Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three Shades of Joy

John 20:1-11

Easter Sunday

The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

The joy of Easter comes in three shades. The resurrection is “a transformation, a revelation, and a transition into newness.” So said Valentinus (Treatise on Resurrection), who had his own troubles with semi-organized religion, near the year 150ad. We begin in 2008 where the Easter 2007 sermon ended. Valentinus may have been trying to summarize the earliest teaching on Easter, found in the then scattered books of the yet to be collected New Testament. He may have read what Peter, Paul, and, today, Mary had to say about the matter. Peter, Paul, and Mary. It has a nice ring to it. Hear the good news: The joy of Easter comes in three shades, and means three different things to three different kinds of people, or to you in three different hours of need. But count it all joy.

On this hallelujah day, we keep for ourselves the advice of one Missouri chicken to another about how to lay an egg on the highway: Do it fast and lay it on the line. So here it is.

  1. Peter

First, Easter is the resurrection of body. Of belonging in life. Today is the resurrection of the body, of community.

You are not alone. Ortega was right: ‘Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias’. John Donne was right: No man is an Island. The African proverb is right: It takes a village. Dr Johnson was right: Keep your friendships in good repair.

Church is the worst sort of organization there is—except for all the others. The body needs the body to be the body.

Something happened. At dawn. Early. Out in the country. ‘He is risen. He is not here.’ Here is the religious resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of the body. Now in the creed, this phrase, ‘the resurrection of the body’, can refer to the daily rebirth of the church, the ongoing life of the Body of Christ—the church. The church. The astounding remarkable, historical, actual fact of the church. The daily Easter miracle that the church survives. We have lived in 13 parsonages in 50 years, served 7 churches, and attended 35 annual conference sessions. I guarantee you this: it is a miracle, and not a minor, that the church survives at all, this human ‘representation and distortion of the divine’ (Tillich). But it does! Against all odds. Beyond all comprehension. Well beyond any reasonable calculus of what ought to have happened. The church is of God. And will be preserved to the end of time. Through the daily resurrection of the body. Of Christ. Easter is about genuine belonging that crosses the line of death.

Religious resurrection. Beyond: A religion of shared experience and the common faith of John Dewey. Beyond: A religion of shared existence and the common ground of Howard Thurman. Beyond: A religion of shared expectation and the common hope of Marsh Chapel’s preaching during our decade. A poem calling us into the beyond.

Last week on Commonwealth one of our students wore a shirt reading: ‘A Chorus Line’. In a twinkling I was back almost thirty years.

We took our youth group to New York City 25 years ago. The drive was difficult, our lodging was imperfect, we were late arriving, the show we saw was “A Chorus Line”, full of words and gestures that I thought would have me defrocked before I was frocked. So at midnight we sat in a circle uptown to review the day. I expressed my concerns. No one said anything. Then Kathy Likens said: “I am just so glad to be here. I mean, I have never been here. I have never been in New York. And I have never been on Broadway. We were on Broadway! And here I am. And it is so great! I wouldn’t trade this for anything, to be here with you all. I will never forget it as long as I live.” It is a beautiful thing. To be. Here. Together. Hers was the joy of belonging, and the eclipse of loneliness. There is a real, bitter loneliness that can visit young people. Some of the loneliest folks anywhere are freshman and sophomores in college.

Being human requires community. You need genuine love. You need real compassion. You need honest companionship. All of these you will find right here. In the church. He is risen! In his basin, towel, tears, stripes, agony, death and cross, an entirely divine seal has now been set. The empty tomb, the resurrection of the body, the religious resurrection of Christ, Peter’s shade of joy, is our joy too.

  1. Paul

Second, Easter is the resurrection of truth and meaning in life.

Words matter. Dollars matter. Decisions matter. You matter. You count. Here is the spiritual meaning of Easter. Over time, truth emerges. There is a self-correcting spirit of Truth loose in the universe. You can count on it. And it matters. We might linger, briefly, at 1 Corinthians 15.

So, Paul. If Christ be not raised from the dead, we are of all people most to be pitied. Because then nothing really, lastingly matters. There is no real failure. There is no real loss. There is no real consequence to anything. Yet, in fact, acclaims our earliest witness, things do matter. As our own experience, honestly construed, does too. You do count.

Christ is risen Resurrection is about life. Meaning. Truth. What matters. What counts. Your choices this year about sex, money, religion, vocation, work, family, politics—they matter. Or as the Apostle trenchantly puts it: “if the dead are not raised, why am I in peril every hour?. If the dead are not raised, ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’.

Paul was not a disciple. He was an outlaw not an in-law. Paul misses all the family stories: shepherds, kings, Mary, healings, sermons, temple, parables, all. He never heard Jesus say, ‘I by the finger of God cast out demons’. In fact, he never heard Jesus say anything, as far as we know. No wonder he never got the word, or accepted the word, about the empty tomb. Which he did not.

Paul does not mean, by resurrection, an empty tomb. No. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, says Paul. For those this morning who hear the tradition of Peter, and his shade of joy, and the account of the empty tomb, and say, ‘Why can’t some people just let a story be a story?’ there is a further joy. What a friend you have in Paul. Who knows and says nothing about an empty tomb. He’s your man. He says ‘resurrection’. And what does that mean? The incursion of grace, the invasion of heaven, the apocalypse of love, the end of the old world, the opening the new, a new heaven and earth. “To live by such faith, it is clear from the biblical depictions, is to be on trial as part of a mission in the earth that remains countercultural insofar as the culture embodies the powers of domination opposed to love and freedom that the power of Resurrection brings”. (C Morse)

But Paul, how are dead raised? You yourself have said no to flesh and blood inheriting the kingdom. Just what do you mean?

