EASTER SUNDAY 2016
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:(1-2), 14-24; Luke 24:1-12
Death could not hold our Lord, and this morning, the church rejoices; we have baptized our brother Rod into new life; Mark and Pat, who were baptized by immersion years ago, have joined the church; flowers are blooming everywhere; psalms and hymns have been sung, and the Gospel has been proclaimed; and the Gospel today, because this is Easter morning, proclaims the Resurrection, which is the main event in the ancient “good news” that death has been put to death.
For Christians all over the world, Easter is a celebration of freedom restored, of deliverance from the shackles of death; for Christians are baptized into the body of Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death, and we are also baptized into his eternal life. Our old life goes under the water, and we come out of the water with the Spirit within us, born again, “of water and the spirit.” The promise of this transformation – that we can now enter into the Kingdom of God – is so powerful that this day’s celebration spills out of the churches and into backyards, and parks, and the welcome play of egg hunting and basket hiding and the joy of family company and festive meals. Easter is one of two annual events (the other being Christmas) when the world comes into the church, bringing with it the culture of the times, and the church overflows into the world, bringing with it the truth of all time.
Looking around our sanctuary, I see folks here who aren’t usually with us when we worship, some who possibly aren’t churchgoers, and I can’t help asking, what are you making of this? What do you take away from a Bible verse such as this: “And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” Do you see a picture of a small group of women arriving, with the spices they have prepared, to anoint the body of the man Jesus for burial? Do you see the large circular stone – weighing about 2 tons – leaning off to the side of the entrance to the tomb? Are you, as are the women, unsurprised to see the tomb open, because now you too are expecting to help perfume the body? Are you beginning to feel the grief driving through you, the sorrow overcoming you, so you are somewhat oblivious, until you, along with the others, realize that the tomb is empty, and then you are suddenly perplexed by the body’s absence?
We have all heard some part of the Easter story before, probably on many occasions, but it’s a long story, a story with over 3,500 years of history, and it’s not a story we are likely to have heard in its entirety, because it’s a story only heard in church, and as popular wisdom has it, people don’t go to church anymore. As the fourth century Alexandrian Christian called Cyril said, “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”[i]
Brothers and sister, as I look around at the way of the world today, I have to say, we need to hear the story that only the church is telling. I say this because when we say Jesus “trampled down death by death,” we are saying he makes it possible for us – individually and collectively – to “pass by the dragon” without being devoured. Easter gave us a second chance to live the life we were created for, which is a good life. And culture only has a partial, incomplete understanding of this meaning in its genes.
The empty tomb is proof for the church but a stumbling block for the culture; and this is understandable; after all, on the first Easter morning, the empty tomb was as much of a challenge to the first disciples of Jesus as it is today to the culture; we do not overlook the response of the apostles, who, when the women told them these things, “would not believe the women.” But I do not know which is more implausible: the empty tomb, or the defeat of evil, for when we ask, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” we do not forget that death is the consequence of evil.
What life would we have living in a world where an archaeologist could unearth bones in a newly discovered tomb in Jerusalem and match them to Jesus, using a very sophisticated DNA test? Do we think the Resurrection of Jesus can be separated from the quality of life we share, shielded as it is, from much of the violence and suffering of unchecked evil? Can we conceive how little value was attached to life in ancient Palestine, in Greece and Rome, before Jesus was crucified? This is what we are reminded of, by the bombing of airports, hotels, subways, sports events, weddings, and restaurants, by genocide carried out using chemical weapons dropped from airplanes and by thugs with machetes who rape women and burn villages, by video arcade gamers who are now piloting drones, by the poisoning of water systems, the pollution of the atmosphere, the kidnapping and beheading of school kids by drug lords in turf battles, by profiting off food and drugs that results in starvation and epidemics, by the continuing deforestation of the planet and the displacement of native peoples.
The message of salvation from death – the Easter redemption story of rebirth – can only be heard – and believed – in the church. The church safeguards this story, for what would happen to humanity were we to lose this story of hope, this story of death upended and of fear dispelled, this one, unique story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus?
When I meet people for the first time, and they learn I am a pastor, more often than not, they become apologetic. They volunteer explanations for why they don’t come to church. I really ought to, they might say, or they might say, I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in organized religion. Well, I understand what they mean by that, how off-putting organized religion can be, but the church that presents itself as organized religion misunderstands itself. Church is foremost a gathered community, a body of many members who are united by a divine love that they express to one another and to the world, as storytellers, through service. The church may be best understood by the world and its culture when someone we love dies, and we attend its funerals; then we are comforted, when the goodness of the person’s character is remembered, and consoled, by the thought that for a good person, death is not the end.
Shortly after I became Pastor here in Moretown, I went to visit Donald in Barre, where he lives. I introduced myself, and Donald shook my hand, and I put down the book bag I usually carry and sat in the chair next to Donald’s, and figured I would settle into the silence for awhile, and we could get comfortable with each other. We didn’t say much, and after awhile I read from the Bible, and then there was a little more silence, before Donald spoke. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” he asked. And as I looked at him, and said, “Yes, I do,” I was amazed by how he had cut to the chase.
Jesus left us with little in the way of rules and much in the way of wisdom; he told us to listen to his teachings; he told us to love God, and to love our neighbors, and to put our trust in him. He said if we believe in him, he will count our belief as righteousness, and we will have a home with him, in eternity.
When we remember the empty tomb, we remember the angel, comforting the women, who were perplexed, and terrified, saying, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.” On this day, we remember the empty tomb, and we are challenged by what we cannot understand, by what may seem to us nonsense. Let us accept the challenge, and see where it gets us; does it bring us death and sorrow, or joy and life? Listen to Jesus, whose spirit is among us, and to his storytellers in the church: Donald, Mark, Pat, and Rodney. And be glad in your hearts. Amen.
[i] St. Cyril quoted by Flannery O’Connor