Easter 2023 - "Seven Stanzas at Easter"
It's Easter Sunday, y'all! Christ is risen! (Your part) He is Risen, Indeed!
This is one of the few moments Presbyterians everywhere can feel free to shout in church, so take advantage.
Easter is also a day of Holy Obligation, to coin a phrase from our Catholic siblings when we bring the whole crew to church. Our fit is photo ready. Y'all look super spiffy. And even those who have given up on the whole church thing give in a little to make Mee-Maw happy. Can I get a witness?
So today, we're going to read an impossible story... It's also a story that makes all things possible. Because in the Christian tradition, if this story isn't part of our story---there is no story.
Let's start by reading Matthew 28:1-10
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
This is one of the lectionary texts for Easter Sunday; the other is John chapter 20, which is the most familiar of the four accounts of the Resurrection.
Each one of them is different in its own way---recollections of eyewitnesses, who had their own perspectives, mixed in with a lot of hindsight, theology, and an eye on the communities which held the different accounts as authoritative.
Four Gospels... four different versions of the same story. We could get lost in the weeds of these accounts, or we can focus on the one thing they all have in common:
The tomb is empty in every single one of them--without exception.
I need to say something at this point because the Resurrection is problematic for a lot of people---it's perhaps the one thing that even many Christians find difficult to hold on to as a true and certain thing.
It's easy to reduce this to a feeling---or a metaphor for the transcendent.
We can believe in the truth of the Resurrection without ever wrestling with the belief that these Gospel accounts are factual. Most of us do just that.
But to do so reduces all of Christianity to a nice idea. The Christian faith wasn't founded on the Bible. I'm going to say that again. The Christian faith wasn't founded upon the Bible.
I can state this so unequivocally because there wasn't a Bible in the first three centuries of Christianity, and it wasn't until around 600 AD that the Bible as we know it was compiled.
The Christian faith is founded, grounded, and based entirely on the Resurrection of Jesus. That was the inciting incident that changed everything for his followers.
The transformation of the disciples from fearful and disillusioned to bold and courageous provides strong evidence for the Resurrection.
The first generation of disciples was deeply impacted by their belief in Jesus' Resurrection, and many suffered and died for their faith. This indicates that they truly believed in what they had witnessed and experienced.
And then there's this: The Apostle Paul once wrote this in his first letter to the Corinthians:
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.
16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile;
But what about the Resurrection matters to us more than anything else? What about this impossible story makes all things possible?
THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION IS NEW LIFE
Okay, it's time for an English Literature class. I was an English Lit major a hundred years ago, so this part of the sermon lights some old fires for me.
I want us to read a poem I've always wanted to include in an Easter Sermon, but this is the first time I've done it: John Updike's "Seven Stanzas At Easter."
This poem was written in 1960 while Updike attended a Lutheran church after graduating from college.
He echoes Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 15---as you will see in a moment.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
There's something super interesting to me about this poem. It connects the Resurrection to materiality---to the substance of our humanness. There's something real about the new life Updike proclaims here.
Suppose we're willing to walk through the door. In that case, the door leads us to an understanding that Jesus' Ressurection has something to do with us, with our materiality, matter, substance, and hope for what comes when we leave this reality for another.
The thing is, the early Christians got this. They saw the Resurrection as a sign and symbol of their own future and the future of all humanity. They understood the Resurrection as a material event with a body that had substance but was all made new.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan wrote a book about this, including artwork from earlier forms of Christianity and art from later forms. The earlier artwork looked something like this:
We see Jesus emerging from the tomb with Death defeated at his feet. But his hand is outstretched to bring with him saints, including Adam and Eve who are in the background.
There's also this:
Again, Jesus isn't rising alone in these images. He's bringing humanity with him. There is a tangible connection between his body and theirs. Resurrection isn't an isolated event.
Contrast those images with ones like this:
This represents the later forms of Christianity in the West that saw the Resurrection as a sign of power, as a defeat not only of Death but also of those who would be enemies of Christ.
Again, we have an isolated kind of Resurrection seemingly disconnected from humanity, signaling a more exclusionary view of Resurrection that is ephemeral, more spiritual, and less material.
So now we come to the part where you get to ask the all-important question that should be asked at the end of every sermon: So What? Why does this matter to you and me?
It matters because you and I matter to God. Our matter... matters. Our substance matters. God became one of us and took on our substance because our matter matters.
And the Resurrection of Jesus, which is an event that matters to all of us because we are connected to Jesus in his humanity, teaches us that because our matter matters to God, we will one day be made new---substantively new--in bodies like Jesus, physical, substantive, transformed bodies.
This is impossible to hear for a lot of us. It's an impossible story, but it makes all things possible. It makes new life possible. It makes the hope that this is not the end of us---our materiality--possible.
This is not the end, beloved. We will rise. All of Creation will rise. There will be a new world, a new us, and real reality. This is why we call ourselves Christians because of this hope.
And because of this, we ought to live like all of these matters- our lives, our world, our substance, our physical and spiritual connection to the Risen Christ... it all matters.
So go from this place with such hope that you have never imagined. Go from this place knowing that you matter to a God who has promised a new life, a real-life beyond this life.
THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION IS NEW LIFE