service was like no other service they had ever known, now lay lifeless in a tomb. And there must have been fear mixed in with their grief. Not just the fear of death. But the fear that all their hopes and dreams had died along with Jesus, that they too lay lifeless in the grave. This is what happens to love in the world. They had known perfect love in Jesus, and the world had killed him. The world can be a cruel and fearsome place.

But something amazing happened when the reached the tomb. When they arrived at the tomb, they entered into the place of their deepest and darkest fears. They entered the very place of death. And yet, what did they find when they entered this place of fear and death? Nothing. No thing. No body. Nothing.

We are told that they were perplexed when they did not find the body, which is understandable because they thought their story with Jesus was over and his dead body was the final period. But the angel reminded them that this is not the end of the story. He said:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

They needed to be reminded of resurrection. “Remember how he told you.” But then they needed to practice resurrection. They needed to go and tell all this to all the rest of the disciples. They got the good news that Christ is risen from the dead, and now they needed to change from people who perform rites for the dead to apostles who bear witness to the living Lord. They needed to practice resurrection. They needed to change from people who are fearful and frightened to people who boldly proclaim that God’s life is stronger than any death, that God’s love is stronger than any hate, that God’s peace is more powerful than human violence.

So they practiced on the men. They told all they had seen and heard to the eleven and all the rest. And it must be said, they were a little slow on the uptake. The words of the women seem to them an idle tale. But they needed to practice resurrection too. And they eventually got it, and, together with those first women, they became a courageous group of apostles who changed the world.

The good news of Easter is that Jesus Christ, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead. This belief, this truth, this resurrection, changes everything. Cruelty is not the last word. Sin and evil are not the ultimate powers of the universe. Death does not get the final laugh. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Forgiveness and love and life are the final realities of the world. Jesus Christ is risen today. The power of God is stronger than any tomb. Jesus Christ has risen.

The good news of Easter is not only that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and lives now, but also that the power of the resurrection can transform our lives now as well. New life is possible, now, here, today. But for that to happen, we need not only to be reminded of resurrection, but also to practice resurrection.

Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

In Jim Wallis’ book, “God’s Politics,” he tells a powerful story about practicing resurrection. He tells a story that took place in South Africa when, to all outward appearances, apartheid still had a strangle-hold on power and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Wallis was at an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of St. George’s where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding, when a group of the notorious South African Security Police broke into the service. Wallis writes:

“Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders. … They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days. … After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power … but reminded them that he served a higher power than their political authority. Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African Apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and an enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshippers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began dancing. We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces who not knowing what else to do, backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”

Ten years later, Wallis attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president. Wallis spoke to Archbishop Tutu and asked him if he remembered that earlier day when they had danced out of the Cathedral onto the streets, and Tutu said that, indeed, he did remember. Wallis reflects that apartheid did not die on the day Mandela was released or inaugurated, but that it died the day of the celebration in the church, when they danced for freedom in the streets of South Africa.

Practice Resurrection! Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

Is it possible to practice resurrection in our own cities and streets? Can we, like those first women who came to the tomb, practice resurrection in our own lives?

The promise of Easter is that we can. We don’t need to go about looking for the dead among the living, and we don’t need to go about living like the dead among the living. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. He is alive. Because he is the first fruits, we can be assured that a similar future awaits us. We need to be reminded of the truth of the resurrection over and over again. But we also need to practice resurrection. The truth of Easter is that the promise of new life doesn’t just await us in the future, but that we are able to live new lives, here and now, by the power of the resurrection.

Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Believing in order to see, Easter Day (C) – 2007

April 8, 2007

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12

Easter moves around a lot from year to year. Unlike Christmas, which always falls on December 25, no matter the day of the week or the number of shopping days since Thanksgiving, Easter can fall on most any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. There is, in fact, an entire section of the Book of Common Prayer devoted to finding the date of Easter Sunday in any given year. Read it some evening if you are having a difficult time falling asleep.

