Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter: The Cross, the Resurrection, What Does It Mean?

I am blessed beyond measure to have friends like the Rev. Debra Avery, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Jeffery, and Pastor Terry Ramone Smith. As you can see in the following sermon, the conversation with them this past Friday was crucial to the writing of this sermon.

Some of the words in this sermon are taken from an earlier sermon. Many are Kirk and Deb and Terry's words, and the words of many other scholars and friends I am blessed to learn from every day.

And because I like it, here's some music for your read:

MATTHEW 28:1-10
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. Easy, because, all too often, it’s just words, isn’t it? We are Resurrection people, after all. We live in this reality, the reality that says Jesus “is,” not Jesus “was.” We are Resurrection people. We associate springtime with resurrection because it’s an integral part of our vocabulary.

We forget, all too easily, that there was a time when, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “only place springtime happen[ed]… [was] on the graves, not in them.”

The women weren’t going to the tomb that morning to check the status of the body. They were going to the tomb to grieve. This was the place where Mary Magdalene could get closest to the one person who had looked on her as if she were human, as if she were valuable, as if she, a woman, were equal. At least there, in the twilight before dawn, she could be close to him again, just on the other side of a stone, close enough to touch, really. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Do you see how it was? No one was thinking about Resurrection, not because of a lack of faith or because Jesus hadn’t told them again and again, but because it made no sense, it was dancing to architecture, it was painting with math, completely beyond comprehension.

Jesus was dead. End of story. All those years, all those miles traveled, the stories and parables and healings and dangers and triumphs and evenings in a group around a fire, everything, all of it, gone.

So Mary Magdalene walked with “the other Mary” toward the tomb in the darkness. But it wouldn’t be dark for long.
One of the things that is most interesting to me in the accounts of the Resurrection is that each Gospel account is different. Our reading this morning is dramatic: a mighty earthquake, big, bad guards fainting in terror, and an angel relaxing on a tombstone. The Marys see Jesus as they return to tell the disciples what has happened.

Mark's Gospel is (of course) brief; this time the other Mary is identified as the mother of James, and Salome is with them. No earthquake in Mark, they find the stone already rolled away. And instead of being told they saw an angel, they meet a young man robed in white. Mark's Gospel appears to end with the women telling no one.

Luke tells us that it was a whole group of women that went to the tomb. Again, the stone was already rolled back, and the tomb was completely empty until two men in glowing clothes appeared to announce the Resurrection. The women run back and tell the disciples, who don't believe them. Peter goes and checks it out, finds the body missing, and doesn't get it.

In John's Gospel, Mary Magdalen is alone. The stone is already moved, the body missing, and she thinks the risen Christ is the gardener.

Let me ask you something this morning: what does it mean to be Resurrection people?

Judging from the Gospel accounts, it doesn't mean we get the story right every time. The writers who tells us about the most important thing that has ever happened, the central event in all of human history, can't agree on the details.

This is true of the Cross as well. The Gospels tell the same story quite differently. The main points, of course, quite agree; it's the details that are fuzzy.

So being Resurrection People doesn't mean we agree all the time.

I had a conversation this past Friday with some friends: The Reverend Doctor Kirk Jeffery, an Episcopal priest; the Reverend Debra Avery, a Presbyterian pastor, and Pastor Terry Smith, who operates The Van Atlanta, a homeless ministry. Since it was Good Friday, the subject was the Atonement: why did Jesus die on the cross?

Please understand: we Christians all agree that Jesus died on the cross, and that the purpose of his sacrifice was to reconcile humanity to our loving Creator. Where we get fuzzy is in trying to articulate exactly how that happens. Is it Penal Substitutionary Atonement, is it Ransom Atonement, was the Cross an avoidable tragedy that God redeemed? Is it something else?
What I took away from that conversation was not a clarified comprehension of Atonement, and that's OK, that ain't what I was after. What I learned from that conversation, and from reading the Gospel accounts of the Cross and the Empty Tomb is that we see different things, we hear different things, we believe different things not because some of us are right and some of us are wrong... but because God meets us at the point of our deepest need and directly addresses that need.

We are Resurrection people, but we live in a place that, all too often, feels much more like that dark path through the cemetery than anything else.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. And how hard it is to make those words more than just that – words.

Perhaps there is a purpose to the Gospel writers varying so widely on the details surrounding the Resurrection: was it an angel, was it a man in white or was it two people in white? Was Mary Magdalene alone, with one other woman, with two other women, or a group of women? Did they tell no one, did they tell the disciples to go to Galilee, did Peter run to the tomb alone, did John run with him? Did Jesus appear to no one, did he appear to everyone at once, did he appear to the two Marys?

Perhaps there is a purpose to the fact that for two millenia, we Christians have struggled to explain what the Cross means: did Jesus take our place on a cross that we each, individually, deserve to bear? Did Jesus pay a ransom for our souls in his blood? Was Jesus' death an act of solidarity with all victims of death – all of humanity?

I think that the answer for all of these questions, all of them, is “yes.” The Cross and the Resurrection were, indeed, corporate acts, events intended for the salvation of everyone... but the Cross and the Resurrection were at the same time intimate, personal, individual.

We celebrate the Lord’s Supper this morning, in part because it serves as a point of reference, a reminder of the fact that, and I am quoting Romans 5:8, “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God has met us at the point of our deepest need - “while we were yet sinners” - and has specifically met that need.

The Cross, the Resurrection, and all of the questions and interpretations and scholarship and discussion surrounding these central events of human history are a reminder that we live in what the Arabic-speaking people call “al-fedjr,” the twilight that is just before the dawn. It's dark, we cannot see clearly... we see that the stone is rolled away, that the tomb is empty, and maybe we don't exactly know why... but because we really are Resurrection people, we know that someday the dawn will break.

Someday we will see the Risen Lord, and he will call us by name.


  1. Thanks, John! Glad I found your words this morning :)

  2. Hannah Hurnard's writings have blown my mind when it comes to this subject. Here's a link with some of my thoughts, and quotes from her of course. Thank you for always opening us up to seeing things in a new and fuller way.