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Easter:  Spectators or Participants

Sermon - 4/12/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

 

1 Corinthians 15:12-22

Our text for this morning comes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15.  Paul is responding to a concern that has been raised in that community:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

 

Did you happen to catch Newsweek this week?  The cover declares:  "The Decline and Fall of Christian America".  Really?  You wouldn't know it here. 

Even as they report in the article there has been a decline of about 10% of those who affiliate with the Christian faith in this country, I think it may be just a bit premature to declare the "fall" of Christianity.  Still, 76% profess to be Christian in this country.  And that compares to about 1.2% who are Jewish, less than 1% that are Muslim.  The article itself I think is actually well-written, very thought-provoking.  But I suspect Newsweek is more interested in making sensational headlines for their Easter edition than they are in making any serious claim about the fall of Christianity.

And so they try to bolster their sales with a sensational cover during holy week.  That should come to us as no surprise.  The surprise is that a Palestinian Jew from the first century should be remembered at all.  And not only remembered, but is still making news some 2,000 years later.  So even if you are a complete died-in-the-wool, card-carrying skeptic, you have to admit that something remarkable happened after Pilate had Jesus crucified.

That should have been the end of the story.  It always was before, there's a little rebellion among some anti-Roman instigators and so they put up a few crosses, put their leaders on them, and BOOM!, problem solved.  Why should this time be any different?

 

You see, Pilate knew very well that there was nothing more shameful for any self-respecting Jew in that period than to be publicly crucified.  Who would ever think of following a crucified Lord?  It's absurd.  Paul, earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians said that it was a 'stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles'.  It was unthinkable.  Kind of like thinking the Ducks would ever have a baseball team again J.  And in their first year after a 28-year absence that they would have any hope of ever beating the national champion Oregon State Beavers.  See my tie? J [Green & Yellow]

Any Blazer fans out there?  Yeah, yeah.  If you're following the Blazers, you know what's happening.  After a number of years down in the cellar, problems both on the court and off the court -- they called them the "Jail Blazers" -- second youngest team in the NBA, and now they're in the playoffs and the new slogan on their web site declares:  "Rip City Uprising", with a sub-theme of "Rise and Believe".  I mean, talk about an Easter message -- the dead coming to new life!  Even in Portland J.

Well, you know there's one big difference with the message we declare.  We talk about Duck fans and have a lot of fun with it.  Whether it be in Mac Court, or Autzen Stadium or now PK Park, the fans are the "6th man" in basketball, or the "12th man" in football.  They make a difference.  But the reality is, no matter how much you cheer for your favorite team, you are still a spectator.  You cannot score any points.

Folks, here's my Easter message in a nutshell:  Easter is not a spectator sport.

We are not called to be spectators to the resurrection.  Paul it makes it explicitly clear:  we are participants in it.  It's why I think, by the way, that there are no actual accounts of the resurrection in scripture.  There aren't.  There's lots of stories of the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection.  But no accounts of Jesus actually coming out of the tomb.  Because there are no spectators for Easter, only players.

There is 1 account of the actual resurrection of Jesus coming out of the tomb, not found in our scriptures, but (Bible students from Wednesday night) where is it found?  The Gospel of Peter.  Say what?  We've heard of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Some of heard of the Gospel of Thomas.  The Gospel of Peter is an 8th-century text of which there are fragments from the 2nd century so we know that it is at least as old as the 2nd century.  Largely forgotten because it was not included in the New Testament.  And so it disappeared from history, re-surfaced a few decades ago.

It has a very interesting story in it that includes all kinds of mythical elements, like a cross that moves and follows Jesus out of the tomb and speaks.  It's a text that I actually used for a sermon that I gave when we moved our cross from Skinner's Butte overlooking the city to Eugene Bible College.  But that was another sermon for another time. 

It does raise some interesting questions about when we should take these stories literally and when should we take them metaphorically.  I don't think anyone in the 2nd century would have taken the story of a moving, speaking cross literally.  They understood it as a metaphor.

And so how do we know which is which?  Take, for instance, the wonderful story of the two followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the 24th chapter of Luke's gospel.  After the resurrection, they're confused.  And a stranger joins them and begins conversing with them about the events of the day, and they don't understand.  And this stranger begins to open their eyes to understanding scripture in a new way.  And so in good tradition of Middle-Eastern hospitality, when the arrive at their destination they invite him in to share the evening meal.  And then, in the breaking of the bread, their eyes are opened and they see Jesus. And poof!, he's gone.  He disappears.

Now how are we to take a story like that?  Did God suddenly make the body of Jesus disappear?  I suppose that's one possibility.  Or, perhaps it's a vision they have of Jesus.  And don't ever say "just" a vision -- anyone who has had an authentic vision from God knows that it is not 'just' a vision, it is a very powerful, overpowering experience.  Read again the story of the conversion of Paul when he has that vision of Christ on the road to Damascus.  Powerful experience.  So that's another possibility.

Or, maybe it's a parable.  After all, Jesus told parables.  Maybe this is a parable the followers of Jesus tell about him.  A parable that talks about how Jesus appears to us in the breaking of the bread.  That's another possibility.

