April 3, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
It can happen as early as March 23 and it can occur as late as April 23 though usually it falls somewhere in between those two dates, but no matter how late or how early, we can be assured that year after year Easter will come. Year after year the horror of the crucifixion is followed by the announcement of the resurrection and we cry out with gladness, “He is risen. Jesus Christ is risen indeed!”
If you’re 10 years old, you’ve heard it announced 10 times. Granted, the first few years the proclamation may not have meant as much to you as the prospect of a chocolate bunny waiting in a basket but you heard the announcement nonetheless.
If you’re 37 years old, you’ve heard it 37 times: “He is risen; he is risen indeed!” 37 times.
If you’re 62, then it’s 62 times.
And you 85 year-olds have heard it a grand total of 85 times: 85 Easters, 85 times singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” 85 alleluias, 85 worships announcing the remarkable news that Jesus is not dead but is alive.
That’s a lot of times. Whether 10 or 85, everyone here has heard the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection enough times for it to no longer be news. So, has it sunk in yet?
Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a mystery writer from the 1930s, told of a family story that was passed through the generations until it became a legend among family members. Great-Aunt Ruth was married to Great-Uncle Stafford who was very hard of hearing. Aunt Ruth was always bringing home waifs and strays, some of whom were not very respectable such as the one who ended up stealing their best Lowestodt pitcher but this never swayed Aunt Ruth. She continued to invite home anyone she thought looked in need of a warm place to stay, and Uncle Stafford grumbled about it but generally kept out of her way.
One day however, Aunt Ruth appeared with an especially disreputable looking character who said his name was Dusenberry. Uncle Stafford happened upon Dusenberry eating in the kitchen, loathed him at sight, and promptly collared Aunt Ruth demanding to know who this creature was. She said that he was a poor unfortunate, and so on and so forth but Uncle Stafford was not satisfied.
“What’s the beast’s name?” he growled none too pleasantly.
“His name is Dusenberry,” Aunt Ruth answered.
“What’s that?” Uncle Stafford sniffed.
“Dusenberry, Stafford. It’s Dusenberry!”
“What say, Ruth? What say?” Stafford leaned his ear trumpet closer to Ruth’s face.
“Dusenberry. His name is Dusenberry.”
“Stop mumbling, girl. What’s his name?”
“It… is… DUS-EN-BERRY, Stafford. DUS-EN-BERRY!”
Well, this went on for some time until Ruth had shouted herself horse in frustration. Finally, Uncle Stafford unfurled his ear trumpet and tucked it away in his pocket.
“No use,” he said casting a malicious eye at the tramp. “No matter how hard you yell or how hard I listen, it still sounds just like Dusenberry to me.”
It turned out that Uncle Stafford’s problem wasn’t with his hearing; the problem was with his believing.
Easter is always a fun Sunday in the church because the sanctuary is awash in flowers and worship is alive with music, and the sermon is usually pretty short, but many people would have to confess that they try not to think too hard about what is being proclaimed on Easter day. Jesus’ resurrection? Jesus who was once dead is suddenly alive? We’ll sit in church on Easter and shout, “Christ is risen!” but don’t push us too hard on the physics of the whole thing. If we are honest, many of us would admit that the message that the once dead Jesus stepped out of his tomb after three days sounds too much like a sci-fi movie. It conjures images of a sort of Zombie Jesus shambling through Galilee broken and bloodstained and scaring the bejeebers out of his followers. One young graphic artist painted a picture of a Zombie Jesus reaching out toward the viewer as blood dripped from his hands and side and posted it to the internet with the caption, “He died for your sins, now he’s back for your brains!”
