Monday, May 8, 2017

Preaching the Resurrection

A older clergy colleague once offered me some unsolicited advice for preaching a sermon: "Ask yourself why Christ had to die to make your sermon possible. If you don't know the answer, it's not a sermon worth preaching." He made a good point. I might not have phrased it quite like that, but--and I'm choosing to be charitable in this interpretation of his motive--I think he's right to remind me to preach the gospel of Jesus and not just some spiritually enlightening message. One can get advice for living from "Dear Abby." People come to church to hear the transformative story of Jesus Christ.

This week, as the church finds herself approaching the Fifth Sunday in Easter, I find myself wondering a different sort of question: "Why did Jesus have to be raised from the dead in order to make this sermon possible?" It's still Easter. We've got several more weeks left of this season. And this is the part of the fifty days when the lectionary goes back in time to moments before Jesus' death and resurrection. It's easy, then, to get lost in the specificity of the text and forget that we're still celebrating the miracle of the resurrection. How does the discovery of the empty tomb shape the texts that we are reading? When Jesus says to Thomas, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," how is that an Easter proclamation?

Sunday's gospel lesson (John 14:1-14) is permeated with two different levels of tension. First, we see confusion on the part of Thomas and Philip, who hear Jesus' words about preparing a place for them in God's mansion and want a clearer explanation. "We do not know where you are going?" Thomas asks. "How will we know the way?" After Jesus points to himself as the way, Philip takes the confusion a step further, saying, "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied." In both cases, these disciples reveal their lack of understanding.

The second layer of tension comes in Jesus' responses to the confused disciples. Thomas acknowledges that he cannot know the way if he does not even know the destination, and Jesus responds, "I am the way and the truth and the life." And everyone in the congregation who hears that gospel lesson nods in response to Jesus' words as if we know what that means. When Philip says, "Just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied," the congregation slaps their collective forehead and thinks along with Jesus, "You doofus! Don't you know any better? Have you been with Jesus this long and still you cannot see that he is showing you the Father because he and the Father are one?" And, when no one is looking, we shoot glances around the room to see whether anyone else is showing signs of the same sort of confusion that Philip and Thomas displayed.

We cannot know Jesus until we know Easter. We cannot see the Father until Christ has been raised. We cannot see that he is the way and the truth and the life until he comes to us as the resurrected one. We like to think that we could put all the pieces together beforehand. "If we had spent that much time with Jesus, we would have known what he was talking about," we tell ourselves, somewhat forgetting that an hour a week in church amounts to a lot less than the time the disciples spent with Jesus. We have the benefit of Easter. We have the benefit of the resurrection. That's how all of this makes sense. Jesus words to the disciples--"And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also"--are utter nonsense if you do not understand the resurrection.

When we read John 14, most preachers and many in our congregation will think of a funeral. Of all the funerals I have done, the first half of Sunday's gospel lesson is by far the most popular. We don't have to preach a funeral sermon this Sunday, but we do have the opportunity to preach the sermon we can't preach at a funeral: our hope becomes hopeless without the resurrection of Jesus. When we hear these words at the funeral of a loved one, when we pick them out for our own funeral, let us remember that Jesus' words to Thomas, Philip, and the other disciples cannot be understood except in the light of Easter. We must encounter the risen Lord before we can know that he goes through the gate of death in order to prepare a place for us eternal in the heavens. In short, don't forget to preach Easter.

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