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We began our worship this morning by announcing the good news of the resurrection to each other. "Christ is risen!" we proclaimed, "Christ is risen, indeed!"
For many of us, that's an affirmation of deep hope and joy. For others of us, it may bring to the surface doubts or misgivings about whether we truly belong in this community gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But it's unlikely that any of us, no matter our response, considered the possibility that we might risk arrest for claiming that Jesus Christi is risen from the dead. But those who first proclaimed this news were making a declaration so politically subversive that it was dangerous.
Easter is a season when Christians often reflect on and celebrate the inward, personal, life-transforming power of the resurrection in our lives. And the transformation and healing of our inner selves is a vital part of the redemption and salvation we receive in Christ. Many of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels attest to the intimate, life-changing encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus.
John tells us about Jesus meeting the grief-wracked Mary in the burial garden, tenderly speaking her name, trusting that she will recognize his familiar voice. We hear about Jesus the good shepherd who seeks out his terrified and despairing little flock of disciples, feeding them with freshly grilled fish and comforting them with his presence. Luke tells about the resurrected Jesus who traveled with a couple of despairing disciples on the way from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus, reigniting their hopeless hearts with the light of scripture and with his own illuminating presence at their table.
But, my friends, the power of resurrection life encompasses much more than individual, personal, and inward transformation. It is also profoundly political. On the day that God raised Jesus from the dead, all the legal and military forces of Rome had done their best to destroy him. The resurrection of Jesus was a direct confrontation of the political authorities of his day. In fact, one scholar has called the resurrection of Jesus "the first act of Christian civil disobedience." And proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, as we did this morning, was a dangerous act of political subversion.
Last Sunday, we celebrated the triumphal entry, when Jesus was hailed as God's anointed deliverer of his people. But in the week that stretched between the triumphal entry and Easter, Jesus' conflict with his faith community and with the governmental authorities intensified exponentially. In the course of his last few days, Jesus faced a trumped up religious inquisition, a baseless legal trial, wrongful arrest, a brutal physical assault, emotional abuse and sexual humiliation, and finally, state-sanctioned torture and execution. And this, if we read Matthew's accounting, was not just personal suffering – it was politically motivated.
In ancient Rome, crucifixion was used as a way to publically demonstrate the dire consequences of challenging the ruling authorities. The threat of torture and execution allowed Rome to keep the "pax Romana" – the Roman peace – in the outlying provinces using only a small occupying force. Like tyrants in every time and place, the Romans had built their power on the ultimate human weapon – death.
And the possibility of resurrection – even the potential for false rumors of resurrection – was so threatening to those whose power rested on the threat of death that, following Jesus' burial, the Roman governor authorized a guard of soldiers to secure Jesus' tomb, and, for good measure they sealed it so that any tampering would be evident.
Early the next morning, Matthew tells us, the two Marys go to keep watch at his tomb. To their utter surprise, they are greeted by a jarring earthquake and a blindingly bright messenger from God. While the guards cower in fear, this angel – who blazes like lightening – rolls away the enormous stone sealing the tomb, and perches on it as if it were an impromptu throne. The guards – who had been sent to keep watch over a dead man (surely they thought this would be the easiest job ever) – become like dead men themselves, frozen in their fear.
"Do not be afraid," the angel tells women. "He is not here, he has been raised." Following the angel's instructions, the women hurry to tell the other disciples, and on the way to preach this good news, they meet their risen Lord himself, and fall at his feet in love and worship.
It's striking that in this narrative, like all the other gospel accounts, no one actually sees the resurrection. We who follow the resurrected Christ have the testimony of witnesses to the empty tomb and to the risen Christ, but we have no indisputable proof, and no record of how just this inexplicable reality came to be. We have a living church that testifies to the presence of the risen Christ, but no explanation, short of the miraculous, of how Jesus' mangled body was brought back to life. And even so, it's a terribly threatening story for rulers who depend on fear for their power. Even so, it's given birth to communities of resistance around the world, who declare with their lives that they trust in a power that is stronger than death.
The most fearless person I ever met is a Burundian woman named Maggy Barankitse. Maggy was a young woman living in the tiny village of Ruyigi in 1993 when ethnic-based violence broke out across her country.
