A sermon based on John 20:1-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on Easter April 20, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I woke up early this morning to a secular radio station. I had one on in the car on the way over here too. I did not hear a single Easter carol all morning on mainstream radio. And on the way over as I looked around at the houses and the roundabout circle that we call the town square I also did not see any Easter decorations or lights. Easter in the human secular world is just not as festive as Christmas. It doesn’t permeate our cultural’s collective conscience for months like Christmas does. Oh I’ve seen some Easter candy aisles at stores and a few garden flags that proclaim Easter here and there, but really it’s only the local churches that have signs of Easter over the past weeks and this morning.
As a rule Easter does not hang in visual representations upon the porches and the windows of our neighborhoods. Easter doesn’t seem to excite Americans like Christmas does. I have not read any studies indicating why Christmas gets us all excited as a culture, but Easter is a considerably less exciting holiday for most of America. My theory –and it is only MY theory– is that culturally it is easy to perceive as good news a baby’s arrival and angels’ promises of peace on earth good will to all.
We like births and we like angels and we at least like the idea of peace. What’s not to like about those things? They are like puppies and apple pie, easy and simple to like, simple to market too. Easter is an all together different thing. The concept is difficult. The story is necessarily associated with death and tombs and sorrow. The truth is Easter only comes at the end of a terrible tragedy, the killing of a loving non-violent human being whose crime was to rebel against a violent world with words and acts of compassion and care and love.
Jesus plays the God-of-Love card to the harsh cruelties of the world and in order to understand his victory we have to face the fact of those cruelties. Earthly power’s response to playing the God-of-Love card is to trump it with hate and violence. That’s somber stuff. Our secular holiday festivals as a rule do not play out as somber. So, my theory goes we have no Easter carols because the back story is not an innocent devoted mom and dad seeing to the birth of child and the promise of peace with angels singing out good news.
The back story to Easter is an innocent man targeted by the governing power for a horrific, almost unspeakable, death. It’s a downer of a back story. In fact without the Easter ending you can’t get more of a downer of a story. Evil forces hurt a good and Godly being for being just that, good and Godly.
Actually evil forces crush that good and Godly being. Long before I was a pastor one of our children came home from a church Sunday School class crying one Easter because someone detailed to her the horrors of that crushing force. I am not going to set out those the details, but generally speaking, under Rome’s criminal law Jesus was arrested, charged, tried and convicted as criminal. He was sentenced to capital punishment and Rome carried out the sentence.
Rome’s purpose and thinking, that one cruel Friday, was it had to – and did– end Jesus’ life – and most importantly his rebellion. Most criminals executed by crucifixion in Rome were stopped . . . dead. Rome rolled over them and moved on to the next bit of trouble. Of course we are all here because we know that the story does not end with Jesus being crushed and killed and stopped. It’s the most remarkable ending to a true story that we will ever hear. Jesus died. His wracked and wretched body was taken down and put away like so many other bodies in a grave, a tomb.
The best his followers thought they could ever hope for was to hide until the storm blew over and then heal from the sorrow of their loss, and cling to the good memories and a continuation of the ripples of love Jesus had set off before Rome cut his young life short.
As we heard in the reading that best hope is bested on the first Easter morn. Somehow, some way, Mary experienced Jesus’ presence in the garden, in a gardener. Mary’s tears of deep sadness turn to tears of great joy like the dark of the night turns to the Light of sunrise. To use a really word play, Mary experienced a new kind of Son rise, as the Son of God arose. See, for all its considerable earthly power Rome did not stop Jesus. A homeless, penniless peasant Rabbi filled to the brim with love defeated defeat. He beat death. God vindicated Jesus’ life of loving words and practices, his life of devotion and dedication to love, to God. Jesus’ life, his very being, was soaked with God!
These are truths that are hard to put in a pleasant carol or Nativity-like scene or other decorations like we see at Christmas. These are truths that are very hard to wrestle with. Not only does Rome not get the last word, but neither did death get it. The God-of-Love card could not be trumped by anything. Darkness did not rule the day. Light existed even in darkness. Love won!
And make no mistake about it, the resurrection of Jesus is a truth. He lives. He is risen. . . The assertion that “‘God raised Jesus’ was central to Christianity from the beginning.” 1. It is a great and wonderful mystical event for sure, but even from an intellectual standpoint it is hard to dispute that Jesus has lived on. Some may not believe the literal re-animation of the physical body of Jesus, but Jesus was experienced and still is experienced as vibrating not only in history, but in the present, and with the promise to be there in the future too.
We can, but we do not have to, believe in a RESUSCITATION of Jesus’ earthly body to believe in the resurrection of Jesus as Christ. In fact, I’d argue that there is no denying that Jesus’ life and message and death and the countless post-tomb experiences of Jesus, have profoundly affected humankind for two thousand years. Jesus has undeniably lived on–vibrating throughout time– ever since Mary first encountered him in the garden on Easter.
For many of us Christians Jesus’ continuation has been more than memories of a life well lived and a death that could not stop the affects of that life. It is that and more, including for many of us a very dynamic present experiential reality in our own lives. In the here and now we can– and many of us have– experienced Jesus as a reality, a palpable presence. Since the first Easter it has been like that. Jesus did not die with his execution. As Marcus Borg puts it, “the meaning of the first Easter is that Jesus was not simply a figure of the past, but one who continued to be experienced as an abiding reality in the present.” 2.
