Sunday, March 31, 2002

Two Responses to Resurrection

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 20:1-18

While it was still Dark…

When the student assigned last week to give his oral report in my college class did not appear due to illness, I asked the others if any were prepared and eager to report in his place. From the front row came this response: "I am prepared…but not eager."

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

Prepared, but not eager, Mary Magdalene, alone in John is alone at the tomb, early on the morning of the first day. While it was still dark, notes the author of the Fourth Gospel, who will provide four accounts of resurrection in this 20th chapter (we hear two), and who includes such remarkable details. Look at these singular memories from the first account. While it is still dark, Mary arrives. The unnamed beloved disciple arrives, with Peter. The beloved disciple looks in but does not go in, at first. Peter and he race to the tomb. The head cloth is not with the other linen. The beloved disciple arrives at the tomb first, but enters second. The disciples go home. In the second resurrection account, which probably at one time stood alone in the memory of the church, Mary again sees things. Look at these singular memories from the second account: Mary bends over to look. The angels sit on the crypt. She is startled from behind. Jesus looks to her like the gardener. We hear theological terms, Rabonni, ascent, Father, God. Mary goes and speaks to the disciples.

The two men go home, eat breakfast and nap. The woman goes over to her neighbors' house and talks. Typical. Two responses to resurrection. Listen with me, for a few minutes this morning, to the Easter Gospel, stepping backwards through the sermon title: first a word about resurrection; second a thought about responsibility; and then, third, a couple of responses to resurrection.


But what is resurrection?

Amid all the disappointments of life in general, the way of the cross, the crucifixion itself, the failure of the mission to the Jews and the delay of Christ's return, it is the universal affirmation of the earliest Christians, of the 27 books of the New Testament, of the martyred many in the pantheon of patristic saints, of the body of Christ the church, and of you in your own words today that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. On this single affirmation of faith, through which God's freedom becomes our responsibility, stands or falls the whole weight of the Gospel. John 20 narrates two responses to resurrection, in the witnesses of Peter and John, on the one hand, and Mary Magdalene, on the other. But these are not the only witnesses.

The law and prophets of the Hebrew Scripture bear witness, of a sort, to the coming resurrection of Christ. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps 23). "After two days he will revive us, and on the third day he will raise us up (Hos 6:2)."

Paul of Tarsus bears witness to the resurrection. "Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, he was buried and he was raised on the third day." "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied". (1 Cor 15)

The Gospel tradition, both synoptic and Johannine, both testamental and extratestamental, bears witness to the resurrection. This witness includes the mystical, vocal bodily resurrection as announced in today's reading. This witness also includes recognition of appearances by the risen Christ to a certain few. This witness further includes the regular cadence of prediction, on the part of the Son of Man (surely an historic self-reference by Jesus the apocalyptic preacher), to a vindication in resurrection of his coming passion. This witness emphatically includes, in harmony with the expectations of Jewish apocalyptic which would have found any so-called spiritual resurrection a full contradiction in terms, a reverence for the body, the body of Christ crucified and raised, the bodily resurrection and the body of Christ his church. In fact, the Gospel tradition is only about the cross and resurrection. Whatever we may choose to think, those who developed, wrote and heard the Gospels in the original setting, preached and believed without exception in the resurrection, the bodily resurrection, of Jesus Christ, Son of Man Son of God.

Following, in history, the earliest Pauline witness, and the somewhat later Gospel record, the epistles of the New Covenant literature, without question and without compromise, further bear witness to the resurrection. The secondary Pauline letters do so in a manner that blends finally toward a Platonic Greek affirmation of the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection remains central, bodily and unquestioned. The letters bearing the name of John and the Revelation to John bear similar witness, appropriating and subverting the spiritualizing language of the Gnostics, who were their closest friend and fiercest enemies, parallel in discourse to Jesus' loving hatred of the Pharisees. Acts, James, Hebrews, Peter, and even the gnostic apocalypse of Jude, while saying many strange other things, are united in this if only in this: Christ is Risen.

