Texts: Acts 10.34-43; Col 3.1-4; Mt 28.1-10
Last weekend in Egypt bombs exploded in two churches as Coptic Christians celebrated Palm Sunday. 49 people died and more than 100 others were injured. As a result, there are many churches in Egypt today who did not celebrate Easter this morning; instead, they gathered in worship to pray for and mourn their dead, their Easter joy tempered with worldly sorrow.
Our faith teaches us that in the face of Christ’s resurrection, “death has lost its sting,” but the reality is that death’s sting is still all too real. It’s tempting to offer up platitudes, hollow clichés about how God never closes a door without opening a window or how God tests our faith through suffering or about everything being a part of God’s plan. It’s tempting to answer the very real suffering of others with the false assurances that the joy of heaven will someday make us forget the pain we suffer in this life, but all these heresies serve only to make ourselves feel better, to protect us from the suffering of others and insulate us from the fear that what happened to them might also happen to us. These “reassurances” are the flimsy shields behind which we hide from death.
When the women appear at the tomb, they see the angel who calls Jesus “the crucified one.” His resurrection does not change the fact that he died; and in fact quite the opposite: It is only through his death that his resurrection is real. He will forever carry the marks of that death on his body. The crucifixion was not a temporary hardship he endured on his path to glory, nor a minor inconvenience that he weathered: he is forever the one who died on a cross, the “Lamb who was slain.”
The God we worship does not ask us deny the reality of death; God does not ask us to side-step the inconvenient truth that good and faithful people still suffer from undeserved illness, doubt, and tragedy. Instead, our God walks with us patiently through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and sits with us in the ash heap of Black Saturday acknowledging that some pain cannot be solved, it can only be endured; but in the festival of Easter, this God of ours invites us to see the reality of resurrection alongside the reality of death: the crucified one now lives.
For too many Christians, this reality goes no further than the idea that, because Jesus left the tomb, we all get to go to heaven when we die. Resurrection is reduced to sitting on a cloud and strumming a harp. If this is all resurrection is, then it is a paltry promise for anyone who has faced real suffering. Resurrection is about so much more than just the promise that those who happen to belong to the right religion or believe the right thing will live again after they die.
On the day that Jesus died, the earth shook. Today, we hear that the earth shakes again as the angel descends and the stone is rolled away. This is not just divine fanfare for the resurrection of one man, or even of all humankind. It is the ecstatic quiver of creation itself as the love of God literally moves heaven and earth to bring life where there is none; not just to dead people, but to death in all its forms. Resurrection is the process of the cosmos finally becoming what God is creating it to be.
But of course, as we know all too well we are not there yet. Death and pain still surround us, and our own sinfulness still holds us firm. Bombs still explode in churches and mosques and synagogues. People mourn, even on Easter. The resurrection of Jesus did not end these things, but it does signal the beginning of the end. Resurrection is not limited to a one-time historical event, but neither is it limited to an event in some distant future, a promise for “someday when I die” or the end of time. Resurrection is a present reality that is unfolding around us as we speak.
Even with all the pains and scars we bear this morning, we are here because we have not been broken. Though we carry death in our very bodies and souls, we also carry the resurrection of Jesus. In baptism, we have died to the world and all its pain and brokenness and been raised to new life—resurrected life—with Christ. Baptism doesn’t mean that we don’t feel the pain of the world just as strongly, but it does mean that that pain cannot defeat us, cannot own us, for even in death we belong to Christ and share in his grave-opening life.
And having been raised to new life with Christ, the author of Colossians encourages us to “set our minds on heavenly things, not on earthly things.” That doesn’t mean that we look past all the evil and death around us to focus on some future without pain. Rather it is an invitation to see the “heavenly things” all around us—to see how God’s earth-shaking love transforms everything with the power of resurrection: grief-stricken women become the witnesses of joy; disciples who deserted their friend and fled become brothers; mourners become messengers of good news; the least and the last become the first and foremost.
And we—even we, who carry so much pain and sorrow within us; even we, who are so broken and unreliable—we become the agents and heralds of resurrection for the whole world when we meet the living Christ face-to-face at this table where he feeds us with his own living body and blood. As we eat, he shares his resurrected life with us and, in so doing, transforms us into his own body—broken and shared for the life of the world.
As we gather to worship the Crucified and Risen One, we are celebrating the life-giving love of God that does not deny death, but embraces it and is not overwhelmed. On behalf of our Egyptian sisters and brothers who mourn today we are celebrating the God who has died with them and who even now literally moves heaven and earth to bring resurrection out of the death that is so real for them and for us. We are celebrating Jesus who endures the suffering of the cross for us so that he might offer us a life that is greater, fuller, freer; a life that springs up from death rather than being crushed underneath it; a life that never ends.
This is what we mean when we sing “Christ is risen! Henceforth never death or hell shall us enthrall. We are Christ’s, in him forever we have triumphed over all.*” Death and hell remain real, and while I will not say the can never touch us, I will say they can never undo what Christ has done this day by bringing life and immortality to light. In baptism, we have suffered death with Christ and we have been raised with him. No power of death can take away the resurrection he shares with us now through the waters of baptism and through the bread and wine of communion. The power of Christ’s resurrected life is so strong that even in the midst of this world and its bombs and burglaries and drive-bys we remain forever his. In hope, in desperation, in anticipation, and in joyful defiance, we proclaim what we have seen (and what we hope) to be true:
Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!]
Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!]
Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!]**
The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia.
**Throughout the season of Easter, but most especially on Easter Day, this common call and response can be found in some form in worship at many liturgical churches.