Each of the recorded experiences of the resurrected Jesus in the Bible remember such experiences of Jesus in a new and different way. Jesus is not experienced in the same way from Easter onward– after the resurrection. As we heard, Mary – arguably Jesus’ closest disciple– at first experienced a kind man in the garden. He is unrecognized as Jesus until Mary hears him call out her name. On the road to Emmaus two Jesus followers also first experience an unrecognizable Jesus. He is not recognized as Jesus until he breaks bread with them. Peter and others also experience an unrecognizable Jesus standing on the beach. He is not recognized as Jesus until he helps provide food and earnings with their abundant catch of fish.
Of course Jesus is also experienced in an immediately recognizable form in some reported Easter accounts, but he arrives in an unrecognizable fashion. He came to his followers through locked doors just appearing before them, his healthy spirit showing them his wounded physical body.
After Easter Jesus is still experienced. Actually even after Pentecost he is still experienced. The Apostle Paul experiences him in a blinding vision of light. Many, many, many Christians have experienced Jesus ever since.
All of these experiences of Jesus are very personal. Indeed the perception that it is Jesus whom they experience does not seem to happen until it IS very personal. Jesus calls out their name as they grieve; breaks bread as they missed a loved one; solves a problem of locating food and livelihood; visits with them while they are frightened and doubting; and comes in a moments of debilitating anger and blindness. We can hear each appearance as Light in the darkness. These are dark times that Jesus appears. not just for Paul who’s blind, but for all of them, sad, scared, doubting, hungry, angry.
It is no accident that every year Easter arrives as Spring heralds the end of the darkness of winter. The first Easter was about a light arriving in the great darkness of the three days for Jesus’ followers . . . for all of humanity and creation. See, Easter is about a dark tomb not just being opened to the light, but filled with the light that it overflows out into the world, capable of lighting each human life, and all of creation.
Easter is about Light appearing in Jesus’ followers’ darknesses. And not just the followers who were there that first Easter morning, but every follower ever since. That’s why we are called an Easter People. In every dark thing – from loss of love, to loss of limb, to loss of life– Christians know that Easter offers the wondrous promise of a marvelous mystical material Light.
And that light is God experienced through the very real, very now presence of Jesus. Jesus may come to us in visions or dreams in the darkness of a night or in our darkest hours. Jesus may come to us in the shadowy times of trouble. When we need Light Jesus is there.
Sometimes we find the light of Jesus in a stranger when we are sorrowful like Mary and Cleopas; or are hungry like Peter.
Sometimes we find the recognizable light of Jesus as we huddle frightened or in doubt, like Thomas and other disciples.
Sometimes we even find the light of Jesus as we travel down a road doing wrong things in the name of God blinded by hate like Paul.
In darkness there is always, always light. We don’t celebrate the darkness of the cross on Good Friday, we celebrate the Light on Easter morn, a Light that has brightly shone ever since. In the dark voids of the universe there is light. Go out and look up at a clear night sky in the country. There’s a lot of dark up there, but there are not just a few pin pricks of light like we might see in the city sky. Put up a telescope and we discover that there, in the dark, are billions and billions of sources of light. I have mentioned a few times since Ash Wednesday that we are made of the stuff of those stars. Carl Sagan taught that.
To paraphrase the Dr. Sagan and one of our Ash Wednesday scriptures we are made from stardust and to stardust we shall return. But right now we are – all of us– in between the making and the returning time and here in the midst of reality sometimes we cannot see the light. Dark things like crushing brutal empires, or sorrow or hunger or fear or doubt can seem to overwhelm us with dark things. But the promise of the resurrection is that love can flood all things with it’s brightness, with its Divinity. GOD IS LOVE.
Metaphorically we can feel this in the warm spring that has finally arrived after our long, long, long cold winter. Martin Luther wrote that “ Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring-time.” So spring has long been a good image of how the Light of God’s love arrives, it always does. No matter the source of darkness God is there waiting to shine.
And it’s not just darkness God shows up in, right? Everywhere there is light there – there is God. Baby’s and children and loving families and couples. Flowers and green grass. Birds and sunsets. Rainbows and babbling brooks. Good people and good and kind acts and memories of such blessings. The list goes on and on. God’s light is abundantly present in the world like the billions and billions of sources of light present in the dark of the night sky.
And a huge part of the Easter story is that God’s light is not just for us personally. It is for us, but it also must be shared. Jesus tells us that we are the Light of the world. See our job is to shine God’s light.
We need to be the Light of Christ like the gardener who comforts those in sorrow.
We need to be the light of Christ like the stranger who eases the distraught with caring presence and the breaking of the bread.
We need to be the light of the Christ who feeds those in need.
We need to go into places where people are afraid and insecure and bring the light of Christ there too.
We need to be light whenever and where ever we can. Living in Christ and finding the resurrected Christ within us allows us to participate in the salvation of the world. That’s the Christian story . . . that’s the Easter story.
That first Easter still does – and always will– bring us light.
Easter promises that in all darkness there is light. It promises and shows us how we can be the light of the world. The Easter light is especially illuminated in fully human beings acting like Jesus did and as he taught us to do.
Christ mystically, marvelously, magnificently lives. Christ is and ever shall be the light of the world! And we have the great honor and opportunity of letting that light shine in and through us.
Christ is Risen, Risen indeed! AMEN!
1. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 107
2. Ibid. at 111
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED