Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
April 23, 2000
Matthew 28:1-20; Romans 8:31-39
An itinerant minister who fills vacant pulpits Sunday by Sunday is said to have a told a pulpit committee he would be happy to come to their church any Sunday of the year but one. "Please," he said, "don't ask me for Easter. I never know what to say."
One might suppose that of all Sundays, Easter would be the one on which it is easiest to preach. What better occasion to state the heart and soul of the Christian message! But what is one supposed to do? Try to explain the various accounts of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus? Try to describe what really happened on that first Easter morning? Try to establish the historicity of the texts? Try to find the meaning that these Easter stories have for us today? Whatever tack one takes, there is the danger of obscuring more truth than one brings to light. There is the danger of imposing a perception or meaning upon events too elusive, or too mysterious, for words adequately to express. There is the danger of reducing to stylized rhetoric and easy formula the inexpressible truth of the Christian faith.
In reading over the various Gospel accounts, two things become clear. The first is that the evangelists did not get their heads together to conspire to fabricate a story that Jesus had risen from the dead. There are simply too many variations in the accounts for them to have been the product of a conspiracy! The second is that the evangelists themselves must have had difficulty knowing what to say. The only common element in all four Gospels is the tradition of the empty tomb, and each evangelist recounts it differently. Only Luke mentions an appearance to Peter. No one mentions the appearances to the 500 and to James which are mentioned by Paul in I Corinthians. David Read comments that "the Gospels give us very brief and sober accounts of the Resurrection." "There is nothing is these books that resembles the medieval paintings that show Jesus emerging from the tomb and confounding his enemies by his risen splendor" [UNFINISHED EASTER, 96]. Indeed, when we look carefully, we discover that there is no account of the resurrection anywhere. Even Matthew, who reports an earthquake and an angel rolling back the stone from the tomb, then has the angel say to the women, "He is not here." The stone is rolled back, not to let Jesus out of the tomb, but to let the women in to "see the place where he lay."
No, there are no witnesses to the resurrection. There are only witnesses to the risen Lord! As becomes obvious from Matthew's account, an empty tomb was no proof that Jesus was risen. That could easily be discounted--his disciples came and took his body away. Even the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary after they have encountered the risen Jesus is doubted by his disciples. Today there is even a major biblical scholar of the New Testament who believes in the resurrection but denies that Jesus was the Messiah [Pinchas Lapide]. Whatever else may have happened, there would have been no Easter faith if the disciples of Jesus had not experienced him to be their risen Lord! That is the one crucial and indisputable claim we celebrate this Easter morning: Following the dissolution and despair of Good Friday, despite all the reasons they had to conclude that they were dead wrong and Jesus was dead wrong and together they had totally misread the purposes of God, the disciples of Jesus discovered that somehow he continued to be present among them!
The story of the Christian faith is the story of those who have found Jesus to be the Christ, their risen Lord. It began with his immediate disciples and friends. Soon it spread to those who had never known him. The chief example is Paul, "the least of the apostles," who had not met Jesus, but despised him, and zealously persecuted his followers, until one day he too discovered on the road to Damascus that Jesus was his risen Lord. There is no proof of the resurrection, no proof of the Christian faith, except the experience and testimony of everyone who once was lost, but then was found, was blind, but then could see.
It may be important for us, however, to explore this morning what this means, and what it does not mean. What if the Gospels had ended with "Jesus emerging from the tomb and confounding his enemies by his risen splendor"? Then we would know something was wrong--terribly wrong! We would know something was wrong because it is not apparent that we live in a world where the enemies of Jesus are so confounded. The Gospel writers not only struggled to speak of the mystery of the resurrection, they also struggled to describe an event that was real. They proclaimed the greatness of the person of Jesus to a world that had yet to perceive or acknowledge that greatness. They struggled to tell of a world-transforming event that was hardly yet manifest to the world. They struggled to conclude a story that had not come to an end. And in many respects that struggle is still ours today.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once wrote: "To the Christian, the Jew is a stubborn fellow who, in a redeemed world, is still waiting for the Messiah. To the Jew, the Christian is a heedless fellow who, in an unredeemed world, affirms that redemption has somehow or other taken place." The early Church had to learn to live with a paradox in its own experience. On the one hand, the resurrection had made all the difference in the world. The disciples of Jesus had been brought out of defeat and diffidence and despair to a confident faith and hope. They had been brought out of death to life. In one way or another, they had experienced Jesus as the living Christ, their risen Lord. That was their indisputable experience. On the other hand, the resurrection seemed not to have made much difference in the world at all. Their good news met with rejection, they met with persecution, Golgotha's hatred and scorn still thrived, Caesar still reigned. That remained an undeniable fact.
I have long been struck by the fact that the early Church, soon after the resurrection, began waiting for Christ to come again. They were waiting for him to return in his glory and set everything right that had not yet been set right. They were waiting for the kingdom finally and fully to come. It was a prayer of the early Church: "Maranatha!"--"our Lord come!" Why, if Jesus had been raised from the dead, if the world was being redeemed, if the empowerment of the Spirit was already experienced--why did Christ need to come again? What would his coming again accomplish that his coming the first time did not? Well, obviously, his coming the first time had not set everything right. Even the crucifixion and the resurrection had not accomplished that. Christ needed to come again, it must have seemed, to complete the establishment of God's reign.
"But," as Charles Clayton Morrison, former editor of The Christian Century, observed, "the Lord did not return. Gradually in the development of Paul's thought, and through him in the thinking of the whole Church, a new conviction took hold. It was the conviction that the Lord had already returned, that what the Church had been calling the Holy Spirit was the living presence of Christ himself" [quoted by Bernard Meland, THE REALITIES OF FAITH, 295].
