Easter Sermon by Rev. Mark Thompson
Central United Methodist Church, Lansing, MI
April 1, 2018
“Easter – A Place to Call Home”
John 20: 1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So, she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I need to be forthright here. This same ole story has to take on new meaning for me each year. I am not one to settle for the understandings that I had, for to do so means that I have a dying faith…a faith that is not growing in a way that helps me to become all that God intended for me to be. I don’t want to settle. I wish for the Christian Church, especially The United Methodist Church to be my spiritual home. I wish for this church experience here at Central UMC to continue to be alive in Christ. I want this for myself so that I can continue to invite others to come here and experience this place as their spiritual home.
More so, I wish for us to experience the presence of the risen Christ in such a way as we can’t help but share our new-found aliveness in Christ. May our time here be so helpful in our journey that we find a deeper walk with God because we have been in worship today.
God, may the words of my mouth, the meditation of our hearts, the wonderings of our minds be inspired by you so as to pull us forward in faith, helping us to become more of who you created us to be. Amen.
That speaks to the type of person I am: a mystic. I wish to know more from the standpoint of experiencing the mystery of life; living on the edge in some ways. In being so, I adhere to the concept found in the book of Hebrews “the word of God is living and active…” (Hebrews 3:12).
So, today, when I have read and reflected on the same story that I have heard for 60 years, I wonder what is new, what is “living and active” about it. What fresh “word of God” comes to me this year that I might pass along to you?
Before we go there, in my forthright character, I wish to warn you that the reason that I open myself to the mystical work of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of scripture is that I see scripture as transformative. The whole of Hebrews 3:12 that I quoted earlier reads: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Now, before you imagine that this is going to turn into a sermon that speaks of how bad we are, or you are, …don’t even go there. God is love, unconditional love in my book. That is why Jesus was so gentle with so many, except those that would make God out to be a crafty, guile figure that is wanting to control you because of how sinful you are. Those types of people, like the teachers of the scriptures, were the type that set Jesus up to be crucified.
I never wish to be that type of teacher/preacher.
From the foundational truth that God is unconditional love, we find that the “living word” for today seeks to take away that which would keep us from experiencing such unconditional love.
That’s a tall order to ask of any preacher, let alone a preacher on Easter Sunday! There are many various understandings of this passage of scripture that speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. All the way from beliefs in a physical resurrection to a metaphorical understanding…what do you believe? Whatever you believe is okay, I am not here to judge you or your beliefs. I am here to tell you of my journey in the hopes that it will help you on your faith journey.
Okay, introduction of the sermon is over. What new avenue can I share this year to help you know that the “word of God” is “living and active” in my life? In my research, I found two clergypersons who have led me into deeper truths from the mystical perspective. Oh, it’s not that they have found another “shroud of Turin” or any new perspective from newly interpreted ancient manuscripts. No, it’s more that they have written in such a way to bring aliveness of scripture to me. There words have breathed new life into an ancient story for me. I hope that the same is true for you.
Reverend Paul Perez is a social activist who is employed by the Detroit Annual Conference here in Michigan. When Paul speaks, I listen. His words are born out of living a life focused on equity for all people, especially the marginalized. He is a man of wisdom born on the edge of life.
In a recent Facebook posting he reflected on his journey in this year’s Holy Week.
Holy Saturday holds special meaning ever since I discovered the “Harrowing of Hell” icon during Seminary. It is especially meaningful for me this year … The rest of Holy Week and Easter celebrates Jesus the Savior, the Holy Sacrifice, the Triumphant King. But Holy Saturday gives us Jesus the Survivor, Jesus the Liberator. Jesus survives brutal execution, remains in the midst of death, and, in the ultimate show of incarnational solidarity, tears down the gates of the worst prison ever imagined and leads a freedom flight that transcends time and space … This is the Jesus I follow. A liberator who continually busts open every closet, every prison, every relationship, every system, every narrow space. A fellow survivor who takes our hand in the most desperate and brutal situations. The Jesus who constantly challenges me to get off my privileged butt, to show up, to love, and to fight.
You might understand why I like Paul after my sharing of his writing. He seeks to put the “word of God” into application for the good of all, for the “transformation of the world.” What he wrote speaks to me, enlivens the story of death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Just in reading that again, I find myself wishing to engage in life changing work; life changing for me and for others. I can find “home” in that kind of life because it feels so right, so genuine.
The second gentleman that I wish to quote is Reverend Alan Brehm. His reflection on our scripture is entitled “Taking the Leap.”
But the good news of Easter is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see! Easter faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead points us in hope to the possibility that God really is working to make all things new. That sounds attractive, but it’s still not easy. As one of my favorite philosophers puts it, our faith moves us beyond the realm in which we can understand and manage things. It moves us into “the sphere of the impossible,” where “only the great passions of faith and love and hope will see us through.”
I think, in part, that means that it’s not enough just to “believe” our faith intellectually. Rather, the miracle of Easter calls us to trust God with all that we are, to entrust ourselves and our actual everyday lives completely to something we cannot see. For some of us that comes fairly naturally—like John the beloved disciple from our Gospel lesson for today. Scholars speculate about why he was so quick to believe. It seems to me that he was one of those people who simply have a natural tendency toward faith. I guess in some respects I’m like that. When I think about the great questions of faith, in the depth of my being, in that place where all pretense is stripped away, the hope and faith that there is a God who loves us all, who is working to restore and renew everything and everyone, simply rings true. From that perspective, everything makes sense; without it nothing makes sense.
But how do we encounter this presence of Christ? It’s one thing for Mary to meet Jesus in the garden. It’s another thing for you or me to encounter him now. I think there are many answers to this question. For me, I find myself experiencing God’s love calling me by name through the presence of Christ in the community of faith. I experience the presence of Christ through the love and support and affirmation I receive from other people who have experienced that life and that love and have come away from that experience transformed.
Faith enables us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a different path, a whole new way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. But it is not an easy path. At the end of the day, it takes something of a leap for all of us to really entrust our lives to the kind of hope that God awakened in the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning. When we take that leap of faith, it can be frightening, because we are taking a risk, and that makes us vulnerable. But that’s how we open ourselves to the new life God brings. The leap is frightening, but when we make that leap, we find ourselves moving from a life that we have to manage and control into the arms of the God who continually offers us grace and peace and mercy and love and life.
I like that risk-taking faith. It satisfies the mystic in me. It also speaks to the practical in me. Reverend Brehm has captured the way that the mystical story of the resurrection can impact the life in which we live, which sometimes does find us in in need of hope. Surely this understanding, this leap of faith, can help us feel more at home with God.
I do trust that these two readings have helped you to find a freshness in an old, old story.
May your Easter experience become more than a church service experience or a family affair. May Easter become a way of being alive, craving to find out more about the unconditional love that we call God, whom I know best as Jesus, the Christ.