He is risen! Today we celebrate the central claim of the Christian church—Exhibit 1 as to why people should consider embracing the Christian faith. For many of us who grew up in the church we have heard this claim since childhood. There is a comfort in this familiarity but it can also be a problem because we easily take what is familiar for granted. We have heard the claim so often we stop being surprised by it…we stop asking questions about it. And when we stop being surprised and challenged and curious, the resurrection can become something we engage only at a surface level leaving little impact on the day to day of our lives. So this morning I want to offer some thoughts that I hope will encourage us to engage this story anew.
Unpacking the meaning of the resurrection is not an easy task. Those who knew Jesus and had the chance to experience his risen presence had trouble processing what they were encountering. In our reading today we hear of Simon Peter and the “other disciple” running to the tomb. They have heard the teaching of Jesus, they see the empty tomb and several telltale signs. And their response? They go home “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead”. In this same account Mary Magdalene stands before the risen Christ and does not recognize him.
In Mark’s account a group of women reach the tomb and are “terrified” and say nothing to anyone. In Luke, a group of women encounter the empty tomb but their reports are treated as “idle talk” by the disciples and dismissed. So there is nothing unfaithful or surprising about finding ourselves wondering what this Easter thing really means. In fact the path to a deeper faith, I believe, lies in prayerfully wrestling with our questions in search of understanding.
As we try to understand, a first question is how literally we should read the accounts we have in the gospels. For me, biblical stories are not news accounts…they are not intended to simply tell us facts that could have been confirmed if video camera technology had existed in the time of Jesus. But that does not lessen the importance of the gospel texts. Stories can be profoundly and deeply true without being literally factual. Quoting the words of a Native American storyteller “I don’t know if this story happened this way or not but I know this story is true.”
You may remember the controversy years ago when someone claimed they had found the body of Jesus at some ancient archeological site. This report created a crisis of faith for many. When we read the gospel as story, however, such a report has limited impact. Maybe the tomb was empty on the third day and maybe it was not. The truth of resurrection is bigger than that.
Story prepares us to see truth we might otherwise overlook. The Easter story cultivates the soil in which belief can grow but for me it is the history of the early church that provides the most compelling evidence. On the eve of the crucifixion Jesus’ small band of disciples is scattered, defeated, discouraged and in hiding. Only a few of the women even dare to be seen near the cross or at the tomb. They are a group who has accepted defeat. Like many other groups who followed charismatic leaders, one would have expected them to dissolve after the death of Jesus.
And yet over the days, weeks or months following the crucifixion this group is transformed…reenergized…brought back together…given a new sense of purpose and hope by an experience they describe as an ongoing presence of Christ. Something draws them back into community. Something empowers them to preach the teachings of Jesus even in the face unbelievable obstacles. Something overcomes their fears, gives them new hope and powers them to preach the message of Jesus. That something that transforms them is, I propose, what we call the risen Christ.
So how are we to understand the risen Christ? Lets begin with a few ways in which the risen Christ differs from the Jesus of history. As we do that we are of course aware that this profound mystery can never be fully expressed with words or concepts. But words and images are the tools we have so we need to use them while understanding their limits.
To begin, unlike the Jesus of history, the risen Christ is not limited to one time long ago or to one place. In fact through out the biblical story and the centuries that followed Jesus’ life on earth, the power we call the risen Christ has been experienced in many forms, in many place, in many times, by many people.
Maybe most expansively for the author of the gospel of John, Christ is “the word” which existed with God from the very beginning of time. “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
For the apostle Paul, Christ was experience as a vision on the road to Damascus and as a presence at the heart of every human life. For St. Francis of Assisi, Christ was experienced as a voice directing him to rebuild the church, love creation and serve the poor. The presence of Christ has been experienced in an endless variety forms by millions of artists, ordinary people, poets and mystics over the millennium. Several people I know have had vivid direct experiences of Christ.
Christ has been experienced externally—as voice, as vision, as light--but also very profoundly as an internal presence. The mystic Meister Eckhart experienced Christ as “closer to me than I am to myself”. The great mystic Teilhard de Chardin saw Christ within the heart of creation saying the world is like a crystal lamp illuminated from within by the light of Christ.
The Easter story makes important claims about this Christ presence. Most powerfully, the resurrection story says that this energy of Christ cannot be suppressed or defeated by even the deepest human evil that we, or the world, can throw its way. The Christ energy enters fully into the human evil of the cross without being defeated. The powerful who wanted to silence the Christ consciousness expressed through Jesus thought it could be defeated by violence. The Easter experience of resurrection demonstrates that they were mistaken. Evil can destroy what is material in this world but it cannot reach…change…or stop the energy of God that we know in Christ.
This means that no sin, no lapse, no lack of faith, no circumstance of our lives can extinguish the presence of Christ. This means that no abuse of human power can change the nature of Christ’s work in the world. The cross stopped the work of the historical Jesus but it could not defeat God’s passion for love and healing and peace and justice that we call the Christ.
In our current time the multiple assaults on the way of love—whether that is serine gas, war, greed, prejudice, --can do very real damage and cause very real harm and suffering but they cannot, the Easter story says, defeat the work of God toward wholeness in love. The same is true at the scale of our personal lives and the lives of those we love—no amount of turning away from love can extinguish Christ’s passion to open the door to life.
This perspective is critical because it makes the risen Christ of the Easter story not just an event of history but also an ongoing reality in our world today. It means, I think, that the presence of Christ we read about in the gospel resurrection stories is not some kind of one time miracle but rather points to something of God that is at the very heart of creation….something that is built in some way into the very structure of the universe….something that is true in any time. Resurrection is, therefore, not only a report of something past but an invitation to see the same process unfolding in our own times in our own lives.
Equally important, the Christian tradition is unique in the claim that this presence of God is expressed not as a distant impersonal power but through an intimate relationship with the created world. The eternal, universal Christ is present in and revealed through the unique, beautiful, particular life of the historical Jesus. And that same eternal universal Christ is present in and revealed through each of us in our individual uniqueness. Christ in Jesus and Christ in every human being…we share the common birthright of a human being made in the image of God. Christ was at the heart of a real human being named Jesus of Nazareth in the same way as Christ is at the center of every human heart.
The difference, however, is in how much expression we choose to give to that inner presence of Christ that exists in every person. Some—like Jesus—allow their lives to be totally shaped by the Christ presence. Others—like most of us—resist the invitation of this inner Christ to varying degrees. In his lifetime Jesus lived the way of Christ with remarkable faithfulness and struggled to teach others how to access this presence of goodness and love within themselves.
Most of the human family, however, choses a different path. Much harm has and will be done as we continue to ignore the invitation of Christ that lies at the very heart of our being. This is a profound tragedy. I understand, however, that a truly loving God can only invite us into that love. Love and freedom are tied together. Truly loving another means granting them freedom to chose their own path. Love that is forced upon another against their will cannot be true love. So the invitation to a life of love is always present but often ignored.
So let’s join together these two claims at the heart of the Christian tradition. First Christ is risen--Christ’s presence in the world cannot be defeated. And second that God is not just distant or transcendent but incarnate— become flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth but also expressed with in the heart of creation, acting as the very source of being for everything that lives.
Taken together these claims join the spiritual and the material in a mysterious but unbreakable relationship. Christ is eternal and yet we know Christ in the particular…through our own lives…through the world around us…through the experience of love…through the observation of new life… in the rising of the sun…in the reality of reconciliation…in the mysteries of healing. We are at the same time unique, precious, beautiful individual material beings and vessels for an eternal, universal spirit we call Christ.
This unbreakable ongoing relationship between the material and the spiritual is the message of Easter. Christ is in us, and the world around us, just as Christ was in Jesus and the world around him. Christ is the expression of God’s unconditional love and grace, God’s passion for healing and community, God’s endless thrust toward wholeness. This was the work of Christ in Jesus and it is the work of Christ in our world today.
But like the time of Jesus, Christ’s indwelling love is always offered as invitation not mandate. Like Jesus and all of history, human beings are free to turn toward or away from that undefeatable love. When we turn away Christ is not defeated or changed. And yet without our participation Christ cannot be fully revealed. So in a very important way, each one of us faces a choice about whether we are willing to be an instrument of Christ’s revelation…whether we are willing to be proof of resurrection in our world today. We cannot change our nature—Christ is at the heart of every human life…the energy of love is always the truest expression of our most fundamental nature. But we can, tragically, ignore this nature and choose a smaller way of defining who we are. These choices do not change the nature of Christ but they can block the revelation of the Christ presence.
Our choices matter—for ourselves of course. But our choices also matter for the larger world. If the world is to see the presence of the risen Christ right here, right now then guess what—the presence of Christ will need to be seen in our lives and in the life of the church. We need to be evidence of the resurrection…proof that Christ lives.
Clarence Jordan the founder of Koinonia Farm in Americus GA captured this so well in the bold language of his preaching. The proof of Easter he said “is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit filled fellowship. Not a rolled away stone but a carried away church.”
Our witness to the risen Christ—as individuals and as a church—is more persuasive than anything anyone can claim about what happened to the body of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Of course the past matters, the ancient Easter brought new life to a defeated community that empowered them to record and share the message we treasure today. But we are not a people living off some past glory…some distant miracle. We are a people living right in the middle of the on-going unfolding of God’s love revealed in the presence of Christ in thousands or even millions of details of the world today. Christ is seeking to rise every day…in every moment…in every heart…in every molecule of the created world. The question is: will we choose to let our lives be vehicles for this continual rising?
I know that sounds like a tall order. How do we cooperate with…manifest this outpouring love of Christ that is our deepest nature? I think it begins with getting comfortable with the idea that in our deepest nature we are one with Christ. That in the words of Genesis we were created good…very good. We are all created in the image of God. Which means we are made for love, for wholeness, for community. Which means that we are not alone for as Paul wrote we live and move and have our being in a God. Which means we live not in a universe of cosmic scarcity but in a creation where God is seeking to pour out a love that has no limits. Which means that the fullest expression of our human nature is to love what God loves.