1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. 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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Ah, the strange and bewildering day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown our bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.
Easter is the one day when all of the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Today we are a church unlike many of the other Sundays in the year. On Easter our pews are filled with those deeply rooted in their faith, with those filled with questions, and with those filled with doubts. So, what does one say on a day like today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of truth and challenge and grace? What can I say today?
The truth: He is risen! Hallelujah!
Graveside funerals make me nervous.
If we have a funeral in the sanctuary, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and truly celebrate the many ways in which God moved in and through the person now dead.
But when you’re at the graveside, everything is out of control. You might be driving in the sunshine while in the funeral procession, but the minute you hit the cemetery the clouds roll in and the rain begins to fall. You might have your bible open to a particular passage but then the wind will blow and you’ve gone from 1 Corinthians to Exodus. Or, as has happened to me far too many times, you’ll stand over the casket with dirt in your hands and ask everyone for a few moments of silence only to hear the faint but nevertheless decisive moo of a cow from a nearby farm.
Cemeteries are often in the strangest places. I’ve buried people in perfectly manicured military compounds where you’ll never get lost because there is always a solider ready to lead you out. I’ve buried people in cemeteries stuck in the middle of residential neighborhoods, next to a playground, and across the streets from a cow farm. I’ve even buried someone’s ashes in the backyard of a beloved family member.
And because they are often in the strangest places, they can be difficult to find.
Years ago, a young pastor was asked to do a burial service for an older man from the community who had no friends, and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a decent funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrive he got in the car and headed out for an old country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.
He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself, he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his phone, and he eventually stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. When he finally pulled up he was over an hour late.
As he drove across the open and barren landscape, the hearse was nowhere in sight, but the backhoe was next to the open hole, and there was a group of men resting under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked over to the open grave and embarrassingly discovered that the lid was already in place and dirt had been already been sprinkled across the top.
The guilt welled up within the young preacher and he opened up his bible and began preaching like he never had before. He cried out to the heavens with clenched fists, he proclaimed the promise of resurrection, and he did so with a conviction rarely found in his Sunday delivery.
After his final “amen” he returned to his car while still sweating from his passionately delivered sermon. And just before he opened the door, he overheard one of the men under the tree say to the others, “I ain’t never see nothing like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”
Today is Easter and it is also April Fools’ Day. This is the first time both days have fallen together in 62 years. And for months I’ve been reading articles, and listening to other pastors, expressing the importance of incorporating humor in today’s worship service. And, of course, Easter is a joke – the greatest joke God ever played on the devil. But to trivialize this day, of all days, does a disservice to the decisive change made possible by this day. It belittles the death of Jesus to graveyard jokes about septic tanks. It makes the resurrection optional instead of essential.
If God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, if the bodily resurrection isn’t real, then we are wasting our time. It’s as simple as that. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the vindication of all his teaching. It is what makes the sermons and the stories intelligible, it is the light in the darkness, it is the way we follow the way.
Without the resurrection, we have no business loving our neighbors, or enemies. Without the resurrection it would be absurd to teach our children the call to turn the other cheek. Without resurrection everything in the New Testament falls apart.
The world does not recommend doing any of this Christian stuff. It is strange and bizarre to give clothes to those who are naked, and to feed those who are hungry, and to befriend the friendless. We don’t do these things as Christians not simply because God tells us to, or because it’s the right thing to do. We do them because God raised Jesus from the dead!
The empty tomb is everything. It is funnier than any joke, it is more serious than any death, it is more majestic that any mountain, it is deeper that any valley. It is everything.
Without resurrection, I’ve got nothing to say. Without Easter, nothing that Christians do makes any sense.
“He is risen!” are the three precious words found at the heart of our identity. They changed, and continue to change, everything. They are the three words handed to Paul, and Paul to the Corinthians, and eventually to us.
Some of you know that I have an annual tradition of taking this cross out of the sanctuary on Good Friday, throwing it over my shoulder, and walking through town. I started this because years ago I was struck by often we keep our crosses tucked away in our sanctuaries, hidden among the altars and rafters. And so, for the last five years, I’ve marched around town with a cross on my back, beckoning all who encounter to remember that Christ died for them, and for the world.
On Friday I made my way across our parking lot with the cross thinking, somehow, it was heavier than last year, and eventually I made it to Route 1. I began by heading north, politely waving at cars and passers by, and I think it freaked some people out. There were many open mouths and puzzled expressions in regards to a bearded young man, all dressed in black, with a cross on his back.
But I kept walking.
After about twenty minutes there was a car to my left that slowed down as it came closer, and eventually pulled in front of me and into the closest parking lot. A man quickly exited his car and started walking toward me. After 20 minutes of walking I felt like God’s was giving me the opportunity to share the gospel story. In the man’s eyes I could sense a deep need and longing, and I was just the pastor to provide. So when he stood in front of me and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I replied: “Of course, my son, ask away.” To which he asked, “Do you know where the post office is? I can’t find it.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Its back a few blocks on the left… right across the street from my church.”
Another 20 minutes of walking passed by as a few drivers kindly honked their horns in support. When all of the sudden I noticed a car full of teenagers on the other side of the road, in which they were pointing at me. The driver’s made a quick u-turn, and then they stopped in the middle of Route 1 so that half of the kids could lean out their windows to take even more pictures. As they began driving away I heard one of the girls say, “Imma put him on my Instagram!”
Eventually, after walking for more than an hour, I started heading back toward the church, wondering if carrying the cross had really made any difference. I thought about all of the people who saw the cross and whether or not it made them reflect on what Jesus did for them. I wondered about how many of them even knew what I was doing.
Shortly before I got back to the church property, I saw a young man running toward me in full workout gear. He had headphones on that were clearly pumping some serious music and he was bopping his head back and forth. I assumed that he would run right past me, but he stopped briefly on the sidewalk, gave me a double index finger point, winked, and then said, “He is risen!” and then he kept running.
He said, “He is risen!” like it was a joke.
When the event of the resurrection comes upon us, like it did Paul, when we are encountered by the living God, raised from the dead at Easter, our world is rocked and we are changed forever.
It’s no joke. The resurrection is a reminder that we can never go back the same way we came. Those three words are the beginning of God’s in-breaking in the world, they are the witness to God’s unending love, they are nothing short of grace.
Easter is world shattering. It is deeply disruptive. It changes everything, now. Easter is the totality of the Good News. The story of the empty tomb is what radically reshaped Paul’s life, and, hopefully, it’s what has reshaped ours as well.
On Easter we celebrate the great power and mercy of God. In Easter we see how God took something like the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it into the means of life. On Easter God transformed the tomb the same way that he did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb; God made a way where there was no way. On Easter God changed the world.
And all it took was three words.
So come and taste the goodness of God in the bread and in the cup. Listen for the truth of salvation in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. Witness the power of Easter in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news. Hear the three most important words you will ever hear: He is risen!