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Christ is Alive! – An Easter Sermon

March 28, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Luke 23:50 – 24:12

My son and I were taking a walk together earlier this week and I asked him what he has been learning about the resurrection. He described a number of biblical stories – the cross, the tomb, the garden, the women, the running, the touching (and not touching) of Jesus’ body, the appearances through solid wall and the cooking of fish. “But,” he said, “you know dad, they’re all myths.”

“Yes they are,” I said, “but are they true?”[1]

This is a question we talk about often these days. One of the primary jobs for children his age (he’s nine) is to sort out fact from fiction, and reliable information from unreliable information. He enjoys finding typos in books (evidence of fallible editors), or confronting adults who retain outdated information (like the number of planets in the solar system), or to discover that revisions need to be made based on better experimentation (like the way scientists thought that neutrinos moved faster than the speed of light and then how a second experiment, disappointingly enough, showed that wasn’t the case). For him, saying that something is a myth means that it’s not fact. It’s not scientific or historic. And that is a very modern concern – certainly not one shared by ancient authors from Homer to St. Paul to Lao Tsu.

My son August knows that when I ask “But is it true?” I am asking something different than “Is it a fact?” or “Did it really happen?” The biblical stories are invitations to think about and look at the world around us in a new way. The stories invite us to inquire about God’s intention for our lives, notice God’s care which surrounds us, receive God’s grace that makes all things new. The Biblical stories are myths in the fullest and best sense of the word. They are stories that orient our lives within a framework of meaning and sense.

Is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment true? No, not as historical fact, though it’s set in a realistic description of Russia in the 19th century. But it is certainly a true story about the human condition in that it accurately portrays the kinds of struggles we face in life. Is Picasso’s Guernica true? Well, it’s a representation of the Spanish Civil War, but its intended to disorient, to make us feel dismembered and frantic when we view it. We experience the war as a horrible metaphor – enough to make our heart and ears pound with the violence but not so overwhelming that we are unable to deeply reflect on the horror before us.

guernica_picasso_painting

Like a great novel or a great painting, the stories of the Bible invite us to enter into our ordinary lives with a new perspective – God’s presence. And then they invite us to imagine what our everyday world might be like if we actually sought for and joined with God’s presence. The truth of the Biblical stories is not in whether they occurred on such and such a date with such and such a person. The truths of the biblical stories are known when their meanings come alive in our lives – here and now. [2]

I guess what I’m saying is that as Presbyterians, truth is something that we must be or become through the practice of justice, prayer and forgiveness. Or as our Book of Order puts it, “truth is in order to goodness”: truth is what shapes us in the image of Christ. In his teaching and in the example of his life and death, Jesus provided the pattern for our own lives. The scholar and theologian Thomas a Kempis exhorted us to live in the imitation of Christ. For when we do this, we learn something of how the first shall be last and how the true self is found in loving our enemy.

We gather in this sanctuary because by looking into the waters of our baptism we see ourselves as children of God, and call that the truth! Because when we gather around this simple table of bread and vine we recognize ourselves as the body of Christ, and know that as the truth! Because through worship of the God who wills our freedom in justice and in peace, we grow the kingdom in our midst – in spirit and in truth! Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.” If that is correct, and I think that it is, then we know the truth about ourselves when we pray confession and sing hymns. We know the truth about God as we recite and remember the stories of God encountered in the history of Israel and through the ministry of Jesus. And we know the truth about our world as we love neighbor and enemy alike and as we witness to and embody the reign of Love that God is creating with us.

Frankly, anyone hoping to understand the resurrection by compiling all of the biblical stories about resurrection appearances is sure to be frustrated. The idea of resurrection began as a belief among the Pharisees that those who were martyred for their resistance to Roman occupation, branded criminals and horribly killed, would be vindicated by God and raised to new life in God’s presence. St. Paul struggled mightily to explain to the Corinthians the reality of Jesus being not only among the resurrected but the first fruits of the resurrected, but kept banging his head against their stubborn insistence on seeing a resuscitated body, finally shouting, “It’s a mystery. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” By the time the Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel, was written, we hear for the first time of an empty tomb, though the resurrected Christ does not appear. Instead, Mark has a young man tell the women that Jesus “is not here, he is risen,” and goes on ahead of us. By the time Matthew writes his Gospel, this young man has become and angel, and in Luke, he is two angels. You get my point. C.S. Lewis once made the analogy that scripture is like a transparent window, something we see through. Our tendency, however, is to focus on the window itself. But that is a mistake.

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window is transparent but the point is that we should see the street or the garden beyond.

– C.S. Lewis[3]

japanese_window_garden_by_andyserrano

What do we see, when we look through the window of this morning’s gospel story?

On that first Easter morning, Mary, Peter, and all the others were turned inward by their guilt and their grief. But the empty tomb, which left Mary, Peter and the others breathless and astonished, also opened them up again to see the betrayals of Thursday, the horrors of Friday, and the silence of Saturday as somehow part of a story that God was not finished with yet. Death was not the end. Death was not denied, but swallowed up in God’s continuing story of faithfulness to God’s people, to us. Rather than a period, Jesus’ death was a comma. And now here he was, alive again, at work again among them, doing what he had always done – establishing God’s Kingdom of love peace and justice, beginning with his broken and despairing friends.

The Jesus of Easter is the same Jesus who loved and wept over this world, who spoke truth to power, who showed us how to share all we have and all we are with neighbor and stranger and enemy alike. This Christ is alive, among us, today.[4] Easter is not so much about new life as it is about all life transformed: Christ’s life, our life, the life of the world, transformed. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Nothing can stop God’s love. Alleluia. Amen.

 

[1] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (WJK, 1997) is comprehensive look at how 20th century theologians have wrestled with the idea of myth in religious thought, language and scripture.

[2] “Jesus lives. Jesus is Lord . . . Easter is about all of this. To reduce it to a spectacular miracle a long time ago and a hope for an afterlife is to diminish it and domesticate it. It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world.” See Marcus Borg, 2012, (http://www.marcusjborg.com/2012/04/13/reflections-on-easter/).

[3] “Practicing Resurrection,” in David Felten, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. (2012)

[4] Brian Wren composed “Christ is Alive!” (the hymn we sang immediately after the sermon) for Easter 1968, which fell 10 days after MLK’s assassination.

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