Monday, April 6, 2015

Resurrection Sunday sermon

I preached last Christmas, and I got the opportunity to preach this Resurrection Sunday, as well. Here is a rough draft of my sermon.

Today is Resurrection Sunday, and for Christians worldwide, it should be a day of great rejoicing and happiness. There is no room for a somber countenance today; there is no excuse for a morose demeanor, because today is a day of celebration of great victory -- the victory of God in Jesus Christ over death, doom, destruction, and all the forces of evil. I call it "Resurrection Sunday" and not "Easter," because Easter is a public holiday with no meaning and no significance. In any case, long before anyone ever used the word "Easter," Christians were celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on a day such as ours. That is what we are celebrating today -- not bunnies and eggs and chocolates, not an opportunity for our families to gather, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Importantly, we are celebrating this Resurrection as a real event which took place in history. We are not bringing to mind some empty mythology, some story which unnamed persons made up in keeping with some understanding or philosophy. There are mythologies and stories about dying and rising gods from a number of different cultures in the world. We are not celebrating a mythology, however, but we are celebrating an event for which we have the testimony of eyewitnesses. 

The apostles tell us that they were eyewitnesses of his resurrection from the dead (Acts 2.32). Jesus appeared to the women who had gone to his tomb to take care of his body; there they found the tomb empty (Mt 28.1-10). He appeared to Cleopas and a companion of his as they were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). Jesus appeared to his apostles and they touched his body, checking the wounds in his hands and legs from his crucifixion. He even ate with them (Luke 24.36-43; John 21.9-14). From the very beginning, the apostles told the story about Jesus' death and resurrection -- not as mythology, taking place in some indefinite past in a land to which no one has any access; rather, these things took place here, in the real world, during the time of Pontius Pilate. They insist on this point in everything they wrote: 

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1.1-3).

Some persons think that the disciples were speaking about a kind of "spiritual" resurrection, not a physical resurrection of his body from the dead. But that is contradicted by what they say: they felt his body, felt his wounds, saw him eat with them, saw the fish and bread disappear from the table as he was eating. Others say that the disciples were hallucinating. This too is nonsense: Luke tells us that the disciples did not believe that they were really seeing him, and even after they felt his wounds and gave him food to eat, they were still amazed at what was happening (Luke 24.36-42). Furthermore, an hallucination cannot eat your fish and drink your water! The Jews who did not believe said that the disciples had stolen the body (Mt 28.11-5), an allegation which confirms that the tomb of Jesus was empty. But they did not steal the body, since they went on preaching the gospel of Christ's resurrection even when they were heavily persecuted and some of them were killed. They would not persist in their lie if it meant their lives -- they would have nothing to gain. But they were able to continue preaching Christ, even if it meant death, because Christ conquered death and his resurrection transformed their very understanding of life and death entirely. Moreover, the Holy Spirit would not have been given to those who believed, if Christ was not at the right hand of the Father to baptize them.

So we are celebrating Christ's resurrection on the basis of the firm and reliable testimony of his apostles. We know that Christ was risen from the dead, because they tell us so, and their testimony is a good one. Indeed, Ioan Alexandru, a Romanian poet and theologian, said this: I am more certain of the resurrection of Christ than of my own existence, because it changed my life. That is the testimony of everyone who is a Christian, and who today is full of joy at the celebration of Christ's resurrection.

But what is so significant about Christ's resurrection? What is worth celebrating about it? It is certainly a fascinating, wonderful surprise, but what more could it mean than that?

In the first place, Christ's resurrection is the solution to the problem of evil. If you talk to atheists and agnostics and ask them why they do not believe in God, very likely they will tell you: there's too much evil and suffering in the world; if God exists and is good, why would he allow everything that we see? Some persons take their protest even further. They are angry at God for creating the world the way it is, and even if God exists, and even if he threatens them with eternal hellfire, they will refuse to worship and acknowledge him -- so great and horrific are the evils in the world.

Permit me to submit that this is certainly a problem for those who believe in God but do not believe in Jesus Christ. If you do not accept the Christian teaching about God's incarnation, death, and resurrection in Jesus Christ, then you will have a very hard time accounting for the preponderance of evil in the world. If God does not get involved with the evil in the world in some way, he stands far off, aloof from our sufferings, then he would seem not to be good at all.

