Easter Sunday: God's promises fulfilled
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; John 20:1-18[otw_shortcode_content_toggle title="click to view transcript" opened="closed"]
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Community Mennonite Church 4-1-18
Texts: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; John 20:1-18
Three Fools for Christ
Remonstrance–an earnest presentation of reasons for opposition
Really? Risen from the dead? It seems foolish to believe such a thing, to believe such a One as this Jesus. We like his blessing of the children. And God knows we could use a healing miracle now and again. And Jesus certainly lived and taught an non-violent and counter-cultural ethic in resistance to the empire, the religious establishment and the patriarchal strongholds of his day. Jesus was radical Sophia-Wisdom shifting the economy toward sharing, generosity and abundance. Jesus created community and reconciliation across so many divisions through forgiving love. Surely our hero of the past, but a risen Jesus today? It usually suits us better to keep Jesus under wraps, in our hearts, in a story, certainly in our tradition–but to be honest, in the tomb. Now, perhaps we’ll set Jesus free in a few great hymns, or in our spiritual imagination, or within the walls of church buildings. Unless, Jesus belongs not exclusively to us, but also–and originally and always–to God. Isn’t that what we mean by saying Jesus was both human and divine? Jesus belongs to us who are mortal flesh and to God who is eternal. Death could not hold him. Still, should we make so much of this resurrection? It’s embarrassing.
But [ONE] Mary Magdalene, [TWO] the Beloved disciple, and [THREE] Simon Peter, these three outstanding church leaders of the first century, believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Though, initially, these three look like fools–not fools for Christ, just fools! Did you notice that embarrassing competition between the boys. They were running together, but the Beloved disciple outran Peter and got there first. Yet, Peter was first to go in to the empty tomb. Neither, apparently noticed the angels. When faced with an empty tomb, the Beloved disciple and Simon Peter, just went home. And is it a bit of Gospel humor, a joke at Mary’s expense, that after speaking with angels she mistakes Jesus for the gardener and gives him a piece of her mind: If you are the one who has taken him away, then tell me where he is and I’ll retrieve him. Does Mary Magdalene, this early church leader really prefer a corpse to the living Lord?
They didn’t get the message [of the empty tomb], that Jesus must rise from the dead. Might we go home today, unchanged by this good news? Do we get it–that Jesus’ resurrection must be?
Humor opens the door to other dimensions of being and knowing, so too tears. Twice she is asked: Woman, why are you weeping? Of course Mary Magdalene is weeping about the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Having seen his death on a Roman cross–the abuse, torture, humiliation and death of a man she loved–of course she was weeping. This peculiar brutality of crucifixion was both to execute criminals, and to terrorize the population preventing any resistance, any questioning, any uprising against Roman control. And yet, crucifixion isn’t really so different from the extremes violence we see by nations, by militants, by severely broken individuals. What Jesus suffered was just another expression of evil in the world. And evil makes it quite difficult for any of us to believe in resurrection any more.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ passion is also the story of humanity’s rejection of God’s Word. You see, the Word was with God in the beginning, the Word was God, the Word was Jesus. Jesus, as God’s Word of love for the whole world, was rejected by humanity and subjected to Satan’s power–sin and evil. We know all about a world who rejects God’s Word. We know about gun violence in our schools and systemic violence that kills slowly. We know about abuse, injustice, climate crisis, materialism and the frustrating process of trying to change, to heal, to create new patterns for a peaceable kingdom. Of course we are weeping. With Mary the church weeps with those who are incarcerated. You know, this country leads the world in incarceration rates! Mary’s tears are mingled with ours on behalf of those struggling in poverty not just due to current circumstance, but generational poverty, the result of racism against many, and economic exploitation by a few. Mary, leader in the early church, weeps with those who are exhausted by the work of resisting empire and building authentic spiritual community in the digital age. Mary is at the tomb with those of us plagued by our own demons, losing our confidence, our faith, our hope, our reason to persevere.
