Yes There Is! (Jeremiah 31:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10) EASTER SUNDAY
My favourite poet is the 19th century New Englander Emily Dickinson, who was a recluse, and published almost nothing in her lifetime. After her death boxes of poems were found – short, pithy, cryptic, not a few a little iconoclastic. One of my very favourites, as it happens, is the one that goes this way:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or everyone be blind –
It has always seemed to me that this poem speaks to the really important things in our faith. We do not understand about them all at once, from the beginning. We used to have a member in one of our congregations that boasted that he had never changed one thing about what he believed from the day he sat in Pastor’s so and so’s baptism class some fifty years prior. In my worst moments I’ve wished I could teach a course like that just once (or even take one). But not really. We don’t understand our faith all at once, and we change throughout our lives, or, frankly, it’s tragic. That’s surely true about big things like Christmas and Easter, the incarnation and the resurrection. Now, it’s true that there isn’t anyone here today who has to guess my sermon topic today or on Christmas, or many other days. And you may think, as I do, O no, not again, I already know this. (And I have to preach it.) But, as no less a philosopher than Plato has reminded people for millennia, our best learning is not what is new, but in realizing the truth of what is old, of being reminded of what we already know.
To be reminded, we only need to do what we do each year and turn to one of the four Gospels to read and think about the Easter events – familiar stories all. From time to time what surprises me most in these stories is what isn’t there. There isn’t any celebration – no singing, dancing and joyous shouting “He is Risen!” such as that in which we engage year by year. Rather, there is a sense of being taken by surprise, by fear, by doubt, by lack of recognition.
As we get to those four stories, as much as some folk have tried to make them bend over backwards to agree with one another, they really don’t. This year we’re looking at the “Hollywood Edition” of the story in Matthew. There are lots of special effects such as an angel who descends in dazzling garments with a mighty earthquake, all causing the big strong guards to pass out from fright. At the end of the story we have Jesus himself meeting the women (in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” whoever she was, we aren’t told) with a message to take to the disciples. All this differs in some ways from the other accounts. And, each time we add a gospel, there’s even more variety…or confusion. The answer is not to beat these texts till they yield a kind of artificial unity.
In fact, the difficult nature of these basic texts themselves gives us the sense that they represent authentic searching for the meaning of something that was a puzzle to the minds of those late first-century followers of Jesus. There’s no sense of getting together ahead of time to “get the story straight ” before “going to print” here. This is the best evidence that they were straining to put together what baffled both reason and common sense. They knew Jesus was or had been dead. They were equally confident that now he wasn’t. What in the world could be going on here? What’s the truth of the matter?
Many have seen through the centuries that the deeper issue of Easter is this matter of truth. Of course, someone always pops up about now with Pilate’s little quip, “What is Truth?” as if no one’s ever heard it before. Because truth is (in the words of a book a few years ago) stranger than it used to be, some say that there is no such thing as truth only opinion. The question is, is truth defined and limited by our reason, our science, or even our common sense? Or does the fact that we don’t always “get it” really make a difference to truth and the way the universe “really is?” One day when I first started teaching seminarians, I had a student that criticised his textbook as stupid because he couldn’t understand it. I wasn’t very mature as a teacher in those days, and I rather grimly suggested to him that, if he did not understand, perhaps it was not the book that was stupid. I wouldn’t say that now, though, alas, I might still think it. But does truth not transcend our ability to understand it, much less to fathom it completely?
From time to time over these last nearly fourteen years I have confessed to you how puzzled I am by the violent things we do and say to one another, or at how dismissive of one another we’ve become. This, pretty much, crosses through the political, religious spectrum. I don’t understand how someone uses saran gas on children. I also don’t understand how half a million people can die and we do and say very little, yet, when a handful are gassed, we are horrified. I do not understand such things, is there any truth that transcends that? Is there anything in this world more real than the crushing, bruising, defeat of death, cruelty, evil, and social ignorance?
