Easter Sunday

March 27, 2005
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Sermons:
Nance 2006

Sauter 2003

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Reading 3: 
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
Reading 4: 
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
By Rick Marshall

Preaching the Resurrection
Easter Sunday is a popular time for worship attendance, especially for those who only occasionally attend church. But if you haven’t been participating in the season of Lent, and if you haven’t been exposed to Passion week, then attending only Easter Sunday worship is like coming in on the last scene of a movie, or reading only the final chapter of a novel: it’s hard to appreciate the emotional payoff without being part of the set up of the story. Those who have seen the whole movie are laughing or crying at the conclusion; they are experiencing the payoff.

The resurrection story is the conclusion of a long story line that begins, well, at the beginning of the gospel narrative. Here is the problem: without knowing how the story develops from the beginning, the resurrection episode then becomes a puzzle, a passage that is just bizarre, and then is often defended on irrational grounds. However, if one begins at the beginning and participates in the development of the story, the resurrection is a fitting conclusion to a story well told.  It has all the usual elements of narrative: character development, dialogue, plot, conflict, conflict resolution, etc.

Without the context, the resurrection makes no sense. When it makes no sense, the pressure is on to explain it outside the flow of the story. Weird explanations are used. Irrationality becomes a test of faith. Pilate wants to argue about truth. By the way, what is truth, anyway?

Context is everything.

Here is a legitimate question for those who want to explain the resurrection outside the framework of the narrative and push to take it literally: If video cameras were set up inside the tomb when Jesus was buried and the death chamber was filmed during the whole period of Jesus’ entombment, what would be on the tape? When the actual resurrection moment came, what would we see? A flash? Jesus suddenly standing? What would constitute proof of the resurrection? We could ask the same question about conception in the womb. If we had a camera peering into the womb (and we have) what would we see at the moment of conception of a human being? A sperm wiggling to an egg, penetrating. The cell soon divides. What are we seeing? Where did life come from? How did this small transformation happen? The truth of the matter is that we don’t know. Beyond sperm and egg, beyond biology, beyond any human ability to understand how it all works, life is still a deep mystery to us. It’s like electricity: we don’t really understand what it is, but we use it and manipulate it to our benefit. We see its effects all around us. What calls life out of the dead ground in the Spring? What draws order out of chaos? How does new life come out of death? Ultimately, we don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But we see the effects all around us. We experience this creative transforming power. How to explain this strange power of transformation requires poetry, metaphor, imagination, a story

Each of the gospel narratives has a resurrection story. We will focus on the John text. The payoff of this story is trust. Being involved in the whole story as it unfolds, you will experience the power of the ending. Then the participant in the narrative will understand how trust works.

In order to understand the resurrection story, the reader must begin with the first story. Indeed, the first story in the Gospel of John--Jesus changing the water into wine--is instructive. I would go so far as to say it holds the key to the whole gospel narrative and especially to the resurrection story. I will repeat an earlier paragraph from the Third Sunday in Lent:

When we look at the first story in the Gospel of John of Jesus turning the water into wine, we see a simple story, quietly told, almost low-key. But it is a crucial story; it sets the parameters and terms of creative transformation, which is the basic idea of divine involvement in the world shown throughout the Gospel of John. The scene is a wedding and the host runs out of wine. Jesus’ mother appeals to him to do something and he resists. Yet he goes on to instruct the servants to fill six jars with water and then to take a sample to the wine steward. The wine steward tastes and compliments the bridegroom on the quality of the wine. And the wedding goes on with few people knowing what just happened. Jesus knew, the servants knew, and the reader knows what happened. But what do we really know other than the water became wine. No hocus-pocus. No chemistry experiment. It was a simple, inexplicable, transformation that was witnessed. But that’s the whole point: we experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life. That same, mysterious, power of transformation is featured in following stories, many of them more dramatic. Then we get to the final act of transformation with the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and realize that the creative, transforming power of God is at the center of the stories and at the center of life.

Jesus soon makes the point in chapter three that transformation is symbolized by the image of birth. You must be born anew, he told Nicodemus. The same power that transformed water into wine is the same power that brings new life. We saw that earlier in the story of Abraham and Sarah.

