The “Easter” sermon is the hardest one to preach.
No really–it is.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the tried-and-true, Christian-crux message with which you can’t go wrong. After all, how do I effectively relate Jesus, the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, and marshmallow peeps?
It is a story so misunderstood and so overdone. It is about somebody dying and then coming back to life. It is the Sunday when people who never go to a church service all of a sudden show up, expecting magic.
It is the resurrection story. And it forms the foundations for this religion called Christianity. There is this Jesus. Then, he is dying on a cross. Afterwards, he is dead and his body is in a tomb. And then his body disappears and this Jesus reappears to his friends.
And a religion forms.
And today we say: He is risen! He is risen indeed!
And yet, each Gospel of the New Testament of the Bible tells its own story.
I know I say this a lot, but it’s worth remembering. Luke, a Gospel book, has a distinctive resurrection story. Remember that this is not an eyewitness account of the events, but a retelling of the story, with metaphors, references to the Hebrew Scriptures and prophets, and even references to the early Christian community. Yes, let’s remember—all four Gospels were written well after Jesus’ death and were penned within the community of this new group of followers of Jesus. In fact, Luke’s Gospel is even more unique because the same people who wrote Luke wrote the book of Acts. They are meant to be read in succession. So let’s do that.
The end of Luke’s Gospel reads like this:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The beginning of Acts reads like this:
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
It is important to note this characteristic of Luke’s story, because it does not end with an empty tomb, an appearance by Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and then Jesus blessing the disciples. Luke’s Gospel continues in the book of Acts. And as the title of Acts makes it clear, the story continues in the action of people—people from many different backgrounds, of different ages and genders, who were moved by God’s Spirit through the life, teachings, death, and resurrected life of Jesus of Nazareth. We must work backwards to fully understand the resurrection stories of the Bible. They were written with a context and a community in mind.
So that being said, let’s enjoy Luke’s story.
It was the first day of the week. This means the first day after the Sabbath [Saturday], so it was Sunday. They [women] went to the tomb were Jesus’ body was laid, burial spices and anointing materials in hand. When they got there, the stone that was supposed to keep people out of the tomb was rolled to the side. No body of Jesus anywhere.
So let’s pause for a moment. Luke’s resurrection story begins just as the birth story did. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth with women as the central figures. Women are the first to know about Jesus’ birth. Here on resurrection day it is the same. Women are the first to know about Jesus’ rebirth.
The women, just like Mary the mother of Jesus, were perplexed by this news. And then, two men in dazzling clothes appear. Two men is a translation of the Greek words andres duo. Why should you care? Because earlier in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 9, you may remember a story about Jesus and the disciples on a mountain and something called a transfiguration. In that story this same phrase andres duo is used to refer to Moses and Elijah—dead prophets who appear to the disciples in a dream. So these two men were changed men. Were they angels, like in Luke’s birth story? We find out later in Luke 24:23 that the women at the tomb told their crazy story to the other disciples, saying that “they had indeed seen a vision of angels.” Ah, Luke is a great storyteller. So far, in just a few lines, we have been connected all the way back to Moses and Elijah, and even to the birth of Jesus!
The two men speak: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Fear is a factor. The women came to a tomb, expecting death. It was not a pleasant journey. Now, they were confused and fearful. I know that the Bible doesn’t mention zombies or ghosts [technically] but I pretty much think that the women had all kinds of weird thoughts about what was going on. What kind of strange vision was this? Who rolled the stone away? Who were these two men?
But their fear of any creepy, crawly dead things is alleviated when the two men direct the women’s attention away from the tomb. He is not here. He has been raised. Yes, grammar sticklers out there, another passive tense. But in this case, with meaning. Jesus has been raised indicates that Jesus himself did not gain superpowers, turn into a super Messiah zombie and throw the stone to the side. This was actually God’s doing.
Then Luke uses a word that appears a gazillion times in this Gospel. Remember. Remember, ladies, when Jesus was still in your homeland of Galilee? Remember what he taught you? The Son of Man [the human one]told you that he would be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and then on the third day rise again?