The good news is that the cross and the tomb are not Jesus’ ultimate end. The cross and the tomb mark Jesus’ death, without which we would not know him at all, but here is the Gospel message for Mary’s church: the empty cross the empty tomb mark the extent of sin’s power.
Sin is severe and pervasive, personally and systemically. There are more tears to shed because sin and evil have not been eradicated from our world. But there is a limit to the power of evil. Jesus has marked that boundary in blood. For Mary and for us all, Jesus has returned from the grave–from the depths of hell some say–to lead us today in resurrection life. Through death and resurrection Jesus has opened the door to life. We are not fools to believe.
Seven Stanzas at Easter
American author and poet John Updike published his Seven Stanzas at Easter in 1959. There’s one word in the poem that you might not know: remonstrance. Remonstrance is “an earnest presentation of reasons for opposition.” I think Updike wanted to interrupt our reasons for opposing or rejecting Christ’s resurrection. Unlike the Gospel writer, he didn’t use humor or tears, but his poem helps. Listen:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His Body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hingend thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart that–pierced–died, withered, paused,
and then regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-maché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
I don’t fully understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. But I’m laying aside my remonstrance for now because Christ has spoken my name. And yours too. At the time when Jesus’ resurrection took place, it was not possible for his friends or his enemies to fully understand the event, nor even the events leading up to it all. Jesus claimed that it was altogether obvious from the Old Testament that the Messiah must be killed and then be raised. And so some people–Mary, that anonymous Beloved Disciple, Simon Peter and others began telling and living the message of Jesus a day at a time. And as they did, they began to know Jesus better. They became better at living and loving as Jesus lived and loved. And–and this is strange–they became better at dying and rising as Jesus did.
And so there was the Gospel of Mark–the first coherent written story–that made sense of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection even in a world that was still a mess. And then there was the Gospel of Matthew–another written story–that held fast to this same through line of Mark’s Gospel and helped another community integrate more of their biblical and ethical knowledge and more of their church experience with the living Jesus as their Lord.
And there was the Gospel of Luke–and the companion volume of Acts–to tell of Jesus all over again, the same story and different, so that we lovers of God would be guided by the spirit as resurrection people–good news for the poor–across the Empire and the world. And later on there was the Gospel of John with quite different stories, different miracles and new characters. Was it a new Jesus? Not really. All our Gospels tell of one Jesus, a Jewish Messiah who sold out neither to nationalism nor imperialism, who delivered people from the grip of sin and evil healing their bodies; one Jesus who gathered a community of people we would never put on committee together; one Jesus who refused to use force in favor of loving, confronting, serving, forgiving, suffering. The Bible tells of one Jesus Christ, killed by corrupt powers and raised by God for life, for ever, for us, and for all the world. Make no mistake, the risen Jesus is among us calling us to transformed living–financially, politically, spiritually, ethically and relationally. And the bright dawn of Easter sometimes makes us squint. Do we really want to see Jesus alive speaking our name, sending us to share a message and a way of life that is rarely popular in the world?
I guess my Easter message this year is just that Mary Magdalene was not speaking to a dead man. Mary was speaking with the living Lord Jesus Christ. She does not go to the brothers with anything but her true experience with Jesus, her Rabbouni, her beloved teacher resurrected in body.
The Gospel of John is God’s reassurance that we are not fools to walk through the door of faith. Christ is risen. And we are the believers. We are among the wise, the humble, the joyful, the healed, the forgiven, the empowered. We are the church. Christ is risen. And even if we are struggling against our brother, or weeping with your sister, even if sometimes we just go hom or are a hot mess of tears or try to take matters into our own hands, God has raised Jesus from the dead. We are the church whom Christ meets and loves and sends as a as enduring peacemakers, a body of love and forgiveness.
Neither Mary nor the church today is speaking with a corpse. We are addressed by the living Lord. We are not foolish to believe in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We are the church with a proclamation on our lips and in our lives: Christ is risen. [/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
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