There’s a little ordeal we clergy persons go through every year as we prepare for Easter—well many of us do, anyway. Every year, as Easter approaches, we make ourselves a little bit crazy by submitting to a completely unnecessary and utterly self-imposed state of anxiety over the Easter Sermon. For some, the anxiety doesn’t get to them until Holy Week, but many have been anxious for the whole preceding month. Some started to feel the stress right after Ash Wednesday and embraced it as a useful way to keep from being inappropriately happy during Lent. Some started fretting about their Easter sermon the day after Christmas. Those preachers will start worrying about their Christmas sermon tomorrow morning.
See, the thing is, we want the Easter Sermon to be perfect. We want it to be so persuasive and so eloquent that those of you who came to church believing that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead will have your faith renewed, and that those of you who came in doubting the resurrection will be moved to rethink your doubts. In short, we want it to do the impossible, and we want it so badly that sometimes all our words get in the way of the only One who cando the impossible. We forget sometimes that our main job is to stand to the side and say, “Oh, hey! Look what God just did! I thought that was impossible, but there it is! Christ is risen!”
Ted Peters, one of my favorite seminary professors, once told us that a pastor really only has two jobs: proclaim the gospel and love the people. I think he’s absolutely right about that, but it doesn’t apply just to pastors. Every friend of Jesus has those same two jobs: proclaim the good news and love the people. And you can’t really do one without the other. Not well, anyway. If you want to proclaim God’s Good News in any truly meaningful way, you have to love those who will be hearing it. You have to have some idea of what, exactly, will be good news for them in their lives.
We don’t all come to church on Easter morning for the same reason or in the same state of mind and heart. All kinds of things happen in the world that can afflict us and affect us in different ways, and even the most devoutly faithful persons might show up to church on Easter morning in a less than fervent state of faith.
In 2008, Garrison Keillor wrote about an Easter Sunday when he arrived at church in a less than fervent state of faith. He wrote:
“I came to church as a pagan this year, though wearing a Christian suit and white shirt, and sat in a rear pew with my sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter whom I would like to see grow up in the love of the Lord, and there I was, a skeptic in the henhouse, thinking weaselish thoughts.
“This often happens around Easter. God, in His humorous way, sometimes schedules high holy days for a time when your faith is at low tide, a mud flat strewn with newspapers and children’s beach toys, and while everyone else is all joyful and shiny among the lilies and praising up a storm, there you are, snarfling and grumbling. Which happened to me this year. God knows all about it so I may as well tell you.
“Holy Week is a good time to face up to the question: Do we really believe in that story or do we just like to hang out with nice people and listen to organ music? There are advantages, after all, to being in the neighborhood of people who love their neighbors. If your car won’t start on a cold morning, you’ve got friends.”
I’m happy to say that Garrison Keillor decided that he really does believe in the story. It happens that he also likes to hang out with nice people and listen to organ music, so it’s a win-win for him. And for me, too. I have, in the past, had that Easter Sunday morning when I showed up for church asking myself if I really believed in the story. And, though I wasn’t quite feeling it on that one Easter Sunday, I came through that time on the other side of the question, quite clear in my own mind that, yes, I do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Now I could give you all kinds of reasons why I think the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact—why I think that it really happened. I could take you through all four gospel accounts and point out how, despite all their differences, they are amazingly consistent in the main points of the story. I could take you to chapter 15 of First Corinthians, the earliest written testimony to the resurrection, where St. Paul points out that the resurrected Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time plus all the disciples and even to Paul, himself. I could point out that during centuries of sometimes vicious persecution, the followers of Jesus were stubbornly consistent in asserting that Jesus had been raised even when making that claim could get them imprisoned, tortured and executed. I have preached that Easter sermon before, and while it’s good for getting discussion started and might encourage someone to reexamine and even trust the historical evidence, in the end, believing the historical evidence is not quite the same as believing in the risen Christ.
In the end, I have to tell you that I believe that Christ is risen because I, too, have seen the living Christ. No, I have not had a visionary experience like the one that converted Persecutor Saul into Apostle Paul. I have not experienced the risen Jesus the same way Mary Magdalen did when she mistook him for the gardener outside the empty tomb on that first Easter morning, or like Thomas did when Jesus invited him to touch his wounded hands and feet and side. Nevertheless, I have met the resurrected, living Christ.
I have felt Christ’s presence in prayer and worship and meditation. I have encountered the risen Christ in unexpected moments of generosity with people on the street or in the parking lot of a convenience store. I have felt Christ guiding me as I studied the scriptures, history, and even psychology. Most frequently, though, I have experienced the presence of the risen Christ in the community of faith. I have experienced the love of Jesus, the peace of Jesus, the profound presence of Jesus through living many years among faithful friends who cared for me and prayed for me and opened their hearts and lives to me.
N.T. Wright wrote, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”
You may not have realized it, but when you walked through the church doors this morning, you were walking into an outpost of God’s kingdom, a place—a community—where we are doing our best to bring heaven to earth and show each other God’s love in Christ. God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and you’re invited to belong to it.
So if you came to church on this Easter morning with some doubt or skepticism, you came to the right place. You will be surrounded here by nice people who will respect your uncertainty, because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. These nice people really do want to show you and the rest of the world the love and presence of the living Christ. Some may even use words. Also, there’s organ music!
Welcome to the kingdom of God. The door is open. And we’re all invited because…
Christ is risen.