Matthew 28:1–10 | Easter Sunday | April 5, 2015 | First Christian Church |Mahtomedi, MN
A few weeks ago, the artist currently known as Prince released a cover song with his band, Third Eye Girl. Now normally a musician releasing a song is nothing unusual. What made this experience significant is that it was a cover a song by a contemporary Christian artist, Nicole Nordman. Nordman’s version was released in 2005 and it talks about faith and especially the parts of faith that we modern find so hard to believe. Was Jesus the Son of God? Did Jesus rose from the dead? Is any of this really true?
The first lines of the song go like this:
What if you’re right
And He was just
Another nice guy
What if you’re right
What if it’s true
They say the cross
Will only make a fool of you
And what if it’s true
What if He takes His place in history
With all the prophets and the kings
Who taught us love and came in peace
But then the story ends, what then
So, what if the story ends there? What if Jesus died on Good Friday and that was it? Would it make a difference?
A few weeks ago, a Presbyterian pastor by the name of John Shuck wrote an article for an atheist blog where he told folks that he didn’t believe there was a God. He sees religion as a human construct, Jesus is probably a real person, but most of the stories about him are legend and God is a symbol not a being or force. Shuck describes his “belief-less” Christianity this way:
I believe one of the newer religious paths could be a “belief-less” Christianity. In this “sect,” one is not required to believe things. One learns and draws upon practices and products of our cultural tradition to create meaning in the present. The last two congregations I have served have huge commitments to equality for LGTBQ people and eco-justice, among other things. They draw from the well of our Christian cultural tradition (and other religious traditions) for encouragement in these efforts. I think a belief-less Christianity can be a positive good for society.
Belief-less Christianity is thriving right now, even as other forms of the faith are falling away rapidly. Many liberal or progressive Christians have already let go or de-emphasized belief in Heaven, that the Bible is literally true, that Jesus is supernatural, and that Christianity is the only way. Yet they still practice what they call Christianity. Instead of traditional beliefs, they emphasize social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community. The cultural artifacts serve as resources.
A group of women, friends of Jesus are heading to the tomb in the early morning. They are still in shock and grief since they saw their friend, Jesus dying on a cross two days later. The person that they had just talked to a few days earlier, is now dead and buried. For these women, it felt like hope had died, and it felt that way because it did die. The religious leaders, the one that didn’t like Jesus had finally succeeded in getting Jesus out of the way.
And then there is an earthquake. And there is an angel that tells Mary and Mary that Jesus is not in the tomb. The angel invites them to see the empty tomb and I can imagine them walking inside to see that body that they had laid in the tomb two days before was not there. Was this angel right? Did someone steal the body. Or what if it’s true? What if what they angel said really happened? The text said they were both fearful and excited. They felt like the could believe in the impossible: that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
So they run out of the tomb and a little ways and then bump into a man: Jesus. They couldn’t believe it, they couldn’t understand it, but Jesus was there. Alive. God showed up in the most unexpected place.
If Easter is anything, it is about hope. It is about knowing that death is not the end, it is not all that there is. We need this hope. We desparately need this hope. Like the women, all of us at sometime or another feel a twinge of hopelessness. We bring our grief with us. Having known this now from personal experience, we all know when that coffin closes on a loved one, when the casket is slowly laid in the ground, we know that death is present. We grieve as we say good bye to our loved ones. The women of that first Easter brought their grief and it is important to remember that Easter is partly about grief. We all carry the grief of Good Friday. The death of a parent, or of a child, a job loss or a divorce, all of these things make us feel that hope has died. We can’t understand Easter if we don’t understand Good Friday. We can’t understand joy without experiencing grief.
The joy of Easter, what makes Easter matter is that God shows up. We don’t expect to see God or Jesus anywhere. But God is present. We learn that even though death happens, even to the Son of God, it is in the end not able to win over God. God wins.
As we carry our own Good Friday crosses here to church this morning, we can have hope that these crosses, death, loss, sadness, none of these things have the last word. God will show up in the most unexpected time and give us hope of a better day.
The problem with a belief-less Christianity is that this day has no meaning if it is not about the resurrection of Jesus. There is no hope in a belief-less Christianity. We can’t have hope that death itself will be defeated, that the sins we deal with will one day be defeated. We can’t have hope that we can be resurrected, not just in the future, but now; when an alcoholic works to become sober, or when someone is finally able to find relief from their crippling depression. We can’t have hope if God doesn’t show up.
David Watson, a Methodist pastor, wrote a blog post this week about the resurrection. He started out by saying that every year on the news media and social media, there is usually some talk about how Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. Watson begs to differ and this is what he wrote:
Resurrection is about bodies: no body, no resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the raising and transformation of a body, the “first fruits” of what is to come (1 Cor 15:20). “First fruits” is an agricultural metaphor. At the time of the harvest, one would gather a small portion of the crops on the first day and gather the rest subsequently. That, says Paul, is what the resurrection of Jesus is like. Christ has been gathered in first, but we will also participate in the same kind of transformation. Our eternal life with God will be embodied, but differently from the way we experience embodiment now.
There is, of course, much that we cannot know about the resurrection body. Like other great doctrines of the faith, the resurrection is a mystery. To be clear, to call something a “mystery” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing of it. It means that there will be much we don’t understand. Understanding incompletely is different from a total lack of understanding. We can know certain things about God and make certain truth claims about God because we have received these through divine revelation, and even though God’s being vastly surpasses our ability to understand, we can still hold as true that which has been revealed.
We do know this much, though: if Christ is not raised, then our faith is futile. Why is this? It is because the resurrection of Christ shows us the telos of our salvation. Like other Wesleyans, I believe that salvation is a process. It involves transformation of our lives in the here and now and eternal life in the age to come. In the resurrection of Christ, we get a glimpse of what our eternal life is to be. It is to be embodied. It is to have continuity with our life before death. Yet it is also to be incorruptible. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Cor 15:42).
Death is not the end. Yes there is grief, believe me, I know there is grief. But we have a hope that we shall be like Jesus, resurrected and made whole. We have hope that all of God’s creation will be made whole.
What if it’s true? What difference would it make? Nicole Nordeman answers that question with the chorus:
But what if you’re wrong
What if there’s more
What if there’s hope
You never dreamed of hoping for
What if you jump
Just close your eyes
What if the arms that catch you
Catch you by surprise
What if He’s more
Than enough what if it’s love
What if it’s true? If it’s true we have a hope that nothing, nothing will keep God from making us and all of creation, present and future whole. Christ is Risen! Thanks be to God. Amen.