But the Christian teaching about Christ provides a solution to this problem. In Jesus Christ, God himself had taken on human nature, had lived as a human and had suffered everything that is common to human persons in the world as we know it. He knew what it was to get hungry, to get thirsty, to be burned by the sun, to suffer the cold, to be rejected and mocked by other people, to have his family members taunt and abuse him, to hear lies and slander spread about him. Finally, he knew what it was to die a miserable death at the hands of evil people -- being crucified, even though he was innocent. If the story ended here, it would seem that there's nothing particularly good about it. But the resurrection of Christ changes all of that.

In the Resurrection, we learn a lesson about God and about the world. We learn that evil cannot triumph over good; that death cannot stand in the way of God's purposes for the life of the world. We learn that evil people will not have the ultimately final word over the good. We learn that darkness cannot overcome the light, but rather that light always overcomes darkness in the end. Even death -- the most powerful, irresistible, irreversible force we know -- cannot resist God's purposes of good and salvation in the world. 

The gospel teaches us a lesson about the problem of evil. There is evil in the world and suffering because of sin. Human sin estranges us from God, and because of this sin, we find ourselves faced with inevitable doom and death. Yet because God is good, and because it would be unworthy of his goodness to permit that his creatures, created in his image, be destroyed by sin and death, consequently he came among us. He was a human just like us, except that he was without sin, and he offered himself to die in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous. He dies, suffering the death to which humanity had been condemned. But in his resurrection, he promises us life after death.

The resurrection of Christ is a promise of the resurrection and life of all human persons. Paul says in 1 Cor 15.22 that as all die in Adam, so also all will  be made alive in Christ. Because Christ was united to us, and because he rose from the dead, so also will we rise from the dead. Thus we see that God has solved the problem of evil in the world through Jesus Christ: he dies for the sins of humanity, so that humanity can have life. He has not stood far off, he has not remained aloof, he has not ignored the evil in the word; rather, he comes into our world and takes evil head-on, defeating it forever in his conquest of death. Because Christ was risen from the dead to life, therefore death and no evil can have the final word; the final word is God's life and mercy.

What is more, Christ's resurrection gives us a way of understanding our own sufferings in the world. We see in Christ's death and resurrection a new way of interpreting the things that happen to us. Our sufferings in the world, the evils we face, the trials and travails which afflict us are just recreations of Christ's crucifixion scene. When we suffer, it is like Christ is being crucified again. But we know, and today we remind ourselves, that after every crucifixion comes a Resurrection. The last word is not death but life, not sin but righteousness, not evil but good. Paul says that if we suffer with Christ, we will be glorified with him as well (Rom 8.17).

We can follow Christ's commands because we know that good has the final word. I can love unconditionally, I can forgive, I can sacrifice and give myself to the service of others because I know that my pains are temporary. If I am crucified now, I know that on the third day I will rise from the dead to be with Christ forever. I can make the great sacrifices that Christ calls on me to do, because his resurrection gives me hope beyond this present life. 

Let me think of a specific example: forgiveness. Forgiveness is a way of being crucified. You do wrong to me, and before you make up for it, before you make any kind of atonement, while you are still guilty, I determine to take the damage in myself and to treat you with kindness and love anyway. In a real way, forgiveness is difficult to make sense of. For people in the world, forgiveness is nonsense, something only a sucker would do who has no self-respect, someone with no backbone. And yet Christ tells us that if we don't forgive others, God himself won't forgive us (Mt 6.14-5). 

Christ's resurrection gives us power to forgive. Because I know that death cannot triumph over life, that evil cannot vanquish good, that darkness cannot defeat light, because I know that God's goodness and justice have the final word, therefore I can forgive you when you do wrong to me. I can ignore slights, I can ignore insults, I can forgive even grave offenses and injustices. When Christ was being crucified, he prayed: Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing (Luke 23.34). So also, I can forgive you even if it means being crucified, because I know that the final word belongs to resurrection, to light, to good, to God. Amen.