sermon for easter sunday, year c, march 31, 2013

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Listen again to what John says:

[Mary Magdalene] turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo’ni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Mag’dalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20.14-18)

Biblical scholars, who usually disagree about everything, pretty much all agree on one thing: the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are puzzling. The four Gospel writers are all obviously telling the same story – but their tellings are all very different from one another. They focus on different details, emphasize different tropes, draw out different contours; each of the four accounts has a very different “flavor” from the others.

This variation can be very frustrating for attentive students of the Bible, because we all want to know: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED that first Easter morning? And the silence of the Gospels about the actual event of the resurrection is likewise a bit maddening. What actually happened that night, behind the stone, as the soldiers slept? According to the Bible, there were in fact no witnesses of the actual event, the moment of resurrection.

Archaeologists have discovered, in a monastic tomb in lower Egypt, fragments of an apocryphal book known to Biblical scholars as “the Gospel of Peter,” a book which, for one reason and another, the early Church did not think ought to be included in the canon of scripture. But it contains a fascinating passage about the Resurrection of Jesus. It says:

Early in the morning, when the Sabbath dawned, there came a crowd from Jerusalem and the country round about to see the sepulcher that had been sealed. Now in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers, two by two in every watch were keeping guard, there rang out a loud voice in heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men come down from there in a great brightness and draw nigh to the sepulcher. That stone which had been laid against the entrance to the sepulcher started of itself to roll and give way to the side, and the sepulcher was opened, and both the young men entered in. When now those soldiers saw this, they awakened the centurion and the elders – for they also were there to assist at the watch. And while they were relating what they had seen, they saw again three men come out from the sepulcher, and two of them sustaining the other, and a cross following them, and the heads of the two [young men] reached to heaven, but the head of him whom they were leading by the hand overpassed the heavens. And the guards heard a voice out of the heavens crying, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep?” and from the cross there was heard the answer, “Yes.” (quoted by NT Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 593f)

That is interesting. But, unfortunately, the Gospel of Peter was written significantly later than the canonical Gospels, and later still than Paul’s writings, and so from an historiographical point of view, it is less reliable than the New Testament accounts.

In the end, our curiosity about what happened behind the stone remains unsatisfied. Contrasting the very public nature of Jesus’ execution with the exasperating hiddenness of his resurrection, the poet Alice Meynell wrote:

Public was Death; but Power, but Might,
But Life again, but Victory,
Were hushed within the dead of night,
The shutter’d dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone.

Notwithstanding this “shutter’d dark” and “secrecy” of the event itself, there are nevertheless incontrovertible facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection with which we must contend. Chief among them, to my mind, is that the earliest Christians, from the Apostles themselves, and all that came after them in the earliest generations of the nascent Church, BELIEVED THAT JESUS HAD RISEN FROM THE DEAD. Sometime Bishop of Durham, NT Wright put it this way:

The historical datum now before us is a widely held, consistently shaped and highly influential belief: that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. This belief was held by virtually all the early Christians for whom we have evidence. It was at the centre of their characteristic praxis, narrative, symbol and belief; it was the basis of their recognition of Jesus as Messiah and lord, their insistence that the creator god had inaugurated the long awaited new age, and above all their hope for their own future bodily resurrection. (ibid. p. 685)

In other words, the earliest Christians, including those who knew Jesus, and were witnesses of his murder, sincerely believed that he had been raised BODILY from the dead, that they had seen him, touched him, spoken with him, and even eaten with him. And the whole fabric of their beliefs about God, about who Jesus was and is, about how they ought to live their lives, all of it was formed by this belief that Jesus had really risen from the dead. That much we know for certain.

As St. Paul put it, in one of the earliest surviving pieces of writing concerning the Resurrection of Jesus, written just a few years after the resurrection itself – Paul says:

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15.3ff)

This, according to Saint Paul, is of “first importance,” to Christians. That Jesus really died. That he really rose. And that he really appeared to many of his friends and disciples, including Paul himself. And he even says, “Look, most of these people are still alive. You can ask them yourselves, if you don’t believe me.”