There is evidence of this new conviction in the conclusion of Matthew's Gospel. There the risen Jesus first claims authority over all heaven and earth, but then commissions his disciples to go into all the world with the promise, "lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." The promise does not rule out a future coming, but it directs all energy toward the mission for which Jesus is already present with his disciples. The resurrection is not so much the conclusion of the story as the beginning!
How do you tell a story that ends with a new beginning? You leave some things that are unresolved unresolved. You leave some loose ends untied. At the same time, you make it clear that everything is not just as it was. Something of crucial importance has happened. Some major issues and conflicts have been resolved, adding new dimensions of meaning and possibility for whatever will follow. But the struggle is not over. The past becomes prologue for all that is to follow. Now the disciples of Jesus can begin their work in earnest, with deeper faith and understanding.
You see, the resurrection is no inevitable happy ending to the Gospel story. First of all, it is not inevitable. It cannot be taken for granted. It is a mystery, a miracle, and it was experienced as such. It was life unexpectedly issuing forth from death. But secondly, the resurrection is not an ending. It does not resolve the future for us. It makes our future possible, but it does not settle it once and for all.
The resurrection means that the future is still open! Peter, your words of denial are not the last you will get to speak of him. James and John, your failure to attend to Jesus in his hour of sorrow is not your last opportunity to watch with him. Disciples, your acts of abandonment will not be your last acts in relation to him. These will be forgiven. God does not abandon you to your denials, and betrayals, and faithlessness. Yes, there remains violence in the world, but there is new possibility for reconciliation and peace. Yes, there is cruelty and oppression in the world, but there is new possibility for making things right. Yes, there is still hatred in the hearts of humankind, but there is new possibility for justice and love.
The resurrection means that the future is still open. New possibilities have emerged in the world. A new reality has come to being, a new reality that began to take shape and form in the community of those who had been with Jesus. Paul spoke of this new reality in terms of a "new creation." Theoloigan Bernard Meland, in THE REALITIES OF FAITH, speaks of it as "a revelatory moment in history, summoning the motives, the intellectual vision, and imagination of (people) to a new center of focus as truly as the heralding of atomic energy was a radical disclosure of a new level of physical powers, altering materially the structured experiences of (humankind)" . This new reality represents not only a profound transformation in our present experience but a profound alteration of our future possibilities. New resources have become available to us for living in the presence of our risen Lord. The future, which looked like it was all over with Good Friday, has become open in a radically new way.
That the future is still open, and in a creatively new way, becomes inescapably a word of challenge and demand. Matthew expresses this challenge in the Great Commission, as the risen Jesus instructs his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations. The familiar hymn declares, "The strife is o'er, the battle done," but it is also true for the disciples who has been claimed by their risen Lord that the strife is just beginning. The future is yet to be worked out. There is good news to preach. There are wounds to heal. There are new disciples to be made. There are oppressed peoples to set free. As Hans Kung puts it, "Easter does not neutralize the cross but confirms it" [ON BEING A CHRISTIAN, 382]. The resurrection means that God has not been defeated, that God has not given up on us, that God is still in the business of giving us "a future and a hope" [Jeremiah 29:11]. The resurrection challenges and requires us to become participants in that struggle.
That the future is still open, however, is above all a word of comfort and grace and joy. To have a future that is open is to have a past that has been forgiven! The eighth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans begins, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death." No condemnation! The law of sin and death says that we must pay for our mistakes. We must be punished for our transgressions. We will reap whatever we sow. There is no margin of error for sin. The resurrection means that God is not bound by the law of consequences, there is a margin for error, and it is as wide as God's grace. But it is as costly as Jesus' crucifixion. Grace is not cheap, but it is real. What greater joy could there be for those who have lived through Good Friday than the experience of a risen Christ who has broken the law of sin and death! The resurrection does not settle the question of the future, but it does settle a far more important question, the question of God's undying love. The resurrection does not authorize us to say that the world has already been redeemed but it persuades us that the world is constantly being redeemed. There is no situation absolutely beyond redeeming and there is no sin beyond the reach of God's forgiveness and love.
"If God is for us," asks Paul, "who is against us?" Who can be against us? Of course, we can be against ourselves, and we often are. We can be against one another, and we often are that too. But in everything God is determinedly for us! And there is nothing in all creation that will be able to separate us from the love of God is Christ Jesus our Lord. As theologian Daniel Day Williams put it, "The Gospel is that this love can be trusted absolutely and cannot be destroyed" [THE SPIRIT AND THE FORMS OF LOVE, 189]. The faith that is given in the experience of the risen Christ contains the assurance of a love that never ends, despite the enormity of our denials and betrayals and all that we do to contribute to the pain and suffering in this world. This love is the unconditional, unmerited, unyielding, unsurpassable, irrevocable love of God. If God can love through Good Friday, there is nothing God cannot love through.
The love that brought Jesus to the cross will not be defeated by all the powers of death and hell. That much is settled by the resurrection. God in love will never abandon us. There is a sense, therefore, in which our future is vouchsafed. It is vouchsafed in the will and mind and heart of God. It is vouchsafed "according to God's purpose." But the particular outcomes of God's love--for us, for our church, for our world--are yet to be decided. Our future really is still open. Henceforth, what will we do? After the resurrection the disciples of Jesus begin their work in earnest, with deeper faith and understanding, in the knowledge of God's enduring power and love, in the experience of God's redeeming mercy and grace. AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert