Our website is still grumpy, so audio isn’t available, but my Easter sermon can still be read here.
On Good Friday, each year, we hear the story of Jesus’ Passion read from John’s Gospel. Each year, we hear Pilate and Jesus going back and forth in an argument it seems neither side wants to win. Pilate, for his part, really doesn’t want to kill Jesus. He knows that the impulse to have him crucified is born out of fear and jealousy, but he feels stuck, unless the King of the Jews can somehow help him out. Jesus, on the other hand, really seems to want to die. It is the culmination of his life and ministry that he should be betrayed into the hands of sinners and crucified. At one point, about mid-argument, Pilate flat-out asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate’s response to Jesus haunts me every time I hear it. “What is truth?” Having risen through the ranks of Roman politics to become a puppet king, I’m guessing Pilate isn’t really sure what truth is anymore. He’s compromised his integrity so often, he’s forgotten how to be truthful, and I think he asks Jesus with genuine intrigue. In hours since Good Friday, I’ve given a lot of thought to Pilate’s question. What is truth? In my best moments, I’ve gone deep, pondering the truths upon which I base my life. Mostly, my questioning has brought forth more mundane answers. The most common answer I’ve come up with to answer the question “what is truth” is that dead people don’t come back to life. In fact, it is upon this truth that the miracle of Easter hinges. Dead people don’t come back to life, and so the resurrection of Jesus is something which should be celebrated.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a guy named Sam. Sam is a retired Medical Examiner from the Midwest. As you can guess, Sam has seen just about everything, but one story stands out among all the others. One night, Sam received a call at his home at about 2 o’clock in the morning. Outside of town, there was a man who needed to be pronounced dead: he had keeled over after a night of drinking at his favorite watering hole. Sam gathered himself, got dressed, and drove a little ways out into the country where he found a hole-in-the-wall bar full of patrons in various states of drunkenness lamenting over the dead man lying cold and motionless on the floor. There were no visible signs of life: no heartbeat or breathing; but Sam began his work as usual by giving the dead man a shot of atropine and adrenaline and doing a few chest compressions.
Suddenly, the dead man started to breathe. Then, he opened his eyes. The bartender quickly called 911 again, and the once-dead-man was rushed off to the hospital. Sam said that before the doors closed on the ambulance, several drinks were already waiting for him on the bar. A rousing celebration ensued, until, at about 4:30 in the morning, Sam decided to call his wife for a ride home. Thinking about how Sam’s wife must have felt when she answered the phone at 4:30 AM and heard her slightly-inebriated-miracle-worker-Medical-Examiner husband on the other end can help us understand the truth that dead people aren’t supposed to come back to life. Thinking about how Sam must have felt making that call, helps me understand the truth that when they do, we ought to celebrate.
Last we saw Jesus, he was dead. Really dead. Having cried out “It is finished,” he gave up his spirit. When the solider pierced his side, an unholy mixture of blood and water poured out from his suffocated lungs. Jesus was taken down from the cross, and after a moment alone with his mother, his body was quickly covered in spices, wrapped in linen, and placed in a freshly hewn tomb. The stone was rolled in front, a seal was made, and guards were set to watch 24/7 to make sure nobody stole the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was dead. Really, really dead.
Early on Sunday morning, a group of three women, Mary, Mary, and Salome, gathered to prepare the spices and ointments they would use to properly embalm Jesus. As they began their solemn procession to the grave, there was no thought in their minds that Jesus might be resurrected from the dead. Their worry was about who would roll the stone away from the tomb, not whether or not Jesus would be inside. There was no hope of resurrection that first Easter morning. The male disciples were locked up tight, while a small cadre of mourning women set out to ritually clean the body of their dead friend. As they approached the place where they last saw Jesus, something wasn’t right. The stone that they had worried about was already rolled away. A bit confused, they entered the tomb anyway, perhaps grateful that somebody had already done the challenging work for them. As they took stock of the situation, it immediately became clear that their friend is gone, and they were shocked. Dead people don’t come back to life.
Then suddenly, and angelic figure spoke to them and said the unthinkable, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” If resurrections are something to be celebrated, then these women have a strange way of throwing a party, at least in Mark’s version of the story. Rather than running out to spread the good news. Rather than popping open champagne in celebration. Rather than experiencing the joy of the resurrection. Mark tells us that they were gripped with fear. That they fled from the tomb. That they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s the way Mark’s Gospel originally ended, if the scholars are to be believed. It is an awfully unsettling way to end the book titled “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” People have tried to fix Mark’s Gospel, desperate to insert the truth that resurrections are meant to be celebrated. That we are here today means that somebody told something to someone, but Mark would have us sit in the awe and oddity of it all. Mark would have us wrestle, for just a little while longer with the truth that dead men don’t come back to life. In case you’ve forgotten, Jesus was dead. So dead that even some of his closest friends couldn’t imagine a way in which he could be alive. But now, Jesus is alive. Even some two-thousand years later, Jesus is still alive. He is active in our hearts and minds. He is at work in our homes, schools, and businesses. He is calling us to meet him in Galilee, where the resurrection will be celebrated and the Good News will be shared. He is calling us to believe the truth, the nonsensical, perplexing, amazing Good News that one dead man did come back to life, and in so doing, destroyed the power of death forever.
God took on flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. God took all our suffering in through the Passion of Jesus and died. Really died. And on the third day, God did the impossible and brought Jesus back to life. That is the Gospel truth, and it is certainly worth celebrating. So, rejoice dear friends, and give thanks, for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!