“Risen!” by Rosanna McFadden
Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed!] Halleluiah. That Easter greeting and response has been exchanged by believers for more than 1,000 years. It actually fits neatly as the last piece of our Lenten theme, which was Who do you say I am? In which we have been exploring Jesus’ titles and character in the gospels of Luke and John. Notice the construction of Christ is risen. Not Christ has risen, but this is continuing action — it is not something which Christ has done, it is who he is: Christ, the Risen One.
It is that character of Christ, risen or resurrected, which is appropriate for us to focus on this Easter morning, but it should inform our worship every Sunday; it is the promise we carry each morning of our lives. So I need to go back and set the stage — get the rocks and the flowers on the chancel, as it were–for this Easter morning.
Easter — not the bunnies and eggs, but the celebration of the resurrection — is the high point of the Christian story. It was the first holy day celebrated by early Christians — hundreds of years before Christmas was a thing. Christmas is part of the story, too, but it’s at the beginning, and Easter is . . . toward the end, right? Before I answer that, I want to talk about narrative structure. I know this is a familiar concept to some of you; you’ve taught it to jr. high or high school kids, or written a story yourself. Even if you’ve not heard it explained in this way, it is deeply embedded in our understanding of storytelling.
[Slide] You can find this basic structure everywhere — you set up the situation and the characters, there’s some kind of conflict or precipitating circumstance, there’s increasing tension, a big moment when the story turns, and then some kind of resolution. Once upon a time, a beautiful girl was born to loving parents, then her mother died and her father remarried. The stepmother was mean and her daughters made this girl do all the work, there was a ball, the young woman and a price fell in love, but she had to leave suddenly and dropped her slipper. The prince found her and the slipper fit! And they lived happily ever after. Jokes work the same way, “A priest and a rabbi and a Brethren pastor walk into a bar . . .” Sermons often follow this same structure — although to discern this, you have to listen to the entire sermon. “Our text for today is from the gospel of Luke, who is writing for Jewish Christians within a generation of Jesus’ death and resurrection . . .”
If you are familiar with the story of Jesus’ life on earth, it is easy to see how it fits over this structure. If we use Luke’s gospel as an example, we hear about this old couple Elizabeth and Zechariah and their miraculous pregnancy, then an angel appears to a girl named Mary, there’s a birth in Bethlehem, the boy grows up, is commissioned by baptism, begins a ministry of teaching and healing, the Jewish authorities are threatened, there is betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion and death, and Jesus is buried in a stone tomb. And then, the Big Moment which changes everything: Christ is risen from the dead!
Of course, this story is part of a much bigger biblical narrative: John’s gospel locates this in the beginning — when the Words was with God and the Word was God. The prophets have been building up to this by saying that a Messiah will come, the whole biblical story has been preparing us for this moment. The narrative of Jesus’ story and the broader biblical story are both focused on this Sunday morning, on a tomb in a garden in Jerusalem. And here’s the problem [if you’re tracking this sermon, I am heading up that hill of rising action,] The problem is, The Big Moment, the climax of the story is something which isn’t there. It’s an empty tomb and a couple guys in dazzling white clothes who say, “What are you doing here? He’s not here.” This is the Big Moment, and the hero is offstage somewhere.
It is only the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke which have no sign of the risen Christ. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene sees a man whom she assumes is the gardener, until he says her name, and she recognizes him as Christ, risen from the dead. He sends her to tell the disciples that he is risen. Which brings us to the other weakness of this Easter narrative, which is that in all four gospels, the first reporters of the resurrection — that is, the body which isn’t there — are women. Everybody knows that women are hysterical, liable to be overwrought, and cannot be trusted to report anything reliably. In Luke 24:11, when Mary, Mary and Joanna run back to tell the disciples what they saw and what the angels said, the disciples dismiss it as an idle tale.