In John, we then move to the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Water becomes a symbol of transformation. Then in 4:46 we are reminded of the water-to-wine story just before Jesus heals a child. The link to that first story is clear; the same principle is involved. Then Jesus heals the paralytic at the pool. There he asks the man, “Do you want to be healed?” The man is told to rise up and walk. The word “rise” is joined with the chorus of images and words used to describe the transforming power of God. We should be getting the point by now if we are reading the narrative closely. Then the feeding of the multitude comes. No explanation is given for how so many people were fed with so little food. The same principle at work in the water-to-wine story is again at work here. Then Jesus walks on the water. What weird kind of power is at work here? It’s the kind of power that God exercised over creation in Genesis: order out of chaos, water being a symbol of chaos. Thus Jesus walking on the water is a stark reminder of creative power.

Jesus makes a direct link between death and childbirth in chapter 16. They are similar in more ways than we imagine. I don’t remember being in my mother’s womb, but I can easily imagine it to be a place of comfort and safety. All my needs were cared for and, as far as I knew, there was no world beyond my mother’s womb. And if it were up to me, I would have preferred to stay there indefinitely. But about nine months along the way, quite against my will, the walls of that world bear down on me with such tremendous force, pushing me through the narrowest of possible passageways into a world I had no idea was there: cold and bright and loud. It is a tremendous loss being expelled from the womb, even an experience of death. But the irony of this is that this great loss turned out to be our birth day. I remember witnessing the birth of both of my daughters. It was traumatic, a struggle. But I remember the look of  surprise on their squirming faces at they began to orient themselves to this strange, surprising world. Who could have guessed this world was here? We never imagined. But the reality of this world does not depend upon our imagining it; it has been here all along. Similarly, Jesus implies, here we are in this world. It is a place of comfort and safety. All my needs are cared for and, as far as I know, there is no world beyond this world. And if it were up to me, I would prefer to stay here indefinitely. But there will come a time, quite against my will, when the walls of this world will come bearing down on me with such force, pushing me through the narrowest of possible passageways, into a world I had no idea was there. It is a tremendous loss, even an experience of death. But the irony of this is that this great loss turns out to be a rebirth. Life and death are two sides of the same coin.

Jesus healing the man born blind, asking the reader through the story: can you see how this works? Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a foreshadowing of his own resurrection. The power of resurrection is everywhere in the gospel narrative; it is the theme running through each episode, building to the conclusion we celebrate at Easter.

The exhibitions of Divine power in the narrative are interlaced with Jesus interacting with people. We see him teaching. What does he talk about? Everything he says is a little off angle, slightly strange, catching people off guard, forcing reactions, pushing, cracking our nut-hard world view wide open He’s talking about the less obvious power of God, not the obvious power of armies and kings, not the power to impose one’s will, but another power that is more difficult to describe. The power of creative transformation is often subtle, quiet, unpredictable (like the wind), more evasive. It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod, a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.

Resurrection power is about order coming from chaos, life coming out of death, hope coming from despair, beauty coming form ugliness. In God’s hands, every experience of death is a transition to new life.

To preach the resurrection is to “see” how this creative, transforming power is displayed throughout the whole gospel narrative. A sense of the whole story needs to be communicated in order to appreciate the conclusion (resurrection).

Ultimately, the Easter sermon is a call to trust this creative, transforming power, without fully comprehending it. Abraham trusted that power, so did Moses and so did many others. And so did Jesus. We, too, can trust our lives to this power. If we do, we will experience peace, joy, well-being and fullness of life.

Our church goes through a beautiful ritual at the end of the Easter worship service. We have a rough wood cross on a stand, about three feet tall. It is wrapped in chicken wire and it quite unremarkable, even ugly. It is at the center of our Good Friday service and remains unchanged. For Easter service, everyone brings flowers and, at the end, during the singing of a hymn, all the flowers are woven into the chicken wire until the whole cross is covered with flowers. When all the business of flowering is finished, we all stand back and behold the transformed cross. It is a hushed moment; we hold our collective breath in delight. Such is the power of the resurrection that it can be communicated to us emotionally, subliminally, visually, experientially To know the power of the resurrection is to experience it. We all experience this power by simply being alive and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death.

Truly, we are in the hands of God and we can trust God’s creating, transforming power. See how we are in God’s loving care! Relax! Behold!

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.