The Easter Message
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Day of Resurrection / Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
(The scripture is read before the children’s message and intervening hymn). Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Prayer: (having just sung this hymn before the sermon). Because you live, O Christ, the garden of the world has come to flower, the spirit bird of hope is freed for flying, the rainbow of peace will span the whole created world. Indeed! Our imaginations are alight with unexpected possibilities when we consider how you move among us to bring light to our darkness, reveal hope where we despair, and instill courage where we fear. The stone has rolled away and death cannot imprison, indeed. In deeds. In us, this day. May it be so. Amen.
“For I hand on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received.”
In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul was writing to friends. He was reminding them of the gospel he had preached among them, a gospel of life in the midst of death, of freedom from fear, and strength in community as they lived out God’s way justice, love and peace.
For Paul, the gospel was not a story or collection of stories about Jesus. The four stories we have come to call ‘gospels’ were not even written yet. Instead, for Paul the gospel was a proclamation of good news, passed on from one person to another.
In fact, what Paul presents appears to already be a well-established tradition, although the tradition can’t be that old as Paul was writing a mere 20 years after Jesus death. His proclamation of the gospel comes in two parts, a confession and a testimony. In the first part of the tradition, a three-fold confession:
- Christ died for our sins
- in accordance with the scriptures,
- and was buried,
- and was raised on the third day
- in accordance with the scripture
No mention is made here of how Christ died, or how he was raised, what scriptures the tradition is referring to, or when this took place. “On the third day” is a formulaic statement meaning “after some time.” The tradition simply proclaims the unexpected news that death was not the end of the story.
And the second part of the tradition conveys the testimony:
- Christ appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
- Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,
- Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
There’s no mention of the empty tomb. No mention of the women who never abandoned him even at the cross and who were first at the tomb to meet the resurrected Jesus. No mention of Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, the first one sent by Jesus to deliver good news to Peter and the others. If Paul knew the details of this story, he never says.
- Last of all, as to one untimely born, Christ appeared also to me.
Christ appeared to Paul in a dream, or vision, or what some scholars now translate as ‘a flash of insight’ that changed his life and turned his world upside-down. Paul tells this story in his letter to the Galatians and to the Philippians, and it is remembered three times in the Acts of the Apostles, but its importance is in every case to point to the power of God at work in the world for our salvation. [i]
“For I hand on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received.”
Easter day and the Easter story shaped one of my earliest religious experiences. I’d like to share with you part of my own story this morning, a story that sits at the core of who I am. If you were to peel me like an onion, it is the mysterious center that gives meaning to all the subsequent layers. In traditional terms, it you might call it part of my testimony. And while it is by far not my earliest memory of church, it is, I believe, my first profound religious experience. It has shaped my experience of the world, my trust in God, and my sense of wonder.
When I was four years old, my grandfather died. My father’s father. My Papa. He was at the time one of my best friends. And he was my next-door neighbor. Pictures in my baby book record one of my fondest memories of that time, riding on my papa’s lap on the green John Deer tractor, him helping me turn the large wheel, and change speeds from turtle to rabbit on the lever down between my little feet, as we cut the lawn together each weekend.
My grandfather was one of the founders of the church my family attended at the time. And he was one of the builders of our sanctuary. There still exists a super-eight film of probably two-year old me with a shovel in my hand, helping set the cornerstone for the new church building beside my dad and his dad. My grandmother sang in that church, my mother played the organ, my father was in the choir. Worship on Sundays was not just the gathering of God’s people, but literally for me a gathering of family – my aunts and uncles, cousins, were part of the church community. And then we gathered again after service for dinner at my grandparents’ house.
And it was there, as we were all gathered at his home after Easter Sunday worship, that my grandfather died suddenly, unexpectedly. The songs of resurrection were fresh in my mind and in my heart, (songs like Up from the Grave he Arose, and Jesus Christ is Risen Today); and as the Easter proclamation of New Life was seeking some foothold in my life – I watched my grandfather have a heart attack. He died a little while later at the hospital, a hospital where my mother worked.
