What Does Easter Mean? (A sermon from Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18)

A florist mixed up two orders on a busy day. One was to go to a new business, the other to a funeral. The next day, the guy with the new business stormed into the shop, “What’s the big idea? The flowers that arrived for our reception said, “Rest in peace.” The florist responded, “Well, if you think that’s bad you should have seen the people at the funeral who got the flowers that said, “Good luck in your new location.”

When some people think of Easter and the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, it means little more than belief in an afterlife. I don’t think any of us here would question that the resurrection of Jesus offers hope that there is “more” after death, that physical death does not have the last word. But of course, one might believe in life after death and not believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all.

Perhaps the first place to start in reflecting on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus is with the first disciples who claimed to be witnesses to the risen Christ. They were all Jews and in a Jewish context resurrection signified vindication.

Belief in actual resurrection was a fairly late development in the history of Judaism. The origins of this belief are obscure, but almost all scholars of Judaism agree that belief in resurrection emerged in a context of oppression and persecution.

It emerged at a time when conventional wisdom was being questioned. Conventional wisdom taught that the righteous would be blessed and the wicked judged in this life. But at some point in the spiritual evolution of Judaism that basic principle was questioned — this did not seem to be the experience of everyone. Sometimes the good die unjustly and the wicked prosper and live long lives. The book of Job, for example, is a book that challenges this conventional wisdom. So, it was out of this context – a context where conventional wisdom no longer worked and the righteous were being oppressed and killed that belief in resurrection emerged.

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In our text in Acts, mention is made in verse 41 that Jesus rose from the dead. But the reason it can be said that Jesus rose from the dead or that “he is risen” (as in other texts) is because in verse 40 we are told that “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.” Jesus didn’t raise himself; God raised him. This is God’s vindication and validation of everything Jesus stood for and died for.

We are told in the text that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” and that “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

God’s own power and energy inspired, empowered, and filled Jesus throughout his life. God’s power flowed in and through him to heal and liberate those oppressed by anti-human, death-dealing powers. The resurrection of Jesus means that this divine power at work in his earthly life is now at loose in the world, and this power is accessible and available to us, even in the most difficult and life demeaning and diminishing situations.

God’s vindication of Jesus means that God did not abandon Jesus on the cross. Even though he felt forsaken, God was with him and he was not alone. Even when darkness descends and engulfs everything as on Good Friday, even when all seems lost and when the power of death seems strongest, the Power of Life is still present and the challenge we face is learning to trust and rely on that Power.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in a recent Christian Century piece tells about reading Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who authored a memoir called “And There Was Light.” At the age of seven he had an accident that left him completely and permanently blind. In those days blind people were swept to the margins of society. Lusseyran’s doctors suggested sending him to residential school for the blind in Paris but his parents refused, wanting their son to stay in the local public school where he could learn to function in the seeing world.

His mother learned Braille with him and he learned to use a Braille typewriter. The school provided a special desk to hold all his extra equipment. But the best thing his parents did for him, says Taylor, was never to pity him. They never described him as “unfortunate.” His father told him soon after the accident, “Always tell us when you discover something.” He lived a life of discovery.

He wrote: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.” Listen to his language; it sounds mystical. “It’s source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it.”

He said that he could detect its movements and shades. He wrote: “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Taylor says that when she first read what I just quoted she thought he was speaking spiritually or theologically, but as she continued to read, she realized he was talking about that which he actually experienced. With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see with his eyes, and yet somehow he could see them.

What do we see with our spiritual senses? You and I – Are we in touch with our true selves, with the light within, which is the living Christ? No matter how dark and dismal the situation may seem, the Light is still there.

Jesus, on the cross, when he cried out in the darkness, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” apparently for a time lost his sense of connection to the light, but it was still there. The light—the living presence of God—had not left him, though he apparently, at least in Mark's version of the story, lost his sense of it (Luke and John tell a different story).

The resurrection of Jesus means that the anti-human, death-dealing, life-diminishing powers cannot extinguish the light, for it eludes all attempts to capture and destroy and it bursts forth from all the tombs where it is buried and encased.

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This light, says the Gospel of John, is in all people and is there to enlighten every individual. It shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. It is the light that became the living Word, the light that became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth; it is the Power of life, the power of goodness and grace, the power of love and forgiveness, the power that brings healing and liberation to those oppressed by the powers of darkness and death.

The expression “the God who raised Jesus from the dead” that occurs in several NT texts, corresponds with the Hebrew expression, “The God who brought up Israel out of Egypt.” The God who liberated the covenant people from bondage is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus the resurrection is an act of God that has universal importance – for Jesus who was raised, has been, according to our text, appointed by God as Lord and Judge of all.

The power of life that raised Jesus is accessible and available to all people, even those who have not heard of Jesus. The risen Christ, the cosmic Christ who is Lord of all can take many forms and answer to many names. Our text says that God shows no partiality, that anyone who fears God, and that does not mean to be afraid of God, but anyone who respects and honors God, and anyone who does what is right, anyone who does what is just and good and compassionate shares in the life of the risen Christ. 

