Sermon given on March 29, 2016
Scripture: John 20:1-18
We Christians have been taking death seriously lately. But it’s so easy to avoid the reality of death in the world. It’s easy to avoid death by turning off the television. But death is always surprising and always devastating, especially when it happens to people we love. In the Christian calendar, last week was Holy Week. But at the same time, terror attacks killed dozens in Syria and Belgium and Iraq. In the United States, people die every day from lack of access to quality health care, poverty and homelessness, and senseless police violence. But God takes death seriously too. God takes death so seriously that God took on a human body and participated in death alongside us.
But today’s story is about resurrection. Life after death. This story is not perfect. It raises more questions than it answers. And this story asks a lot of us. It asks us to believe in something we can’t see. It asks us to hope when hope seems impossible. So that is what we’re doing together tonight in this room, wrestling with hope while surrounded by hopelessness.
In the 19th century, there was a famous German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche once boldly proclaimed, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?” And we as Christians agree with Nietzsche, at least, for two days out of every year. Last friday we commemorated Good Friday, remembering Jesus’ death on the cross. Growing up, my parents took me to a Good Friday service every year. And I hated them. They were always so somber and morbid. I never left feeling good. And that’s kinda the point. Two days later we celebrated Easter, remembering Jesus coming back to life. I don’t know why but the season of lent and the celebration of Easter is always the most spiritual and reflective time for me. And even though Easter always felt like a big celebration, it seemed like there was something heavy - something transformative - about Easter, and Jesus coming back to life. That’s what I want to talk about tonight.
When I was in high school, I worked at a family-owned ice cream shop. This particular ice cream shop had a tip jar. Now while tips were by no means mandatory, they were deeply, deeply appreciated. On summer weekends, the line could stretch out the door and around the block so the tips we received made our long hours of grueling work worth the effort. On one such summer night, I remember a middle-aged couple that came into our shop. After serving them a few samples and scooping their orders, I saw them slip a ten dollar bill into the tip jar. So after they left I reached into the jar to get a better look at it. But after picking it up, I realized that it was fake. On the back were the words: “Disappointed? Some things are better than money. Like your eternal salvation that was bought and paid for by Jesus going to the cross.” Now I was a little ticked off at the time. But in fairness, these people thought they were giving me a gift much greater than money could buy, access to eternal salvation.
There is a strand of Christian faith is deeply concerned with the afterlife. You have heaven and hell. And when you die, your soul leaves its body so that God can judge it and send it to the appropriate location for the rest of eternity. This style of living one’s faith is pretty common today, you don’t have to look any further than Penn’s campus to find it. Every year the nice spring weather brings preachers to locust walk who call on us to leave behind our secular academy because it’s leading us on the road to damnation.
Also, I went to the religion section of the Penn Bookstore to see what kind of Christian books it had. Here are a few of the ones I found: Proof of Heaven, My Journey to Heaven, Flight to Heaven, Heaven is for Real (Now a Major Motion Picture), Touching Heaven, To Heaven and Back, and finally Getting to Heaven: Departing Instructions for Your Life Now.
My dad likes to call this fire-insurance Christianity because even if everything goes wrong in your life - if your metaphorical house burns down - you have the promise compensation after death. The story of fire-insurance Christianity goes like this: God created the world. Then God made humans. And after about two minutes we started sinning, and we haven’t stopped since. Sin is bad because it separates us from God so we can’t get into heaven. So God sent God’s only son to earth to receive the punishment for our sins. Now, if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, our sins are forgiven and we go to heaven when we die.
You’ve probably heard that story or something like it before. The thing that I notice every time I hear it is this: there is no resurrection in it. The story wraps itself up nicely. You could tack a resurrection on at the end, but it’s more of a happy afterthought than a major turning point in the plot. My dad might call this fire insurance Christianity. Karl Marx called it the “opium of the masses.” But I prefer to call it “God is dead” theology. By “God is dead” theology, I don’t mean that God is literally dead, but that God is trapped beyond the veil of death, powerless to intervene in the affairs of this world. In “dead-God theology,” Christianity is also dead. Christianity is dead in two ways. Christianity is dead because it deals almost exclusively with things that happen after we die. But Christianity is also dead because it fails speak to the suffering and injustice of this world. And religions die when they are no longer capable of telling the truth about our lives.
This is what Harper Lee was talking about in To Kill a Mockingbird when she wrote that, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hands of another. There are some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” The important thing I want to tell you tonight is that Jesus’ resurrection disrupts this narrative. Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. But Jesus’ resurrection is a new beginning. And when we embrace that new beginning, it challenges us to change not only how we think about Christianity, but how we live our lives.