Remembrance is big in Luke’s Gospel. Earlier in the story, during the scene in which Peter denies Jesus three times, Peter remembers the word of the lord, before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.
The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember me when you come into your kingdom.
And of course, Jesus said to his disciples, Do this in remembrance of me.
For Luke, remembering is important. The story [and the experience of it] is renewed with a refreshed understanding, added insight, and change of perspective. This story is told so that all who read it will remember and reinterpret it with the new information they now have.
And so, the heroines in the story, these women disciples, do just that. They DO remember Jesus’ words and return to where the other disciples were staying. Now we hear their names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and even more women. They tell the story to the male disciples. They don’t believe them. In fact, the men think that the women are delirious! They are nuts! Insane! They don’t remember. Peter, the one who remembered Jesus’ words a little too late when the cock crowed, decides to go to the tomb. When he does, he looks inside and sees linen cloths by themselves. He is amazed and returns home.
Look, I don’t know what you think or believe about these resurrection stories.
I am honest and realistic about things. I use my brain [well, I try to] and I believe in science. I love stories and I have a great imagination. But I also treasure logic and observation. In short, I am a person of faith, but that doesn’t mean science, biology, history, culture, logic, and my brain get thrown out the window when I’m talking and thinking about Jesus.
Quite the opposite, actually. I believe in resurrection. Here’s the thing, though–so do atheists and agnostics.
Perhaps you stopped reading this now, but this is true. You don’t have to believe that Jesus of Nazareth [who really was called Joshua] physically died and then physically rose from the dead, appearing physically to disciples to appropriately fulfill prophecy. You don’t have to believe that to believe in resurrection. If this makes me a heretic, I’m glad to be one.
I know many, many people who live as fully-resurrected individuals, giving their time, gifts, and lives to resurrect good in others and in communities. I am a follower of Christ. I believe in Christ and I walk that path with Christ. But what happened on the third day? Was there resurrection that fits nicely into our church’s doctrine? Or was there resurrection on God’s terms?
This heretic wonders if the resurrection stories are metaphors for you—pointing you to a resurrected perspective about your own life—how you have the chance each day to be made new and to do something kind, creative, wonderful, or merciful. Perhaps this story is more about the legacy of Jesus’ teachings, but not necessarily a factual, bodily raising of Jesus from the dead.
On the other hand, this heretic also wonders if the resurrection story, for some of you, is still a historical telling of the resurrection of a man who was killed and his body placed in a tomb, and then, miraculously, by the power of God, he was raised from the dead—and he walked and talked with his friends and disciples. Perhaps this belief moves you to believe in the impossible—that amazing, merciful things can still happen in you and in others, because God is still at work in this messed-up world.
What I experience is that most people see this story differently. But I also think we all can find a shared value here.
Luke’s story isn’t meant to end with folklore or some theological dogma or doctrine.
The story continues in the lives that are changed–in the people who are renewed, reshaped, transformed, encouraged, forgiven, healed, and moved.
We remember the story, not because it’s tradition, but because in our remembering, we are inspired to move!
We remember resurrection, so we change. We remember so we forgive and show mercy and welcome the stranger and embrace everyone’s humanity and love, spread kindness, pay it forward, and widen the circle.
Otherwise, why remember at all, if the story doesn’t move us to loving, just action?
Why tell the story at all unless it makes us better human beings? Why even say Christ is risen unless we ourselves are resurrected, changed people who believe in unlimited mercy and that all people deserve love? Why remember resurrection unless the people around us see the fruit of what Christ taught and lived in our actions?
So…remember. All people have the opportunity to be resurrected and renewed.
No more guilt or fear that needs to grip your life. Let the healing come. Remember it.
You are loved, covered with mercy, and expected to rise up. So remember.
And do rise up. Rise to the occasion of mercy, love, and community.
And don’t just remember today.
Remember every day.
Be changed every day. Amen.