a sermon preached by Jamie Howison on Easter Day
lleluia Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
“…and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” – all of them women, you’ll notice… apparently the only ones unafraid of being spotted at the tomb and identified as followers of the Galilean heretic – “it was the women who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
Sure, they had some memory of Jesus speaking of his dying and rising, but had always assumed it must have been some kind of a coded metaphor, having to do with the struggle against Rome and against the compromised Jewish leadership, to be followed by his eventual triumph. Clearly he hadn’t been speaking of an actual resurrection; that is something that will happen at the end of time and history, when God brings it about in the great judgment of good and evil.“These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter,” – God bless good old Peter, whose hopes never get completely dashed – “Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”
Amazed, but still uncomprehending. As the day unfolds, there will be other rumours of resurrection; two of the followers will meet him on the road, and will only realize who it is when he sits down to break bread with them. And later that evening, the whole company will watch, their mouths hanging open in wonder, as Jesus sits down with them for a little late night dinner of broiled fish.
Those women weren’t speaking an idle tale; they weren’t hysterical and they weren’t dreaming. For, as Paul writes in his 1st letter to the Corinthian church,
“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.”
Because it has happened to him at a particular time and place, it will happen for us in the fullness of time; as time and history are brought to their culmination. That is what Paul’s language about “first fruits” means. It is all different now.
Do you know that means? It means that death has no ultimate claim on us. It means that we need not live in fear or denial of death. And it means that there are some things that are worse than dying. “The last enemy,” writes Paul, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And it will be defeated, because it has been defeated one Friday afternoon between noon and three, on a garbage heap outside of the city walls.
But you know we’re not always so sure of that, or at least we often think and act as if we’ve not completely integrated that truth. As the philosopher and psychologist Earnest Becker argued in his classic book, The Denial of Death, modern secular society is all but driven by a need to keep mortality at bay. So we tuck dying people away out of sight, and we shift our language around and talk about someone having “passed” rather than saying they’ve died. As a society, we have bought the myth that aging is bad, and so spend incredible amounts of money on anti-aging creams, botox treatments and plastic surgery. Because to get older is to get closer to death; it means confronting our mortality.
But we don’t need to do any of that, because it is all different now.
And again, the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ means that there are some things worse than dying.
If you attended any of the sessions in the Wednesday evening Lenten series, you’ll have been given a solid introduction to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and to his involvement in the Confessing Church and its resistance to the hell that was Nazism. In my former parish there was a woman who had grown up in Germany, and whose family had been a part of the Confessing Church. In fact her father was a signatory to the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which was the foundational statement of that church’s opposition to the Nazi-supported “German-Christian” movement. Though just a child at the time, she has clear memories of Bonhoeffer and others being in their home, and of the palpable tension created by her family being a part of a movement of resistance.
As the 1930’s progressed, and as they witnessed Jewish neighbours being removed and Jewish shops being boarded up, custom came to demand that if one was greeted with the Nazi salute of “heil Hitler” one was obliged to respond with the same salute. It was in fact law for public employees (which included clergy of the state church) and for military people, and to decline was to risk prosecution. As the war approached, the pressure to conform mounted, and the cost of refusing to return the salute was high.
Yet this woman’s father – himself a career military man and a veteran of the 1st World War – instructed his young daughter that she must never, never make the gesture and say those words. “It is better to die than to say such things,” he told her.
I asked her what that had been like for her, at the age of eight or nine years old, and a look of fear – old and deep fear – crossed her face. “It was terrible,” she said. “I would go down the fire escape, and run to school through back lanes and alleys, hoping I didn’t meet anyone.”
Yet she knew her father had been right, and she knew that the costliness of the kind of discipleship in which he was schooling her was true. Even when he himself landed in prison for his own acts of resistance and defiance, it was the only path a disciple of this resurrected Jesus could rightly follow.
For it is all different now. There are some things worse than death. As Paul writes a little later in his letter to that Corinthian church,‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
It is gone. It is all different now. Not simply because Jesus was resurrected, but because in him and through him we are a resurrection people. And there is now nothing to fear.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!