Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Easter Proclamation

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday 2014 at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC.  The texts were Jeremiah 31:1-6, Acts 10:34-43, and John 20:1-18.
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There’s something compelling in the almost primitive, unsophisticated way Peter preaches to the people in the Acts of the Apostles.  No frills. No public speaking techniques rehearsed in a classroom.  No three points and a poem.  He simply lays it down: “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 and 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.”  We have Four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, along with nearly 2,000 years of Christian proclamation about Jesus.  But setting aside all of those wonderful riches, what Peter gives us is stunningly compelling in its simplicity.

The Resurrection is a mystery we will never be able to fully understand.  We’ll never totally exhaust its power to transform lives.  And so the tendency for us preachers is to take this story and create with it a sermon to astound the masses, to write one for the history books that just might sit on a shelf alongside the great preachers and theologians of the Church throughout time.  To be honest, I’ve already picked out the place on my bookshelf where this sermon’s going to sit.  (Just kidding.) In all seriousness, the task of a preacher, and really the task of all Christians, is to declare this truth as plainly as we can: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.”

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.  In the face of tragedy, as a burgeoning movement of love and hope was reduced to fleeing disciples and mourning women, though the Cross-Shattered Christ was wrapped in burial linens and placed in a rich man’s tomb, true life burst forth from the grave and confronted our brutal world with the reality that death no longer has the final say, that violence, torture and humiliation could not break the resolve of God to redeem fallen humanity.  To proclaim with a singular voice, once-for-all, that death, hell, and the grave cannot break the spirit of love.  Linens cast aside, the stone rolled away, death was trampled down by the death of Christ, and the power of a God who loves us without qualification and without end was made visible. Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes, He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever, with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

I may preach this Resurrection with a certain amount of fervor, but I’m most assuredly not the first preacher to do this.  Perhaps that compelling reading from the Acts of the Apostles would have us think Peter is the first person to preach the Resurrection.  However, in spite of the boldness and clarity of his preaching, Peter was not the first Resurrection preacher.  That place of honor goes to Mary Magdalene.  “The Apostle to the Apostles” she is often called, and for good reason.  It was she who alerted the Apostle’s to the missing body of Jesus.  And even when Peter and the Beloved Disciple returned to their room, perhaps out of sadness and frustration, Mary remained.  She stood weeping outside of the tomb.  She was vulnerable, broken, unable to fathom how she was going to continue in this life without the Teacher she had come to trust and love.  But, thanks be to God, her tenacity paid off.  Through a haze of confusion, and a bit of mistaken identity, she saw with her eyes the Teacher that she loved.  Wasting no time, she grabbed him as anyone would do in her position.  She clung to him, perhaps out of a fear that this was a fleeting moment soon to pass.  And though I imagine such a reunion was filled with joy and satisfaction, Jesus didn’t allow her to remain there in that Garden, clinging to him.  He had a mission for her: “ Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”



Go to my brothers.  Jesus sends her out from this most holy encounter to proclaim the Gospel of his resurrection, a Gospel of reconciliation.  “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Death is defeated, and sin no longer separates humanity and divinity.  Perhaps there was a time when it was only “My Father, and my God.” Now it is “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Or, as the prayer Jesus taught us goes, “Our Father, who are in heaven.” So go, Mary, proclaim to these apostles this Good News.  Go, so the world can bear witness to my Resurrection.  Go.

And the same message is given to us: Go. You see, Easter is not a time for us to cling to the joy of this celebration too tightly, to enjoy the feelings of new life and abundance it instills in us.  What good is an Easter Eucharist inside this Church if we fail to take this same joy, this same passion, this saving and transforming message out into the world around us, proclaiming that death has no victory, and that life can and will triumph over the darkness that surrounds us?  What good would such a pageant as this be if it was only for us, here in this place?  In the day in which Mary lived, a woman’s testimony was ignored, not even valid in a court of law.  Her role diminished because of societal norms, because of the unequal status given to women.  And yet, she did not allow such norms, such established rules and patterns, to keep her from proclaiming with a loud voice, unafraid of the scorn she might receive, “I have seen the Lord!” The joy, the passion, the power welling up inside of her to the point that she could do nothing, nothing else except proclaim to the world, “I have seen the Lord!” 

I have seen the Lord. It’s an announcement, a proclamation so full of promise, so full of majesty.  Though we don’t see him physically like those Apostles did, I dare say none of us would be here today if we could not say, “I have seen the Lord!” This is a proclamation with the potential to transform the world in which we live.  It’s a proclamation that reverberates with Jeremiah’s prophetic words: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”

Today is the day that our ‘Alleluias’ ring out once again.  But let them ring out not just in here, in a place with familiar faces and comfortable pews.  Let our ‘Alleluias’ ring out in the dark places, the places in desperate need of a glimmer of hope, the places where pain still seems to triumph, where division reigns over unity.  Let our ‘Alleluias’ ring out as if today is the first Easter Day.  Fear nothing except indifference.  Prize nothing except the opportunity to proclaim this Resurrection hope. Sing and shout with a loud voice, “Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes, He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever, with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!”

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