Preached on Easter Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read the scriptures, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
The story of the Resurrection is one of symbol and meaning, mystery and enchantment: The first day of the week at early dawn.
An empty tomb with its stone rolled away.
A group of confused followers, who happen to be women.
It’s a strange tale. Not what you’d expect from a story in which the main character has just died a violent death.
The story of the Resurrection is also the Christian story of salvation.
It’s the story of how God helps us come to understand just how devastating the world can be and how life-giving it is when we are not beholden to worldly power. Delivered by the men in dazzling white, the message of the Resurrection is: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
And then, it began. At that moment, the world began making a choice:
Do we believe? Or is this just some idle tale?
Do we believe that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death?
Do we behave as if we believe that to be true?
Or do we choose to think that this is just some idle tale?
But first, what does it mean that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death? Let’s look more closely at the story Luke gives us.
The timing of the story is important. This is a new day, a new week.
We know that Jesus breathed his last and gave up his spirit. We know that Jesus died and was put into a tomb. But that’s not the end of the story. Because, at sunrise we begin anew. Death, pain, suffering… they don’t have the hold on us that we think they do. They don’t have the hold on us that the worldly powers want us to believe. What if we lived as if this were true? We are beginning, not ending. God’s Hope comes to us in the midst of our worldly death.
In the midst of the nightmare that this world can sometimes be, God’s Hope arises like a new day. A first day.
And that we have an empty tomb is curious, I’ve always thought. Jesus could have arisen and stayed in the tomb to greet his friends. But he didn’t.
It helps to understand the burial practices of the time. When a tomb was sealed, it wasn’t just a huge stone that was put in front of the tomb entrance. There was much more to it than that. As theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman tells us in his book Seasons of Faith and Conscience:
“I grew up with a… notion that to seal the tomb was a matter of hefting the big stone and cementing it tight. The seal, in my mind’s eye, was something like first-century caulking–puttying up the cracks to keep the stink in. Not so. This is a legal seal. Cords would be strung across the rock and anchored at each end with clay. To move the stone would break the seal and indicate tampering.”
In other words, it was the Roman Empire who declared legal death by sealing the tomb or… sealing the fate of a person. The breaking of the seal by anyone but an official of the state, would be considered illegal. This means, the Resurrection was illegal.
Worldly power has been undermined. God is refusing to cede to the empire, refusing to allow the empire to tell the story.
And then we have Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women. Who, expecting to find the body of their friend and teacher, come upon this empty tomb, the seal broken and stone rolled away. They were “perplexed,” the Gospel says. Of course they were.
But more importantly, all 4 of the Gospel accounts go out of their way to explain that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb, who first understood the implications of what took place. It was women who were there at sunrise on the first day of the week and witnessed, in varying ways, the Resurrection. They were given the message from God, via the messengers dressed in white: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”
Women at that time and in that place, and for most of human existence really, had no rights outside of the home. That the Gospel accounts would put women front and center as the first witnesses of the resurrection, is remarkable. Even revolutionary. It was such an alarming notion that the larger church, basically, ignored that particular element of the Gospels and refused women’s leadership for nearly 2000 years… and much of the church still does.
These women, who became the first evangelists, the first people to proclaim the Good News, is itself the Good News. In the Resurrection, the ways of the world have been emasculated, literally. This is a new day. A first day.
The ways of the world: The empire. The purity codes. The social mores.
These are the abominations where God is concerned, because they maintain worldly power and incite us to raise walls between us and the people who, we believe, want to take away what we have. We point fingers. We become jealous of what we want to keep.
And this plays out in all the ways you might expect – racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, classism. All of the ways in which we marginalize and bully and oppress and conform. These are an insidious kind of violence that is, literally, exposed by Jesus in the Resurrection.
As Richard Rohr says, “There is no redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys – in both the short and long term.”
Jesus takes away the sin of the world because the Resurrection demonstrates that the real sin, is this violence we do onto one another through believing in the power of the worldly powers.
Why do we look for the living among the dead?
In other words, why do we believe that the worldly ways will save us?
Why might we prefer to think that the Resurrection is just an idle tale?
That hope is just nonsense?
The larger story of Jesus’ ministry is one in which he was continually bullied, challenged, and threatened. Why? Because he was constantly challenging the way things were.
He exposed the purity codes as, not only meaningless, but heartless and cruel. And, rather than try to fit in, Jesus made it his goal to refuse to fit in. He healed on the sabbath. He ate with sinners. He associated with all people who were marginalized.
And he explained that the point of the law was 2 things: To love God with all your strength and your mind and your spirit. And the second, is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. On those 2 things hang all the law and the prophets.
And this is the Good News of the Resurrection! That Love, not violence, is redemptive.
The larger story of Jesus consistently articulates a clear vision of God’s Love. Summed up in the message of the Beatitudes: God’s Love is found with the powerless, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. And not just the people who are disenfranchised and marginalized, but the parts of ourselves that feel disenfranchised and marginalized and oppressed.
It is Christ, the incarnate Love of God, who gives comfort to the powerless, strength to the vulnerable, belonging to the disenfranchised, and connection to the marginalized. And it is Christ that we, as Christians, become. We become God’s Love incarnate in and for the world.
This is what baptism means. It means we believe that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death. It means we have decided that we will pray and read the scriptures so that we become more and more like Christ in our lives, endeavoring to remove from ourselves the addiction to and desire for worldly power, worldly gratification, so as to remove ourselves from participating in worldly violence.
And so, Baptism means that we become what we behold at our Eucharistic Table every week. what we receive at the Eucharistic Table: The Body of Christ broken open for the whole world. Because in the Resurrection: God’s Love is the final word for the whole world.
And, in the case of a young one like Alivianna, it means that she will be brought up by people who believe this. And who can hold that belief for her until she is old enough to believe herself.
This day we celebrate the triumph of God’s Love over worldly power and death. What better way to help us remember this, than to gather around the sweetness of a little one, such as Alivianna, and baptize her into the membership of Christ.