Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Transformation through Death & Resurrection

March 18, 2014 – Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem
Luke 24:44-48

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

I am deeply grateful for the invitation to preach at the noonday service at the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, AL. This was the text of that sermon.

In our tradition, the preacher rarely has the opportunity to choose his own lesson from which to preach. Instead, the readings are prescribed through the lectionary—an invention of people far wiser than I who have thus relieved me of the pressure of having to pick the perfect passage for every week’s sermon. Today, however, is different. Although I am grateful for the opportunity to preach in this Lenten series, I will confess to you that I was nearly paralyzed by the task of having to scan the entire biblical canon for the one passage that would tie in perfectly with the chosen theme, which is “transformation.”

I felt a little like my English friends seemed to feel when I took them into a Subway restaurant for the first time. The late comedian Mitch Hedberg likened Subway to his own personal American Embassy, where he could retreat after ticking off a local Irishman in a bar in Kinney. Although it offers no legal protection, it is, in fact, a bastion of American consumerism, which is to say that it presents the customer with far more choices than he or she would ever really need. (We are, after all, a people who like our freedom.) Anyway, my English friends stood at the front of the line in the Cambridge Subway long enough to bring the restaurant to a halt, trying to decide which combination of cold cuts and vegetables would satisfy their hunger. “Can’t I just get a ham and Swiss?” one of them asked. “Do I really have to decide what else goes on it?” That’s how I felt when Virginia Caruso called me and told me to preach on whatever I wanted.

So, like my bewildered friends, I gave in to tradition and let someone wiser than I make the decision for me. The twenty-fourth chapter of Luke is the story of Easter. It starts with the discovery of the empty tomb, continues with the Road to Emmaus, and finishes with this encounter between the risen Jesus and the disciples. You’d be right to be suspicious of a Lenten preacher who chose an Easter story for the basis of his sermon, but actually it’s the gospel lesson appointed for the Feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, which falls on this day. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Luke 24 is the text for a feast observed on the eighteenth day of March. No matter how early or late Easter is, March 18 always falls in Lent, and I can’t think of a better time to hear a story of resurrection.

During Lent, we like to pretend that Easter didn’t happen. We get so wrapped up in the journey to the cross that we forget that death and resurrection always go together. That’s why Good Friday’s sermon is always the hardest to preach. We have to bear the horrors of the cross without embracing the victory of the third day. Yes, it’s right to shroud the symbols of Christian joy with purple fabric in order to help us prepare for the paschal mystery, but we do so with sheer, translucent pieces of cloth. Although hidden, these images aren’t completely out of view. They’re still there—if you look hard enough—because there’s nothing you can do to separate the story of Calvary and the story of the empty tomb. Even in Lent, we are still Easter people, and Lent is the perfect time to remember it.

In all of Luke’s resurrection appearances, Jesus tries to convey to his closest friends the significance of what had happened from the time of his betrayal through the discovery of the empty tomb. Often turning to the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus connects his betrayal, arrest, torture, and death with the resurrection that follows: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” He speaks as if they were one event. Death and resurrection—they go together because death alone cannot transform. Even the most horrific, noble, selfless sacrifice can accomplish nothing unless it is accompanied by rebirth. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…[and] we are of all people most to be pitied.”

The crucifixion makes no sense without the resurrection. You can’t have one without the other. Many Christians—even some within our tradition—place so much emphasis on the cross that they lose sight of the necessity of Easter. They talk so much about how our salvation was won on the cross, how our sins were paid for in Jesus’ death, that they forget that without being raised from the dead Jesus’ death would have been a terrific failure. And that’s the danger of Lent—that in the midst of our wilderness journey we will spend so much time looking for the cross that we forget what comes after it.

But just as death alone cannot transform, so too is transformation impossible without death.

A few weeks ago, I preached at a Saturday-evening service that is held not far from our church. In a downtown storefront that is only licensed by the fire marshal to hold 80 people, over a hundred people routinely squeeze into chairs arranged around tables so close together that you can’t walk between them without asking everyone to stand up and let you through. Although anyone is welcome to attend, this ministry is especially for addicts, ex-convicts, and homeless people. They start with a meal—always good food to attract even recalcitrant sinners—before singing a few songs and then hearing a preacher deliver God’s word.

That night, before the program began, I sat at the end of a table between two well-dressed women—a mother and daughter who had come together. After only a brief introduction, the older woman began to tell me about one of her children—a daughter who had been in a terrible place of late. “She was prostituting herself to get drugs—selling her body for her next score. Then, she disappeared, and we didn’t see her for weeks. Finally, one night the phone rang. It was the hospital. They had our daughter. She had overdosed on drugs, had suffered a stroke, and had been abandoned at the hospital.” She and I had known each other for all of two minutes. The brutal honesty of her story intimidated me. I was uncomfortable with the cold, bluntness of her words.

“Things got better,” she continued. “She’s still paralyzed on her left side, but she’s been coming here and has started to get her life back together. She was as good as dead, but now she’s come back to us. We’re very proud of her.” I was glad to hear of the turnaround but still felt a little sickened by the graphic story. It was raw and fresh and unadulterated—so unvarnished that I was glad that this wayward daughter had not been there to hear her mother and sister retell a story of pain and suffering that seemed like it belonged only to the one who had experienced it firsthand. Later that night, the mother and daughter thanked me for my sermon, offering the kind of polite remarks that people usually give to their guest preachers. But, as they walked toward the door, I noticed something. The younger woman was holding on to her mother’s arm and walking with a pronounced limp on her left side. The story had been hers. She sat there listening to her dispassionate mother tell a complete stranger her own story of sin and shame and repentance and rebirth. She was the one who had fallen to the very bottom of life. And the catawampus, arm-in-arm waddle with which they strode out the door was the proud gate of a mother and her child, a daughter who was dead but had come back to life.

Jesus says to his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Heart-wrenching stories like the one I heard that night aren’t really uncommon. Many of us who have lived with an addict or gone through a bankruptcy or experienced marital betrayal have known that kind of pain. Their stories—our stories—are stories of death and resurrection—of cross and empty tomb. In his final appeal to his disciples, Jesus urges them to let his death and resurrection be the impetus by which they preach the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. Repentance and forgiveness, after all, are their own model of death and resurrection. In turning toward Christ, we turn away from all that plagues us. As we die to sin and death itself, we are reborn to life in Christ. But death must occur. A gospel without the cross isn’t really good news at all because real transformation is only possible when death and resurrection are both present.

St. Cyril, after all, is most famous for his catechetical lectures—eighteen Lenten talks given to converts who were preparing for baptism and five “mystagogical” instructions given to those same new Christians during Easter week (see newadvent.com). The Christian journey, as he understood it, could be contained neither in Lent nor in Easter. We need both. In order to be transformed, we must experience the death of Christ so that we might journey with him into the resurrection. Do not let Lent be an end in itself. It is merely preparation for what follows. But likewise don’t let Lent pass you by as a mere soiree into penitence. You, too, must die with Christ in order to be reborn. Amen.

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