Sunday, April 1, 2018

No joke!

A Sermon preached on April 1, Easter Day, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Isaiah 25: 6-9, Acts 10: 34-43, John 20:1-18

Today is not only Easter Day, but also April 1st, which is April Fool's Day. Now that Lent is over, I just can't resist the temptation to talk about these two days together. It’s a rare opportunity. The last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day was in 1956 and after 2018, the next one is 2029, and then again in 2040. I’ve seen a number of suggestions for special Easter themed tricks: wrapping grapes in foil to pass off as mini egg chocs. Dyeing an uncooked Easter egg and passing it off as hardboiled, or even swapping out the candy or chocolate in the plastic Easter eggs for egg hunts in favor of less-exciting items like broccoli or cauliflower. We have not done any of these, I promise!

If you look at our Gospel passage there are actually some moments of comedy in there. Picture Simon Peter and the other disciple racing to the tomb, both wanting to be first to see what … a pile of linen wrappings. Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden would probably also have raised a smile if anyone had been watching: first not recognizing him, then mistaking him for a gardener and finally asking Jesus where Jesus is: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (John 20:15)

Of course, for modern secularists Easter is itself one big joke. For them neither the resurrection, nor God, nor even Jesus are real. And so, they might say that April 1st is a prefect date for the Easter celebration. Making fun of Christianity, rejecting its basic tenets is nothing new. St. Paul himself refers to it in his letters. For example, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians (1:23) Paul writes “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” 
Why did the Gentiles, the Greeks and the Romans, think this was foolish? Believing in God was not the issue. They were not against God or gods, they had plenty of them. But their gods were all too human in their behavior. They had superhuman powers and to a certain extent superhuman faults – exaggerated pride, jealousy, greed, lust, and often a rather cruel sense of humor! No, what the Gentiles found foolish was not that Christians believe in God, but that they believed in a God who cared, in a God who was interested in a genuine relationship with God’s creation, and in a God, who was willing to suffer and even to die a terrible and shameful death to save the world. That was impossible and clearly a very bad joke.

Why then are we so confident that we know who God is and that God acted on Jesus? For one thing we have the record of those who experienced Jesus first hand. For the first 10 – 20 years after the crucifixion it was purely a verbal record, and those who had seen and heard Jesus, and been at some or all of the events leading up to and following his death would talk from experience. Then as the movement grew, and the first witnesses died, it was written down and became what we know as the New Testament. Sure, it’s not all consistent and some stories are even contradictory. But the common core – what theologians call the kerygma or proclamation of the good news – is clear. We have an example in Peter’s speech that we heard in the passage from Acts: “How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:38-40)

In Jesus’ acts and teaching his followers also saw the love of God, in Jesus’ death they saw a supreme act of sacrifice out of love, in Jesus’ resurrection a mighty act of God that, together with the miracles they had experienced, could only mean one thing: God had dwelt among them, God had suffered with and for them, God offered a new relationship and new life for all.

Another reason for our confidence in the truth of the gospel is what happened after Jesus’ death. That small, often frightened and confused band of followers were transformed and empowered. We find Peter, who had publicly denied Jesus, suddenly standing up and openly proclaiming him. The Jesus movement grew and spread, soon beyond ethnic, religious and geographical boundaries. The experience of the risen Christ, and the conviction of the apostles – both first and second generation was compelling. Even those who had not known Jesus personally, or came from another culture were willing to say, as Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples, I have seen the Lord.

It continues today. We do not proclaim that Christ was risen, but that he is risen. The resurrection is an event that is still present and powerful today. Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection continues to transform people and lives. Those who turn to Christ often feel his presence. Those who turn to Christ feel empowered to do much more than they ever thought possible, they feel called to seek and serve him in all human beings, they feel a desire to come closer and closer to God who is the source of our being. That’s no joke!

Yet we could call the empty tomb a joke, God’s joke on those who thought killing one man with a deeply uncomfortable message for everyone in a position of power, privilege and advantage would kill the message. It’s not a joke because it is made up, but because any really good joke ends with a totally unexpected twist or turn. And the resurrection was completely unexpected, even for Jesus’ own disciples and although Jesus had told them often enough. Even confronted with the empty tomb we heard that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9) They took some convincing, they were not gullible and easily tricked. But once they were convinced, there was no stopping them.

The event we celebrate today, and every Sunday is not a joke. The resurrection is real, and it has a real and present impact on our lives. It’s not a joke, but we still have a punchline:  
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

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