Someone told me that this sermon was interesting and well-done, but not the typical feel-good Easter sermon one expects. That seems very fair to me. I think what I wanted to do was to provide for those occasional church visitors who would consider being more involved, but who find the central message of the resurrection hard to believe, a way to think about Easter that both makes more sense and points to the importance of the current community gathered in Jesus’ name. That probably wasn’t many folks! So if that isn’t you, I’d love to know what you got out of it or would have likes. Click on “comment” on the bottom.
Scripture: Ephesians 1:17-23 ;Mark 16:1-8
Like any book, the Bible can sometimes be inadvertently funny. Some will think it sacrilegious of me to say so, on Easter morning of all times. But one of my favorites amusing passages is at the famous end of Matthew (on your sermon guide): “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (And this seems to be continuing the story from the end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard.) “When they saw him, they worshipped him. But some doubted.” And I want to say: O come on! What’s the matter with you disciples! The women found the empty tomb, then in Matthew, as we heard the choir read earlier, Jesus appeared to them and says, “Greetings. Go tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where you will see me.” Now, you disciples did that, lo! There he was. And some of you are still doubting!” If only we had it so easy. Did you ever hear the Car Talk guys talk about a dope slap? I know it is not pious to think so, but I want to slap these disciples upside the head—what’s the matter with you?
Here’s the lesson: there is no perfect faith. Even the disciples were doubting with the risen Jesus right in front of them! Why should we expect perfect faith from ourselves? Now, you all have Easter faith. You are here because you love Easter—the joyous triumph of it, expressed in the liturgy and music and the good feeling that rightly animates us all today. But of course, some still doubt. Indeed, who can say, “Oh, I understand the resurrection perfectly!” Jesus was dead, see, but then by God’s power, his body came back to life. Then he walked around and ran into some of his old buddies. And after he got to see everyone he wanted to, he floated up on a cloud to the sky, as Acts tells it, and now he sits at the right hand of God, just like Paul said. / What’s to doubt about that?
What becomes clear from a close reading of all the resurrection accounts is that Scripture is trying to describe something that doesn’t fit any of our normal categories. Sometimes the risen Jesus appears, and his disciples recognize his face and body as their once dead master. He even eats something in front of them, in some stories. But he also walks through walls and doors, in other stories. And he walks with two on the road to Emmaus and they don’t recognize him, and then he disappears just as he’s breaking the bread. What’s up? Now, there is a hard-edged realism to the story of Jesus arrest, crucifixion, and death. It’s equally a terrible and wondrous story, but there’s nothing inconceivable about the events leading up to his death. But the resurrection is not an ordinary event, and no written account of it is going to capture it perfectly. The gospels only gesture at doing so; they don’t even try very hard to present his resurrection in the exact same way.
So indeed, the gospels seem unconcerned with trying to explain exactly what happened. What they want to make clear is the point of it, and don’t miss this: the resurrection assured the disciples, to the point of death-defying courage, that who Jesus was and what he did is forevermore validated by God, so that Jesus by the power of God continues to be who he was, and continues to do what he did while he was with them: in that sense, he is alive forevermore. The disciples experienced this and they knew it to be true; and we too can and do experience this and know it. But when the disciples try to explain how it happened, in story form, things get a little fuzzy.
For most of the past 2000 years, this fuzziness has not been much of a problem. But we modern people like to explain things. It’s an admirable quality in us. We like science, and it has given us a confidence that anything really valuable to know can be explained and understood. Sometimes we are too confident about science. But our refusal to just accept teachings without questioning is a very noble quality.
I wish I had a complete explanation of the resurrection. I wish I were never among those “some still doubted” disciples. But if I’m good for anything at all as your teacher, I should be able to get you maybe half way to understanding what happened at the resurrection.
The gospels give us various stories of the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples. None of the accounts, except the version in Luke and the book of Acts, tries to describe where the body of Jesus went. What happened to the body? Isn’t that what we want to know, if we are curious types? The tomb was empty, they say. Ok; no body there. Don’t you wish we had had a time-lapse camera there in the tomb to record what happened? We can imagine Jesus just waking up at some point, and then getting up an encountering Mary later in the garden, as John’s account tells us. But in many of the stories, his body is no ordinary body, as if a dead body began walking around again. Acts tells us that Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Christ that clearly is like a vision; he sees and hears the risen Jesus speaking to him, while those around him see and hear nothing. In fact, in all the stories, no one who does not believe in him sees the risen Christ. Now, they don’t all believe immediately; but seeing and believing go together. The soldiers don’t see Jesus walking out of the tomb. So I don’t think his body was there for all to be seen, like a normal body. / I have no idea where the physical body went. And in my opinion, neither do the Scriptures, frankly.
But we end up with the phrase, which Paul also uses, “God raised him from the dead and seated him at this right hand in the heavenly places.” It sounds as if God has a literal throne, and Jesus is sitting there to the right of God (never mind the weird fact that Jesus is also God). So then we imagine that Jesus and his body are ‘up there,’ somewhere, in heaven, as if heaven were a place in space. Now we know better than that. And so did Paul, whose language on the whole is never childish but wonderfully mysterious. But the first Christians had to describe this mystery they experienced, and they reached for familiar language. And the Psalms are filled with this phrase, “The right hand of God,” and Psalm 110 has God saying to his chosen one, “Sit at my right hand.” So they used that.
