(a sermon for April 23, 2017, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 12-20)
It’s one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of what this particular Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, is all about; and it comes courtesy of pastor and columnist Robert Kitchen: he writes that to come to church today is “to worship in a lower key.”
After all, last Sunday was Easter, which is always a spiritual and emotional high point of our life together as God’s people, and there’s this palpable sense of exuberant joy in and through all of it, from rising with the sun for morning worship to singing out our alleluias amidst beautiful spring flowers and excited children in their new Easter clothes. It’s a great day at church, and why wouldn’t it be? Last Sunday, we came together here in celebration of a world changed forever by a stunningly powerful and utterly radical act of God – Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead – and it’s high energy for pastor and parish alike.
But now, seven days later, admittedly we find ourselves at some distance from that Easter joy; I mean, it’s still great to be here and all, but, let’s be honest: the energy’s just not there the way it was a week ago (as Kitchen goes on to suggest, no doubt referring to a lot of pastors about now, “last Sunday was exhausting but this Sunday we’re just exhausted!). I don’t mean this unkindly; it’s just that already things have more or less returned to “normal,” even here in the church. It’s like what happens every year after the Christmas holidays are finally behind us: once the decorations are put away and school is back in session, there’s always this part of us that wonders if Christmas really happened at all, or if it was merely some kind of joyous, if chaotic, dream!
So it is with Easter; and I think this is one reason that over the centuries the church has sometimes referred to this particular day as “Low Sunday” (and not just because the pews aren’t as congested this week as they were last!). It’s because after having finally come to the empty tomb, after having seen the risen Christ, and after having shouted our alleluias for the new life and new world that has come, now it’s another day and we begin to wonder what it all means… how it matters… what all changes now that Christ has risen… and, when all is said and done, if it’s all real. Coming as they do after last Sunday’s celebration, these are the kinds of questions that while they may not exactly bring us “low,” they certainly give us pause; and a good reminder that how we approach these days after “the day of resurrection” is at least as important as how we approach the day itself.
I’m reminded of a great story I heard through another pastor: it seems that this friend of his had come downstairs to the kitchen on Easter morning, and announced rather loudly as fathers are wont to do, “I am hungry!” And to this his five-year-old son looked up from the table and, without missing a beat, said, “I am hungry, indeed!” The father, trying not to laugh but also not wanting his son to misuse that Christian greeting said, “Now, son, you don’t want to make fun of what we say in church.” And the boy replied, “Oh, no, dad; it’s just in Sunday School they told us that if really feel something, you say, ‘Indeed!’”
So that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? As Christians, we believe in the resurrection as a theological truth; as a matter of faith. But the real question for each of us is if really feel that “Christ is risen, indeed?” In other words, now that another Easter Sunday has come and gone is the resurrection still as powerfully real for us today as it was a week ago? Does it matter so much to us that it makes a difference (no, the difference) in our lives?
Victor Pentz has written that knowing that difference is the real issue we face as we move beyond Easter Sunday. “What difference,” he asks, “will the resurrection make in your life this Tuesday afternoon when your [preschooler] throws a screaming fit in the supermarket aisle and begins pulling the cans off the shelves? What difference will the resurrection make on Thursday when you receive an office e-mail announcing corporate downsizing in your department? Or, what difference will the resurrection make on Friday when you face an [ethical or moral] temptation… in other words, as we face the ordinary struggles of daily life,” when we’re dealing with everything from driving our kids from one activity to another to getting the taxes done on time, what difference does it really make for us that Jesus rose from death? “Our problem,” Pentz concludes, “is not believing. Our problem is remembering.”
The bottom line is that Easter Sunday becomes Eastertide, and Eastertide will sooner or later meld into the rest of our lives; and the truth is, as it does most of us do need to be reminded… reminded again and again of the very real difference Christ’s resurrection is meant to make for each one of us who would call ourselves Christian.
It’s just such a reminder that lay at the heart of our text for this morning; in fact, this passage from 1 Corinthians we’ve shared today represents one of the earliest recorded “affirmations” of the resurrection that we have, Paul having written these words only 20 years or so after the event itself… and did you notice how he begins this portion of his epistle? “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turned received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved.”
