Easter Antinomy

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John 20: 1-18

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Frontispiece

    Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.

    The Lord is Risen.  Hallelujah.

    A few years ago, I stood at a friend’s hospital bedside.  Disoriented by hospital surroundings, harsh scents, frequent and sharp noises, brusque treatments, odd sights and the wholly unfamiliar atmosphere into which she had been cast, my friend the patient spoke anxiously about something only she could understand.  It was gibberish. She told clearly and convincingly a story that was gibberish. Her production of the tale was I think a way of fending off the threatening environment around. We listened, family and pastor. Her daughter simply stood alongside, rubbing her arm, as she talked.  The narrative became more and more wild and unfastened. I wondered what might be said, argued, to quell the storm. Nothing came to mind. Opposite, port side, her daughter calmly rubbed her arm, soothed her brow, straightened the bedding, listened, and, saving-ly, said, at last, ‘Yes, mom, it is hard, sometimes, to know what is real and what is not real’.

    Easter claims, in the teeth of death, that faith and love are real.  Death makes us mortal. Facing death in faith makes us human. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death in love makes us human.

Absence

    Christ absent, Christ present.  Face your fear in faith. Absence.  Go to church in love to. Presence. Absence\Presence.  Faith\Love. Choice\Church. Risen! Hallelujah!

    You know by hard experience that my preference come Sunday at 11am is to preach about sin and death and the joy of tithing.  But. This is Easter. So, that is all we shall say about my favorite themes.

    For today is Resurrection Day, a glad, joyful day.  For today, rubbing our arm and mopping our brow and turning down the bedding on those more regular themes, is One who, absent and present, in faith and love, by the bedside of your befuddlement, puzzlement, and confusion murmurs, whispers, ‘It is hard to know sometimes what is real and what is not’.

    The Gospel tells of two modes of resurrection, two experiences which the earliest Christians prized and preached, two senses of resurrection, both read today in John 20.

    Two contradictory meanings of the chief article of Christian belief, as Calvin named resurrection.  Thus, an Easter Antinomy, a paradox, a combination of contradictory truths, both true, different, opposite, complementary, dialectical:  an Easter Antimony.

    Peter and the Beloved Disciple (and with them the whole company of Christians militant and triumphant, including you and me) have one first experience of resurrection.  This is the experience of Jesus’ absence.

    An empty tomb.  Discarded grave clothing.  Silence. Emptiness. Nothing.

    In other gospels, an angel voice and message, but not here:  He is risen.  That is: he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.

    The first meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that he is absent from this world, absent from our eyesight, absent from our apprehension, absent from the cave Plato so loved, with its dancing shadows.  Not here. See the place. Peter and John—for all their differences, Church and Spirit—had in common the race to see Jesus (which Peter lost and the Beloved Disciple won, as gospel ever trumps tradition and spirit ever trumps institution.) Peter and John went to find him and did not find him there. He is simply not to be found, AWOL, gone.  Our early sisters and brothers faced this absence and its fear, head on. They faced down fear in faith.

    You see.  The empty tomb creates an opportunity, a possibility, a challenge.  In fact, it forces—Jesus’ resurrection absence forces—an encounter with faith.  Resurrection means the power of an intervening word to be spoken and heard. Only a Risen, that is Absent, Christ, a hidden, silent God, the God beyond God, can also give the full possibility of faith.  If we knew everything, we would not need faith.

    He is risen means he is not here, so you must decide for yourself whether to live in faith or not, whether to face your fear in faith, or not.  It means that no one else is out there, or in there, or there, writing the script for your life, or for our shared life.  You have to write the script yourself. And. You have to write the script, set the stage, get the props, choose the cast, direct the show and star in it at the same time.  Acting alone won’t cut it. And that is plenty, plenty scary.  It means that God raised Jesus from the dead, now absent from your life, to give freedom, and to let the chips fall where they may.

