Easter A 2005 Matthew 28:1-10; John 20:1-18
Most of us don’t remember the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. During his day he was a powerful man in the Soviet
Union. He took part in the Bolshevik Revolution of1917, was editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda, and was a full member
of the Politburo. His works on economics and political science are still read today in some parts of the world.
There is a story told about a journey he took from Moscow to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism.
Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insult, argument, and proof against it, detailing
at great length all its faults and failures, and none of its successes.
An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men's faith. "Are there any questions?"
Bukharin demanded. Deafening silence filled the auditorium.
But then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist
leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the ancient greeting known well in
the Russian Orthodox Church: "CHRIST IS RISEN!" En masse the crowd arose as one and the response came
crashing like the sound of thunder: "HE IS RISEN INDEED!" (1)
When our children were young, most of us had all sorts of traditions to make Christmas a very special morning. Some we brought
from our families of origin; some we created for our own families. The house was usually decorated. Sometimes, if we remembered,
treats were left for Santa the night before. The children could hardly go to sleep for the excitement of it all. They couldn’t
wait to see their stockings and the gifts the next morning. Christmas seemed so special.
But Easter? It didn’t seem as special. There was a time when Easter was the high point – and central point --
of the church year. Easter’s preparation and celebration took three full months. First there was the 40 days of preparation
and anticipation during Lent for the great feast of Easter. Then, once Easter came, it lasted 50 days, “The Great 50
Days of Easter,” the church called it.
In most parishes these days, Christmas and its preparation take more energy, and draw more excitement than Easter.
Some families try to make Easter somewhat “special.” Of course, there are the Easter eggs and baskets. And some
also bought the children some little gift, usually some article of clothing that they could wear to church on Easter morning.
And, of course, chocolate bunnies to greet the children on Easter morning.
We get our custom of dying and eating Easter eggs from ancient Christians who saw the egg as a kind of symbol of immortality.
There is some evidence that early Christians met on Easter at the tombs of deceased Christians and they ate a cold meal there
at the tomb. In fact, at the supposed tomb of St. Peter in Rome, when excavations were undertaken during the last century,
they found piles of egg shells. Archaeologists believe that these special meals were celebrated there. And that seems fitting,
for Easter ought to be celebrated in some special way. (2)
All of the Resurrection stories have one thing in common. God does something so strange and singular in nature that there
is no way to explain what happened. And this strange thing that God does has, as its consequence, either faith, hope, and
love, or skepticism and even disbelief.
All we can see are "snapshots" or anecdotes of the Resurrection. The stories of Resurrection are all different. In one,
Jesus is known when he speaks. I n another, he is not known when he speaks but when he breaks and blesses bread. In one account,
he broils fish for breakfast. In another he suddenly appears in a locked room. It is impossible to put together an integrated
composite picture of what happened. As one person said, "if the disciples had been using a camcorder, we would have something
on tape, but I wouldn't attempt to say exactly what."
But the consequence of all of these stories is either faith, hope, and love, or skepticism or disbelief. Why did the disciples
choose faith, hope, and love? How can we choose faith, hope, and love?
When we examine the Resurrection stories, three patterns of belief emerge. There is no particular ranking or sequence of
things. In fact, they seem to be integrated. The first is that the relationship with Jesus both before and after the Resurrection
was personal. When Jesus said, "Mary," Mary knew instantly who he was. When the two disciples saw and heard Jesus break
the bread and bless it, the gestures and language were so familiar that they instantly knew who he was.
The second thing that enabled his followers to know him is Scripture. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples heard Jesus
explain the Scriptures that told how God would raise him from the dead.
The third thing that enabled the followers of Jesus to believe was the community of other believers. The very first thing
that Mary did after she knew was tell the disciples. The first thing the two followers of Jesus who recognized him when he
broke the bread went in a hurry to Jerusalem to tell the disciples. Most of the Resurrection stories are stories where Jesus
appears to a group.
This leads to these three ways of knowing the Risen Lord. For most people these three ways are integrated. But it became
clear to me during our Lenten studies of the Resurrection that this is not true of everyone. And it is true that some good
Christians have difficulty accepting the fact of the Resurrection. So how can we know Jesus in a personal way? What can
we do so that his voice is familiar to us in our daily round? (3)
This story may offer some perspective and hope and help. It is told by someone who had his own difficulties with things about
God, especially faith:
“Bob was raised an Episcopalian; I am Presbyterian. From the way he talked about it, his God was decidedly more genial
than mine. Mine was a distant, faceless entity you had somehow to find on your own. Bob’s was always there ready to
cheer you. I thought of Bob’s dad, an older, aristocratic gentleman with bushy, white eyebrows, abounding in genuine
human warmth, very glad to see you if only for the sake of a new joke – always a clean one.
“Bob didn’t seem to have to look anywhere at all. His God was always checking in. My God was more like the
sky over the sound: gray, vast, cold, full of veiled threat. You had to be a sharp thinker for this one, and you had to work
at it to get close. Getting close required dedication, sacrifice, and vigilance. For Bob, it was enough just to be there
for morning worship, according to the Book of Common Prayer. Whether you come late, doze a little, even let your mind wander,
it’s all the same.
I wanted a God I could experience in some amazing way. Bob’s faith overlapped so completely with his life that God
was more like a companion than, well, like God. Such an experience of God seemed to me too unexceptional, too ordinary, reassuring
but boring. I was always looking for a revelation, a sign, an appearance in the void so unexpected it threw off all your
thinking. There was something lovely in the idea of a God who just puts an arm across your shoulders, but still, I wanted
to be carried up, swept away.
“There was an irony here I missed completely. If the God implicit in Bob’s faith was an affable aristocrat, there
was at least an openness to every sort of experience. No one in his variety of Christianity was privileged by the quality
of their private relation to the divine. My idea of the experience of God, on the other hand, led to religious elitism.
In wanting a special revelation of my own, I wanted also to be special among the citizens of faith. The certainty I longed
for would, I thought, give my voice a discernible authority – a direct route to spiritual arrogance” (4)
I think we can see signs of this in the Church today. Most of us who aren’t so sure we are right about everything seem
to know Jesus personally through prayer and worship and in an awareness of his presence in our daily lives. In the story
where the two disciples recognized him when he broke the bread and blessed it, Jesus is known in what seems an ordinary thrice
daily ritual. But this makes clear that regular participation in worship, especially in sharing in the Holy Communion, is
a very powerful path for knowing the Risen One.
In our worship, especially in Holy Communion, we experience the Lord.
St. Paul was clear. He said that we eat the bread and drink the wine "perceiving" the body of "Christ". Somehow, the meaning
of bread and the meaning of wine change to become the meaning of Jesus' flesh and blood. Some worry that they really don't
understand how this can be. Others are concerned about children receiving Communion. They wonder if the children really understand
what is going on.
One very senior and wise bishop, when asked, "can a child understand enough to receive Communion?" responded, "I'm concerned
that I don't understand enough to receive Communion." In fact, none of us can really understand enough. But however much
faith we have, even if tiny as a mustard seed, let that faith come forward to receive Communion with the Risen Christ. Coming
to Communion feeds the faith in us.
If you want to know the Risen Lord, worship him! (3) Take Holy Communion with him. Pray; communicate with him. And read
about him in Scripture.
The Lord is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed!
1. eSermons Illustrations for Easter
2. Adapted from Will Willimon, ed, Pulpit Resource, Easter 2005, electronic edition.
3. Adapted from Selected Sermon for Easter 1999, Worship that Works, at dfms.org.
4. Paraphrased and adapted from James P. Carse, as quoted in Pulpit Resource, Easter 2005, electronic edition.