Grace Episcopal Church
Easter Day (Primary Service)
Acts 10.34-43 Psalm 118.1-2, 14-28 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 John 20.1-18
May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart, that
I may rightly and truly proclaim His holy Word. Amen.
Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! Raise your hand if at some point in your life you have heard an Easter sermon in which the theme was the empty tomb, Jesus’ triumph over death. There have been quite a lot of sermons—many of them excellent—preached with a focus on the empty tomb as the token of our participation in Jesus’ triumph over death. I hope the one you heard was good, and confirmed you in faith. But today I want to focus not on the empty tomb—not on what can be seen—but on what is not witnessed, not seen.
John’s gospel account, and those of Matthew, Mark and Luke—all the gospels—describe the disciples finding the tomb empty. They describe the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, a reality made palpable in sight and touch, in breath, in words, in Jesus’ physical presence. But the gospels do not describe, and indeed cannot describe, the process of resurrection. John tells us about the linen wrappings in which Jesus had lain in death. He adds the detail of the linen cloth which had covered Jesus’ face being rolled up and placed to one side. But he doesn’t say how the linen wrappings were removed from Jesus. He doesn’t describe Jesus opening His eyes, His limbs moving, His lungs breathing, warmth returning to His body. He does not describe these details, first because he has not witnessed them—nobody has—but also because the reality of the details is at best secondary. As Jesus Himself said, “Nothing will be impossible for God,” so for all we know the linen could have been just teleported off of Jesus’ body, or angels could have unwrapped Him. Or—and here’s the kicker—it’s all just metaphorical, detail concocted after the fact as myth.
I am not going to stand in front of your as a minister of the Gospel and in any way even imply that we should in a way doubt the gospel accounts. I raise the issue of metaphor and myth only to acknowledge the reality that we are surrounded by people—many of whom are not hostile to the Church, and some of whom are churchgoers—who dismiss the reality of resurrection. Why do they do this? Maybe they are literalists, and believe that unless they can have something (anything) described in terms of cause-and-effect, testable hypothesis and measureable outcome, it is not real. They want “evidence” in terms of eyewitness accounts that they deem can be verified by “independent” sources, of a revivifying corpse. But most who dismiss or question the reality of the resurrection do so on far less thought-through grounds. It’s just that they have a vague feeling that the supernatural is somehow contrary to reason, and so what is described as supernatural must be mythical; it must be metaphor.
Today we proclaim the reality of the resurrection, and we proclaim our own participation in this resurrection. We proclaim this all days. In the service of Baptism we proclaim that we are “buried with Christ in his death. ... share in his resurrection. ... [and] are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP 306). We proclaim this reality in recognition that what is real—indeed what is often most real—is often not measurable. In life we yearn for, we seek, we prize love, truth, beauty, good, being. And we know when we have real love, and when we lose it. We know truth when we contrast truth with falsehood. We experience beauty even when we cannot describe beauty except in self-referential terms that speak of our own perception. We know good, particularly in its absence. We experience being in terms of who we are, and know that if we seek to measure who we are we will fail. We do often refer to “quality of life” in cases of disease, in cases where we know that life has been in some way diminished. And when we speak this way of quality of life, the measures are all functional, such as whether or not a person can do certain normal daily functions on his or her own, or needs help.
But let’s not speak of disease; let’s speak of life, of new life, or life everlasting. What is not seen and what cannot be measured may be what is most important of all. The fact that a thing is supernatural does not mean that it is not real, that it’s just metaphor. In fact many things that are very real in the material world are first discovered because of how we can observe the effect of their reality, even when we cannot observe the thing directly.
Consider the planet Neptune, the eighth planet from the sun. Neptune—which along with Jupiter and Uranus is one of the so-called “gas giants”—is the fourth largest planet in the solar system, by radius, and the third largest by mass. By 1783 Uranus, the next planet closest to the sun from Neptune, was acknowledged to be a planet. Once astronomers began detailed observation of Uranus, they noticed changes in the apparent speed of the planet’s travel in orbit, and proceeded the gravitational force necessary to change the orbit of Uranus. This led them to start looking for another planet beyond Uranus, but this “discovery”—which took over twenty-five years—resulted from the observation of the effects of Neptune’s gravity on the orbit of Uranus. The French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier had established the reality of a thing (Neptune) by observing the effects of this thing on another thing (Uranus), the reality of which was not in dispute.
By measuring matter—stuff like planets and stars—and the effect of gravity on this stuff, scientists can say how much stuff there is in the known universe, even though most of the stuff cannot be directly observed and measured. but that for the measurements to make any sense they have to assume that other “stuff” is there. This other stuff is dark matter, which by definition cannot be observed and measured.
Confused? All I am saying is that even the most hard-nosed science relies of what can be seen and observed and measured in ways that require that we assume.
So, let’s bring all of this back to resurrection and new life. In the empty tomb we see the result of resurrection. In the risen Christ we see the result of resurrection. And in the lives of people of faith we see the result of resurrection. I, for example, have been present at many deaths, in both a secular, medical context, and in the context of last rites. How a person of faith dies is very different from how an unbeliever dies. The unbeliever tends to be more scared, and to be angry, because they believe death to be the end, to be extinguishment. The believer may well be scared, but anger is absent, and at some point he or she finds peace, because he or she knows that death involves new birth. You can see blessedness in another, even if you cannot feel it in yourself because of your pain and grief and tears. But later, when you reflect back on the passing of one you loved and love still, you come to realize that the blessedness they experienced was infectious. Who you loved you love still.
Think of all the experiences in your life where change and growth has come about because of something or someone who you cannot point to or measure, even though you can experience the change, the growth. Or think of how your prayers have affected another for whom you have prayed. The empty tomb is the change in the orbit of a planet that shows to you that there is another planet out there. It is what points to the reality that of linens coming off of Jesus, of His body warming, and His heart and lungs restarting, of His eyes opening and of Him rising from the slab. Look beyond the empty tomb to all of the evidence in life around you that there is new life, new creation, blessedness; that despite evil there is good; that despite ugliness and degradation there is beauty; that despite lies there is truth which abides; that despite death there is being. Experience this new life that by your faith you will change the orbits of all those around you, to tug their orbits more into a path determined by the one true Son, a path in which they can come to say not just Happy Easter! but Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.