In the next century, Ignatius went to his lion's den death acclaiming the resurrection; Polycarp, martyred Bishop of Rome, who met the same grisly death, did the same. Irenaeus, in Gaul, arguing with the later Gnostics, began, amplified, and ended his writing in Resurrection. Even the heterodox, gnostic and ebionite and millenialist and others, bear inverted witness to the powerful centrality of resurrection in their often stunningly creative attempts to rearrange resurrection for their own agendas (see Valentinus' Letter to Rheginos).

The resurrection of Jesus is more than resuscitation--but not less. The witness of the church, of this church too, is that God has decisively acted in history by Christ to forgive sin and to vanquish death. Nor is Christ's being raised a form of healing, only, or translation, only, like the experiences of Lazarus or Elijah. No, this is the first fruit of the new creation, the beginning of the new age, whose outpost is the church. God's invasion, beachhead, incursion into history, the divine d-day is announced today. The name of God's act is resurrection. Without it our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins, trapped, enslaved, the creatures of various conditions beyond our control or understanding that steal our freedom, and so our humanity. Without resurrection there is no response, because there is no responsibility at all.

It is in this vein, 100 years after the first Easter, that our fourth Gospel writer preaches. All the aforementioned, bodily resurrection, he receives and assumes. But he has other fish to fry, morally spiritual fish to fry. For the author of John, the accounts today of absence and presence have become moral stories. Directions for some to believe and go home, for others to recognize and say something. 100 years is not that long a time. Last Sunday 6 of us sat together, two of whom could remember, clearly, the personality of the minister in this church, Rev. Brown, who preceded Ralph Spaulding Cushman. Cushman was here in the 1920's. There is a "finesse" to venerable memory that, in its delicate lightness, touches truth more truly than younger recollection. John, in the 20th chapter, shows us some of this kind of "finesse".


Some historians avoid an historic, that is bodily, or mystically vocal resurrection, because they focus on causation. Resurrection is not a historical category in the general sense. Many, like Marx, believe that "history moves with iron necessity towards inevitable results". Others too, philosophers, sociologists, scientists, cannot fathom resurrection, because it challenges the basic categories of their work. Which it does. Many others, avoid resurrection for another reason, the primary reason for the rejection of the Gospel in any case. Resurrection creates responsibility. If we are all merely creatures of biology, sociology and history, conditions over which we have no control and upon which we have no influence, then we are not free and therefore we are not responsible. We are not subjects. There is a reassuring side to this thought. While we receive no praise, we also avoid any blame. Nothing much changes anyway. Our conditions cause our behavior. "I really do not want to go to church because I know at some point somebody will ask me to do something."

But conditions are not, necessarily, causes. Our sinful human condition is not necessarily a warrant for ongoing sin. Our mortal human condition is not ultimately an unalterable death knell. Easter means forgiveness and heaven!

Contrary to historical determinism, in the historic teaching of the church, on resurrection, the opposite is true. God has freely acted in raising Jesus, and has thus opened the way for response. We are free to respond. And there is the rub.

It is not, finally, we who have the power to question the resurrection. It is the resurrection that questions us.

As one for whom Christ died, and for whom God has raised him from the dead, now in the hearing of this good news, you have responsibility. You are free, free to go straight to hell, as Bishop Tutu says. You have the power to respond. Our past has been forgiven and our future has been opened (Christ has overcome sin and death). But that leaves you holding the bag, if not the burial cloth. Ability to response, response-ability, is forever set loose on Easter.

Two Responses

Today, we hear of two such responses to resurrection. Following the Scripture, we will address the men here today with one and the women with another. Notice: in John 20 it is the men who tend the hearth and the women who change the world. The men believe and go home. The woman recognizes and says something.

Peter and John, seeing and believing, go home. This is not a highly revolutionary move on their part. It is not perhaps what we most would expect. It is, though, how they respond. Strange as the text is at this point, could we not listen for a moment as to whether it carries truth?

One response to resurrection, men, is to go home. You have response-ability. You can go home, again. You can go to your prayer closet and shut the door. You can wake up to the mystical strangeness of the breath itself, and begin to accept response-ability at home.