This would not seem to be the best way to set up a big narrative reveal. After all, this is the moment which changes everything — the slipper fits! He is the murderer! Christ is risen! — why leave any doubt about that big conclusion? And here, I would suggest is the genius of the gospel story, and what sets it apart from other stories. We are called to be more than spectators to this story. This isn’t just about figuring out how Jesus is going to get out of this mess — Wow, they killed the main character, I didn’t see that coming — and then closing the book and going to bed, or going on with whatever else we have to do. This story is meant to transform our lives, to change our outlook, to alter what we thought we knew about life and death. The only way that can happen is if we put ourselves into this story — into this narrative action.
We are, of course, part of the long resolution of this story. The resurrection has happened: we have the accounts of women who saw the empty tomb, and the gospel writers who reported it and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Whether we choose to believe those accounts will make all the difference whether we are part of the story or not. The gospels do not give us proof. The gospels give us an empty tomb and some sketchy witnesses, and we have to decide for ourselves. Resurrection is not about physical certainty; it is about faith. If you say that Christ is risen indeed, does that make a difference in your life or not? There is room for doubt and uncertainty, even among those first disciples, but nobody has physical evidence to prove this to you. The question is, are you willing to be part of the story or not? [Slide down]
Assuming we are, praying that our presence here this morning indicates a willingness at least to engage with this story and its meaning for our lives, here are some things I would propose for you. I have put them in the form things which rise to help us remember the ways that we are invited to make the risen Christ a part of our lives.
[Sunrise] The sun rises every day. This might be a matter of faith if you live in N Indiana in Feb and March, where we can go an entire day or even a stretch of days without seeing the sun. Sunrise is a demonstrable physical fact, but it is also a powerful metaphor: not only do we have that gift of a new day each day, but no day lasts forever. This may be good news for those who mourn or who are in pain, but it also means that eternity is beyond our grasp. It is only through the transformation of this day, this Easter day when Jesus defeated death and changed the course of eternity, that through Jesus, we are promised eternal life.
[Bread] My mother always baked sweet breads for Easter: this is a Easter tradition for many Christians. especially from those Eastern Europe. I wasn’t sure why as a kid, and I asked Mom why she always made bread [in coffee cans] for Easter. She replied, “It rises.” Duh. You punch it down and it rises again. That concrete image reminds me that Christianity is not simply a theoretical exercise: it is embodied and practical. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This isn’t about God magically putting food on the table, it is about asking for, and having the faith that God will provide what we need for each day, and working so that others will have what they need for each day.
[Prayers] Prayer is the belief that when we share the questions and the longs of our hearts — whether we share those aloud or in silence — that those rise to be heard and help by a gracious God. Prayer is also being open to listening to God’s word, the words of the Bible or the living words written in the lives of those around us, to allow us to be shaped and formed by God, and to be used for his purposes. It is a profound act of faith to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will, but yours God,” and to be willing to accept the answer — or to accept not getting an immediate answer.
[Songs] Our songs rise to God; not only songs of praise, but songs of lament. Music can be another form of prayer. We pray not only as individuals, but as a community, the body of Christ, united by common purpose. Our songs proclaim that we rejoice in God, and allow God to set the course of how we live with others. We are untied as the body of Christ in praise and in sorrow when the body is broken.
[Protest] Although this image has some specific context, my intent is to illustrate calls for justice generally. When our spirits rise in protest about oppression and tyranny and injustice, that can be a sacred space. Christ’s crucifixion — an innocent, sinless man who was executed by an occupying military — is an injustice which we should never forget. That he was willing to do that on our behalf, while we were yet sinners, is a gift which we could never have earned, and can never repay. [Resurrection] Christ is risen! It isn’t just a Big Moment to celebrate — although I’m glad we can share in this celebration today. What it means and how it resolves through history should set the course of our lives: daily discipleship, trust in God to provide for each day, our prayers and our praise and our lament and our work for justice to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. These are all part of our faithfulness to Christ Jesus, the Risen One. His body is not there; he is risen just as he said. Christ is alive! Let us sing praise and live as risen people. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Halleluiah!