I remember this story so well not just because I was there, but because the contrast between life and death, between faith and all that seems to contradict it, was (and remains) so vivid. It haunted my own father for the rest of his life. Death, where is thy victory? asks St. Paul. At four, and five, and six, for me it was right there each week as the grass grew and someone else had to cut it.
(This is my story. But you have yours. Everyone does.) We all have experiences of illness, disease and loss that seem to threaten God’s gift of life. The sudden discovery of a suspicious lump or the prolonged recovery from an injury, the regular pain of arthritis or the gradual decline in memory, the death (at any time) of a friend, partner, spouse, parent, child.
I don’t remember my grandfather’s funeral. I know where he is buried, but don’t remember ever visiting as a child. A couple of years after my grandfather died his mother-in-law, my great grandmother, my Mima, lay dying. She had been sick for several years, spending her last year in a hospital bed set up in the middle of what used to be the dining room. We knew when death was approaching and went to spend the evening in the house. It was the middle of the night when she died, and I remember my mother waking me up so that we could cry.
And I remember this funeral. I remember sadness, the tears, the trip to Kentucky where the family was from, pulled pork sandwiches, my stuffy, uncomfortable clip-on tie. At the viewing, I was afraid to approach the casket, because I was afraid that what I would see would confirm that my Mima was gone, and the love she had for me and the love I had for her gone as well.
There was a young minister at the funeral home. I have no idea where he came from, but he entertained me in the lobby. You see, he was not only a minister but a magician. He asked me if I believed in magic. Well, every boy I knew believed in magic, or at least owned several tricks to amaze and astound the willing family theater. This guy had a thimble that he could make disappear with the wave of a hand, and it would reappear out of my nose, inside my ear, from thin air. For some time, I was laughing, wondering, and believing in magic.
And then he changed my life. He told me that because I was an aspiring magician, he would hand on to me the secret of the trick. This is the kind of sharing only real magicians do with other real magicians. So when he offered to show me the trick, I knew I was being treated with great respect. “The trick is simple sleight of hand,” he told me. “The thing to remember is that there is always more going on than you can see.” He didn’t need to repeat what he had said for me to understand that he was not just talking about the trick. Though he did, go on. He was a pastor, after all. “It’s the same in God’s world,” he told me, “there is always more going on than we can see.”
I went right in and took my great-grandmother’s (mima’s) hand. My love for her was not gone. Nor was her love for me. Because God loved her and loved me and I loved God, everything would be alright. “There is more going on that just what we can see.”
Author Flannery O’Conner says that “the fiction writer represents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery, which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.” And it is with this left over mystery that our wonder thrives. Theologian Craig Dykstra notes that while our lives are real, not fictional, the sense of divine mystery coming through things that have happened to us still prevails. The residual mystery persists through coming and goings, daily life and daily prayers, reading books, creating art, listening to music, deaths, and friendships. “I wonder where it comes from,” Dykstra says, “and some days I think I know.” [ii]
I have a friend who says that God is always dotting our lives with splotches of grace like bright points of paint on a canvas, moments of awe and praise that allow us to see life in all its wonder. Trusting these moments of wonder as revelations of the real world is what he calls faith. The life of faith to which we are called by our baptism is a way of living that tells a story that connects the dots. And the Psalmist declares, “I will give thanks to my God with my whole heart; I will tell of all your works of wonder. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you my God, have not forsaken those who seek you.” What do you have to tell? [iii]
The Apostle Paul said “I hand on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received.”
That task, that joy, that privilege is now ours, to hand on what we ourselves have received, the unexpected revelation – the world transforming news – that the power of God is alive and at work in our world for our salvation and for all creation.
Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
but saving, healing, here and now,
and touching every place and time.
[i] See Bernard Brandon Scott. The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. (Polebridge, 2015). See also Arthur Dewey, et al. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. (Polebridge, 2010).
[ii] Craig Dystra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Geneva, 1999). On this same theme of essential mystery, and close to both my childhood and present heart, see the essay on faerie by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Tree and Leaf”.
[iii] The Rev. William Grimbol. See, for example, The Grace of Love: Meditations and Prayers. (Alpha: 2002), among his many titles. The fabulous photo was taken by my friend Kristi-Ann.