Before you drift off, you will learn about golden numbers and Sunday letters, astronomical and ecclesiastical equinoxes, and the phases of the moon – all of which are critical in determining when exactly it is that we celebrate the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. In fact, the dating of Easter was one of the earliest controversies to face the early English Church and incipient Anglican community long before the time of Henry VIII. Sadly, it has not been the last. But that is another story.

Time has always been important to Christians for the simple reason that our redemption takes place in time. Unlike the gods and heroes of mythology, Christ lived among us in time and history. He was born. He grew up. He preached the kingdom, and he died. It is recorded there in scripture for all to read. It is part of salvation history.

And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, on a certain first day of the week – specifically at early dawn – Christ’s empty tomb was discovered, and the proclamation of his Resurrection began as the women made their way back to the eleven and told them what they had seen and heard. That proclamation continues to this day.

It is no wonder then that over centuries the Church has been so precise and meticulous about the timing of such an important feast. But as arcane as the computation is for establishing Easter Day, it is only part of the story. For not only is Easter a special time, it is quite literally special time. It is time out of time, time like no other.

The Resurrection is something completely unique and unprecedented. Here is how New Testament scholar Holt Graham explains the Easter event:

“We do not understand it and indeed cannot. … It never happened before, and it has never happened again. What we have learned from ordinary existence is no help when we come up against the absolutely unique happening. It is in the full and literal sense a mystery. It occurred beyond the boundary line of our existence.”

The Resurrection in other words, while a part of our salvation history, nevertheless occurs beyond our experience and senses. Other scholars explain the Resurrection as the “bursting forth” into time – into history – of eternity itself. It is as if all eternity were concentrated into this moment when Christ overcomes death and the grave, and the infinite sweeps away the temporal. Yet if the Resurrection is unique in our experience, it is essential to our existence as Christians.

No one saw the Resurrection. No one knows just when it happened or how. There was no car chase. No congressional hearing. No film at eleven. No leads. No body. The tomb is open and empty, abandoned except by a couple of ethereal, angelic figures and a few devoted, if somewhat disconsolate, women. For something at the very heart of our faith, this remains pretty slim pickings. Where was CNN? Where was Fox News or, if you prefer, Jim Lehrer? An embedded reporter or two would have been nice.

But of course we don’t get any of it. There is quite literally nothing to this story. An empty tomb. Our great Christian symbol of life and hope is found in something missing, something not there, a displacement. “The Case of the Missing Body,” as mystery writer Agatha Christie might have called it. It is indeed a mystery, but unlike anything Agatha Christie ever imagined.

For this empty tomb is full of meaning. From this empty tomb, hewn in rock, we as Christians draw forth all of our faith and hope for this world and for the kingdom to come. At this empty tomb we find the Christ of eternity alive in the here and now. From this chasm, a symbol of death and defeat, comes forth victory and life itself. Christ’s tomb is the earthen fissure through which God’s love pours out upon our parched world of sin and death.

We do not know how this is so. But then there are a lot of things we do not know. How life began in some ocean lagoon billions of years ago, for instance. Or even how our parents fell in love. Just as our lives today are in some real sense mysteries we shall never fathom, so is the Resurrection for us a sharing in the mystery of God’s own life. Or perhaps more to the point, it is a sharing by God in our lives.

Time is on our side. Our life and our world mean something. They are not random events, and we are not lost among the dust and debris of history, footnotes in a book of no meaning or consequence. In this single event, the Resurrection, everything is changed for all time. We live now in Christ forever. In Baptism, we have been raised with him, and death no longer has a grip on us. We seek now, as Paul says, “the things that are above, where Christ is.”

As Christians, we do not see and then believe. We believe in order to see. And what we see in the Resurrection is our lives transformed. “Let the whole world see and know,” we pray in one of the final liturgies of Holy Week, “that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” Christ’s Resurrection is finally the most real thing there is or ever was or ever will be.

The Lord is risen indeed.

Amen. Alleluia.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, Calif.