    Last month I hurried out of the office in late afternoon, hoping to ‘miss the traffic’ on the way to Needham.  This is our lot in Boston, to live to miss the traffic. Half way to the car, I realized I had taken the wrong folder, and had to return to the office to pick up the speech I was to give that night at the 100-year-old Boston Minister’s Club (the age of the club, not of the members).  I came again out of the office and was met by a wonderful young woman, perhaps a senior, saying: “I need to talk to you.  It won’t take long. I need to ask for a prayer.  You see: I have just found the perfect job, and interviewed for it.  I pray they will send me on to the next level. It is the perfect job.”  It has been a while since I have used ‘perfect’ and ‘job’ in the same sentence, but, pray we did.  What a joy to be taught again by bright students about the thrill and possibility in life!

    But notice: After Good Friday service, I found a note perched like a bird on my office door window.  She had indeed succeeded! But more: her mother had said to her, mom to daughter, ‘Let your faith be greater than your fear’.  A note with that line, 40 hours before a two point Easter sermon, the first of which is ‘face your fear in faith’: that is serendipity a little close to the bone!

    An article last week recalled Desmond Tutu, a happy warrior, whose good humor in the face of real difficulty made others smile.  Reagan smiled to remember him, and when asked “How is Bishop Tutu?”, with a little whimsy replied, ‘Tutu—Soso”!

    That is the touch of humorous Novocain before the needle:  Tutu knew well about the faith forged in freedom. Desmond Tutu had it right:  God sure must love freedom because he has given us the freedom to go straight to hell if we so choose (repeat).

    The ‘silent as a tomb’ tomb puts before you today the matter of faith.

    Faith faces fear and embraces freedom.  It is God’s gift, received on the human side by a singular leap.

    Faith to live the good news of a loving God in the face of a stark cross, and an empty tomb.

    Faith in a silent, invisible God, hidden God, when so many visible idols tempt.

    Faith when you cannot see ahead.

    Faith as a walk in the dark.

    Faith when you are defeated.

    Faith to try something new, to take a new path.

    Faith to risk.

    Faith to open a door.

    Faith to face down fear.  It’s up to you!

    Jesus’ absence, which the disciples courageously took as a call to faith, is the first resurrection experience.  That is, the first thing the Gospel, and the Scripture and the Church have said about Easter is: he is absent, he is not here, see the place where they laid him.

Presence

    Christ absent, Christ present.  Face your fear with faith. Absence.  Live in love in church. Presence. Risen!  Hallelujah!

    The Easter Gospel tells a second truth.  The second truth stands contrary to the first, contradicts even the first, but does not eliminate the first.  Jesus is present. Mary says; “I have seen the Lord’. And several others chime in, finally and definitively Thomas, a few verses hence from today, doubting and fingering and swearing” “My Lord and My God!”  Others, along the Emmaus road: “Did our hearts not burn within us?” And all the early chapters of Acts. And the breakfast of fish with Jesus to come to Chapter 21.

    Without batting an eye, the earliest Christians affirmed, mightily and happily, an Easter antinomy.  Even as Peter proclaimed the tomb empty, Mary shouted back: “I have seen him”. Jesus’ presence, too, not just his absence, is felt, seen, and known.  Risen Christ Present—He is with us to open yet another possibility, challenge, and opportunity. Risen Christ present assembles the church, teaching love.  Resurrection is known in participation before doctrine (Tillich).

    A dramatist, celebrating Broadway, once wrote, “the only thing more frightening than being alone is being with someone”.   

    Resurrection means the resurrection of the body—of Christ: the church.  The body of Christ, the church carries the pronouncement of the intervening word, in her ministry of love, love of God, love of neighbor, and so lives as a community of faith working through love.

    Are we lovers anymore?

    The resurrection body of the church, the Body of Christ, breathes love.

    After twenty years of funerals, I was finally asked to be a pall bearer.  In ministry, you do weddings before you are a bride, you marry others’ children long before you marry off your own and have that expense I mean joy, you bury others’ dads and moms before yours die.  And you instruct pall bearers before you ever lift a casket yourself. We gathered in an old village church, with a light dusting of snow that morning, and sun filling the sanctuary. Hymns were sung, prayers offered, a short, true eulogy.  Flowers. A verse of ‘It is well with my soul’. A reading of Romans 5, the love of God poured into our hearts. The casket of a dear old Methodist lady, grandmother and friend. An invitation to lunch at the Grange. My children did not know what a Grange was.  Choir, do you? Again, the scent of flowers, the heft of the casket, to await burial when the ground had thawed. Christ present, surely, oddly, truly present, with us in grief and hope in the community of faith working through love.

