HOMILY—Easter 2015—The Resurrection Does Matter
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Several years ago, when I first began teaching at university, I was assigned several sections of a course called the Psychology of Religion. For those of you who may wonder what that’s about—as I did at first—the Psychology of Religion looks at the work of thinkers like Sigmund Freud and William James in trying to understand the psychological origins or manifestations of the religious experience. I had never taught such a course, or been formally trained in it for that matter, but I wanted to do my best, so I rigorously set about familiarizing myself with the field. This being my first real academic job, I wanted to impress my students by being as “objective” as possible in my lectures: in a word, by being properly detached. It’s one of those endearing illusions that all professors first starting out tend to share.
Until, that is, I met a student who challenged me. I don’t remember the exact context, but I’ll never forget the day he raised his hand in class and told me, in no uncertain terms, that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical fact. I was dumbfounded—and, believe me, that really doesn’t happen very often. Now what was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t very well simply say “yes” and leave it at that. What about all my cool objectivity? And could I really agree with something that couldn’t ultimately be proven? Paradoxically, this was a religion class. Now why would we be talking about something like the resurrection in a religion class? So I took the easy way out. We discussed it, though argued about it is probably a better way to put it. I told him that, ultimately, we couldn’t really deal with this sort of affirmative faith statement because…..well, because there’s really no way to know for sure, is there? Let’s just say that it was not one of my finer teaching moments. Incredible as it might seem, that student’s bold statement still resonates with me down through all those years, and it rings especially true this morning. Quite clearly, I was the one who needed to learn something from that student.
So I want to tell you this morning, that, yes, it’s true. I was right. There really is no way to know for sure, is there? I’m also here to tell you that “knowing for sure” is not what matters ultimately. I do believe in the historical truth of the Resurrection, but absolute proof doesn’t really matter. Not one bit. Because absolute, categorical, definitive and infallible proof is not possible, and, what is even more important, it most certainly is not what the Resurrection is all about. What does matter is that the Resurrection itself still matters. It matters deeply, and compellingly, and intensely. The Resurrection matters to us, here, now, today.
It certainly mattered to Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, where, as we have just heard, he lists the numbers of people to whom Jesus appeared and some of their names, including himself, almost as though he were trying to prove the Resurrection by “quantifying” it—which, of course, he is. And it most definitely mattered—deeply and intimately so—to Mary Magdalene, “early on the first day of the week,” when she stumbles upon the empty tomb. This distresses her greatly, until she recognizes the Risen Lord simply and beautifully by the call of her name. And I think it matters also to Jesus, who tells Mary to bring the good news to the others. Jesus wants his Resurrection to matter to his followers, who are still fearful and trying to keep a low profile following his trial and execution. He wants them to live differently. He wants to banish their fear. He knows that their knowing that he is risen and alive will help do that. For Paul, the Resurrection matters because it is a proof of faith. For Mary, the Resurrection matters because it’s affirmative of a special relationship and promise. For Jesus, the Resurrection matters because it’s the final vindication. It’s the sign of victory. It’s the ultimate “I told you so.” It’s the decisive fulfilment. And so, how might the Resurrection matter to us today?
Let me suggest two possibilities. We live in a world where faith and religion are increasingly being perceived as irrelevant or little more than matters of private concern. We urgently need to be reminded of God’s ultimate freedom and power. That’s why the Resurrection matters. We know we live in the kind of world where gratuitous and senseless violence and death appear to gain new ground every day. We urgently need to hear, now more than ever, that death is not the end-all and the be-all. That’s also why the Resurrection matters.
In his 2012 Easter sermon—entitled But is it true?—Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, had this to say: “Very simply, in the words of this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (10:40), we are told that ‘God raised Jesus to life.’ We are not told that Jesus ‘survived death’; we are not told that the story of the empty tomb is a beautiful imaginative creation that offers inspiration to all sorts of people; we are not told that the message of Jesus lives on. We are told that God did something—that is, that this bit of the human record, the thing that (…) Mary Magdalene witnessed on Easter morning, is a moment when (…) the wall turns into a window. In this moment we see through to the ultimate energy behind and within all things. When the universe began, prompted by the will and act of God and maintained in being at every moment by the same will and action, God made it to be a universe in which on a particular Sunday morning in AD33 this will and action would come through the fabric of things and open up an unprecedented possibility—for Jesus and for all of us with him…”
Rowan Williams reminds us of the central truth of the Resurrection, which is that it has everything to do with God. Here, God, acting with complete freedom, did something totally novel and unprecedented, something that broke into history and made a difference (and here, I bow to that student who, all those years ago, had the courage to remind me of that fact). This is not something of our own doing, or even of Jesus’ doing. The Resurrection did not happen so we could feel especially good about our faith, or about the truth of the ultimate victory of life over death, or even about the reassuring image of an empty tomb. The Resurrection happened because God wanted it to. Because God is sovereign, and this sovereignty is really what gives this moment all its meaning. God’s sovereignty does matter. On that Easter morning, the God of history once again made history.
Just so you don’t think that this is one of those heady theological sermons extoling God’s omnipotence at the expense of everything else, let me reassure you that God’s sovereignty matters for a reason. And here I think we get our cue from the gospel text itself, that beautiful and intimate story of Mary Magdalene’s face-à-face encounter with the Risen Lord. There’s something really incredible about this scene. The greatest of all miracles has just taken place, a clear demonstration of God’s sovereignty; there are even a couple of angels thrown in just to make sure we get the message. One would think that all mayhem would have broken lose, that such a glorious event would have required an equally glorious staging. But no, instead we see a quiet, delicate, and highly personal scene of a conversation between two close friends. It’s actually rather amusing. The conversation begins with a lack of recognition, only to end with the soft speaking of names. Isn’t that how we so often encounter the Risen Lord in our own lives? We begin in non-recognition, only to end up wanting to hold on for dear life. That is the Easter moment, this holding on for dear life. God is omnipotent, but God also comes to meet us in the garden and calls us by name. We believe that, and we hold on to it, because we know that death is no more. We know that this truth does matter.
We call ourselves an Easter people because our Christian faith would be empty and meaningless were it not for God’s power and glory made beautifully manifest in the Resurrection of God’s son. We call ourselves an Easter people because we know with certainty that death is no more. We call ourselves an Easter people because we too have encountered the living Lord outside the empty tomb. We call ourselves an Easter people, simply because.
A wall turns into a window. An empty tomb, a place of desolation, becomes a place of life. A powerful God calls a confused and frightened woman by name. None of it makes sense, according to our standards. None of it can be certified, or verified, or deemed historically true. But we believe…because it would not make sense otherwise. Yes, Christ is risen. Alleluia! Alleluia!
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