by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 16, 2006
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
“The most important message I delivered to you is the one that I also received, namely, that we in our sin killed Christ, as the Scriptures warned us we would do, that he was buried, and that God raised him from the grave on the third day, as the Scriptures promised He would do; and that the risen Jesus appeared…” –1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (My own translation from the Greek)
I find the Easter sermon the most difficult of the year to compose, because I am required to speak of something that lies beyond words. Words anchor us in this world; we inherit them and they come to us bearing the burden of a death-dealing culture. The event I must speak of comes from the future not the past and is the quintessence of life. Music is the appropriate medium for communicating marvels. I am struck dumb, I cannot speak, but I can sing… I cannot speak but I can shout…Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
Like John Chrysostom in the office of Matins for Easter in the Byzantine Liturgy, I can shout:
“Death where is thy sting? Where, Hell, thy victory?
Christ is Risen and Thou art brought to nothing.
Christ is Risen and the devils are fallen.
Christ is Risen and the angels rejoice.
Christ is Risen and Life has prevailed.
Christ is Risen and the dead are delivered from the grave.
For Christ, risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who sleep.
To him be glory and might for ever and ever.”
(Let me record here what I mean by the term “the Resurrection. I take the bodily resurrection of Jesus for granted; the God who made the universe can surely remake a human body and transform it into the substance of the New Creation, the next stage of the evolution of the universe from inorganic matter to spiritual body. There is nothing unnatural about this transformation; most difficulties with the idea arise from an out-of-date conception of matter and its relationship to spirit, an unwarranted dichotomizing of nature and spirit. So while the effect of God’s raising the body of Jesus is joy, wonder, hope and celebration, these are effects of the event and not the event itself. The Resurrection is the cause; joy etc. is the effect).
These are clearly ecstatic words, and in the Liturgy I am sure they are sung or shouted, not merely spoken. Pity me having now to capture this ecstasy and wonder in a proper Protestant sermon. Never am I so oppressed by our Protestant culture’s need always to have something to say, as on Easter. The leading Protestant theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, used to say something like, “No one can speak of God; we are called to speak of God; so let’s just get on with it!” So be it.
Yesterday I attended an event at Stanford where three faculty members from the Humanities division tackled the subject, “The End of Life.” During a break one of the attendees whom I met there and then, asked me, on the basis of the just completed lecture, whether, given our faith, Christians die like other people. My answer was cryptic but immensely successful; I said, “Emphatically yes! That’s what Good Friday is all about.” What I meant is that like Jesus we die decisively; the end of life is absolutely the end; so prepare to leave everything behind. As we came forth all brand-new from the womb, so we shall come forth all brand-new from the tomb. We shall be recreated, that is, the same person renewed in every aspect. Only God knows where we came from then, and only God knows where we shall go when. Creation and Re-Creation; that is the truth about us. There is no immortality in us, no continuity in us and in our world; only God is immortal and our faith is that the immortal God loves us, and for that reason will never let us slip into nothingness. Immortal love will give us immortal life. The lady “got it,” and so did several eavesdroppers and we all went on our way rejoicing back into the lecture hall, to hear a glib and dismal deconstruction of the “Christian myth.” I think there were at least a few who would be unimpressed by that effort to turn the wine back into water. God is good and gives us opportunities to witness in unexpected places.
Let’s see if we “get it. ” I have just used the term “witness” and that is the term I want to take up again and make central to our meditation. I cannot explain the Resurrection, nor can you understand it; I can only witness to it as the event of all events, attest that it is the happening that founds the Christian faith and anchors the truth that God is immortal love and therefore we may trust that God will create us anew as God created us at first, and that we shall come forth from the tomb as we came forth from the womb, to stand again at the beginning of life. We do not come from a storehouse of immortal souls as Plato teaches, but from the abyss of divine love, and as we came into being new, so we come forth from the tomb renewed. There is a real break between the old creation and the new; nevertheless, we remain the same person, newly embodied, as Jesus is.
