May 2, 2010, 5th Sunday of Easter

SERMON preached on Easter 5, May 2, 2010, by Ted Berktold
Church of the Resurrection, Eugene

It is a great privilege for me to join you, the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, as the Church Universal continues to celebrate our oldest, most important feast, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We had forty serious days of preparation in fasting and prayer and a dramatic series of services during Holy Week. Now we are part-way through the seven weeks of the Easter Season. All of this helps us to focus on the FACT of the resurrection. We are a religion based upon reported facts. Our first question as Episcopalians is not: “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” but rather: “Do you know what Christ, who is alive, has done for us? Do you know the power of the resurrection?” People believed that Jesus rose from the dead because they saw him. They saw him dead; then they saw him risen and alive. They talked to him, the way we talk to each other. They touched him; touched the wounds in his hands and side. They ate meals with him, remembering that special Passover meal they shared on the night he was taken away from them.

There are theories that the women in the Gospel story went to the wrong tomb and in a case of mistaken identity, heard a young man (not an angel, of course) say: “He is not here.” Perhaps they only thought they heard him say, “He is risen.” The cynic might think that the disciples were a radical group capitalizing on a situation to make a social movement out of it. Even for the cynic, however, common sense says that the body of Jesus would soon have been located by his enemies to dispel this talk of resurrection. Jesus’ friends would not have been able to destroy his body to make their story sound good – they loved him too much to do that. You may not care what the disciples thought. But they sincerely believed that Jesus was alive after his death.

Not only is it true that they believed Jesus was alive; they believed it unanimously. They disagreed about many things, as we still do throughout the Christian world. Today’s first lesson from the Book of Acts is all about the disagreement over sharing Jesus with non-Jews. After the vision with clean and unclean, or kosher foods mixed with foods that are not kosher, Peter says that God told him not to make a distinction between them (gentiles) and us (Jews). (Acts 11: 1-18) The disciples had opinions on who would be first in God’s kingdom. They didn’t agree on Jesus’ title, or his status. They argued about money, and the role women could play in this new movement. Some of his teachings were slow to win acceptance among them, especially that bit about serving others and dying to self. But when it came to believing that he was alive, that God raised him from the dead, there was not one dissenting voice.

As you might expect, they didn’t all speak about it in the same way. Some spoke of the physical dynamics; of wounds that could be touched, of a breakfast they shared with him on a beach. St. Paul spoke of it in terms of a blinding light that struck him down on the way to Damascus. Others said it was the presence of one who joined them as they walked along a road to Emmaus on a dreary day, and made himself known to them at supper, in the breaking of bread. The way you experience another person’s presence is not the essential thing. You don’t always need to see someone or hear a voice to feel a presence. Sometimes you just know that person is there. The people who knew Jesus best and loved him most knew that he was still with them. They proclaimed it unanimously; they proclaimed it with passion.

We don’t often say things with passion. Some people think its bad manners to get too excited, especially in church. It’s hard to get excited about the amount of rainfall this year, or the distance from here to Portland. But if someone you love is falsely accused of a crime, and your opinion of his or her innocence or guilt is asked, you will probably respond with passion. If you asked the early Christians, “Do you believe in the ten commandments?” I’m sure they would all have said, “Yes, we believe.” If you asked them, “Do you believe that Jesus is alive?” they would have said exactly the same thing, “Yes, we believe.” The difference would have been in the passion with which they said it. They were willing to die for this belief. They were willing to die rather than deny that Jesus was alive, that Jesus was the Christ of God. They weren’t thrown to the lions by the Romans because they ate fish on Friday, sang too loud at services, or wore modest togas. They died because they believed in the resurrection.

And why not? They lived in a dark and dangerous world. We like to think that our world is dark, full of risks and threats of terrorism and war, a dark cloud of volcanic ash crippling airline traffic, and we feel the urgent need for an extra hour of daylight in the summer months. But their world was really dark. There wasn’t much for them to look forward to, the little people who knew Jesus. So if death had no power over Jesus, it meant that the light was in him; that light which had almost been blown out over and over again, especially on Good Friday. His resurrection meant that nothing could put out the light. They believed with such a passion because, if Jesus was alive, death was not the last word. There was something for them to look forward to, something for them to live for. Their defeat could be turned into victory. Their darkness could become a divine light. Now the world in which they lived and suffered was a different place.

Easter is about this different world. In it, the Spirit of the risen Lord is present. The Church has always made this its central, passionate fact. Wherever, whenever two or three of us gather in Christ’s name and spirit, he is there. He is here, right now. Whenever we rise above resentment and hatred and forgive the one who has offended us, Christ is there. Whenever people like us rise above our trials and tribulations, he is there. Whenever we love unselfishly, there is the risen Christ. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus in today’s gospel, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13: 31-35) Whenever we let the light of God shine through us so that others might know and feel the presence of Christ in us, there is Jesus, in the power and glory of his resurrection from the grave. The Lord is risen. Sin and death have no dominion over him. Sin and death have no dominion over us. God has willed to lift us up out of the dust of the earth and make us one with Christ. That is cause for our song of “Alleluia.” That is the heart of our faith.

Let us pray:

The Lord of the empty tomb
The conqueror of gloom
Come to us

The Lord on the road to Emmaus
The Lord giving hope to Thomas
Come to us

The Lord appearing on the shore
Giving us life forevermore
Come to us

The Lord in the garden walking
The Lord to Mary talking
Come to us
Abide with us
And fill us with your love. Amen