Maggy, who was born into the same privileged group as the attackers– could have simply walked away unscathed. But she stayed with her friends and her adopted children, many of whom were members of the ethnic group that was being targeted, doing everything she could to save their lives. Maggy managed to bribe the attackers to allow 25 children to live, but 72 people died that day in the Catholic bishop's residence where they had sought refuge. As punishment for refusing to help her attackers, Maggy was stripped naked, tied to a chair, and forced to watch the massacre. She was the sole adult to survive.
Afterwards, Maggy spent days burying those who had died. And then she began to seek a way to rebuild her life and her community. She welcomed the children orphaned in the attack into her home as her sons and daughters. Then she began to take in more orphaned children – children of every ethnic group. Her dream, she says, is to see a new generation in which children of different ethnic groups grow up as brothers and sisters.
By the time I met her in in 2010, Maggy had taken in 10,000 children, placing them in inter-ethnic child-led households, and building schools, farms, businesses and a hospital so that her children could grow up with dignity and love. Maggy's reasons for this work are deeply personal – after the massacre, she says, the children rebuilt her heart. They brought her healing, hope and joy.
But her work is also profoundly political. In a region still torn by ethnic-based violence, the creation of inter-ethnic families is seen as a direct affront to those in power. It's a living testament to another political possibility. Maggy, whose deep faith in Christ fuels her work, lives as a woman who is entirely fearless. Those who attacked her friends and family that day intended that the she would leave terrified and silenced. Instead, she walked out of the bishop's compound as a woman who had looked death squarely in the face, and then miraculously been handed back her life.
Maggy is unafraid of the armed groups that sometimes roam the countryside where she travels – she's been known to invite them to give up fighting and come work for her – or of the politicians and military leaders in the capital who find her out-spoken truth-telling to be deeply threatening. She lives as woman who has died and whose life is hid with Christ in God. She lives as a woman whose life cannot be destroyed by any act of violence. She lives as a woman who has staked her life on the claim that Christ is risen indeed.
The church testifies that the resurrection is God's declaration of a powerful new reign, founded on a radically different source of authority. Its power flows from the unquenchable self-giving love of the One who created our world and gave his own life for us, rather than from the threat of violence and death. The resurrected Jesus is God's declaration, in the face of the most powerful and brutal empire of its day – and in the face of all oppressive rulers, systems and powers- that the way of love is stronger that the way of violence and death. The resurrected Christ is God's embodied witness that the way of peace that Jesus taught and lived, despite all appearances to the contrary, has and is overcoming the way of violence and death.
The resurrection does not reverse or un-do the evil done by tyrants and the systems that empower them. The resurrection accounts tell us that Jesus bore the scars of the violence he had suffered, even in his resurrected body. But the resurrected Jesus gives us revolutionary new a way forward when we are faced with powerful people and systems that misuse their power and perpetuate violence. And the resurrection gives us a way to live differently ourselves when we are tempted to use our power or privilege in ways that are coercive or manipulative or self-serving.
And we, as people of the resurrection, are empowered by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ to live as people of love, empty handed and open-hearted, in a world that is armed to the teeth. The promise is not that we won't suffer, or even die, as a result. The promise is that we have been joined with God in a life that cannot be taken from us. And so we are called to live as people who stake our lives on the resurrection power of God in Jesus – as people who follow the one who has overcome violence and death through the self-giving love of God.
A few weeks ago, we wrote our anxieties and fears on origami paper in worship. Before we folded those papers into the doves that decorate our space this morning, I prayerfully read what we wrote. Many of our anxieties are deeply personal – fears for our families, anxieties about work, about aging and illness, about decisions we must make. But many were also profoundly political – fears for the systematic destruction of the earth, fears of war, fears for neighbors and loved ones who are targets of discrimination, fears of the political legacy our children and grand-children are inheriting.
My friends, in the resurrection, God is responding to each and every one of our fears and anxieties- the personal and the political, the individual and the systemic, the inward and the outward.
Be not afraid, my friends. Christ is risen, Christ is risen, indeed. Come and see the living Christ.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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