Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter Hope


April 17, 2022 – The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning at 21:10.

She cradled his head against her chest, lovingly and dutifully cleaning his face, wiping his mouth, and closing his eyes. She dressed him in clean clothes and then brushed his hair into place. She and the other women with her hoisted his lifeless body onto their shoulders, carrying him to the place where he would be laid to rest. When they arrived at the grave, they tenderly composed his limbs into an almost sleepful pose. Then, giving the body one last embrace, they placed it into the earth, giving him back to his Creator.

Dionysius of Alexandria records in his letters moments like that—the selfless acts of Christians from the third century, who cared for the sick and dying. On the heels of a war and a famine, before anyone had time to recover, a plague descended upon the people of the Mediterranean, “a calamity more dreadful to them than any dread,” he wrote, “and more afflictive than any affliction.” He described how most people “repelled those who began to be sick, avoiding even their dearest friends…cast[ing] them out into the roads half-dead or throw[ing] them [out] when dead without [a proper] burial, shunning any communication and participation in death.” But those who called themselves Christians, on the other hand, embraced those who suffered, despite knowing that their proximity to the sick meant that “ere long they themselves [would share] in receiving the same offices.” [1]

Throughout the centuries, Christians have been willing to embrace death because of their faith in Jesus. The way that Jesus’ followers risked their lives to care for others was one of the principal reasons that Christianity grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire. Sixteen hundred years later, it was Christians like Constance and her companions who cared for those who were too poor to flee Memphis when Yellow Fever spread throughout the low-lying areas, knowing it would mean their death. During our own lifetime, while many church leaders used their voice to condemn gay men and intravenous drug users, it was faithful Christians who cared for those who were dying of AIDS back when no one really understood how the virus was spread.

Today, like those saints of God, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and, in it, God’s great victory over sin and death, but we also know all too well that the ravages of sickness and death, of evil and sin, still hold sway in this world. And that can make the good news of Easter feel, well, a little confusing. For many of us, this is our first time to be back in church after two or more years, and some of the people we most want to see and hug this Easter Day are no longer with us. Some of us have endured the pain and grief of divorce during that time. Some of us have lost our jobs. Many have lost their sense of belonging. A lot has happened in two years, and it’s not fair to show up in church and pretend that none of that matters. It all matters. It matters to us, and it matters to God. And we aren’t alone in needing some help understanding what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb—because sometimes, overwhelmed by grief, we have nowhere else to go. But, when she arrived, she saw that stone had been rolled away. So she ran and found Peter and the other disciple and told them that someone must have come and taken Jesus’ body away. When the disciples got to the tomb, they found it just as Mary had described it, and, when they looked inside, they saw that the linen wrappings and the face cloth that had covered Jesus’ body had been left behind. So they went away, back to their homes, confident that something significant had happened but still unable to understand what it meant.

Now bereft not only of her friend and teacher but also the opportunity to sit and pray near his body, Mary returned to the tomb to weep. There, angels appeared to her, but she could not see beyond her tears. Jesus himself came and stood next to her, but she could only imagine him to be the gardener. Only when he spoke her name, “Mary,” did she encounter the risen Christ. Only then was she able to begin to put the pieces together and start to understand what God had done. Quickly, Mary, the first apostle to carry the good news of Easter, went and announced to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, but, as we will hear next Sunday, the disciples still didn’t know how to make sense of her words. The process of learning to believe that God has defeated death takes time. Faith takes time.

This sometimes slow yet always deepening work of faith has been the pursuit of Christians in every generation since. As followers of Jesus, we spend our lives learning how to believe with all our hearts that, in the resurrection, God has already won the victory over death even though that victory does not make us immune to its harsh consequences in this life. With every painful diagnosis, with every fractured relationship, with every loved one lost, we renew the struggle to understand the power of Easter in our lives, and we are not alone in that struggle. 

In the same way, Paul wrote to a Corinthian church that was struggling to make sense of how, if Jesus had been raised from the dead, Christ’s faithful followers were still allowed to die. “All will be made alive in Christ,” Paul explained, “but each in [their] own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. [Only] then comes the end…For [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [And] the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 

Like them, we wait and watch and hope and yearn for that day when Christ will come and finally destroy that last enemy that plagues us. And yet, because on this day the stone is rolled away and because we see that the tomb is empty, we know that, in the end, death cannot win. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has already delivered our great enemy a fatal blow. And we, who belong to Christ, must now endure the final and furious throes of that mortally wounded beast. Thankfully, we do not endure them alone.

I was moved this week by what Tim Keller, the conservative Presbyterian minister who is battling stage IV pancreatic cancer, said in the New York Times about what his illness has taught him about Easter. Shortly after his diagnosis, Keller realized that his faith would need to become something more than “a mental abstraction.” “I came to realize that the experiential side of my faith really needed to strengthen or I wasn’t going to be able to handle this,” he said. “It’s one thing to believe God loves you, [but] another thing to actually feel his love. It’s one thing to believe he’s present with you. It’s another to actually experience his presence.”

Because of Easter, we experience the presence of God even in our darkest moments—even in our death. As Keller put it, 

If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, then ultimately, God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away…I do think that the great thing about cancer is that Easter does mean a whole lot more because I look at Easter and I say, ‘Because of this, I can face anything.’ In the past, I thought of Easter as a kind of optimistic, upbeat way of thinking about life. And now I see that Easter is a universal solvent. It can eat through any fear, any anger and despair. I see it as more powerful than ever before.” [2]

Because of Easter, we can face anything. Because of Easter, we know that God is with us in our ups and in our downs, in our best moments as well as our worst. And we know that not only in our minds but in our hearts and in our guts and in all the lived, embodied experiences of life. As Christians, we are a people who strive toward a reality that we know is already true even though we cannot see it yet. That is our journey of faith. And that journey, which begins here at Easter and which we share with all Christians across the centuries, is how we hold onto hope even in the midst of loss. For us, the power of Easter is neither locked in the past nor hidden away in the future. We carry it with us every day. It is our hope.

[1] Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, VII.22.

[2] Warren, Trish Harrison. “How a Cancer Diagnosis Makes Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Mean More.” New York Times, 10 April 2022.

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