So let’s go back to the original Easter morning, some two thousand years ago. The disciples are scared. They are hiding in a room in Galilee and they are scared. You see they had left behind their jobs and their families and their lives to follow this revolutionary of love, Jesus. And they’ve seen him do some pretty amazing things. And they’re just starting to think that this guy might be the real deal. He might be the Messiah. But then he gets himself killed. The political and religious leaders of the day decided that they could not abide this Jesus guy or his message of love and justice. So they torture and kill him. And the disciples are scared because just as they were beginning to hope and believe, the light of the world was snuffed out. They were scared because they were not in on the divine secret. A secret that would turn the world upside down. So on the very first Easter, under the cover of darkness, Mary Magdalene and two disciples visit the tomb where Jesus is buried. To their surprise and horror, they find the tomb open and the body missing. Who could have done this to their God?
Two of the disciples leave but Mary stays behind to mourn. And it is precisely at this moment, in the darkest hour, on the darkest day that Jesus appears. Not dead, but alive. Not a ghost but a flesh-and-blood human body. The very same human body he was born and buried with. The body that carries the wounds of crucifixion. Mary becomes the first disciple to “get it.” The world is different than she thought. Life and death are different than she thought. The Christian story itself is different than she thought. Because Jesus is back. Life has conquered death. But Jesus is not content to stay there. He tells Mary to go tell others the good news. I’m used to hearing this phrase often but it’s worth repeating over and over again: In a time when a woman’s testimony is not even admissible in the court of law, Jesus picks Mary to be the world’s first evangelist. Mary is the first Jesus-follower entrusted with the Easter-secret. And shortly after, the rest of the disciples receive the Easter-secret as well. Because the Easter secret is too good to keep to ourselves.
The Easter-secret is this: This world matters to God. You matter to God. Your body matters to God. This city matters to God. All people - from every corner of the Earth - matter to God. Black Lives matter to God. The people of this world matter so much to God that anything that stands in the way of the full dignity of their humanity also matters to God. Therefore white-supremacy matters to God. Poverty and homelessness matter to God. Violence and war matter to God. Relationship abuse matters to God. Homophobia and transphobia matter to God. Sexism against women matters to God. Imperialism and colonialism matter to God. And the increased xenophobia and islamophobia that we’re seeing in this country, particularly from Donald Trump, also matters to God.
After Jesus did his work on the cross, he came back to this world because this world is important to God. And what is important to God should be important to us. Christianity does not end with the promise of heaven, it begins with that promise. It is not simply the promise that we will see heaven we die, but that we will see it before we die. That is “God is alive” theology. This is the Easter-secret.
When Jesus came back from the dead and revealed himself to his disciples, he was letting them in on the divine secret. And we, two thousand later, follow in the footsteps of those disciples. We are in on the secret too. In I Corinthians, Paul says that we are coworkers with God. But tonight I would prefer to call us co-conspirators with God. Something is happening in the world. It started on the cross but continues to this very moment. It began with Jesus but continues in us. We are conspiring with God to build heaven on Earth. In many ways, this puts as at odds with the pattern of this world. But we as Christians reject domination in favor of love. And we reject injustice in favor of liberation because we are called to follow the example of Christ instead of the ways of oppression. So we are conspiring with God to build a new world inside of this one. That world is the kingdom of God.
Put another way, The resurrection of Jesus is still going on. The work is started but it is not finished.
Jesus was restored to life on Easter morning but there are communities around the world and in this city waiting for restoration. What does resurrection look like for ongoing generations of families forced into poverty and homelessness? What does resurrection look like for those who have experienced abuse at the hands of the church? What does resurrection look like for Syrian refugees? What does resurrection look like for the people of color who live in constant fear of police brutality? We are agents of the resurrection. We are conspiring with God to build life where there is only death. In an empire where death and domination are the norm, we pledge our allegiance to a different world order. Because we know the Easter-secret. God is bigger than death. Death itself is dying. Christ is arisen!
One of my favorite things about Jesus’ resurrection is that it doesn’t just happen once. Jesus keeps coming back. He keeps bursting into the lives of his followers at the least expected moments. And if I may be so bold, I would say that Jesus continues to burst into the world and disrupts business as usual. That is my prayer for you tonight, that you would encounter Jesus in new places and at unexpected moments, in ways that bring love and justice and draw the world a little closer to the kingdom of God.