This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on Easter Sunday, 11 April 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 19 – 26, and John 20: 1 – 18.
This day on the liturgical calendar should be bright and sunny. Even if it is cold, damp, and dreary, there should still be brightness in the area, a sense of joy and happiness. For that is what Easter represents.
But the news this morning probably contained stories about Americans being killed in Iraq and continued violence between Palestinians and Israelis in Israel. And the news at home isn’t any better. There may have been a fire in the suburbs and if no one was injured, at least one family was now without a place to stay. In some city, there may have been an attack on a homeless person or a homeless person may have attacked someone just walking by. And I am sure that at least one professional sport star did something that brings into question his or her motivation and desire. Throughout today, as we speak of the Easter resurrection, politicians will find a way to question the motives of some mid-level bureaucrat and tell us what evil and vile things their opponent will inflect on this country should they be elected.
Now I began thinking about these paragraphs on Tuesday afternoon so I had no way of knowing if it will be true. But I take the chance that the usual news that we start our day with, and it always seems to be bad news, will be the same type of news that starts our day this day. And there will be those, who against the background of Easter and our celebration, will be asking how there can be a God of peace when there is violence in this world? How can there be a God that loves us when there are homeless people living in the streets? How can there be a God that allows us to kill others randomly or deliberately? These people will say that there cannot be a God when there are preachers in this country who preach division and exclusion.
And there are those who say that if there is a God, He would not allow this violence to reign in this world. If there were a God, He would not allow people to go hungry or homeless; there would be no divisions.
But if there is no God, then there cannot be a Son whose resurrection is the central point of this day. If there is no God, then He could not have sent His Son to save us. If there is no God, then this day has no meaning and this church has no reason for being here.
And God is so omnipotent that He can destroy this world or make it right in one swift action of his mighty sword, so there is no reason to send His Son to save us. There is no reason for His Son to die on the cross, so that our deaths would not be in vain. And if there is no reason for His Son to die on the cross, then there is no reason for this church to be here.
But God does not rule this world in an omnipotent manner nor does He ignore this world. We were put on this earth to take care of it, to be its stewards. And, despite any misgivings God may have had in doing so, He gave us the concept of free will. He gave us the ability to choose, to make decisions. And with that ability to choose, He gave us the responsibility to accept the results of our actions.
If there are homeless or hungry people in this world, it is our responsibility to see that they are fed and clothed. If there is violence in this world, it is our responsibility to see that violence is stopped, not with more violence but by removing the causes of violence. If there is division in this world, it behooves us to remove the reasons for division.
Mary came to the tomb that Sunday morning and asked where was Jesus? There are those today who ask the same question. The question is asked because they cannot find Him in the world. But they are not looking.
The problem for many is that they see Jesus in terms of this world. This is a world in which it is possible for the masses to share in the creative life in this world. It is possible for all to eat enough to lead a truly human life, and to learn enough to free their life from imprisonment in the immediate moment so that they can become responsible members of the human race and free participants in history. These changes bring about changes in the old religions, in the old metaphysical systems, and to the old theologies. The changes take mankind away from God and then mankind wonders where God is.
In a world of change the one thing that remains constant is Jesus Christ. Christ is the one who is the same yesterday, today, and not forever (and not the church). Christ is the living one. In a world that changes and brings change the one constant is Christ. He is the same not because He is untouched by our time, but because He is always and unchangeably involved in the events of our time. It is Christ who emptied Himself of all claims to timelessness and freely delivered Himself up for us all – opening Himself to our needs – even though that openness led to His death on the cross. It is He who in His supreme openness to the needs of the world took upon Himself the form of a servant. He was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity in which the faith of the time was so largely imprisoned, in order to be free for the needs of the outcast, the hopeless, the helpless.
And it was He who warned those whom He called to share His mission to the world that they too must be free for the unexpected need by the roadside. And that true greatness is in the willingness to be the servant of all.
But these changes also show us the fulfillment of God’s promises to mankind. Do we not see in the new mobility of life the pressure of God breaking down the walls of race, nationality, and caste? Do we not see in the fearful resistance to these movements demons to be exorcised in the name of Christ? Do we not see in the costly struggle to overcome these demons of prejudice and fear, the need to witness to the costly love of the cross? Do we not see in the rising freedom of the multitudes, a movement towards the fulfillment of God’s promise and commandment to man that he will subdue the earth? Do we not see in the breaking of the age-long chains of oppression, a movement toward the promise that mankind shall grow up into one new man in Christ – into a unity in which all the dividing walls are at last broken down? Do we not see in the resistance – even the terror – that accompanies these changes, witnessing in the world and life to the true hope revealed in Christ and sharing in the costly struggle for the victory of these hopes? (Material in the preceding paragraphs adapted from Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams)
And it translates into what Peter was saying to the crowd that day described in Acts, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one." (From Acts 10: 42) People are not likely to see God or find God if we do not show Him to them.
Even Jesus commanded us
Go and tell what you have seen and heard – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up; the poor have good news preached to them (From Luke 7:22)
Mary came to the tomb seeking Jesus. Just as she did we find the tomb empty. The Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara feels that the empty tomb itself is the key to both our understanding the resurrection and to living the resurrection in our lives. She writes that the empty tomb "returns us to the manger, the place of the child, the place of the rebirth of hope. The empty tomb returns us to ourselves, women and men capable of giving birth and rebirth to the divine, the essence of our own flesh.
Like his birth, Jesus’ resurrection is an event that is ultimately beyond the confines of our ability to understand or reason. As mystery, the only way we can hope to understand the resurrection is to live it. The empty tomb is thus not an ending to the story but a beginning, an invitation to each us. (From "Living the Word" by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, April 2004.)
We are asked to take the resurrection beyond being a historical event; we are asked to make the resurrection part of our lives. We do this by witnessing to Christ’s redeeming work through our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.
We do this through fellowship with each other, in an open community as Peter said, "without impartiality."
We do this through celebration. We come to the table this morning celebrating God’s redeeming work in Christ that allows us to see the continuing presence of Christ in today’s world.
Mary did not find Christ in the empty tomb because He was not there. He was standing right there in front of her. There are people who wonder where Christ is in this world. They know that the tomb is empty and they wonder where he could be. The celebration of today is in the fact that Christ is alive today and we are able to not only answer the question of that morning but show it as well.