sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016
Every week when we pray the Nicene Creed, we claim that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. To those of us who have spent our lives in the church, it’s easy to forget how strange this sounds. People don’t really come back from the dead, do they?
And yet the church has affirmed for nearly 2000 years that Jesus, the teacher and healer from Galilee, died and was buried. He was truly dead, dead, dead. His body was stiff and cold. And then somehow, sneakily, mysteriously, the tomb became empty. And we have story after story at the end of the gospels about Jesus appearing to his friends again, more alive, more solid, more real than he had ever been before.
|The Fairy Tale by Walther Firle|
What if it’s all just a fairy tale? What if these stories are just made up in order to give us hope, an example to follow, a meaning to our lives? Well, do people give their lives for fairy tales? Do they go to painful execution singing nursery songs to a god they don’t believe in? The resurrection stories are mysteriously elusive, and their details don’t agree with each other, and this is, to me, what makes them so believable. If the apostles had been hucksters, at least would have tried to get their stories straight. So what if a fairy tale actually happened? Better yet, what if all the most resonant fairy tales point to a deeper reality with resurrection at its core?
During the season of Easter, these fifty celebratory days, we work out the ramifications of resurrection for the world and for us. We do this liturgically by burning the Paschal candle at every Eucharist. We say “alleluia” every chance we get. We eliminate the Confession of Sin during this time to emphasize that we are swimming in Christ’s forgiveness; in the time of Resurrection, there is no need to dwell on our sins.
We also explore resurrection through the stories we read from Scripture this season. Two weeks ago we dealt with Thomas’s understandable doubts and Jesus’ acceptance of him in spite of them. Last week we heard Ananias come to believe that Saul, a persecutor of the Christians, could become Paul, a great evangelist for Christ. This week we hear of a resuscitation, as Peter raises the disciple Tabitha of Joppa from the dead. In the Revelation to John, we hear of Christ not as a shepherd, but as a lamb, a lamb sacrificed to secure the salvation of everyone, past, present, and future. And in the 23rd psalm, which we just sang as a hymn, we hear the roots of the metaphor Jesus employs in our gospel passage. Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who knows each of his sheep by name and guides them so that no one can snatch them away from him.
I see a common thread among all of these readings: an acknowledgment that even in the face of God’s resurrection power, dark places continue to exist. The evil forces of this world continue to operate, as if they are in denial that they have lost the war. And we can certainly find grounds for this denial all around us. People do continue to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” to suffer and to die. Jesus’ resurrection did not magically take away all the pain or establish an infinite utopia. So even today, we are left to ask the question, “If there’s an all-powerful, all-loving God, how can there still be so much evil in the world?” It’s just not fair.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection do make a difference, but that difference seems to be subtler than we’d like it to be. All that evil is still in the world, but it occurs in the context of resurrection. Any gains that evil seems to make are ultimately fruitless. God spreads an abundant feast before us and fills our chalice full, even as our enemies press upon us from all sides. Those who really, actually die are seen, in a much larger sense, to be eternally alive. [Those whom we see robed in white have come through the great ordeal, and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.] And in all this, at every step, comes Jesus’ assurance: No one will snatch the sheep from the shepherd’s hand. Jesus gives us eternal life, and we will never perish. It’s not just about “heaven after we die.” It’s about life today taking place within this context of resurrection. All the evil in the cosmos is subject to redemption, somehow, some way, eternally.
This is so difficult for us to wrap our minds and hearts around. Jesus tried to teach us, and he did so by telling his own fairy tales: parables, stories of the Kingdom of God, of God’s grace, and of God’s loving judgment. Resurrection means the lost sheep is found and restored to the flock. Resurrection means the prodigal son is given a welcome-home party. Resurrection means that a man beaten and left for dead is saved by his enemy. Resurrection means a prophet emerges from three days in the belly of the fish to find his own enemies repenting and forgiven.
As Jesus told his fairy tales, resurrection happened all around him in real life, everywhere he went—as if to underscore his point—as if to blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Resurrection means that a rich man repents of his greed and repays those he had exploited. Resurrection means that a leper is healed, a demoniac is healed, a hemorrhaging woman is healed, and blind man is healed, and all of them are restored to their communities. Resurrection means that a hardened Roman centurion falls to his knees and cries, “Surely this man was innocent!”
After Jesus’ ascension, resurrection continued. Resurrection means a community of hope arising, simple fishermen becoming confident evangelists, Gentiles welcomed into the fold, women and eunuchs welcomed as church leaders, martyrs singing songs of praise even in the face of death as a means of strengthening those who continued to live.
And so it continues throughout history, with the moments of darkness and light so intertwined that often we can only tell in retrospect where the moments of resurrection lay. The Roman Empire becomes Christian, and for better or worse, it spreads the faith through governmental and military might. But 1700 years later, we emerge from the assumption of a Christian society into new, uncharted, exciting (and scary) territory. Resurrection means an end to slavery, freedom emerging from oppression, an end to baseless discrimination, and new understandings of what it means to respect the dignity of every human being. Resurrection will continue to mean new things!
And here is where we find ourselves. In the 21st century, we, too, experience resurrection as others have. We don’t have to rely exclusively on ancient texts to assuage our doubts: our very lives can be the evidence. What does this look like on the ground, as they say? What are some clues that might help us notice resurrection in action?
Well, for one thing, resurrection is more easily seen in retrospect. It might mean looking back on the darkest moments of your life—moments when someone victimized you, for instance, or moments when you acted shamefully—and trying to figure out how on earth things did get better. Sometimes resurrection is forward-looking. It might mean imagining greater things than we could before, or becoming braver than we used to be, for the sake of love. Resurrection might mean a surprising sense of peace where before there was only anxiety.
Maybe you can identify stories of resurrection in your own life, or maybe doing so is difficult. But resurrection is sneaky. One thing I know for sure is that it never looks like what we think it should look like, and it never sets things back to the way they were before. It does not ignore or minimize your pain; rather, it encompasses your pain and includes it and redeems it and sets in within a larger context. Remember that Jesus’ resurrected body, while it was physical and bore the wounds of his death, was also able to materialize within a locked room! There is great mystery in resurrection. Sometimes we have to expect to see it before we can. Sometimes we have to move beyond Thomas’s mantra, “seeing is believing,” to understand that believing is seeing.
This is one thing the church is for: to help us place our lives into the context of resurrection. (And how could we ever do this work alone?) Here in the church, we share the unconventional idea that God loves everyone eternally, even our enemies, even God’s adversaries. Here in the church, we find that whenever we follow some shepherd other than Jesus—that is, when we act in ways that run counter to love and forgiveness—the Good Shepherd is still searching for us and calling us back home. And ultimately, here in the church, we learn that love wins. We learn that if our situation is not OK, that only means it’s not over yet.
During this season of Easter, listen for the shepherd’s voice and follow. Watch for evidence of resurrection. Know that you have been given eternal life, and that no one can possibly snatch you out of the shepherd’s hand. The Good Shepherd calls you “greater than all else.” God considers the fact of you to be more important than your moral or immoral behavior, more important than your successes or failures, more important than your wisdom or foolishness, more important than what you can and cannot do, more important than anything people wish you would become, more important than anything else in the universe. You are the end, not the means, and that is why God loves you. You simply are, and that means that you live in a world defined by resurrection.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, through whose resurrection we all share eternal life. May we always be ready to embrace the fairy tale that came true—that Jesus died and was raised from the dead—so that we can enjoy the fruits of resurrection in this life and beyond it. Amen.