A Sermon preached on Easter Day 2014 at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
In an article I recently read online, on an Episcopal Church website, today, Easter Day, was described as “the triumphant ending to the Greatest Story Ever Told.” Well I disagree entirely ….. I bet that’s got your attention!
And why do I disagree? Well to start I find the descriptions of the Resurrection in the gospels anything but triumphant. The Resurrection itself is not described at all- no Hollywood effects like a mysterious glow from the tomb or the stone covering the entrance exploding into myriad pieces. What we have instead is surprisingly restrained and low key. We just read about an empty tomb, left over linen, mystified friends and disciples, fear, sadness, and uncertainty. All that the ‘other disciple’ and Peter get to see when they reach the tomb and look inside are linen wrappings and a rolled up cloth. So it would seem that the body has not been stolen – who would go to the bother of unwrapping it? But where is it then?
Mary’s encounter with Jesus is also unspectacular. OK, she does see two angels in white, that is not an everyday experience, at least nor for me, but it doesn’t seem to worry her. And when she does meet Jesus she mistakes him for a gardener. This all makes the Resurrection something very intimate and personal. As Peter says in the sermon recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “God allowed him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
This is a Resurrection experience that is available to us too. We can experience it through faith and in our hearts and as those chosen by God as witnesses we will also eat and drink with our Lord and Savior at his table later in the service. Yes, the Resurrection is the triumph of life over death and of love over hate. But it is not triumphant – and in the history of the Christian church we have been furthest from Jesus’ teaching and from God’s will when we have acted triumphantly!
To quote Winston Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Easter really is not the ending, it is a new beginning. As John makes clear, Jesus‘ own ministry in the world is not complete at this point, he still has to return to his and our Father, and he still has to give us all the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is meaning in the Resurrection happening on what we now call Sunday, and not on Saturday, the Sabbath, the day of rest after God had finished Creation. Jesus rises on the first day of the week, which Sunday still is in some calendars, because his Resurrection is the beginning of a new creation, a new life, and a new world.
Look at the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. He is both the same as before and changed. And when he tells her not to hold on to me, not to cling to him he is warning her that a new relationship has begun that will not be like the old one. In this new relationship she, and the disciples now described as Jesus’ brothers, and we as their successors on faith, can be as intimate with God as Jesus is. Soon it will be time for Jesus to leave and return to the Father. So he sends her, as the first Apostle, the Apostle to the Apostles. This is another important, primary role for women in this Gospel – after the Woman at the Well who was the first missionary. She is sent to tell the others all that Jesus had told her and to get them ready for their new beginning and for the beginning of their mission to preach and to testify as Peter puts it in his sermon in Acts.
So Easter is not triumphant, and not the ending – but why isn’t it the Greatest Story Ever Told? Of course it is a great story and a great message. Just look at what Peter squeezes into a few lines of his sermon when he summarizes all of Jesus life and works and the meaning of his death: God is the God of every nation and Jesus is the Lord of all. But calling this the Greatest Story Ever Told makes it sound as if it is finished. We’ve reached the end, we know ‘whodunnit,’ we can close the book and put it back on the shelf and look for a new one. And many people do. They look for an exciting new story in the secular myth of progress and personal striving or in some new form of spirituality. That’s not their fault, it’s our fault, because we have not made clear enough that our story is still in the process of being told. We are both the storytellers and part of the story. Like Peter we are called to tell people what happened, how God became human and dwelt with us, what the incarnate Son taught and did and how he lived as an example, how he died for us and for our sins, how he rose again and what the Kingdom of God that he inaugurated looks like, what our renewed lives and a renewed world can be like, and how we can help bring that about.
I understand why Christians, together with Jews and Moslems, are sometimes called a People of the Book – and it is important to emphasize what we have in common with those two other religions. But we are not a People of the Book; we are a People of a Life. Jesus Christ is what was revealed to us, not the books that humans wrote to record his life
I am going to finish with a poem from a collection called “Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.” It too describes a beginning that is anything but triumphant and a new story that has only just begun and is still to be told. It is the great story, that greatest story that begins at Easter and can save us all:
Going and Telling
Go. Tell my friends. I am giving you the word. Tell them.
It is finished, and the new story has begun.
The body that holds you now
Alive and warm, is as real
As the body you saw mutilated,
Mocked, betrayed, brutalized.
Even though jeers drowned out the message
Of justice for the poor,
Release for the oppressed,
It seems as though the promise I brought
Was pounded down
With the nails
They drove into these hands
Go and tell them:
They cannot kill it.
Step back. Take these wounded hands.
Clasp them in your own.
Gaze back at me, and see
The dancing in my eyes.
Go and tell them
This life you are holding
Nothing can kill it.
Go. Go and tell them
You will see me