Resurrection Faith

Easter Sunday,   April 5, 2015 

1 Corinthians 15:1-19   /    Mark 16:1-8

Happy Easter! Well, here we are, gathered together to celebrate the central event of the Christian year. And make no mistake, it is the central event. As one New Testament scholar points out: if we didn’t have the stories of Jesus’s birth, we would lose four chapters of the gospels. If we didn’t have the resurrection accounts, we would lose the entire New Testament. Because everything that was remembered and told and written down about Jesus came out of the conviction that something extraordinary happened in those days after Jesus’s death – that they experienced Jesus among them as a living, active, solid presence, as one who had burst the bonds of death. St. Paul brings it to a point: “ if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

And that makes for one of the particular challenges of this day. On the one hand, it is a celebration of supreme joy. Christ is risen! Alleluia! The final enemy, the dark shadow that hangs over every one of our lives, death itself, has been vanquished! This is unbelievably wonderful, stupendous news! But that’s just it, isn’t it: “unbelievably.” The Easter gospel, that Christ rose from the dead, is the most wonderful news; it is also, according to all the standards of knowledge in our world today, unbelievable. I’m sure I don’t need to repeat the arguments of the professional atheists as to why the resurrection is unbelievable. And you know, the professional atheists don’t really matter. We don’t need to consult them to know that believing in the resurrection is not easy. We have surely experienced this ourselves, each one of us. Believing in the resurrection is not easy not only because it contradicts the standards of scientific knowledge and plausibility – yeah, maybe that too – but more fundamentally, because we are all of us, at one time or another, confronted with the massive and relentless reality of death.

So I am thinking, for example, of the families of those 147 university students murdered in Kenya, families who have had their hearts ripped out this past week, by the loss – senseless, senseless loss – of these vibrant, gifted, beautiful young people. Or the passengers of the German plane, crashed by an act of supreme egotism. But we needn’t go so far away, or so extreme. It is the same brutal reality that confronts people in our own community every day – our neighbour, maybe our friend, maybe even a loved one, or ourselves. Whether it’s the dreaded prognosis at the hospital (“The cancer has progressed too far, we can’t operate”) or the sudden stroke, or whatever. It will come for each of us someday. And the question today is: what difference does our faith in the resurrection make? Will it comfort those parents in Kenya? Will it strengthen us when the hopeless diagnosis comes? Because it should surely make a difference. “If there is no resurrection of the dead,” Paul says, “then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” And goes on to add: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

What difference does faith in the resurrection make? To begin with, it certainly isn’t the cure for grief. For believers and non-believers alike there is still the sickening sense of waste, the loneliness of bereavement, the grieving for the joy of being alive. This grief is sacred, not a sign of insufficient faith; after all, Jesus wept for Lazarus even in the face of his resurrection. Christian faith does not leave us in some fantasy land separate from real life; properly, it grounds us more firmly in real life, eyes, and hearts, wide open. We grieve all the more intensely for knowing that life is blessed and rich, and that every person is infinitely precious. Faith in the resurrection does not take that away. So again, what difference does it make?

Mark’s account of the resurrection is not much help. It is the starkest and most disturbing of the resurrection accounts, ending with the women fleeing in terror. No triumphant celebration here. It seems that grand miracles are not much help to us; they are bigger than we can understand. More than anything, Mark points us towards what we miss in his account, towards the tenderness and personal warmth of the other gospels: Mary mistaking him for the gardener; Jesus appearing among the disciples in the upper room, bringing his peace and breathing his spirit upon them; Jesus meeting the disciples on the road and breaking bread with them; Jesus sharing breakfast beside the lake and asking Peter if he loves him.

These are the intimate and tender scenes that speak to us of resurrection, that give us confidence, that whisper to us that, in the midst of this world where death seems to rule, there is more, there is a word of grace and hope beyond the final word that death claims to speak. I think these scenes speak to us so much more strongly than larger-than life angels because they speak the language of love. It is finally love that believes the resurrection. Our faith in the resurrection is not really a matter of evidence and probability and weighing up what we think is possible in this world. Because when we do that, we are simply applying the yardstick of this world to something that is completely new and unprecedented. There is a beautiful image for this: it is like someone lighting a candle to see if the sun had risen. If we believe the resurrection, we believe it on its own terms, by the light of the spectacular new dawn that it promises. We believe it by the light of love.

Our faith in the resurrection is rooted in our love for and trust in Jesus, and in the Father who sent him into the world, and who raised him from the dead. And our love is called forth by God who is the source of all love. Because this love has touched us, because we have seen the deeds and heard the promises of God, We have come to trust that love, not death, has the final word; that love, not power, undergirds the universe. This belief is a wager, like any act of faith; but it is not a special side bet – it is part of the one big wager we make when we trust God. We lay all that we have that really matters – our conviction, our hope, our aspirations, our hearts – on the belief that love is the final word. We could be wrong, I suppose. I don’t think we are, but we won’t really know until we cross that dark river, and see who awaits us on the other side.

But in the meantime – and this is the real advantage of our wager of faith, this is the point where the resurrection does make a difference for the here and now – in the meantime we have gained an immense freedom. Yes, we still live with the fact of death, with our mortality and all the grief and heartbreak that brings with it. But the fact of death is one thing, the power it has over us is something else, something much greater. It is the power of fear and violence. It is the power used by the tyrants of this world to control us, to contain us, to terrorize us. And this power has been broken in the resurrection of Christ.

Take Peter, for example. You remember him on the night of the crucifixion, three times denying he even knew Jesus. The fear of death has control of him, and it has forced him to renounce what is most precious to him, to betray his own heart. He has chosen to live in a world where death has the final word, and because death has the final word, the tyrants always win. Every time. But then, after the resurrection, by the lake, Jesus calls him back. He calls him back with a single, simple question: “Peter, do you love me.” He calls him back into a world where love has the final word. And the Peter we see from then on is transformed. With this conviction in his heart, he need never be afraid again. He will never be afraid to speak his heart, to tell his truth, to look tyrants in the eye. He has gained the holy freedom of the martyrs.

And this freedom is ours as well. We trust it will never be tested by martyrdom; that seems a long ways away (but I suppose it did for those poor kids in Kenya as well). But the freedom is ours nonetheless: the freedom to speak our hearts, to tell the truth, to have compassion for the broken and needy, to stand up to injustice and cynicism, wherever we meet it. And to look death in the face, with all its heartbreak and grief, yes, but also with hope that it does not have the last word, either about our lives or about this world.

Alleluia! He is risen! We have been set free!