An Easter Sermon

April 4, 2021

When you are faced with the challenge of expressing a truth for which you simply do not have words big enough – the preacher’s dilemma every Sunday, particularly this one – it helps if you have a fallback position – a great poem or good music. I’ll spare you my singing, but here are some lines from my favorite Easter poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, by the late John Updike:


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…
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence:
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the 
faded credulity of an earlier age….
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, 
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty…
Let us walk through the door.   (Collected Poems, 1953 – 1993)

The Truth of this day – Easter Sunday – is so big we are not sure what to do with it. So we do exactly what Updike warned us not to do: we make it into a metaphor. We reduce it to more manageable proportions that we can live with and understand and manage.

Think of the metaphors: flowers, bunnies, colored eggs, baby chicks. I’m not criticizing here because it is all such great fun, and I have done it all and loved it. Easter baskets mysteriously delivered by the Easter Bunny, that enigmatic and peculiar creation of American market ingenuity, new clothes, colorfully dyed eggs and chocolate – lots of chocolate. What luxury! What could be better than a ten-inch-tall solid chocolate bunny sitting majestically in the midst of assorted colorful jelly beans, reposing in plastic grass? And most bizarre of all – a very long time ago in my childhood – two baby chicks, cute and fluffy, dyed pink or purple or blue, in a cardboard box lined with newspaper and situated next to the kitchen radiator for warmth, which I dutifully fed and watered until they expired, probably from the shock of being dyed pink or purple, in a few days. That part of the metaphor is long gone, thanks be to God.

The truth is that in addition to turning Easter into a huge commercial success and lots of fun, none of us is very good at appropriating or understanding Easter. It is so profoundly unsettling, like looking directly at the sun.

You know the story. Jesus of Nazareth, whom some of his followers are calling Christ, Messiah, promised anointed one is dead. After three years of teaching and healing throughout Galilee he came to Jerusalem for the Passover and was welcomed noisily and enthusiastically by a crowd of fellow pilgrims who ripped branches from trees and their cloaks from their backs and made a royal carpet and shouted “Hosanna, Hosanna, Save us Son of David!” The demonstration had a predictable effect on the religious and political authorities. Rome, quite simply, had no more tolerance for public displays of patriotism and political unrest and protest than dictators in any age: Alexi Nalvany is in a Russian prison for publicly protesting Vladimir Putin’s policies: China clamps down more firmly on public demonstrations in Hong Kong, and the military authorities in Myanmar are shooting their own citizens daily. Marcus Borg and John Domenic Crossan, in their book on the last days of Jesus, say Palm Sunday was a political protest demonstration against the Roman occupation. So, on Thursday evening Jesus was arrested under the cover of darkness, tried at midnight by a hastily assembled kangaroo court, and the next morning brought to the Roman governor’s headquarters in Jerusalem for sentencing.

The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, had little interest in the whole matter, made a few attempts to persuade the angry mob that had gathered that the prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, was not guilty of any capital offense, but eventually gave in, imposed the death sentence, publicly washed his hands of the whole nasty business, and ordered a cohort of soldiers to carry out the sentence which they did. The prisoner was nailed to a cross, Rome’s favorite method of public execution and after a few hours, died. Only a few women from his many followers were there at the end, when he died.

Joseph of Arimathea claims the body and buries it in his own tomb, and rolls a large stone over the opening. The women, two Mary’s, follow along and watch.

Now it is Saturday morning, the Sabbath. Nothing is moving in Jerusalem – no work, no shops open, no trading: it is Quiet Saturday. After the chaos of Friday, Pilate is enjoying the peace and quiet. But here come the old men again, the same ones who insisted that the only way to resolve the crisis the Galilean had stirred up was to put him to death. Pilate, exasperated, agrees to meet with them. I’ve always imagined the scene, the old men obsequious, bowing and scraping in the presence of the Roman Governor….
“Excuse us, Excellency, for interrupting on the Sabbath, but you may have heard that the prisoner said one time something about rising from the dead. That’s silly, of course, but, Excellency, what if his crazy disciples steal the body in the middle of the night and then claim that he is alive? That could make things very awkward for us – and for you, Excellency. So may we respectfully suggest that you post a squad of soldiers to secure the tomb?”

Pilate, clearly impatient and exasperated: “You have your own guards at the temple. Assign them the job.” And then, one of the best lines in the New Testament: “Go, make it as secure as you can.”

