April 4, 2010
Commentary by Bruce G.Epperly
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
I Corinthians 15:19-26
Christ the Lord is Risen today! How do we speak these words in a pluralistic, scientific age?
How do we share the resurrection as a global witness in a time in which many suspect any universal religious messages? How do we, as Wendell Barry says, “practice resurrection” without denying our personal and corporate economic uncertainty, the threat of violence on a mass scale, and the realities of global climate change and the end of human life as we know it? Resurrection is not for the faint-hearted; but for people whose stature enables them to affirm life in the midst of death. Our mission is to awaken people to resources for transformation without denial, so that our Hallelujahs can be full-voiced on Easter day.
The challenge of Easter is to experience the resurrection as a contemporary event in our lives and in the lives of our congregants. Like Good Friday, we know the story and anticipate a happy ending even before we’ve started our sermon preparation. We have a vantage point on the events that was unavailable to Jesus’ first followers. As post-moderns, we may doubt the reality of resurrection; but, Jesus’ first followers could not even conceive its possibility.
Many progressive and moderate pastors struggle to preach resurrection with passion and authenticity. We trust the minimalist messages of commentators like Borg, Crossan, Spong, and Bultmann more than we do the concrete “impossibilities” of the biblical narratives. We assume that resurrection could not happen in the way that the biblical tradition asserts. But, in so doing, we become perilously close to embracing a Gnostic viewpoint which sees resurrection solely as a spiritual or existential event, restricted to personal experience and not something whose power surged beyond the first century community. If resurrection is to be a living event for us as well as the first witnesses, it must emerge from an encounter that transcends our own experience; yet, it must also be grounded in our receptivity to resurrection and the faith of a community that practices resurrection.
The biblical narratives point to life-changing, physically tangible encounters as well as to mystical experiences of resurrection. Resurrection spirit transformed a frightened group of followers into a lively movement of world-transformers, risking life and reputation to spread the good news of the Risen Christ. While we need to ask questions about the resurrection event and express our doubts about literal interpretations (doubt, as Tillich asserted, is essential to deeply held faith), we also need to be open to realities beyond the five senses, that is, to heightened moments of divine activity and human receptivity in events such as the resurrection and our own transformation. In the context of a world of wonders, we need to entertain the possibility that Christ truly rose from the dead, perhaps, as a “quantum body,” recognizable and communicative, to share the news that God’s vision of Shalom lives on and that we can risk everything with the confidence that the ultimate enemies of life will be overcome through God’s loving power. If Christ is alive in our communities, we can preach a message of creative transformation and hope that inspires faithful commitment to healing our world and sharing God’s good news.
Peter’s sermon in Acts proclaims the universality of revelation and resurrection. New life in Christ does not belong to Christians alone, but is found wherever the call to new life awakens persons to hope, possibility, and transformation. What is local, reflected in the “choice” of the first recipients of resurrection, becomes global. The universal revelations (and I mean revelations) of God are not homogenous, but vary in intensity and intimacy. All are chosen to share in God’s new life, but our circumstances and choices shape the nature of God’s revelation in our lives and communities.
Notice that Peter addresses both persons and nations in his resurrection message. While it relatively easy to ponder personal experiences of resurrection, what might it mean for a nation to experience God’s revealing and resurrecting love? What might the resurrection to mean to your congregants in their role as citizens of the nation? There is a good deal of fear and death-based activity and speech in North America following the stock market collapse and the ongoing recession. Can we embrace resurrection amid recession? We know such an embrace of life’s fullness means facing death, both personal and institutional. Neither resurrection nor grace is “cheap,” to quote Bonhoeffer, but resurrection emerges when our own individual and corporate hopes are revived through the experience of new life emerging out of hopelessness and death.
The Psalm proclaims that resurrection is a contemporary event. “This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Let alleluias ring! Embrace new life! Praise God for resurrection! Let us open our eyes to “live resurrection” with body, mind, and spirit.
