Resurrection of the inconsequential

Sermon for Easter
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 and Luke 24:1-12

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.” And they were perplexed by this, Luke tells us; perplexed, and then terrified as they are met by what he describes as “two men in dazzling clothes.” And then comes that great Easter statement: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

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Don’t you remember what he told you about his impending death? Don’t you remember what he said about the third day? “Then they remembered his words…”

They remembered, and for the first time the force of his words began to really dawn on them. “They had thought Jesus’ language about his own dying, and rising again, to be a dark metaphor,” suggests N.T. Wright, “indicating perhaps a great struggle against paganism or Israel’s current leaders, followed by a great victory. They had not reckoned with it being literal, or with the battle being waged against the last enemy, death itself. They were going to have to get used to living in a present which was shot through with God’s future…”

If Jesus is not in the tomb, and if all of life is now “shot through with God’s future,” they’d better hurry back and tell the others. This changes everything… more than they can begin to imagine, in fact, and it will be St Paul’s task to articulate the fullness of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

Sometimes Paul’s prose can be dense and almost technical; his reasoning tight, yet a bit hard to follow from our distance of 2000 years. But sometimes Paul positively rhapsodizes—all but laughing and singing his bold proclamation—as in this portion from his 1st Letter to the Corinthians that we heard read aloud tonight. “[I]n fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” he writes, “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; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

The force of Paul’s image of the “first fruits” may not be obvious to us in our context. In the Hebrew scriptures, the “first fruits” of any crop are to be offered to God in a ritual acknowledgment of God’s ownership of the earth; an earth on which humans are tenants and stewards. To describe the resurrection of Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have died” is to say that it is a glimpse at how things truly are—or shall be—between God the creator and created humanity. What Paul is getting at is the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus kicked open the door to the life which God has intended for us from the beginning; that what happened to Jesus at a particular time and place within history is what is promised for us in the culmination of all of time and history.

It was the belief of mainstream Judaism of the day, as represented by the Pharisaic movement of which Paul had been a member, that at the end of history the true Israel would be established through a general resurrection of God’s elect covenant people. Though over the centuries righteous Israelites have died, they shall yet be vindicated.

The scandalous notion that Paul offers is that this is what has already happened to Jesus, and that in his resurrection we have seen our future. In his resurrection Jesus was neither a resuscitated corpse nor a purely spiritual or ghostly being. He was body and soul, flesh and blood, mind and heart, alive… so fully and vibrantly alive that not only would he not age and die (as would be the case with Lazarus), but the world as we know it could barely contain him for the forty days in which he walked the earth after his resurrection.

And so when Paul writes, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” that is what he has in view. Though people will still die—and Paul has not only seen Christians die, but in his earlier life he was all too happy to help engineer the deaths of Christians—he is utterly convinced that death’s claim is not final, and that death’s defeat is a foregone conclusion.

It is a radical claim Paul is making. You see what happened to Jesus? That is the promise for us, because the door to life has been kicked open. It is this hope that enabled Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the day before his execution, to say to a fellow prisoner, “This is the end —but for me, the beginning—of life.”

Quite clearly “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women” did not have all of this in view as they hurried back to tell the others that Jesus was risen. What they did know was that what they had experienced at Golgotha was not the end that they assumed it had been. And the response of the others to their story? “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” An idle tale… you can almost see the disciples rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and muttering “women.”

It is not unimportant that it is the women who discover the resurrection, nor that it was the women who were prepared to stand and bear witness to the crucifixion while most of the men were in hiding. Their willingness to see things through to the bitter end speaks clearly to their strength of character, and to how much Jesus had meant to them. But the other reality is that they could afford to be there openly—both at the cross and at the tomb—because in the eyes of both the Roman and Jewish authorities they were just women; not a threat in the way that the male followers would have been seen to be. Just women, therefore of no real consequence… all but invisible, really.

But from beginning to end, the gospels raise up people of no consequence, and celebrate them as being people of worth and consequence; as being mustard seed people, as being like the yeast that will leaven the dough. From beginning to end, the gospels claim that what looks like power is no power at all, and that what looks inconsequential or even a defeat… that’s where the real action is happening.

In his book The Rise of Christianity, the sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the reason the Christian movement grew so quickly from its beginnings in this battered little group of broken-hearted disciples to being the dominant faith of the Roman empire was because for those opening centuries of its life the church knew—really knew—what it looked like to raise up people of no consequence. Among other things, it ignored distinctions of class and gender, treating slaves and women as full members of the body of Christ. The early church rescued infant girls who had been abandoned and left to die, having been deemed undesirable and thus disposable. They took care of the dying, and when epidemics hit they did not flee the cities the way that the wealthy Romans did, but instead dug in and nursed their sick and dying neighbours; this at considerable risk to their own health and well-being. They insisted, in other words, on recognizing the full human worth of all people regardless of what consequence they might have had politically, economically, or culturally.

The church hasn’t always remembered our mustard seed beginnings, and there are long chapters in church history in which it seems we’ve been much more interested in mimicking the Roman Empire than in subverting it. Maybe the deepest Easter claim placed upon us in our time is to learn again to pay attention to that which the empires of our day write off as being inconsequential, disposable, at best troubling statistics.

Maybe with Peter it is time to heed the voices of those who are ignored or dismissed as telling idle tales, and to get up, run to the tomb, see the discarded burial cloths, and get on with being amazed at what this resurrection story calls us to be. And maybe with Mary Magdalene and the other women, it is time to “remember his words” and to hear in the resurrection story not simply a promise that secures our own lives and salvation, but a calling to be a death/resurrection people.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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