Easter Sunday Sermon

March 31, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

There is not one of us in this room today who has not known grief – who has not felt the piercing, immobilizing force of bereavement.

I remember the first time I felt it. It was an actually in a dream – but a dream so real, that when I awoke I knew how accurate that experience of bereavement had been. I was in high school at the time. And that summer my oldest brother was riding his bike across the country. And in my dream, I was in the family room. The phone rang. I answered it. And a voice told me my brother had just been killed; he’d been drowned in the floods. And – instantly – my world stopped. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I could see the sunlight around me, but I was paralyzed within it.

This is what bereavement is like, especially when it pounces upon us unaware. But even when we know its approach – when we’ve kept vigil beside a loved one as they lie dying – when death comes, something in us dies as well. And in the days and months that follow, we’re disoriented and inefficient, our spirits deep within us (often beyond our awareness) are churning with the recalibration of knowing who we are, and how we are to be, in a world where they are not.

Which is all to say: It is love, real love, real loved shared between us and another, that forms the core of who we know ourselves to be in this life. (And, as an aside, it is the lack of love, or the failure of love, that fuels most of our worst behavior.) We are made for love.

And it was such a love, and such a grief, that brought the women to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. It was not piety that brought them, or duty. They did not come because of theological conviction or because their spouse made them.

These three women came to the tomb with a love so true, that even in Jesus’ death they were devoted to him. Their love was not bound by what great things he might have accomplished; it was rooted in who they knew him to be. And to the end of days these women will always be held in a place of honor. Death could not stop their love.

Resurrection, however, seems to have pushed them over the edge.

They arrived at the tomb, found the stone rolled away, and inside the tomb was a young man dressed in white who told them that Jesus had been raised: “Go, tell his disciples!” he told them. But instead, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

The end. That’s how the gospel of Mark concludes. Even these women – who in the face of death are the exemplars of faith – when they are confronted with resurrection – now that’s too much. They run in fear, without a word to anyone.

I love the way Mark ends his gospel. These are the kind of people we can relate to. Because as much as our hearts deeply, deeply yearn for a love that transcends death and conquers death!, the truth of the matter is: Resurrection faith, in this world of violence and decay, can be very hard to sustain.

And you know what? That’s okay. We do ourselves a grave disservice if we imagine some ideal life of faith, that’s totally free of doubts. Doubts are not the antithesis of faith. I actually feel quite the opposite. Faith is learning to live with questions and with doubts. The antithesis of faith is certainty. Certainty has no need of faith. And certainty creates smug people – people who know (beyond doubt!) that everything they believe about God is rock solid and true. And let’s be honest: People like that are very annoying.

Of course we don’t have it all figured out. Of course we can’t explain the mind and heart of God!

And who would want to? Who would a want a god, and to worship a god, so small as to fit into the tidy structures of our certainty? God must be bigger than we can possibly imagine. This God who made such a glory as this world – in its majesty and its particularity and its dynamic, interrelated complexity, with its driving force of love – this God must beckon us from beyond the limits of what we’ve figured out so far. Our questions and doubts are not a problem. To the contrary, they become the vehicle of our perpetual longing for meaning and hope, of a substance worthy of our lives.

And in that longing, dwells a force that knows resurrection.

Our spirits already know what resurrection hope means, even if we’ve never connected it with the church’s Easter message. We know it because our hearts were made to seek it and to love it when it emerges. And we know that resurrection is no accident of nature, but the force of love that will not die.

Each spring, when the buried seeds emerge from the ground as verdant, new life, we learn of resurrection hope. When that seedling grows and grows into an enormous tree, fed by the nutrients of soil formed of former plants that have yielded their life to a new generation and a different life, we learn of resurrection hope.

When we hear of people harboring Jews during the holocaust, we celebrate their rebellion because it is the defiant insistence that love (even unto death) is more true than all the might of Nazi aggression. And their testimony lives beyond death as an eternal witness of an unconquerable truth. And from it we learn of resurrection hope.

When we hear of neighborhoods rallying together to support one another in the aftermath of earthquakes and floods, we instinctively recognize: that is real living – a real humanity discovering its truest calling, through the rubble – to love our neighbor as ourselves. And we learn of resurrection hope.

Yes, this world is filled with violence and greed and fear and hatred. And we know how wrong it all is. And what makes it more grievous still is the admission of our own complicity. We are greedy. We are fearful. We are petty and small-minded and hold our contempt for others as a kind of privilege and sweet nectar. But our hearts know otherwise. Only love and the fruit of love have real meaning that will last to the end. And beyond.

And so our spirits soar when we see love triumph over evil, because we are witness to the greater truth – to the eternal purpose of our very existence. And that is the fundamental glory of our Easter song.

The evil of the world slayed Jesus; jealousy and fear unleashed all their strength to destroy him. But evil itself was rendered a temporary thing when love revived the fallen. God is love and so God spoke into the depths, Rise my son. You will not remain the victim of lies and untruth and injustice. Rise and live into my eternal truth which alone will survive. The shades of death have no grasp on you.

Our message of Jesus is fantastic – in both senses of the word.

“Fantastic” in that it sounds like fantasy – something too preposterous to believe.

And yet, “fantastic” because it is so wonderful.

This ancient story cannot die. Throughout the world – through cultures and class, with rich and with poor, in the west and the east – the human spirit continues to resonate with this story and to pass it on because its message is so universally welcome, its wisdom so timeless, its hope so known – so deeply within our bones.

It’s fantasy and myth, some say, that at one point in time, in one specific location, in one particular man – Jesus of Nazareth – the cosmic purposes of God and eternity should be realized; that in him all holiness and truth should reside; that – somehow – by his death and resurrection, God should accomplish the forgiveness of sin and the undoing of death. I know. I know. So ridiculous. And yet: Why not? Why not be true?

If there is a God – and surely there must be – and if God should make a world so particular as ours is, why not pick this way, this one particular way, to be the means of redemption? For surely this world is broken and in need of redeeming. And the gospel message matches our needs so precisely.

Why on earth do we think that keeping ourselves in a posture of fear and suspicion is more prudent and reliable, than striding into the greater hope of love and mercy and grace and God? Because here’s the thing about Jesus: his life and his teaching correspond precisely towards what our hearts are already leaning. Everything about him resonates as a truer, more worthy way of living and being.

The kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed and lived is an upside kingdom where giving is greater than hoarding; where pardon is stronger than bitterness; where faith runs deeper than fear, and – ultimately – where love is truer than evil. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not some crazy conclusion tacked on to an otherwise respectable, prophetic occupation. To the contrary, his death and resurrection are in absolute unity with the life he lived and taught. They vindicate everything he showed us.

As fantastic as our Easter story may be, its message confirms what our hearts want to believe and, dare we say? already believe. “Already”, because it claims the intrinsic human conviction that evil is foreign; that our native land is love. What is untrue must one day dissolve, and what is true must strengthen and rise, incorruptible.

In Christ, truth meets truth, then extends its hands to us in love: “Come, my beloved. God has made all things one: heaven and earth; divinity and creation. And all that is true shall remain true forever.”

What we yearn for so deeply is already ours. For God has given us the gift of resurrection – a bodily resurrection yet to come – but also a reality to be lived into today. In our baptismal covenant, we choose to join Christ in living his resurrection life in this world, that all would be seen and loved and blessed.

We won’t be perfect in our intent. Often, we’ll be as Mary Magdalene, as she’s seen on the cover of our bulletin: She’s running away from the tomb, confused and afraid. And yet, how like a bird she appears, wings unfurling, ready for flight – to soar in the hope that Christ is risen.

The wondrous love of God has conquered, and death will be no more.