We may argue with Paul…

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

OK, Paul. I understand physical body. I mean, I know losing sight, hearing, memory, daily deterioration—that I got. I am with you. But what do you mean by spiritual body? And don’t say it’s a mystery.

Lo I tell you a mystery.

I knew you would say that. I mean I just knew you would use the word mystery. It is so like you to do that. What does it mean? And don’t use that metaphor of sleep, how we emerge from sleep, as from a dream.

We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.

See, I knew you would do that. I mean honestly, when I think about the difference, the daily transition from sleeping to waking, I am amazed. I think about the dreams I can remember. How colorful they are. How creative. How real. How strange. And how totally unlike the waking world. And yet they are real. In some ways fiercely so. So you talk about change. Good. I guess. And what may I say is that? But please don’t use another metaphor, and no philosophy please.

The perishable must put on the imperishable.

See, there you go again. Perishableimperishable, weaknesspower, dustheaven, mortalimmortal. And how is that to be?

The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised and we shall be raised imperishable and we shall be changed!

Paul, Paul, Paul…I guess I see what you mean…. Who are we, really, to question the resurrection. Easter is the solemn assurance that it is not we who question who question resurrection, but resurrection that questions us.

Some of our younger adults this morning are truly wrestling with this matter of meaning, wrestling with doubt. Is it true? Is the faith of Christ true? Is it to be trusted, held, affirmed? If it is not, if not resurrection, then what? Adolph von Harnack viewed our Scriptures as sources not norms. Sources of historical information, not norms of spiritual faith. He also carried this warning, that the greatest danger may not be doubt, but entrapment. If you become trapped in a truth too small, you are in greater danger than that which some doubt about a truth much larger may inflict. Better what he called a measure of ‘persistent uncertainity’ than a full measure of unqualified belief. Better the freedom of honest doubt than the prison of false certainty.

The truth of the Gospel, and the spiritual resurrection of Christ, Paul’s shade of joy at Easter, is our joy too.

3. Mary

Third, Easter is the resurrection of possibility. This is resurrection in its most personal mode. It is John who knows Easter best because he needs it least. He leaves Easter to Mary and the garden. For John, the cross alone has accomplished the mission of Christ. It is finished. And the great waves of grief that the community then knew are overwhelmed by the joy of faith.

John gives us four resurrection accounts in chapter 20: Absence, Presence, Recognition, Mission. Today our Easter Gospel is the gospel of absence. Here is Mary weeping…they have taken away my lord …grief…in the ordinary, in the voice, in the name, in the garden, in the gardener, when your name is truly called MARY. The spell of her grief is broken by the spoken. Her grief is broken by the spoken power of an intervening word. She hears. Heart to heart.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of making three visits in the back bay—a home, an office, a school. There is freedom and joy in pastoral visitation. Along Marlborough street I saw a banner, ‘cor ad cor loquitur’. It means heart speaks to heart, and I could ferret that out, but the verb looked wrong. Its ending, I mean. So I phoned up my Latin teacher, who doubles as my mother, a multitasking person still. She explained that the verb is deponent, passive in form, active in meaning. Personal resurrection comes slant, comes latent, comes deponent. Grief is a life work, but it allows of some resolution. It does. Though that resolution may be passive in form, it is powerful, active in meaning. It comes in a word spoken and heard. Today is a day of personal resurrection from ongoing grief.

Here we are together. And listening along the North Shore by radio. And on the internet down in Sarasota. And in Australia by the same stream. Now it is just a further, short leap, symbolized by our memorial insert, to say that by resurrection faith I see you, too, just outside the wall of sight, the doorway of hearing, the threshold of touch. You can silently provide their names…

The whole of the second half of John is shot through with grief. The good news of Easter is that grief is succeeded by joy, a joy as mysterious and full as our grief has been real and shared. And this is the whole record of Scripture as well…

Wise men from the east at last find a star and a child and they rejoice with great joy.

Common shepherds hear tidings of great joy, meant for all people, and are shaken to their boots.

Some seed falls on good ground and…you and you and you…receive the word with great joy.

A servant is faithful over a little, and is set over much, and enters…the joy of the master.

There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over 99 who lack nothing.

Even the evening of his death, Jesus sings with joy his affection for his disciples.

And early women go to the tomb, and finding it empty are turned upside down and leave with fear and great, great joy.

For Mary it is not the belonging, nor the believing of resurrection that are paramount. It is the joy of becoming! Easter, by Mary’s report—and who would know better?—is the unkillable possibility of the Christian life, the power and empowerment of authentic human life, the unmaskable potential in every space for love.

But some of it is “up to you”. As Augustine said, “the God who made you without you will not justify you without you.” The resurrection is personal possibility, for you.

The possibility in the gospel, and the personal resurrection of Christ, Mary’s shade of joy, is our joy too.


The joy of Easter comes in three shades, and means three things to three different kinds of people, or three people in different settings, or three moments in the lives of various people, or three sets of ears on three different days.

Resurrection is the transformation of community, the revelation meaning and the transition into newness that is possibility. Communion, Meaning, and empowerment.

Easter is community for those seeking belonging. Easter is truth for those hungry for meaning. Easter is possibility for those seeking faith.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.

Oh, I almost forgot… One other thing…. Just a thought. Take it for what it is worth.. …If love can prevail in a culture of selfishness…If truth can survive in a world of mendacity…If faith can persist in a time of fear…

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It makes you wonder, it makes the joy wonder heavenly and the hope of heaven wonderful…

Just a thought.

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