Sermons That Work

Now What?, Great Vigil of Easter (A) – 2014

April 19, 2014

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

OK. Now what? This is the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But what does “resurrection” mean? If I were to ask you to define it, how would you?

Humorist David Sedaris ran into this dilemma while living in France and attending a language class with other immigrants. In his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” he writes:

“It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, ‘Excuse me, but what is an Easter?’ The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus …’ she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, ‘He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.’ The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. ‘He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.’ ‘He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.’ ‘He nice, the Jesus.’ ‘He make the good things and on Easter we be sad because somebody make him dead today.’”

Part of the problem was a lack of vocabulary, Sedaris noted. Words like “cross” and “resurrection” were not available to them, and the nuances of theology in the face of limited vocabulary were frustrating. And so Sedaris writes:

“Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’”

Part of what makes resurrection so hard to talk about is that it is an experience that transcends all logic, rationality and common sense. Dead people don’t come out of tombs. Do they?

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection do not document the actual moment when it happened. We don’t have an eyewitness account of Jesus sitting up, removing the burial shroud, stretching, taking a look around, pushing the stone away and walking out. Even in Matthew’s account, where the angel rolls the stone away, Jesus’ body is already gone! All the gospels tell us is that the women come and find an empty tomb.

We cannot really know exactly what happened. Resurrection is not the revivification of a corpse – it is not the zombie apocalypse. It is an experience of the death of one way of life and the birth of something completely new – a complete game changer.

What we can say is that the early Christians who experienced the risen Christ were so transformed by it that their lives completely changed. Paul, who went from persecuting the Christians around him to being a champion for Christ, is just one example. Those who experience resurrected life are swept up by this profound and loving experience so much so that their whole world turns upside down in a way that brings life rather than death.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” ask the men at the tomb, “He is not here.” The same question is true for us: “Why do we seek the living among the dead?” We, by our nature, have a hole in our soul. This hole is a longing and desire for the transcendent God who lifts us out of our finite mortal bodily existence – this tomb, if you will, that we live in – and brings us into a greater life of love and light. We ache for this with every fiber of our being. But as humans, we try desperately to fill the hole in our soul by seeking holy transcendence in many ways that are nothing more than lies and dead ends. It is false transcendence that seeks the living among the dead.

We seek the living among the dead in our frantic rush to wealth and material comfort – the lure of consumerism. “How much money is enough?” someone once asked billionaire John D. Rockefeller. “Just a little bit more,” he replied, with a smile.

That “just a little bit more” is the bane of our lives. We keep imagining – if our income is rising – that the next plateau of income will be the place where we’re truly happy, but no sooner do we achieve it than we’re looking upward to the next rung on the ladder.

Conversely, if our income is going down, we’re often driven to despair, imagining all sorts of dire consequences – when the reality is, most of us have as much as we truly need to live, and then some. We falsely believe our possessions or our economic security will transcend and lift us out of our mortality, but it is a lie, a dead end.

Another place where we seek false transcendence is in the addictive pursuit of pleasure. Alcohol, gambling, tobacco, drugs, obsessive sexuality – even the more socially acceptable addictions of overeating or obsessive dieting – all of these ultimately lead away from communion with God and condemn us to death. Psychologist Gerald May has written extensively on addictive behaviors from the standpoint of religious faith and spirituality. In his book “Addiction and Grace,” he writes: “Addiction is the most powerful psychic enemy of humanity’s desire for God.”

Seeking transcendence through the addictive pursuit of pleasure robs us of our humanity and our spiritual freedom. It is the vain attempt to substitute pleasure for joy. It is a parasite attaching itself to our native desire for inner, spiritual fulfillment – for experience of the real transcendent communion with God – and if there’s no intervention, in the end it will destroy us. Why do we seek the living among the dead?

But there is another way: “He is not here, he is risen.” Christ’s experience of resurrection is not just his own; it is ours too, for resurrection is an invitation to new life. But the difficult and painful thing is, resurrection begins with death. To know it, you must die.

To know resurrection before your physical death, something in you has to die and likely what needs to die is how you have been seeking the living among the dead. Maybe it’s the death of the false security of your career that crashes down around you in a downsizing. Maybe it’s the loss of your physical health that you had hoped would go on forever. Maybe it’s the realization that your addiction has destroyed your humanity and robbed you of life. Maybe it’s the death of a dream or someone you hold dear. To know resurrection, you have to experience this death and deal with the loneliness of failure and grief, the humiliation of defeat, the soul-shattering reality of all you cannot control. You have to let go of any illusion that life as you once knew it is possible. And this isn’t something we want or wish for anyone, because the initial cost is so high.

But on the other side of death, Christ is there with an invitation and a promise: There is a path to a new and different life. On this side of death, the promise of a different life is no consolation. It’s too frightening and certainly not worth the crossing over of suffering to attain. But once you’re there facing death and there is no turning back, resurrection makes living possible again by forging a path of life given by God who is the author of Life itself.

There are a few things you need to remember about resurrection. First, it is an invitation. Resurrection cannot be forced upon you. Christ bids you come, but you must make the choice to say “Yes!” to his invitation. Resurrection will require you to do something. What that is, no one else can tell you, as it will be as unique as you are. But listen for that invitation, and dare to say “yes,” and you will begin the journey to a new life.

Second, resurrection begins tentatively and with great ambiguity. We experience it as disorienting and confusing – just as the women at the tomb experienced it. We don’t really know what to make of it because life has changed so dramatically that we aren’t sure about anything. We may not even want the resurrected life initially because we don’t know how to live it yet and this new life can feel a little intimidating. That’s OK; trust it anyway.

Finally, resurrection is incremental – it is a process, not an event. It takes time! Life returns one breath at a time, and it does not erase the wounds of our past – it lives alongside them. The resurrected Christ still bore the nail marks, and so will you, whatever your particular nail marks are. Resurrection invites you to release death instead of holding onto it. We may never feel ready for resurrection, but the living Christ is not content to be locked in the tombs of our misery.

Christ is alive, and he is inviting you to a resurrected life. Language will always fail to capture what this means; the experience of resurrection is so much more than mere words. But the experience is what makes joy, life, serenity and peace possible in an anxious and uncertain world.

The risen Christ is with us – always. And if you are experiencing death and feel you are in the darkness of the tomb right now, Jesus promises that there will be life on the other side for you and for all of us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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