Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Day C

Episcopal Church of the Advent, Sumner

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:14-17, 22-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 24:1-10

Legend has it that, not so very long ago, a certain Mississippi Delta priest stepped into the pulpit on Easter morning, looked out at the congregation and preached one of the most powerful Easter sermons ever heard, although it was only five words long. “It’s true,” the priest said with conviction. “It’s all true. Amen.”

I wonder if Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women began with those same words when they arrived breathless at the place where the rest of the disciples were hiding in fear and doubt and grief. It’s true; it’s all true! Everything Jesus told us – it’s all true! We went to the tomb to anoint him in his death, but he is alive. He is not there, but has risen! It’s true; it’s all true!

I wonder if Peter began with those same words when he proclaimed the good news to the gentiles. It’s true; it’s all true! Everything you have been told about Jesus – it’s all true! We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear...It’s true; it’s all true!

I wonder how Peter felt when the gentiles to whom he preached – a Roman centurion and his family – believed and were baptized immediately, whereas Peter and the rest of the disciples had not believed the women’s story of angels and empty tombs. In the verse just following our gospel reading this morning, Luke tells us that the women’s words seemed to the disciples to be nothing but an idle tale – it couldn’t be true. None of it could be true.

Angels and empty tombs, life after death – they had seen Jesus do extraordinary things, but this they could not believe. Resurrection was no more a category in their minds than was hope in their hearts. They had seen Jesus die, and with him everything in which they had dared to believe about the power of God to save.

There is really nothing new about contemporary challenges to the truth of the empty tomb – the disciples themselves were the first to doubt, to question, to find it hard to believe. The book of Acts contains numerous accounts of those who considered it an idle tale, such as one Roman governor who noted that even the Jews had certain points of disagreement about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. History is full of women and men who claimed that none of it could be true. An empty tomb proves nothing; as one historian pointed out, it is simply “Public evidence for a mystery.”

In the opening verses of his gospel account, Luke tells his readers that it will be an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. It’s true; it’s all true…And so Luke would have us understand, in an orderly way, how events took place on that first Easter morning. The women go to the tomb, find the stone rolled away and the body missing, and are told by angels that Jesus has risen. They go back and tell all this to the disciples, who do not believe them. Peter – whether hoping the women are right or wanting to prove they are wrong, we do not know – goes to the tomb and discovers that, indeed, the linens are there but Jesus is not. Then he went home, Luke writes, amazed at what had happened.

An orderly account of truth? Public evidence for a mystery? Either way, Luke knew that an empty tomb by itself cannot compel faith – in fact, it is just as likely to confound it, for tombs can be emptied in many ways. And so Luke’s story continues with appearances by the risen Jesus to those who had followed and loved him, beginning that same day with two weary disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize Jesus until he sat at dinner with them, took bread, blessed, and broke it. Soon after, he appeared to a room full of disciples who also did not recognize Jesus until he invited them to touch him, and he ate with them, and reminded them of words he had spoken to them before he had died.

It is an orderly account, as Luke claimed it would be. But many scholars agree that the first stories of resurrection that were told, before any were ever written down, were not stories of an empty tomb but, rather, stories of Jesus appearing to his followers, personal encounters with Jesus. In these encounters, belief in the power of God to save was resurrected, given new life. You are witnesses of all these things, Jesus told them, and according to Peter, Jesus commanded them to preach to the people and to testify that he was the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead – and so they told the story. It’s true; it’s all true! Everything that Jesus told us – it’s all true!

Some people said it was an idle tale. But some people, like the Roman centurion to whom Peter preached, believed. And so they told the story. Some people said it was an idle tale. But others believed, and so they told the story…until one day, someone who did not think it an idle tale told us.

On this Easter morning, we are the ones who are witnesses. The tomb is empty. We are the ones commanded to preach. What shall we say? Resurrection is more than a historical event, a publicly evidenced mystery. It is more than a pretty story, more than just something to believe in or not. Resurrection is a way of life, of living. Resurrection is about being transformed from people who just live until we die into people who live because Jesus lives.

And so it is not only our telling of the story, but our living of it that bears witness. Indeed, many of us came to believe not just because someone told us about Jesus but because someone was Christlike to us. St. Francis once wrote, “Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.” Are we limited to talking about what Jesus did, or can we show what Jesus is doing here and now? Can we speak of the risen Christ in the world, the church, our communities, our lives? Do we, as we state in our baptismal vows, proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

Let us tell the story, not only with our lips but in our lives. Some people will say it is an idle tale. But others will believe…and so they will tell the story…Let us be encouraged by the first believers, who together with the latest and with everyone in between, struggled deeply and daily with doubt and faith, despair and hope, grief and joy, guilt and forgiveness, loathing and love. Let us believe the first believers and stand on the shoulders of other believers across time and space, who have believed and lived and taught that God raised Jesus from the dead. Let us join their Easter chorus, saying, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia. It’s true; it’s all true! Amen.

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