A week has gone by since Easter, the sanctuary has returned to normal, and we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief for having gotten through another year without having to think too hard about what it is that we are proclaiming with the Easter message, but maybe, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, now is the time to review the scriptures and ask, “What exactly did the biblical writers mean when they said, “Christ has risen; he has risen indeed?” When we do that, the first thing we will discover is that you don’t have to give up your brains to accept the message of Easter because the Biblical writers make it clear that Jesus’ resurrection was not the resuscitation of a corpse. God didn’t shoot some divine electrical current into the tomb to re-animate Jesus’ dead body and what the disciples experienced when they said that they had seen the risen Christ was not the same flesh and blood man that the soldiers had taken down from the cross three days before. Though the Zombie Jesus is a funny picture, it is not at all what the Bible was describing. From the very first, Christians understood Jesus’s resurrection to be an experience of the “person of Jesus” after his death; not the body of Jesus. The earliest first hand account we have of of the resurrection is from the letters of Paul written about twenty years after Jesus’ ministry and in those letters, when Paul says that he has seen the risen Christ, he clearly describes what we would call “an ecstatic experience:” some sort of vision that only he could see. He adds that he himself isn’t even certain whether his revelation was an actual physical phenomenon that he witnessed or an out-of-body spiritual experience but he adds that whether it was “in the body or out of the body”, what matters is that it led him to an understanding of Christ’s grace that caused him to change his life. (See II Corinthians 12:1-12, Galatians 1:12,16) For Paul, Jesus’s resurrection wasn’t the resuscitation of a corpse; it was an experience of the presence of the spiritual person of Jesus but what was most important about that experience for Paul was not its nature but its result: his experience of Christ moved him and changed him and brought him to declare that Jesus was his Lord.
So too, in Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the disciples don’t even know that it is Jesus who is talking with them until the breaking of the bread. Their experience of the risen Christ is not of a resuscitated body whose face would of course be familiar to them, but of a spiritual presence that grabs their hearts, fills them with hope and conviction, and is finally known fully to them in the breaking of the bread and in the fellowship of the church.
The author Marcus Borg says, “There was something about these experiences that led [those who had them to declare] not only that Jesus lives, that he is a figure of the present and not just of the past, but that he is “Lord” – a divine reality, one with God and having the qualities of God, at “the right hand of God…” [This] distinguishes experiences of [Easter] from other experiences of somebody who has died. Studies suggest that about half of surviving spouses will have at least one vivid experience of their deceased spouse. But if they do, they do not exclaim “My Lord and my God,” as if their spouse is now Lord and one with God. But there was something about the experiences of Jesus after his death that led to this exclamation. They were “numinous” experiences – experiences of the sacred – and not just “ghostly” experiences of a dead person.”
Borg adds, “Given the modern world-view in which the physical and material are assigned a greater reality than ‘the spiritual,’ to speak of the resurrection of Jesus as ‘spiritual’ assigns it a lesser and commonly unimportant significance. It’s ‘just spiritual’ not really real. This is unfortunate, for the ancient meanings of ‘mystical’ and ‘spiritual’ suggest a reality that is more important, more significant, than the space-time world of our ordinary everyday experience.”
We, in our twenty-first century frame of reference value facts and physical experiences that you can record, dissect, analyze, explain, and post to Facebook for the world to see. The early church valued spiritual experiences that you could only prove had really happened by demonstrating to the world your changed heart: “I have seen the risen Christ and you will know that it is true by the person I have become.”
Easter proclaims that Christ’s love extends beyond the boundaries of physical death. It proclaims that his grace can be victorious over all the death dealing forces in our lives — the guilt the burdens us, the bigotry that oppresses us, the shame that weighs us down, the chains of our certainty that we are unlovable and unredeemable. Easter announces that Christ is the Lord of our lives and that the world he called us to — where we care for the least among us and pray for one another, even our enemies, and practice peace, and insist on compassion — that world is real and here right now. He is here right now every time we sit at his table together in forgiveness and humility. When your heart is lifted in conviction that Jesus’ peace is possible and you want to be an instrument of that peace, you experience the risen Christ. Christ appears to you when you look into the eyes of a person in need and are moved to move heaven and earth to help them. Easter happens every time you find strength to love, faith to go forward, and a hope that there is more to the world than your eye can see, because suddenly you are looking through the eyes of Christ.
This is what we mean when we say “Christ is risen!” Jesus is alive still in our world and at work still in us.
“I have seen the risen Christ,” we will say with joy and conviction, “and you will know that it is true by the person I have become.”