Easter Sunday

April 8, 2007
See Also: 

Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Sermons:
John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

Nance 2006
Sauter 2003

Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
Reading 4: 
John 20:1-18
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Acts 10:34-43
In this passage Peter preaches the Good News about Jesus to the household of Cornelius the centurion. It forms a useful counterpart to the Gospel, in that it sets the news of the Resurrection within the broader story of Jesus’ whole life and ministry, as well as the continuing ministry of Jesus’ disciples in Jesus’ name. Too often it seems that Christian preaching focuses on the death of Jesus as his sole salvific act; yet certainly the life and ministry of Jesus, especially his extending table fellowship to the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast, are as much a part of Jesus’ saving work. Likewise, recognizing that Jesus’ own work continues now through “us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” indicates that Jesus’ saving work is not simply in his death and Resurrection, but also in the New Life he brings to those who believe in him. Peter and the other disciples, poor and marginalized in their own ways when Jesus called them, are now brought into a living fellowship in Christ. In this connection, it is especially important for us to remember where Peter is preaching and to whom: Peter is sharing the Good News for the first time with Gentiles: Peter’s act of preaching about Jesus’ ministry of inclusion is itself a continuation of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion. Moreover, Peter is not coming to these Gentiles in a vacuum: Cornelius was granted a vision instructing him to send for Peter, and while Peter is still preaching to them, in the verses immediately following today’s reading, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” While Peter’s companions are “amazed” that the Spirit would be granted even to Gentiles, Peter sees immediately that baptism should not now be withheld from them, but that they are as much part of the Christian fold as Jesus’ original Jewish followers. Peter is able to continue Jesus’ ministry of including the outsiders because God has already done so in granting visions and the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his household. This passage raises the question for the church today: Where is God granting visions and the gifts of the Spirit in the world around us, calling us to be like Peter in entering into those “non-churchy” settings and naming the New Life we encounter there?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
This psalm probably originated as part of an entrance liturgy for a procession to the Temple. The congregation—or perhaps the king, as representative “I” of all the people—sang praise to God for deliverance from war, from destruction, from illness. In the full voice of such praise, the congregants were fit to enter “the gates of righteousness” into the Temple and offer their thanks to the Lord. Early Christian use of the psalm focused attention on Jesus as the “I” of the song: Jesus, “punished sorely” on the cross, nevertheless did not die but was raised to life; therefore Jesus is the righteous one who can enter the gates of heaven to give thanks to God and intercede on our behalf. But we are invited to a third level of interpretation as well, where we each become the “I” of the song, recognizing that in Christ we also are called and empowered to live, to declare the works of the Lord, to rejoice and be glad in the day God has acted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can receive and reenact in our lives the divine values, the eternal objects, exemplified in Jesus, so that our “I” becomes more like Jesus’ “I” as we share with Jesus in the mission of God.

1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Paul sets the Resurrection of Jesus within a context of cosmic history: overcoming the death that entered the world with Adam, Christ is the first fruits of a movement of transformation that will culminate in the gathering of all created things into Christ. But Paul stresses that there is an “order” to this transformational movement: Jesus is risen now, but for those who follow Jesus Resurrection is not yet: those who “belong to Christ” will be raised “at his coming.” Paul seems to treat Jesus’ Resurrection, his “coming,” and “the end” as separate events, and it may be tempting here to try to figure out an eschatological timetable. But the point of the passage is less to calculate times than to encourage hope. Because Paul affirms that we hope in Christ not only for this lifetime, we are able to engage in this lifetime in the struggle against destructive rulers and authorities and powers, trusting that transformation in Christ will raise up our struggle beyond our own individual triumph or tragedy. We, too, are part of the cosmic history to be redeemed and made new in the New Life of Jesus.

John 20:1-18
John’s account of Easter morning is structured as a series of discoveries, small steps of revelation that lead ultimately to the full recognition of the Risen Jesus. At dawn Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb and sees that the stone has been removed; but at that moment she sees nothing else. At Mary’s summons, Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb. The other disciple looks into the tomb—something Mary had not done—and sees the linen graveclothes lying there. Peter takes the discovery one step farther when he enters the tomb, sees that the wrappings are empty and that the headcloth is lying apart from the rest. After Peter and the other leave, Mary finally looks into the tomb, something she had not done before, and sees angels, who question why she’s weeping. Then, looking away from the tomb, Mary sees Jesus himself, but does not recognize him when he repeats the angels’ question. Finally, Jesus calls Mary by name, and she knows who he is and that he is risen. At each stage in the story something new is revealed, some new part of the mystery of New Life is set before them, until the full recognition dawns in the moment of personal encounter between Mary and Jesus. For Mary, the recognition of Resurrection does not happen all at once, but is a process which unfolds as she takes in each new moment of experience. The recognition of Resurrection comes to us today just as gradually. We come to realize the truth of New Life not all at once, but in moments of personal encounter where small steps of discovery lead to the opening of new possibilities for transformation. The preacher might name “small steps toward Resurrection” in the current circumstances of the congregation’s life, on the political scene, or in personal experience. What might it take to make us, like Mary in the story, look away from the tomb and face the world, which is the only place where we may see Jesus risen?

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.