All of them valid interpretations.  And by the way, that's why John Dominic Crossan says "Emmaus never happened, Emmaus always happens".  I love that.  Now, don't go away from here and say "Ah, the preacher said that story of Emmaus wasn't true".  That's not what I'm saying.  It's more than history.  It's a deeper truth.

If you do say something like that, I have a new technique.  To help people learn, I tie them up to a chair and then I play 20 years of sermons non-stop, until they get the point J.  I call it "sermon-boarding" J.  Approved by the CIA -- if that's not torture, I don't know what is J.

So listen closely, here is what I am saying:  Christian faith has never been merely about history.  So much more than that.  Even if we all agree on exactly what happened, if we can get all of those stories from Luke and Matthew and John that are so different, and we can combine them and we could all agree which of those stories are factual accounts, which are metaphoric, which are parables, and we could come to some agreement, still the question would be:  what do they mean?

So let's not get hung up on what did or did not happen to the body of Jesus and focus instead on what happens to the body of Christ, as Paul calls the followers of Jesus.  That's us.  You see, the power of Easter is not contained in what happened 2,000 years ago in a distant land.  The power of Easter is in what happens now

The oldest accounts of the appearances of Jesus are not found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Some of you may know that they're found in the letters of Paul that Paul wrote probably 20 years before the gospels were written.  And scholars are pretty much all in agreement that the first letter Paul wrote was his first letter to the Thessalonians.  So here are the very first words written as far as we know about the resurrection:

14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

And that's all Paul says about it.  I mean, c'mon Paul!  Your first letter where you're talking about the resurrection, surely you could have said more than this?!  Undoubtedly Paul did when he spoke to the Thessalonians, but he didn't know this letter was going to end up in the Bible.  So that's all he wrote about it.

Scholars are pretty much also in agreement that Paul's last letter he wrote was the letter to the Romans.  Paul had not yet been to Rome.  Had not spoken to that community, so we might expect him to say a little bit more about the resurrection.  And he does, about 4 times more -- four verses in Romans.  In chapter 6 we read:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Do you hear our participation?  And then again in chapter 8, one verse:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

This is the way that we are called to participate.

Paul's lengthiest treatment of the subject is in the 15th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, of which I read part already.  Prior to that section is the only place where he speaks of the appearances of Jesus.  He says:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.

What I find most striking in that listing of the appearances of Jesus is what's not there.  Paul evidently is not aware, or does not choose to pass on, the stories told in the Gospels of the first appearances of Jesus to the women at the tomb.  In fact, Paul says almost nothing about many of the appearances that we know so well -- like that story on the road to Emmaus, or the wonderful story when Jesus cooks breakfast for the disciples fishing on the lake of Galilee.  Or the appearance to Thomas.  Or when he appears in a closed room.  None of those stories does Paul mention.

In place of those stories, in place of Jesus coming and going, of eating and walking, showing his wounds to Thomas, all those wonderful stories to help us to see Jesus, to visualize the risen Christ, in place of those, there is in the letters of Paul this one overwhelming reality which can be verified by no one but experienced by everyone:  in the risen Christ, we find new life.  The one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to us through His spirit that dwells in us.

This is the meaning of Easter:  that we are called not to be spectators but participants.  Those in whom the spirit of the risen Christ dwells.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, author, popular speaker, spiritual director, speaks of this reality.  He says:  "To understand Jesus in a whole new way, we must first know that Christ is not his last name.  But his transformed identity after the resurrection.  Which takes humanity and all of creation along its sweet path.  Jesus became the Christ, and included us in this new identity".

Now here comes the thing that I think many Christians do not fully get:  to die and rise with Christ, as Paul speaks about it, is not some future event.  It's not something we do once at the end of our life.  Rather, it's an on-going event.  It's something we do every day, in every moment, with every breath we take.

You see, it's not about getting into heaven in the next life so much as it is about bringing heaven to earth in this life.  'Living for Jesus a life that is true, striving to please him in all that I do' as the gospel hymn says.

Paul calls Jesus the 'first fruits' of the general resurrection.  That's another way of saying that the harvest has already begun.  The new age of God, falsely understood by some as the end of the world, the new age of God's reign -- what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God -- here on earth as in heaven, that happens through our participation in it.

In Christ, we are called to die to the old way of the world.  The way of empire, the way of violence, the way of death.  We are called to rise to the new way of God, the way of light, and hope, and peace.

And I'm not talking about some vague utopian ideal but about lives that are changed in concrete ways.  About the ways of the world that are transformed.

When someone breaks an addictive habit, there is resurrection.

When a family is lifted out of poverty, there is resurrection.

When George Mitchell led that peace process that culminated in the signing of the peace accord for Northern Ireland -- on Good Friday of all days, in 1998 -- there was resurrection after decades of violence and killing.

When Desmond Tutu established the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, there was resurrection for an entire people that experienced centuries of oppression.

When peace is made, there is resurrection.

When the estranged are reconciled, there is resurrection.

When the hungry are fed, there is resurrection.

When the homeless get a house, there is resurrection.

When a life is saved, there is resurrection.

When the lost are found, there is resurrection.

Decline?  There is resurrection all around us.

The life of the spirit is present, dwells in us, when we live in Christ.

It's happened.  It is happening now.

The only question is:  will you be a spectator, or a participant?

Our Lord is risen.  Alleluia!

 


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