Now this question, what happened to the body, is not just a speculative question. It concerns us personally; it’s about the destiny of our bodies. In the Vigil service this morning, we read from Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” So if we are left with this image of Jesus’ body seated at the right hand of God, hanging out with God as if God had a body, then we are likely to picture ourselves up there, in this place called heaven, hanging out with God and Jesus. And imagining our bodies up there in heaven makes us think that our resurrection will be much like our life now, hanging out with our family and friends. We won’t be on the earth anymore, so we might wonder what we’ll be doing up there, forever. I’ve heard people use the phrase, “dancing down those streets paved with gold,” which is colorful enough.
But lots of earnest people, who rightly don’t settle for explanations that seem implausible, find it hard to believe that there could be bodies hanging out with a bodily God and Jesus somewhere in a space called heaven that does not seem to exist in the space we can observe. They will say to themselves, “Well, if that’s what supposedly happened to Jesus’ body and happens also to our bodies, I just can’t believe it. Our bodies die and decay, I know that. So our spirits must just float away, perhaps existing with God in some spiritual realm, perhaps “going to the light” as some with near death experiences have said. Or perhaps our spirits just dissipate.”
Well, like I said, I don’t have any complete explanation. But before we jump to one of these conclusions—bodies in a place called heaven, or spirits absorbed into the light—we should ask, carefully, Is the Bible saying that Jesus’ body went up to heaven, or even just his spirit, leaving the earth behind to live in some other realm with God? I don’t think so.
Let’s go back to Ephesians. Paul first prays for the Ephesians, and I’m sure he’d pray the same for us, that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…so that you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.” He knows this risen Christ business is not easy to grasp; God willing, it will come as we get to know the God of Christ our Lord better. And this wisdom is going to take time, because Paul is talking about “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s or Christ’s] power for us who believe.” Now this immeasurably great power is not the sinful power that we talked about last week, the power to make others cower before you and do whatever you tell them. God’s power is never the power of sin, or of a weapon. It is good power, the power to give. And a giving power often looks weak by the standards of a power that takes and forces—and crucifies. Paul prays that we can understand this immeasurably good power, which is often ignored in the world.
Then Paul continues: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” This isn’t about the body literally being at God’s right; the right hand of God is God’s good power, God’s power to save. It just means that the power of the Christ is God’s good power, and is above all earthly powers of domination, more real than those false and bad powers, even though they often look very fearsome and impressive. Christ’s power of giving, the power of love, really is above all these false claimants to the throne of the world.
And here’s the kicker: “And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” I told you Paul was not childish, but wonderfully mysterious. You see that here. But he does give us the answer to our question. Where’s the body of the Risen Christ? Did it float up to heaven? No, it’s right here. We are the body. After the tomb was emptied, Jesus only appeared where the disciples were gathered, as the church. We are his resurrected life. Go ahead, take a look around. I admit it, we might not look like “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power,” but we are the community, the social body, that lives by the power of giving, and never by the power of domination. (And of course, this congregation fails to live perfectly and purely by the power of giving all the time, and when we fail, we are not being the church. God is our judge.) We know very well that we fail and so we need a reminder that who we really are is simply the embodiment of Jesus’ giving. That’s exactly why we need to celebrate communion, so that we remember that what we are as the church is simply is the collective embodiment of that power of giving revealed in Jesus. And in partaking of this giving that is our very food and drink, we, this congregation, are of course not alone but we are part of the boundless and endless communion of the church as the embodiment of God’s power at work.
And that power is also at work everywhere; you can find it in other religions and in ordinary human goodness and in nature and in secular movements and organizations. Jesus Christ is the “head over all things,” right? The only power that really counts throughout all creation. But this power is especially “for the church,” as Paul said. In baptism we die to our own bodies to be risen into Christ’s body, which by the power of God can be here, in our gathered flesh, even while it is everywhere and in all things. The church simply is the embodiment of the power of love—love is our only Lord—or else we face God’s judgment for failing to be what we are. So no, Jesus Christ in his amazing resurrected power is not here alone; yet the church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We are, in the truth of our social body, nothing but this power, and so its fullness.
Now, I’m done with explanations (unless you are joining the adult re-confirmation class, if you like this kind of thing). I’ve probably already killed the spirit of Easter with explanations, but only so that some of you—maybe all of us—might be less distracted by our questions—like, “So what happened to the body?” I’ll leave it to you to reflect on what the resurrection of Christ’s body as the church means for your own resurrection. But now it’s time to go back to the point of Easter: The resurrection assured the disciples, to the point of death-defying courage, that who Jesus was and what he did is forevermore validated by God, so that Jesus by the power of God continues to be who he was, and continues to do what he did among us his body: in that sense, he is alive forevermore. I don’t have anything to add to that. What we should do is sing about it together, and then gather around the table and be the feast of Christ’s body.