Sermon for Easter Sunday 2016
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
On Tuesday of this Holy Week, a group of Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Franciscan priests gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to do something a little unusual: they were blessing scaffolding. This isn’t just any scaffolding—it is the support structure holding up the shrine over the tomb of Christ. Two hundred years of candles and pilgrim traffic, along with the weight of the marble edifice, have caused the little building to sag desperately. The priests gathered Tuesday to bless scaffolding because soon a long-overdue renovation project will begin there, at the site of God’s greatest miracle. Actually, it’s a small miracle in itself that the multiple, often bickering, traditions in the church managed to agree on the renovation project in the first place!
Still, miracle or no miracle, I couldn’t quite get over seeing this news headline about the renovation, shared during Holy Week: “Christ’s tomb to be restored soon.”
|Church of the Holy Sepulcher, |
closed for prayer on Maundy Thursday
Photo by Carrie Smith
Christ’s tomb—which he no longer inhabits—is being restored. Christ’s tomb—which he exited as soon as possible—is getting an expensive facelift. Christ’s tomb—which the women entered on the first day of the week and found empty—will soon look as good as new. Clearly, this renovation is a good idea in terms of historic preservation. Still, whenever I visit the church and see long lines of faithful people waiting hours for just a moment inside the tomb, I want to tell them: “Guys, you know he’s not there, right?”
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Recently, a friend who is a tour guide was explaining to a group how the actual stone tomb of Jesus is located far below the shrine, in the basement of the church. It is only accessible if one priest from each of the various churches is present to witness the event. Impressed by this fact, one of the tourists asked, “That’s so cool! Did they ever find anything in the tomb?” To which my friend responded, “Uh, no. It’s empty. Actually, there’s a story about that. Maybe you’ve heard it…”
This morning, we rejoice to hear the story once again. We are gathered here in this place to remember how on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb. Finding the stone already rolled away, they entered the tomb but the body was not there.
This Good News, the simple but perplexing fact of an empty tomb, is the source of our joy and our hope. For this reason, we got up before dawn and made our way here to the Mt. of Olives. For this reason, the musicians have prepared for weeks to provide joyful music. For this reason, some of you have traveled many miles to be in Jerusalem, the City of the Resurrection, on the Day of Resurrection.
Yes, the tomb is empty – for this reason let us say again,
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Such is the astounding headline news of this Easter day –and yet, on Tuesday the headlines were different.
On Tuesday, my News Feed read like this:
“Christ’s tomb to be restored soon.”
Yes, Jesus is risen! But we are still hanging around the tomb.
Isn’t this true about so much of our lives?
On Sunday mornings, we rejoice in the risen Christ. We sing “I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!” and “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” We share the peace of Christ with those in the pews next to us. We break the bread and drink the wine and give thanks for being raised with him. Sunday morning is all about Resurrection.
And then the rest of the week, we are about the business of caring for the dead places in our lives: Rearranging the furniture. Putting on a fresh coat of paint. Trying to make the tomb seem less dark, less dead.
When my little family and I were in graduate school, I would sometimes spend entire days rearranging the stuff in our tiny apartment. I would stack the toddler toys and move around the books and try to hide the things that had no home, but in the end, it was still a tiny, dark, damp, windowless basement apartment. No amount of redecorating was going to change that fact.
Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen! And still, we keep tidying up the tomb.
We keep trying to make peace through war.
We keep trying to achieve justice through hatred of the other side.
We update old paradigms instead of adopting new ones.
We renovate systems of injustice rather than toppling them.
We fortify walls and borders, instead of stepping into the light.
We keep looking for the living among the dead.
But who can blame us for thinking the tomb is the place to be? After all, death makes headlines. Violence always gets our attention. Hate sells, and even wins elections. Who can blame the women for looking for Jesus where they last saw him—among the dead? Who can blame them for being perplexed when the tomb was empty? We aren’t conditioned to expect resurrection. We aren’t accustomed to life outside the tomb.
A dear friend of mine struggled and suffered for years in an abusive relationship. She would often say that as a person of faith, she believed in resurrection. Couldn’t God resurrect even this relationship, even if the love was dead or dying?
For years my friend tried renovation, redecoration, hoped for restoration, and prayed for resurrection, but at long last the relationship—and the abuse—were over.
And you know what? There was indeed resurrection. There was indeed new life. But it was not found in the tomb of abuse. It was not found in the tomb of disrespect. It was not found in the darkness of violence and fear. My friend found resurrection, liberation, and life abundant in the light of the Risen Christ. It happened when she remembered the stone was already rolled away. It happened when she remembered nothing could keep her in that tomb.
Suddenly two visitors in dazzling clothes appeared and said to the women: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Luke 24)
Dear friends in Christ, hear again the Good News: Jesus is no longer in the tomb.
You will not find Jesus hiding in the darkness, held down by hatred, defeated by violence, wrapped in a death shroud, or imprisoned by a stone.
He is not there!
And that means Life is not found there, either.
Hope is not found there.
Peace is not found there.
Justice is not found there.
Liberation is not found there.
Jesus is no longer among the dead, and neither are we.
Today, dear friends, is the festival of our freedom!
Today is the feast of our liberation from sin and death!
Today is the first day of the week, and it is the first day of our Risen Life!
In an Easter sermon sometime in the 4th century, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria preached:
“Christ, risen from the dead,
Makes the whole of human life
A festival without end.”
Dear sisters and brothers, today is our Great Feast. Today we gather to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord. But hear me when I say: this Good News is not only for Easter morning. It’s not only for Sunday morning. The feast of our freedom, the joy of our liberation, the certainty of our hope, is a festival without end.
Every single day when God wakes us up to a new day is Easter morning! Amen!
And watch out, world, for when the Children of Light and the People of the Resurrection start celebrating their freedom every day of the week.
For as theologian Jürgen Moltmann recently wrote: “When freedom is near, the chains begin to chafe.” (Jürgen Moltmann: The Living God and the Fullness of Life)
Yes, Lord – when freedom is near,
when we our Easter liberation is carried close to our hearts,
when the cries of “Alleluia” stay on our lips all day long,
when our baptismal garments become everyday clothes instead of our Sunday best,
then every prison,
every separation wall,
every system of injustice,
every racial or gender inequity,
every pattern of abuse,
every dark place in our lives—and in the world—becomes more than we can tolerate.
Then a renovation of the tomb just won’t be enough.
And then – oh then! – just watch as the Risen Lord, on the move through the Holy Spirit, raises up all the People of the Resurrection to share the Good News.
People won’t believe it.
People will say it’s an idle tale.
People will say “Pay no attention. It’s only a couple of women. It’s only a couple of Jesus freaks. It’s only a couple of human rights activists, radicals, peaceniks, politicians, mothers, fathers, academics, teenagers, evangelicals…
It’s just a couple Lutherans saying that stuff.”
And still we will proclaim it. Still we will live it. Still we will rejoice in our Easter freedom, our liberation from the tomb, our new lives on this side of the stone of hatred, fear, violence, and death.
Together, along with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary mother of James, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, our testimony to the world is this:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed Alleluia!