The Day of Resurrection

Acts 10:34-43

Colossians 3:1-4

John 20:1-18

Hallelujah! Christ is risen. Hallelujah! We are risen. Hallelujah! The nations are risen. Hallelujah! The Church is risen. Hallelujah! The world is risen. Hallelujah! More is risen from death and decay than most of you had imagined when you came this morning to celebrate the Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This holiday of resurrection focuses on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that humble man who spoke the truth about justice and hypocrisy in the wrong places and failed to duck when the political forces of stability and accommodation in Jerusalem lashed out to keep the peace. The week before, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, acclaimed by a crowd as a royal descendent of David the Messiah King, a crowd that hoped he would restore Israel’s sovereignty and the justice of its internal administration. But Jesus aimed to be no king. He did not gather an army. He addressed no political matters. He claimed no Davidic royalty over against the House of Herod. He aimed to be a teaching Messiah, and his teachings those four days after Palm Sunday exposed the hypocrisy and compromises of the Temple leaders and some Pharisees, making him no friends. In the last days he gathered his friends close and pointed out that what he had done was to make them friends with one another, his friends, and God’s friends. His Messianic goal was the humble one of creating communities of lovers, whose virtues consisted in making those whom they love better lovers. His love is based on justice, mercy, piety, faith, and hope, and that love is the actuality of the reconciliation of humankind and God.

Uniting people in reconciling love is a humble task compared with conquering enemies with shock and awe. Yet it is much more difficult. History has seen empire-builders by the score, far too many, in fact, and embarrassingly close to home in our time. But the risen Christ’s little communities of love have grown and lasted, while every empire has fallen. Each act of Christian kindness is a witness to the humble Christ’s resurrection. The exact nature of Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances to disciples are inconsistently stated in the gospels and have been debated ever since. Nevertheless, their effects are evident everywhere that his ongoing love and mercy uplift the poor, free the oppressed, give sight to the blind, and make someone a better lover. Resurrection only makes sense against the presumption of death, and we have seen much death around us. Therefore we shout Hallelujah when we see death reversed in new life.

The author of our text from Colossians points to another resurrection, namely our own. This may come as a surprise, because at most what we expected for ourselves today is an occasion to wear Easter spring finery. Colossians, however, says that to be baptized in Christ is to die with him to the life of sin and already to be risen with him at the right hand of God. Now if you take literally Christ’s heavenly journey with us to the right hand seat next to God, then obviously this is a mistake. We are still only a hundred yards off Commonwealth Avenue. But I think the talk of sitting at God’s right hand is a brilliant metaphor, and the reality to which it points is our own state of being free from sin and ready to go with new life because we have accepted the humble man Jesus as our Messiah. Of course, we also live in ordinary life and continue to have the bad habits we had before. Colossians goes on to list fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying. We do these and worse things, but we do not have to: we are not in bondage to them. Colossians says to clean up our act and behave like properly resurrected people. You think you are stuck? Forget it. You have the merciful power of God that raises people to new life coursing through your veins. If you don’t have enough, take more! [Gesture to Communion Table] Hallelujah! We are risen.

The nations are risen too. Peter’s speech recorded in Acts begins, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He goes on to say that the liberation begun by Jesus in Israel is extended to Rome and then to all the world. What Peter had in mind was that people from all nations could be accepted into the Christian Church, that membership was not limited to Jews. But what he said was more powerful: all are accepted who fear God and do what is right. There are Pagan and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist ways of fearing God, each in its own way, and not only Jewish and Christian ways. Justice is commonly defined among religions, even though there are significant cultural variations. God’s resurrecting power works in all.

This should be a great relief to us because the nations of the world in our time are a mess, including our own. Jesus’ complaints about hypocrisy and injustice among the religious and governmental leaders of his time apply equally well to the nations in the Islamic world, the Marxist world, the world of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Nevertheless, all these governments can be redeemed. They can be resurrected with less warmongering, less graft, less injustice and prejudice. Hallelujah! We can begin again, even though this requires the slow deconstruction of habits of belligerence, arrogance, greed, inattention to the poor, and oppression.

There’s new life for the Church too. How in the world can the Church be the living Body of Christ when it is made up of people such as ourselves who retain so many of the bad habits of the flesh, as St. Paul delighted to complain ? Is the Church only an institution? So often the Church worries about its institutional self, about increasing its membership, sustaining its continuity, teaching the next generation, competing with alternative institutions, when these concerns seem to be opposite to the obligations of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is to serve the world, teaching justice and mercy, reconciliation and love, and to cultivate the life of love among its members. The Church’s institutional organizations are only instrumental ways to perform that service, that teaching, that new way of loving life. The resurrection means that we do not have to cling to institutions that are instrumentally dead. The Church always has new life and can find new wineskins to culture that life. As a Church of the resurrection we do not have to worry about institutions that are failing in numbers and vigor if we preach the word and serve the world in other ways. As a Church of the resurrection we most definitely do have to worry about institutions that claim the Christian name and yet lack the fruits of the spirit—peacemaking, help for the poor, release for the oppressed, stewardship for creation, depth of spirit, courage, joy, and love. Vigorous and growing institutions do exist that, in the name of the Risen Christ, preach war-making, inattention to the poor, curtailment of prisoners’ rights, exploitation of God’s natural creation, fear for the loss of their parochial culture, bitterness about people different from themselves, and hatred of those they deem enemies. The resurrection Church leaves that religion of death behind. No Christian need be stuck there. Hallelujah!

Of course, the world of nature is risen today too. Perhaps the most ancient religious rite of humankind is the celebration of the Earth’s tilting to meet the sun from which light and life come. Longer days and shorter nights are reasons for joy. Spring means renewal of life: new flowers, new crops, new lambs, and a new baseball season (to speak to the interest of Bostonians). Easte
r is the Christian’s version of the spring festival of which every religion has some version, tied as it is to the Jewish spring festival of Passover. The power of spring to symbolize new life in every domain goes beyond Christianity and all religions to quicken the hearts of the Scrooges, secularists, and anti-religion people. In spring we understand that even the passing of the generations makes way for new generations. In its deepest and broadest meaning, none of us can deny the resurrection of life from death for very long, no matter how we grieve some death or other. The entire world is witness to this resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is special to us Christians, however, because we see Jesus to have gone through the worst death: untimely, ruinous of his work, agonizing, humiliating, unjust, undeserved. From this we know that the resurrection message is that our projects’ defeat as defined by the world is never the final word, that whatever we suffer for the causes of Christ can be borne, that there is always hope for our community and nation, that the Spirit will always find new ways in the Church, that the very violence of cosmic creation from the Big Bang to the Final Dissipation is the eternal receptacle of the transient glories of life, and that even our own frailty, sicknesses, and inevitable death are not as important as the new life we already touch. Let our souls sing with St. Paul’s familiar song: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Hallelujah! Christ is risen. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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