    The church is so fallible, always both a representation and a distortion of the divine.  But when divine, so divine! At the Grange—look it up—over lunch, a north country memory emerged, true and loving.  Mrs. Skinner, an elderly minister’s widow, told about their assignment long ago to Conifer NY, in 1933. Here is an Adirondack logging town with one road in and one road out, as of then no church building.  The congregation met in—the Grange. They raised money in the depression to build a church. But a missionary visited, and told about the needs in China. So, the little congregation thought about it. (Are we lovers anymore?).  They looked around the Grange Hall where they had been worshipping a while already. And they decided they could do so a while longer. They sent the money raised for the church building—to China. ‘That was a loving church’ she remembered that cold funeral day.  That was a loving church in humble Conifer NY, 1933. You only have what you give away in love. Just when you think the church has broken your heart for the last time, Mrs. Skinner comes along to remind you of what love can mean.

    Are we lovers anymore?  Risen Christ Present schools us in how to be together in love for others.

    Speaking of school:  the church goes beyond the church.  One April long ago I had breakfast in the High School where decades earlier I had eaten school lunch, where Jan and I met singing in the choir.  Once one of the best schools in the country, it had fallen on harder times. But that morning a group of neighbors and parents and others were running a breakfast like our Easter breakfast this morning.  They flipped flap jacks. They fried bacon. They sold tickets. They took names and donations. They baked and talked and worked. Said one secular saint—I don’t forget it, so many years later—as she worked to support my Alma Mater: ‘I have to believe this school can work if we love it enough, if we just love it enough’.  You fill the blank for school:  library, neighborhood, college…country?  I believe it can work if we love it enough, if we just love it enough.  Christ wanders around outside of church. Present, oddly present, surely present, in work, in mission, in longing—in love.

    Are we lovers anymore?

Coda

    In absence, Christ gives faith.  In presence, Christ gives love.

    In absence, Christ teaches us to be our own-most selves.  In presence, Christ teaches us to be together.

    In absence, Christ begets faith, which is personal.  In presence, Christ begets love, which is communal.

    In absence, Christ forms courage in the heart, as he did for Peter on Easter.  In presence, Christ forms a company of lovers, a community of faith working through love, as he did through Mary on Easter.

    Faith and love are real.  Faith and love are the Easter Antinomy.  Faith and love are real resurrection experiences.

    The Easter Antinomy, two contradictory truths, snug as a bug in a rug together:  Jesus absent and Jesus present. In oxymoron, in paradox, both are true though they contradict one another, or, perhaps, because they contradict on another.

    Some mornings you wake up and sing with Mary, ‘I have seen the Lord’.  Some mornings you lose the foot race with Peter, but shout: ‘He is not here.  He is risen.’ Every day, things change: what made life, life, becomes absent; what will make life, life, becomes present.’

    Praise God!  Easter morning, now, both presence and absence radiate Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Christ absent, Christ present.  Face your fear with faith. Absence. Live in love in church. Presence. Risen! Hallelujah!

    Can you live, as taught Luther, praying as if it all depends on God and working as if it all depends on us?  Praying in presence and working in absence?

    Bitter cold winds, and an icy afternoon swept us into a warm little restaurant, in Kingston Ontario, of a February weekend a decade or three ago.  It is good to come in from the winter cold, to wait from the promise of warmth in spring. The fire crackled. The space and time for freedom in faith and joy in love heartened alongside the hearth.  Then, over the radio waves came a deep, hurting, baritone voice, that of Leonard Cohen, welling up out of Montreal, out of pain, out of life. A broken hallelujah, the only kind fit for the Christian on Easter, the only sort ample enough for the Easter Antinomy:  Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in?
    Risen?  Indeed! For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord’.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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