And just as the apostles were “witnesses” to the risen life of the Christ in that day and time, so we have witnesses today to the power of the resurrection at loose in the world. Just talk, for example, to some of the people who have emerged from AA groups on a path to healing and wholeness. Some of them were completely engulfed in the darkness of addiction, but through their connection to a greater Power of life at work in the midst of death they found hope. These living witnesses will tell you as well that this Divine Power is best accessed through relational and communal connections – that it was in the commitment of community they experienced this healing, liberating power. And all of us here today are in some way living witnesses to this Power - are we not? 

I think one of the theological points made in the story we read from John’s Gospel is that the power and life of the risen Christ cannot be pinned down, cannot be scripted or regulated or controlled by any one group or belief system or religious tradition.

Mary does not recognize Jesus; she thinks he is the gardener. In fact, this inability to recognize Jesus is a common feature in the diverse, sometimes contradictory, appearance stories. It teaches, I think, that the life and power of the risen Lord is somewhat elusive and mysterious, though present and real. When Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him, because he has not yet ascended, the theological point the story is making, I believe, is that while the life of Jesus is still available to his followers, it is available in a different form and is experienced in new ways.

The language of ascending that the story in John utilizes (Luke uses this imagery as well) is a poetic and theological way of saying that Jesus has been taken into the very life of God, that he was raised by God to share in God’s transcendent life, and now as the cosmic Christ, as Lord and Judge of all, he mediates and communicates this very life to the world.

This life is hidden, concealed, spiritual in nature, but nonetheless real, dynamic, and powerful. Spiritual writer Brother David Steindl-Rast comments that this life is “hidden as the spring is hidden in the stream” and “we can sense the current of his hidden life as it guides all things from within, pulsating as blessing . . . through the universe and through our own innermost being.” The Pauline writer in the letter to the Colossians describes this life as “hidden with Christ in God.” It is a hidden life, but nonetheless real – pulsating with the power of love and forgiveness.

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Author and pastor Philip Gulley, in a fairly recent sermon, shared a letter he received from a reader. The reader thanked Gulley for his book, “If the Church Were Christian” and particularly his chapter titled, “Encouraging Personal Exploration Would Be More Important than Communal Uniformity.” This is what he wrote:

“As I read this chapter I was struck as the words ‘Johovah Witnesses’  appeared on the page in front of me. I was raised a Johovah’s Witness, very active as a young person, a teenager, and into my early 20’s, when I came out as a gay man. I knew what the result would be, there was not a doubt in my mind because they practice disfellowshipping as you describe in your book.

“The fear, anguish and worry about what would happen if I came out moved me to almost take my own life. Thankfully I did not. I prayed, I wept, and in that moment of darkness, had the first real spiritual experience of my life, an experience that let me know that God was okay with me exactly as I was.” (Let me interject: Here is what I find amazing about the Power of Life at loose in the world, namely, that it can break through layers of bad teaching, socialization, and tradition. Brother David Stendl-Rast says that we can know the living Christ firsthand, even if we have never heard the story of Jesus).

“I was kicked out of the church. I was disowned by my family. I was shunned by every friend, every person I had ever known. I found myself alone in the world. Truly, completely, utterly alone. I was 23 years old, young, scared and bruised.

“Amazingly I found faith again. Most people who are raised as I am never find faith again after they are shunned. Many become atheists or agnostics, totally rejecting any thoughts of God. I’m thankful I was able to re-form my faith. I had to start from scratch. I asked all the hard questions I had never been encouraged to ask, and now have a more vibrant, joyful and expansive vision of God, the world, and faith.

He concludes by saying: “I thank God for holding me in the light, and keeping me close. I thank God for my life.”

That, sisters and brothers, is the power of the resurrection, the power of love and liberation at loose in the world.

I love the story of the painting that hung in a gallery of Foust playing chess with the Devil for his soul. It appears that the Devil has Foust checkmated. The Devil is hovering over the chess board with a delightful glee, while on the face of Foust there is a look of desperation.

Some people in the gallery would inevitably gravitate toward this  painting. If they were going through a difficult time, a time of disappointment and discouragement, or if, perhaps, they were living on the brink of despair, the painting spoke to them.

One day a chess master entered the gallery and for the longest time simply stared at the painting. Then suddenly, out of the quietness of that place, came a loud shout, “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” exclaimed the chess master, “the knight and the king still have moves left.”

This is what Easter means for us today. No matter how disappointing, how dark, how desperate the situation may seem, we still have moves left, because the Power of life is at loose in the world. And not only is the Power of Life at loose in the world “out there,” it’s loose “in here.” It resides within every community gathered in the name of Christ, that is, every community committed to the things Christ stands for. This Power resides in every human heart, in our true selves; the light dwells within, and will guide us if we will receive it.

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Our gracious God, we celebrate the power of life and love at work in our world, in our church, and in our personal lives this Easter Sunday. The death dealing, life diminishing forces at work in the domination systems of society and in the tragic events that destroy human life and tear at our humanity will not have the final word. For the power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the very power at work among us and in us to bring to completion the good work you began. Help us to tap into this healing, liberating power each day as we pray and serve and work to see your kingdom realized and your will done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.


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