I think these are frightened men. They are afraid of something new, something that might undercut their own position of power and authority. They are there to defend the status quo and their own privileged position in it. They are there to try, as we all do on occasion, to nail down the current political, social and economic arrangement that works in our favor. State legislators in Georgia and Texas are doing that now, making it more difficult for black and brown people to vote. But I have always believed, more so every year, that beneath that fear for their own position, there is a much deeper, more profound fear. They’re afraid that what he said would happen…would happen: that with life in him, with God’s own breath of life in him, he’d get up and walk out of that tomb – that symbol of death’s finality and inevitability – and walk into a world suddenly, magnificently new, because he, Jesus Christ, is not dead but alive.

We moderns want facts, evidence, rational explanation. So, there is a multitude of attempts to explain it. Some, as Updike suggested, think it is his lovely spirit that lives on. Some have proposed that he really wasn’t dead, but in a drug-induced coma, and that, in the cool of the tomb, he regained consciousness. Others conclude that his disciples, devastated by his execution as a common criminal, got together and made it up… created a myth of resurrection.

That doesn’t work very well for a number of reasons, chief among them that many of them lived and later died as martyrs for him, and you simply don’t die for a myth you made up yourself. And then there are the women. In a fine theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark, the late William Placher calls attention to the critical role women play in the story. But, women were not credible witnesses at that time and place. Women were not permitted to testify in court according to the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, because of the “levity and temerity of their sex.” Obviously, they had not heard of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or Janet Yellen, or Nancy Pelosi. Given the suspicion of women’s testimony, Placher asks why would anybody invent a story in which women are the primary, in some accounts, the only witnesses. The only plausible explanation, Placher concludes, is that what the New Testament says happened, happened.

Now it is night. Saturday night. The sabbath is over. The old men have returned to their homes, their fears mollified by the cordon of Temple guards stationed to secure the tomb. Meanwhile, his disciples are hiding somewhere in Jerusalem – behind locked doors, frightened for their lives. They’re waiting for the turmoil to die down and then they will emerge from hiding and head home to Galilee. Two of their number, the same two women who were there when he died on the cross continued to follow as Joseph claimed the body, the same two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, watched as his body was placed in the tomb and the large stone rolled over the opening, before the sun was up on the first day of a new week, returned to the garden tomb. Matthew doesn’t speculate why. Mark says that they brought spices to anoint the body. Maybe they came to see, the way you go back to the cemetery one last time the day after the funeral before you get in the car and drive across the country to home.

When the women approach, things begin to happen. Not all hell breaks loose, but heaven certainly does. A violent earthquake, an angel appears and rolls back the stone, the guards are terrified and pass out in fear. The angel addresses the women: “Do not be afraid”, one of the greatest understatements of all time: “Fear not. You are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. Come see. Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised and is going to Galilee: there you will see him.” So the women leave – with “fear and great trembling.”

Do not be afraid”…”Fear not.” A two-word summary of Christian Faith. Fear Not.

It’s there from the beginning. When an angel accosts old Zechariah and tells him that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, is going to become pregnant and bear a son, the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid. Fear not Zechariah.”

When the angel Gabriel appears to young Mary to announce that she too will bear a son and name him Jesus, the first thing the angel says is: “Do not be afraid. Fear not, Mary.”

When the child is born and angels fill the sky over the heads of terrified shepherds an angel says: “Do not be afraid. I am bringing you news of a great joy.”

And now, at an empty tomb, in the presence of a reality so profound, all they can do is tremble in fear: “Do not be afraid.”

There is a lot to be afraid of these days. Wars without end, global warming and looming ecological crisis, a deeply divided body politic, growing extremism, violence, guns everywhere, and now, mass shootings and 22 resultant deaths, including a 9-year-old child. And, just when it seems like we might be emerging from the pandemic, there are signs of a new surge. CDC head, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, is warning of “impending doom.” There is a lot to be afraid of. And beneath all fears, the primary human, existential fear which is embedded deeply in every human heart – our mortality, fear of what the great philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich called “Non Being.”

There is plenty to be afraid of, and you and I, without even knowing it, can become captive to our fears and begin to live smaller, narrower lives out of our fear. And to the degree we do that, we are not fully alive.

The word today is that death is not what it seemed to be. Because of Easter, death is no longer in charge. Because of Easter, death no longer gets the last word: God does.  Because of Easter, we live in a new world where the ultimate reality is not the death of all things: the ultimate reality in life is God and God’s love everlasting.

The Easter word is not that God will protect you from every danger, that we will never encounter serious trouble, sickness, death. The Easter word is that whatever happens to us, God will be with us, to comfort, strengthen and uphold. The Easter word is that nothing in creation, as St. Paul put it – not failure, not disappointment, not persecution, not aging, not illness, not pandemic, not even death itself – can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

It ends so quietly, so beautifully. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.” The promise today is “He is not dead but alive and going ahead of you and me, in the days ahead of us. We will see him there, and when all our days are gone, he will find us and we will see him and greet him and in him be forever safe.”
.