Corinthians proclaims that Christ’s resurrection transforms this life and the next, encompassing space, time, and everlasting life. All have died in Adam, that is, death in its pain and alienation remains triumphant over the human spirit. All will be made alive in Christ, that is, death as a physiological fact remains, but we will be confident that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” As progressive and moderate preachers, we can affirm that while the resurrection event did not change God’s love for us, it enabled God to be more effective in transforming our lives. However we understand the resurrection, at the very least, it creates a field of energy and resonance that gives us confidence in God’s active and transformational love.
The mortality rate remains at 100%, but even when there can’t be a cure, we can experience God’s healing touch that gives us confidence that we can transformed, that we can die in peace, and that our lives are treasured evermore. But, more than that, Paul asserts that the resurrection gives us confidence that beyond the grave, we will live in Christ. While Paul does not paint a picture of everlasting life in his writings, he is certain that death is a prelude to an ongoing holy adventure with God as our companion. (For on a progressive vision of the afterlife, see Bruce Epperly, At the Edges of Life and Holy Adventure.)
Moderate and progressive Christians are rightly humble in their descriptions of the afterlife. Yet, the proclamation that the energies of life continue beyond our deaths is a powerful pastoral message. More than once, following suicide, a spouse or parent has asked me, “Where is ______now?” In light of the resurrection, I can affirm that God’s intent is to give us healing and abundant life, regardless of how we die. Resurrection is not just about longevity or everlasting life. In and of itself, everlasting life provides little comfort. What we need is quality of life – resurrection life is defined by something more than mere endurance; it is defined by resurrection love that heals “Adam,” the brokenness of humanity and the pain of the non-human world, in light of God’s all-embracing, all-healing holy adventure.
Mary is the hero of the gospel reading. She is the first to encounter the Risen Jesus and also to receive the Great Commission. She comes to the garden alone, as the hymn asserts, totally immersed in her grief. She is no exception to the human experience. As preachers, friends, and children, we have been to the garden as well. We have felt the loneliness and devastation of loss. We have wondered if we can continue in ministry after the loss of a spouse, child, or parent. We cannot deny our grief, and John’s gospel gives us no “cheap grace.” We must go through the valley and face the emptiness of life without the “real presence” of our beloved. As Paul would say, in light of his own resurrection experience, “grieve but not without hope.” In this passage, Mary receives resurrection hope through an intimate encounter with Jesus.
While some might find the hymn “In the Garden” a bit schmaltzy, Mary surely does “walk and talk” and “share joy” with the Risen Jesus. Jesus is a stranger to her until he calls her by name, “Mary.” Resurrection is intimate and personal as well as universal. Mary is raised along with Jesus when she hears his voice speaking words of love. Resurrection does not deny grief, but gives grief wings in anticipation of new life, when death is all around.
Mary cannot hold onto Jesus, and neither can we. He is not limited by space, time, or tradition. Jesus’ admonition, “Do not hold onto me,” is as much theological and spiritual as tactile. Touching won’t contaminate or capture Jesus, whether his body in the garden is physical or quantum in nature. I believe Jesus is saying that with the coming of the Spirit, his presence will take strange and unlikely forms, and that he can be found everywhere.
Mary’s mission is simply to say “I have seen Jesus.” On Easter, we progressive and moderate Christians are given a mission as well. We are invited to embrace our moments of resurrection and, to do something, countercultural for us, to share or testify to our resurrection moments. God has given us new life; we have been touched by holiness. But, like the disciples in the upper room, we are often afraid to share for fear that we will be identified with “those Christians who know it all” and glibly share their message of salvation and damnation.
A recent Pew Center Report states that 50% of mainline Christians have experienced moments of spiritual transcendence. There are mystics in every pew; but we seldom share our stories. Resurrection calls us to claim and to share the moments of new life and holy presence. Resurrection challenges us to listen for Jesus calling our name in the garden.
On Easter, don’t let your hallelujahs be half-hearted! Christ the Lord is Risen today! This is the day that God has made and we will rejoice in it!”
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure:41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy:The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Epperly). He may be contacted for speaking engagements, retreats, and workshops.
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