A. I talked with a young couple not long ago, just after their son was born. Early in the morning the contractions began. Panting and blowing and praying and waiting, the birth progressed. Suddenly-miracle! - ruddy and pink and crying and blinking there appeared a new born. You can revisit that moment, that sense of the miraculous.

B. I heard devotions in our building meeting, given by a young man who has a telescope. When he was nine his neighbor taught him about the heavens. On a clear night he would call over next door, "Mikey come on out. I've got my scope. It's clear. Let's listen to the stars." Listen to the stars…

C. I read Isaiah Berlin on his life mission. "Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached; in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force-so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, and so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established." Is there a year in history in which, given the preeminant image of 9:45am on 9/11/01, we would have been more receptive to the mission of softening collisions?

D. Men, your home needs you, somehow, now. So does your church home. Asbury First will not survive unless we learn ourselves and teach our children to tithe. You will live to see the church closed, unless, against the prevailing cultural wind of our community, we can sail freely from the spirit of entitlement to the soul of generosity. Asbury First will need $10M more of endowment, either all in cash, or $5M in cash and $5M in building, before 2010, if we are to continue our ministry in the city of Rochester. Are we to become the spiritual village green for this troubled county? Is Christ to be lifted here, the Lamp of the Poor? You have response-ability. The future is open, and will take shape depending on decisions you freely make and choices you freely take. I can take responsibility for the pulpit. You can take responsibility for the future of the church. Our freedom, should we choose to take responsibility, is to hand over to another generation what generously was given to us. We are not there, we are not doing it, not yet.

E. Nor can we afford to ignore our global institutions today. In the teeth of Moslem/Jewish hatreds, is there not suddenly again after 50 years a tremendously influential role now possible for our World Council of Churches? Where is the John R. Mott of the 21st century? Christians are free of law to extend grace in all directions. To do so before the planet self-destructs will take some home front, institutional development. I haven't heard a plea for the WCC in 25 years. So here is one! Too late? No. The best time to plant an oak tree is 100 years ago. The next best time is TODAY!

The Lord is Risen! He is risen indeed.

A second response to resurrection, women, is to say something.

John and Peter experience the resurrection as Christ absent, Mary experiences the resurrection as Christ present. One is a more religious and one a more secular habit of being. One builds for the future by building through the institutions of the future. The other enters the future singing. One responds in prayer, the other in voice. One emphasizes being, the other doing. So, women, what have you to say? What response do you lift to Easter? If nothing else, the bodily resurrection meant for the earliest church a vocal resurrection. It meant the preaching of the church, bearing witness that something happened.

We may not know exactly the details we would like to know about Easter morning. To explain, though, the birth of the church in the midst of profound disappointment, we know that-something happened.

A. We may not have all the words we would like, but we have the sense of what Robert Frost meant:

When to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things, and to yield with a grace to reason
To bow and accept the end of a love or a season?

We have the sure sense that something remarkable happened.

B. We may still not have digested 9/1101, but Easter makes this affirmation lasting:

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

In such faith we recall: on Easter something astounding happened!

C. What say you women? Can we, with Hamlet, advise the tongues of another generation:

Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel

Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,
Bear't that the'opposed may beware of thee
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice
Take each man's censure, but reserve they judgement

This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thous canst not then be false to any man

D. What a privilege to announce with you, from this unique pulpit, the basis for meaningful life, the raising of Christ from the dead! I stretch back to the Mary voices, now glorified, who said something. Mary Mack along Skaneateles Lake. Bernice Danks, who taught Ithaca nurses to attend to routine: "We call it routine because it is the most important!" Setta Moe, who rebuilt a sanctuary in the far north, individually raising money for Keck leaded glass windows, and who knew Almonzo Wilder. Ruth Childs, happy humility personified. Marion Moshier, the fullness of grace. Eunice Roudebush ( I didn't know her, but I do know she went to Ohio Wesleyan!), who so intimately taught the Bible that you felt Peter and Paul had been at dinner with her the day before. Carol Reed said something through her life, the last word is hers: "Each day when we awake, we need to re-discover, God is with us!"

Here are two responses to resurrection: go home, say something.
Choose one or more today!

The Lord is risen: He is risen indeed!

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