Sermon at Calvary, Charleston
Easter Day: April 21, 2019
There is a curious thing about the various biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. We hear about an empty tomb, the appearance of angels, linen burial cloths, visits by disciples, women and men. Yet even with all of that, the Easter Gospels, any of them, seem much more interested with what happened to Jesus’ followers than what happened to Jesus. Incredibly, none of the Gospels describe the specific moment of resurrection, even as all of them proclaim in some way “He is Risen!” What I see is that it is in the lives of his followers where we discover that, “…God raised him (Jesus) on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…” (Acts 10:40-41). Today Xavier, in Confirmation, you affirm that you stand with us as a witness.
The Easter story is one of human beings becoming empowered by Christ’s resurrection to find ways out of apparent failure. Then and now disciples find the courage not to stand impotent in the face of systemic evil, not giving into inclinations to betray what we love most. We are being set free, liberated, to overcome all that holds us imprisoned, and living into the promise of hope when we are bombarded by the lies that diminish human beings and refuse to celebrate who God has made us to be. As St. Paul says today, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (I Corinthians 15:25). It is the story of all of us as we rediscover our deep longing for healing, forgiveness and restoration to fullness of life. It is about real life, life that makes a difference and is deeply connected to God and one another. “Love God. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
The great panorama of the Bible is full of people who share this story. Peter has moved from his act of betrayal to the sermon of faith we heard in Acts today. What happened? The truth is the life you and I live, like Peter’s, is full of betrayal and faith; death and life; absence and presence; emptiness and fullness. What we often experience at first glance as polar opposites are not so at all. Death and life as well as absence and presence are not opposites, but twins. They are a part of one story, our human story, not different stories. We find this is so in John’s Gospel account of the resurrection, noting that absence precedes presence—empty tomb before recognition.
Mary Magdalene comes upon the tomb and the stone is already removed – a kind of absence. “The Lord has been taken from the tomb,” Mary says. Absence. Even when she reports that, “we do not know where they have laid him,” her unknowing is another kind of absence. Then Peter and the other disciple arrive at the absence, yet Peter as the account goes, hesitates before the absence as he gazes in from the outside upon the remnants of the burial clothes. The arranged pile is a gloriously tantalizing hint of presence in the midst of absence.
Then what do Peter and the unnamed disciple do? They go home! I have a fear for myself and all of you, that today, after hearing the greatest Good News of God’s liberating love for all humanity, we will go home and be content with the status quo and the same old way of living for ourselves and the world around us – that nothing will be different.
But, and this is exciting, look at Mary Magdalene. Thanks be to God for her! She dares to return to the absence and through the splendid lens of her tears, a prism to her soul, she recognizes two angels occupying the absence. Now there is presence, the angels and Mary. The conclusion to which I come is that her heart had been nurtured by absence, which became a longing that enabled her to recognize Jesus in the beckoning gardener when he spoke. Love drew here there and it is in love that God’s resurrected Love was recognized. The movement is from fear to love. Then Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus proclaims, “I have seen the Lord!”
Perhaps this is where we start today. Recognizing our fear. Christian faith is honest about that. We name the brokenness of our own life and that of the world. We dare to look straight into it, the tomb of death, that is. We see the violence of our cities, war that continues to devastate children in places like Yemen and Myanmar, the scourge of the new Jim Crow in prison industrial complex, the lack of basic human rights of food, shelter, medical care, right in the midst of the richest country ever to exist, our dear United States.
Yet staring into the tomb of absence, we find that love can break in and is present even there. There is nowhere God is not. It looks like a neat pile of burial clothes. The presence and fullness of God cannot be obliterated, even by death. It can be seen in all the gardeners of the world as well as all the gardens, in all the pain of the world as well as its beauty. And what we discover, perhaps most of all, is that death can never again be the end of the story. Love is.
The resurrection of Jesus as God’s supreme gift signals that the new outpouring of life has begun. Like a row of standing dominos set up in line with each other, it starts a chain reaction that leaves nothing, no-thing, no person, not one part of the creation outside God’s embrace. That includes you Xavier as you come forward for the laying on of hands. All the seeming invincible forces of death, enslavement and separation are extinguished, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22).
A place has been prepared for us ALL. Don’t go back to the status quo. God raised Jesus. God raises us, even now. Nurture the power of Christ in you so that you can be a presence of the transforming love of Christ for the sake of the world. The gardener waits to be recognized anywhere and in anyone.
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Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.