Understand that 20 years pretty much represents a generation that has passed since Jesus rose from death, and so not only has the immediacy of it faded for the Corinthians, but also, perhaps, its power as well. So Paul seeks to remind them of that which was and is “of first importance,” telling them that familiar story yet again: how Christ died, and was buried, and then on the third day was raised, appearing to “Cephas, then to the twelve, [then] to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive,” and then, finally, to Paul himself, appearing “as to one untimely born.” This, says Paul, is our story; it’s the story of what we believe, and it’s a story that didn’t end at the empty tomb but continues in each one who trusts in the reality of the resurrection. The story of Easter goes on, and resurrection happens in each believer who receives that good news of “Christ proclaimed as raised from the dead,” holds firmly to its message, and stands solidly in its truth.
After all, Paul goes on to say, consider what it would be “if there is no resurrection of the dead… and if Christ has not been raised?” This is arguably one of the most mind-boggling passages of the Epistles, for what Paul is doing here is to envision for the Corinthians and for us a world without Easter, a life in which faith is futile and in vain, in which we are still mired in our sin, and “those who have died in Christ have perished.” Understand that what Paul’s setting forth is the kind of world where there’s no possibility for redemption or renewal and any kind of positive change in our lives because there’s never been that hope of being liberated from all the anger, fear and pain that weighs us down. This is the kind of life where evil wins out over good every single time, and that things like love and compassion and shalom are to be regarded as merely the philosophies of fools or the naïve. This is the kind of situation where all we can ever say to one another at the graveside is, “oh, well… that’s the way it goes,” because life then becomes nothing more than a one way trip from the cradle to the tomb and no further.
But… and here’s the good news, we know better because in fact, Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Martin Luther, by the way, once said that his favorite word in the New Testament is that one little word that Paul uses here: “BUT… [but] in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” With that single word, “but,” Luther says, Paul erased an entire world of doom and gloom; on the force of that word, you and I can come rocketing out of that dark tomb of despair and rise on the wings of hope! What Paul reminds us here is that since Jesus Christ has been raised, we are raised as well. Our faith is not in vain: our loved ones who have died will be with us in the life to come; sorrow will not rule our lives forever; and the hope that girds us today and every day is not foolish or naïve, but blessed. Christ is risen… indeed, and that makes all the difference for you and for me.
I think one of the questions I get asked most often about being a pastor is how difficult it must be to be present with people at times when someone they love is dying or how hard it is to have to lead so many funeral services. Actually, the truth is that so often these are the times and places in which the message of our Christian faith becomes clearly focused, and the comforting presence of God in the midst of grief is felt so profoundly; and so as a pastor, I’m honored to be a part of that and to help in any way I can. This is not to say that it’s ever an easy thing to do; I can tell you that there have been funerals I’ve led over the years that have been so physically and emotionally draining for me that I couldn’t begin to imagine what a struggle it must have been for the family. Grief is truly one of the hardest realities of our human existence, and it’s never easy to lose somebody we love.
And yet, I have to say that there have been just as many occasions where the grief we all felt at the loss was in fact permeated with… joy (!); how often laughter became mingled with tears at these services, and how you’ll look out at the congregation as memories are being shared, and notice people smiling and nodding their heads even as they’re wiping their eyes! Somehow, miraculously, by the grace of God a memorial has become a true celebration of life abundant and eternal, and broken hearts are healed in the process. It seems an unlikely, if not impossible, scenario in the face of such a difficult and sorrowful time, but this is the transformative power of the resurrection; this is what happens when light floods into the darkest places of our lives.
If Christ has not been raised, beloved, then we could not see beyond the darkness, and beyond this earthly life to glimpse eternity and receive the peace that’s promised to all who would rest in the Lord. If Christ has not been raised, then none of us could embrace the solid promise God gives us that all things – even the struggles of our lives – work ultimately for the good. If Christ has not been raised, then there’d be no point to all of this… of our being here in this sanctuary, of singing songs of joy and victory, of lifting up prayers for the living of these days. If Christ has not been raised, how could we live any day with meaning and purpose?
But… in fact, beloved, Christ has been raised from the dead. He has been raised indeed! And because of this, you and I walk – in wherever we go and whatever we do – in newness of life. Easter, you see, does not mark the end of our story, but represents a new beginning; in which life – your life and mine – is now forever and always girded on love, predicated on peace and imbued with unending hope; and it is the resurrection that makes all the difference as that wonderful story unfolds.
My hope and prayer for all of us in this Eastertide is that we remember… for it is in remembering the resurrection that true abundance will be found in this life and in the one to come; it will be in the resurrection that we will truly know the victory of perfect love that casts out fear and overcomes the world!
Thanks be to God, who by grace has raised Jesus from the dead and gives us life!
Alleluia, and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry