After their Sabbath rest, as the first light of the new week dawned and Easter emerged out of the darkness, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at Christ’s tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet and God’s angel came down from heaven… The Roman guards were scared to death… but the women heard the angel say: “Get on your way quickly and tell the Master’s disciples that everything has changed for he has risen from the dead…” And deep in wonder and full of joy the women lost no time in leaving that place of death. Matthew 28: 1-6

Easter Sunday – the Feast of the Resurrection – the highest, holiest and most hallowed celebration in our tradition: it’s that great, getting up, shouting ‘hallelujah’ morning as some of my colleagues in the African American church like to say. Because on Easter Sunday, no matter that you’re down and out, rich or poor, at war or peace, feeling on top of the world or plunged into the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord comes by faith with a love greater than the tomb to tell is: I am with you always even unto the end of time.

And nothing – not angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, not powers, height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God shared with us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not intellect or doubt, not longevity in church or newness to the tradition, not biblical illiteracy or scholarly acumen, not wisdom, time served or poetic sensibilities: I mean nothing. N O T H I N G – nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God shared with us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Because, you see, the blessed presence of Jesus given back to the world in resurrection on Easter Sunday does not depend on us. Thanks be to God the resurrection does not depend upon people like you and me and the other disciples – it comes from God - and is bigger and more real than all of our ideas and experiences rolled together.

The former dean of the Divinity School at Duke University, William Willimon, likes to tell about a debate between two of his friends, Stanley Hauerwas – the brightest Christian ethicist around who also has the dirtiest mouth – and Marcus Borg – leading biblical scholar from the Jesus Seminar. They were trying to explain the Lord’s resurrection on Easter: Marcus said that the disciples had an experience. They said, ‘Wasn’t it great being with Jesus before they killed him? You remember those great stories he told? The lectures, er, sermons? Just thinking about it makes him seem almost still here. So, yes by God, he is still here. Let’s all close our eyes and believe real hard that he’s still here… and so it will be.”

To which Hauerwas said: "Hey, Jesus Seminar people, the disciples weren’t that creative! These were not the most imaginative minds we’re dealing with here. They were the sort of people who in (John’s gospel) could see an empty tomb and then go back home so that it wouldn’t spoil their lunch. (They were the kind of people who could hear about the empty tomb from the women in Jerusalem and still decide that because they had a luncheon reservation in Emmaus they better head out of town and keep it.) You don’t get an idea like the resurrection of Jesus out of people with brains like Simon Peter’s" Hauerwas said. Because, you see, the disciples were people like us. And people like us are the sort of folk who like to believe that you can have resurrection and still have the world as it was yesterday. We want to have Easter and still have our world unrocked by resurrection. We are amazingly well adjusted to the same old world.

Which is why the Bible tells us that when the women encountered the empty tomb and all the rest… what happened? An earthquake – their world reeled and rocked under their feet – and they were filled with wonder, joy and awe as they fled that place of death. An earthquake – have you ever experienced an earthquake – where?

I remember my first earthquake – it was in San Francisco on Halloween back in 1978 – and I was taking a midterm exam. About two thirds of the way through the test the hanging lights began to sway – then the desks rattled and the walls shook – and everyone just looked up, eventually giggled a bit and went back to taking their exams. I hadn’t been in San Francisco all that long – and I guess I wasn’t all that interested in my grade either – because that earthquake scared me to death! And when I took the bus home afterwards, and saw all the folk dressed in costumes for the downtown parade, carrying on like nothing had happened, I was shocked: they had gotten so used to the ground shaking and the walls trembling that I wondered “what in the world will it take to really get their attention!”

We can be sooooo well-adjusted… which is why Matthew tells us that the resurrection came with an earthquake that shook the whole world! It is beyond our control – beyond our ability to comprehend – something from the Lord that shakes us up and awakens us to God’s tremendous love and power. So, please, don’t try to explain the resurrection, ok? There is intellectual content to our faith to be sure. The late William Sloan Coffin of the Riverside Church in New York City used to say:

There is nothing anti-intellectual in our leap of faith for faith is not believing without proof but rather trusting without reservation. Faith is no substitute for thinking; on the contrary, it is what makes good thinking possible… When St. Paul says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels” – remember he is addressing our musicians, poets, preachers and artists – and when he says, “though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge” – professors, that’s your turn – “and though I bestow all my good to feed the poor” – radicals and social activists, take note –and “though I give my body to be burned” – that’s the very stuff of heroism, right? When we give our lives to Christ, if we leave familiar territory and take the leap of faith, what we receive in returns fills our minds altogether as much as it fills our hearts.
Simultaneously – paradoxically – we shall never fully comprehend or be able to rationally explain the miracle of resurrection this side of glory… so let’s not get distracted. Easter, beloved, is about God – and as brother Willimon said, “When we talk about God we are not speaking of the Lord as some empathetic but ineffective good friend, or some inner experience, but a God who creates a way when there was no way, a God who makes war on evil until evil is undone, a God who raises dead Jesus just to show us who’s in charge here.”

And that is what the Bible wants us to wrestle with on this grand, getting-up shouting “Hallelujah!” morning. Take the fact that in every account of Christ’s resurrection – including the one we heard this morning from Matthew – the Lord appears to whom first? The women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’s – and do you know why? It would seem that it is the fulfillment of Christ’s claim that in the kingdom of God the last shall become first, yes? Think about it: after all the men flee – and Peter denies Jesus – it is the women who remain even through the crucifixion. The Bible says that it was the women who “ministered” – diakoneo – to Jesus during his time of suffering and need – and didn’t Jesus say somewhere that “those who wish to be great must become servants – diakonos – to all?”

What’s more, being at the bottom of the social hierarchy – human beings whose testimony was not acceptable as binding in the courts of the day – it makes perfect upside down kingdom of God logic for the women to be chosen as the first witnesses to God’s upsetting, unnerving and life-changing blessing in the resurrection. In life, in death and life beyond death, Jesus is consistent – that’s one thing we can affirm. And we can also affirm without reservation that resurrection faith comes to us beyond the obvious and in ways that are deeper than the evidence. Let’s be honest: the chief scribes, religious leaders and Roman centurions all had the same outward evidence as the women, right?

They saw the empty tomb, the rolled away stone, the cast aside garments and the uncontrollable courage and grace of the blessed disciples, but what did they conclude? That the body of Jesus had been stolen – that he had never really died but gone into some type of trance – that he had escaped or… who knows? What is clear is that these men of power and might saw the same evidence as the outcast women and drew vastly different conclusions – another reason why God asks us not to get distracted by our egos or intellects. After all, who do you want to be more like when you grow up spiritually: the soldiers and religious leaders who put Christ on the Cross, or, the women who let God rock their world?

Now let me add one more insight about all this resurrection business and what we can and cannot know: the Biblical testimony is also wonderfully clear that Jesus came to his loved ones in a variety of very different forms. Oh yes, there isn’t uniformity in Christ’s resurrection, only Jesus who touches us where and how we need his touch the most. Biblical scholar and preacher, Brian Stoffregen, says:

There is great diversity in the accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ and it is difficult to harmonize any of them. Perhaps there is a message in that: Our contemporary experiences of the risen Christ will differ. There are those who visibly see a white light and others don't. There are those who experience Christ in a radical transforming, "born-again," event in their lives. There are those for whom Christ as been such a reality throughout their lives that they can't think of a moment when Christ wasn't present to them or when there was a great turning point in their lives. How the risen Christ comes to people differ. Our stories about the risen Christ's presence in our lives differ.

Are you with me on this? The risen Christ comes to us in different ways so that we can receive him where and when we need him the most. What is a constant in all the accounts of biblical theology and personal experience, however, is that Jesus turns our world upside down and rocks and rolls us with a love that will not let us go so that we become filled from the inside out with faith, hope and love. My old spiritual mentor, Clarence Jordan, loved to say that on the morning of the resurrection:

God put life in the present tense, not in the future. God gave us not a promise, but a presence. Not a hope for the future, but power for the present. Not so much the assurance that we shall live someday, but that he is risen today. You see, Jesus’ resurrection is not to convince the incredulous not reassure the fearful, it is to enkindle the believers. And the proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not the vacant grave, but the spirit-filled fellowship, not a rolled-away stone but a carried away church!

And our town – our time – our congregation is aching for such carried away evidence from us. Not judgment, not tradition, not duty – but a spirit-filled fellowship and a carried away church that pays no mind to the rolled away stone or other so-called signs of evidence that distracts us.
And living lives distracted from the earth-shaking love of God is soooo easy to do. There is a true story told “(about) a young married couple who had a three year old daughter and the mom was about to give birth to the second child.” It comes from our old friend Marcus Borg:

The little three year old girl was really excited about having a new baby brother or sister, and when the new baby got home, the three-year old girl was absolutely insistent that she be permitted to be in the baby's room with the baby alone with the door shut. The parents were a little bit nervous about this, and then they remembered that they had an intercom system. So they let the little girl go into the room; the door was shut; they ran to the intercom, and then they heard the little girl say to her brother, "Tell me about God. I've almost forgotten."

Such a haunting story, yes? It tells us that we come from God, that we shall return to God and that we have a memory of God deep within us. But sometimes it takes an earthquake to awaken us from our forgetful, busy and wounded lives.

People of God: the earthquake has come – it is Easter – and everything is different. Judgment is over and the time is now to take a leap of faith and become that carried away congregation that remembers the love of God for our generation. Like the women of old, it is time to leave behind our old places of death and flee into the embrace of the unforced rhythms of God’s grace. God is calling to us in Jesus, beloved: are you listening?


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