I attest that often in the Easter worship I am especially aware of the power of the divine life in our midst. I go into the service wondering how I can possibly explain the Resurrection and come away lifted high in spirit because regardless of my stammering words the Resurrection has happened again. Rather than I explain the Resurrection, the Risen Christ claims me, and like a lioness grabbing her cub by the scruff he shakes me and takes me up into himself. This is the mysterious and wonderful event that we attest, and when it happens again we know why the Christian religion, despite its dark history and current solecisms persists and prospers. This faith is founded on the truth of human life revealed in the Resurrection of Jesus.
That revealed truth most clearly evident in the Resurrection of Jesus, is a truth not of proposition or explanation, not of dogma or dictate but of experience. When Jesus rises from the dead the curtain covering the true nature of our life, – who we are, where we come from and what we shall become, – is lifted for a brief moment and we can see its immense promise and joy. For this reason our faith is focused so intensely on this one, young, Jewish man. This 30-year-old Jew is our window into ourselves, and into the truth.
What is this Truth, with a capital “T”? It is that life abounds, life endures, life is infinitely and eternally good, life is joyous, life trumps death, life overflows the bounds of our nastiness, life, life, life. So we have Easter bunnies and Easter eggs. I know how eggs symbolize life, but my interpretation of the bunnies might be unorthodox. I remember a joke, which goes like this: his recently deceased friend Joe visits Sam in a dream. “Joe,” says Sam, “what it like where you are?” “Its, wonderful,” says Joe. “What do you do all day?” Asks Sam. “I eat a bit and then have sex, then I eat a bit more and have sex, and take a nap and have sex, and have a drink and have sex, and so its goes 24/7.” “Wow,” says Sam, “Heaven must be a wonderful place.” “What do you mean heaven? Says Joe. “I’m a rabbit in Wyoming.” Perhaps the Easter bunny is not quite so clearly a sex symbol but it is a symbol of all the ecstasy of life, and Springtime, and Spring break; …well, that’s enough about springs.
We are a culture of death. As a devotee of the movie Westerns I know how central to our self-understanding is what one writer calls “Redemption by Violence.” As we are preparing to attack Iran, while we have wars going in Iraq and Afghanistan, (and I assure you the USA will be bombing Iran before the year is out -all the signals from the Administration that preceded the invasion of Iraq are blinking again-) we might take this moment to look into the heart of reality and to see that the truth of God is life not death. The Government murdered Jesus on Friday last, and the religious folk in the government led the charge; today God shows the futility and emptiness of the government’s pathetic faith in violence and death. On so many fronts our American culture is serving death; the murdered and resurrected Jesus shows us that such a culture is hollow at the core, nothing rather than something, echoing emptiness rather than burgeoning plenitude, death rather than life. And this impulse to solve all problems by killing the problematic people is also in each one of us as individuals.
So, be clear about this: I am not trying to persuade you that our faith in Jesus gives a better rationale for life in the world, nor that it has a morality superior to all others, nor that Christians are better people, nor that Jesus is a better teacher than all others, and especially not that Christianity is the one true religion. No, I simply witness and attest that once there was a young Jew in whose life in this world the life of the world was manifest.
“All things came into existence through him; without him there would be nothing. In him was life and the life was the light of men, and the light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has neither overcome nor understood it (John 1:4-5).”
We could paraphrase this declaration, which John makes at the beginning of his Gospel, but you will only grasp the truth of it if you encounter the life and light of the Risen Jesus here in this liturgy, in this music, in the presence of little John Francis who has so recently come to us from the abyss of the divine love, (For our readers: We have just baptized John Francis Hurlbut), and in the humiliating awareness that we have been with the creator of the world all along, and have tried ignominiously to fit him into the world he made, tried to turn the wine of life into ordinary, average and unremarkable water; but this Jesus is the absolute truth that defies our paltry categories and classifications, and if you learn nothing else in this life, learn to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate Creator, Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“Christ is Risen!
Enter then all of you into the joy of your master…
Let no one weep for his sins: forgiveness is risen from the tomb
Let no one fear death: the Savior’s death has set us free.
When it held him chained he struck it down…
To Him be glory and might forever and ever.