The poet advised: “Let us not mock God with metaphor, sidestepping transcendence…..Let us walk through the door.”

So, dear friends, walk through the door, into a new reality, a new world in which death with all its greedy finality has been overcome, replaced with a love that will never die.

Let us walk through the door…love without reservation…love without holding back… love your dear ones and friends…love neighbors and strangers…give your life away in love.

In the full confidence of a love that will not die, a love from which not even death can separate us, commend all your dear ones who are no longer here to God’s eternal love. Walk through the door. Fear not. You are gloriously free. Do not be afraid. Sing and laugh this day and every day because Christ our Lord was dead but is risen and is going ahead of us into the future. There we will see him.

Christ is risen. Hallelujah. Amen

Comments

  1. Diane Buchanan says:

    Thank you for this beautiful, uplifting message! Much needed! XX

  2. Susan Rankert says:

    Thank you for this beautiful and timely Easter message. The various nuances of the Easter story touch the soul differently in different times. Back when I was an impressionable young woman, your emphasis on the fact that it was Women to whom the truth of the Resurrection was first revealed- at a time when women could not even testify before a judge because of their “unreliability”. It has given me strength and joy all these many year,

  3. Thank you for that beautiful message, John! I had to smile at your mention of the chicks in a box…I had them too, although mine were simply yellow. When they grew (very quickly) they flew all around the screened porch and soon found a new home with our cleaning lady. End of story I’m glad there is indeed more to Easter than that!!!!

  4. Thank you so very much. I have a note in the margin of my Bible near “Fear not” with the date that I heard you call it the understatement of all time. It’s good to hear that again. There is enough fear and pain in these days that I am grateful for any rerun of the message. Blessings to you.

  5. bandhdmitchellbmm0226 says:

    Hallelujah indeed John! Thanks again for Sunday, HD

  6. Ann frontain says:

    Bobby’s passing soon. Hospice with him. Up and down long hard road of illness. He will be glad for peace. Ann Forshey Frontain

  7. Beautiful , inspiring, and thought-provoking, John. Thank you for reminding us once again that there is calm, hope, and life which always will be with us. And thank you for reminding us of the unquenchable strength of all the women in our lives, past, present, and always.

  8. Milton Winter says:

    This is a keeper. I have read and re-read the last page. It helps where I have a deep need.

  9. Mary Ann Overman says:

    Wow!

  10. Carole Ogden says:

    How I miss my days at Fourth and your sermons. Blessings on you and your family.

  11. Ark262640 says:

    As a Jewish person who has had the privilege of listening to you preach at Fourth Church for many years before your retirement, this Sermon will join ;

    March 3 , 2008 , To Make the World Better

    March 15, 2009. Jesus in the Temple ,and

    March 8, 2011 -Praying for Forgiveness ( probably the most impactful on me),

    As among my favorites –

    I feel blessed to have been able to attend , learn from, and listen to you preach at Fourth Church, on any given Sunday but especially during the Easter and Christmas Holidays as well as attending at Fourth Church , the High Holiday Jewish services offered by Temple Sinai .

    Thank you for continuing your meaningful Sermons ….

    Alan Kravets ,Esq. 1340 N Astor St Suite 2803 Chicago, Illinois. 60610 Ark262640@gmail.com

    >

  12. Tony Volpe says:

    Tank you John for the meaningful perspective of Easter that y
    ou provide as it applies to the daily challenges we face.

  13. Bud and Monet Fennema says:

    Well done. Thank you.
    Easter Sunday Chicago Tribune: Scott Stantis cartoon on editorial page. Tomb of Jesus with rock rolled away, sweet little girl—bunny ears and all—stooped over and looking down in front of tomb, picking up colored eggs and placing them in her basket. Caption of cartoon, “LIFT UP THINE EYES.”
    We cannot forget it—you wrote of it.
    Please do keep it up.
    Bud & Monet
    Please do keep them coming

  14. Shannon OConnor Smith says:

    This is beautiful and everyone really should read it.

    Sent from my iPhone

  15. Scenario: Close quarters around that tomb site. That would-be Gardiner nudged me. That voice to the two Marys, ”Do not be afraid” — I zap back to today’s Hold To The Good and took your message apart.
    For me, if I’m not careful, I still back into fear — just not THAT fear. For Sonja, I think she would be on the way with the two Marys.

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