When it is all shucked down to the cob, the resurrection of Jesus, from an honest appraisal of the evidence, and especially in the Biblical texts, stubbornly resists abstraction and theologizing. It is as though the Biblical writers are saying : “Look, we’re still not sure what it means. But there we were, in the upper room, and suddenly Jesus was there. At first we thought we were seeing things, but then he spoke to us, and we touched him, and he even asked us for something to eat, and we gave him some fish and he ate it in front of us.”

Let me just draw your attention to two features of encounters with the risen Jesus as they stand in the Gospels. The risen Jesus seems to transcend physicality and history. That is to say, whereas the Gospels insist that he is physical, that he is not just a shadow from the underworld, or a figment of the disciples’ imagination – after all, he eats fish in front of them, they see and touch his wounds, he cooks breakfast at one point, and so on – nevertheless, after his resurrection and somehow because of it, he is now MORE than physical. He appears and disappears suddenly, even behind locked doors. He is sometimes not immediately recognized, even by his closest friends – as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who walk and talk with him for some time, and yet only recognize him when he takes bread, blesses and breaks it – and then he suddenly vanishes.

Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI says that this more-than-physical dimension of Jesus’ resurrection life bespeaks how

The man Jesus, complete with his body, now belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal. From now on, as Tertullian once said, “spirit and blood” have a place within God. Even if man by his nature is created for immortality, it is only NOW [with the resurrection of Jesus] that the place exists in which [man’s] immortal soul can find its “space”, its “bodiliness”, in which immortality takes on its meaning as communion with God and with the whole of reconciled [humanity]. This is what is meant by those passages in Saint Paul’s prison letters (cf. Col 1:12-23 and Eph 1:3-23) that speak of the cosmic body of Christ, indicating thereby that Christ’s transformed body is also the place where men enter into communion with God and with one another and are thus able to live definitively in the fullness of indestructible life. (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2, p. 274).

The resurrection of Jesus is an entirely new kind of event, unprecedented in the history of the universe, unlike the other stories of people coming back to life in the Bible, or of people being resuscitated on operating tables that we read about nowadays. The resurrection of Jesus is something entirely different, something entirely NEW, on account of which, “a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future, for mankind,” (ibid. 244).

Jesus died, just like every other human being in the history of the universe. But unlike every other human being who died, Jesus is now alive. Indeed more alive now than ever. We might say of everyone who has died that “He was.” But of Jesus we may say that “He was,” and yet “He is” – and moreover that “He is to come.” And he has provided us a means of cultivating a union with his risen Body such that the eternity, the transcendence which he has attained can be ours as well. This more-than-physical, more-than-historical thing that really happened to the man Jesus can really happen to us as well. And we have churchy words for the means of attaining it: repentance, baptism, faith, Eucharist.

I will conclude with another word from Benedict XVI, who has been my guide this Holy Week and Easter:

…all of us are constantly inclined to ask the question that Saint Jude Thaddaeus put to Jesus during the Last Supper: “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” (Jn 14:22). Why, indeed, did you not forcefully resist your enemies who brought you to the Cross? – we might well ask. Why did you not show them with incontrovertible power that you are the living one, the Lord of life and death? Why did you reveal yourself only to a small flock of disciples, upon whose testimony we must now rely?

The question applies not only to the Resurrection, but to the whole manner of God’s revelation in the world. Why only to Abraham and not to the mighty of the world? Why only to Israel and not irrefutably to all the peoples of the earth?

It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes IF we open our [hearts] to him.

And yet – is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love. And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great? Does not a ray of light issue from Jesus, growing brighter across the centuries, that could not come from any mere man and through which the light of God truly shines into the world? Could the apostolic preaching have found faith and built up a worldwide community unless the power of truth had been at work within it? (ibid. p. 276f)

This reversal of proportions is one of God’s mysteries. The great – the mighty – is ultimately the small…. So it is that the Resurrection has entered the world only through certain mysterious appearances to the chosen few. And yet it was truly the new beginning for which the world was silently waiting. And for the few witnesses – precisely because they themselves could not fathom it – it was such an overwhelmingly real happening, confronting them so powerfully, that every doubt was dispelled, and they stepped forth before the world with an UTTERLY NEW FEARLESSNESS in order to bear witness [that]… (ibid. p. 247f)

The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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