Interestingly enough, the largest crowds of people in church together of the whole year are on this Sunday, which seems to say Yes there is! There is God, who makes a way where there is no way. There is something stronger, and more long lasting than death. Year by year we come together to affirm it, because we need one another to affirm something that is so against reason and common sense as death and tragedy. We can’t deal with this all alone. This is the kind of truth that Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote in that poem: “Truth must dazzle gradually, Or everyone be blind.”
Our Old Testament Lesson for the morning helps us to see that Easter has its roots in the everlasting love and the amazing covenant loyalty of God to people, even people who were in the wilderness, desperate and in the midst of death. God promises, on the basis of the divine nature of everlasting love and steadfast loyalty, to rebuild life, so that it can be what it never really was. Before this, the same steadfast love and covenant loyalty called Abraham from a far country and blessed the people he and Sarah would become to be a blessing to every family of the earth. Steadfast love and loyalty called Moses and Joshua and Caleb and Rahab and Deborah and Barak and Samuel and David and Mary and Joseph and… the list continues. God always knew about the truth dazzling gradually, so, throughout the Old Testament, God “told all the truth, but told it slant.” Until, in the fullness of time, Jesus came as God incarnate. He went about doing good, and he showed us how to live, he showed us how to die. And, then, he died. He really did. And it was tragic. The roots of Easter are in God’s love and covenant loyalty that is patient enough to dazzle gradually.
But the truth was more dazzling than could be believed. Growing out of the roots, the reality of Easter morning is the fact that God’s everlasting love and covenant loyalty transcends generations, and according to the New Testament, Jesus is not just a resuscitated corpse, but the first of a whole new kind of life: Resurrection life.
According to Paul and others, Jesus’ resurrection is not just a one-of a kind thing. No, Paul calls Jesus “the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). All those who have found life in Christ are headed where he has gone before. The hymn says, “Soar we now where Christ has led…following our exalted head.” 1 John 3:2 puts it a little differently:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God truly.
This agrees with the last part of our Epistle Lesson today that says: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” So, in Easter, we have the truth, but we still have it “slant.”
So, the root of Easter is in the everlasting love and loyalty of God, the reality of Easter is in what happened on Easter morning, and, now, the relevance of Easter is that, as we are in Christ, we are destined to be like him. But that isn’t just “over the river and through the woods, by and by in the sky when we die.” The relevance of the resurrection is ethical. It’s about how we live not just what we believe.
A better translation of the word “if” in Colossians 3:1 is “since.” The apostle assumed that his readers had been raised with Christ, in other words that they shared the life of the Resurrection now. But, he continued, such life involved both seeking and concentrating on things that are Christ-like. Christians are those who are watchful to act as God acts in the world, and if you want to know how God acts, look at Jesus. This does not boil down to lists of do’s and don’ts, but is rather having the attitude of Christ within us that values others, that empowers others, that seeks the good of others and acting for it. To figure out what this means in real life is hard work. But that’s what it means to seek the things of Christ and to think on the things that are above. Anyone who thinks it’s easy hasn’t tried it. I will say that, negatively, seeking what is Christ-like means rejecting the cruelty and dismissiveness of which I spoke earlier. Positively it means reaching out in love, mercy and humility.
So, again, Easter has its roots in the wonderful, everlasting love and loyalty of the eternal person of God, whose truth is bigger and more generous than ours. Easter has its relevance in a renewed lifestyle that is lived every day. And, very importantly, for today, Easter has its reality in the very story of the Resurrection that says that, in this act of God, yes, there is hope. Yes, there is something greater than death, sorrow, hate, cruelty, and all the rest of it.
About a dozen years ago, John Buchanan, who used to be the publisher of The Christian Century wrote some words about Easter, the Resurrection, and hope that have stuck with me over the intervening years:
What if the Resurrection was factually true, not just an extra crowd-pleasing narrative twist but a once-in-the-planet’s-lifetime occurrence designed to demonstrate that there was hope after death…Then the world and the universe would be a totally different place.
[THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY (Mar. 22, 2005): 3]
The good news of the gospel is that it is the truth in the deepest and most dazzling way possible. And it changes everything.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.