Easter is coming. And this year, like every year before it, will have its share of stress and pressure hanging over the pastor’s desk as she struggles to build a capable sermon for the most holiest of days on the Christian calendar. Above all else, Christianity is a resurrection movement. When we speak about the empty tomb, we’re casting out our story of origin; this is not an aside, but the very heart of our faith. We want to get this one right. (Those who come only on Easter are at some advantage, as this is the only story they’ll hear. If all anyone knows of Christianity is something about the resurrection, that’s a good start.)
I have some ideas to share, but first, the top two mistakes we make with our Easter sermons.
Mistake #1 – Trying Too Hard To Stay Something New
There’s a real pull to the fringes of the Easter story where we might find something fresh and yet-to-be-known, but just so you know: there’s nothing there. You’ll say things, of course, that will sound new and foreign to some of your listeners, but the information won’t actually be unprecedented. Don’t put stress on the story to give away more than it has to give or to stretch it beyond its own limits of history and theology. This just creates confusion. You’ll also sound weird and desperate.
Mistake #2 – Trying To Prove The Resurrection
Follow this story back to its origins and what you run into is testimony. That’s it. The whole of the Christian faith is based entirely on the testimonies of people who said they saw Jesus alive when he should have still been dead. Are those testimonies true? I believe so, but setting out to prove them in a sermon is beyond confident. I tried this one Easter by interviewing my brother in place of the sermon. Between his PhD and my Masters Degree, we figured we could offer an academically compelling case for the resurrection, but the number one word of feedback we got from that morning was, “That was interesting.” And when I think about something like a resurrection, “interesting” is a bit of a downgrade.
The balance seems to be in simply retelling the story as it reads, and doing so with a genuine pastoral sense of how the resurrection becomes a filter of hope through which we see and engage the current realities of the world we all share. This allows us to tell the “old, old story” from an immediate perspective; it is a chance to overlay the implications of the resurrection on the worlds we each inhabit, it’s resurrection as a way of being in the world.
Here are some ideas based on the texts:
Gospel of Matthew – I like Matthew’s earthquake, which doesn’t show up in the other Gospel accounts. And with Matthew’s penchant for Old Testament imagery, I imagine this earthquake has its place in the story as a metaphor for the change the resurrection has wrought. The resurrection has upended creation, it has changed the landscape of the world we were once familiar with, and we must learn to walk this earth on new pathways. Everything about what was once known has been rearranged. We are walking atop a new landscape, an altered creation.
Gospel of Mark – I like ending this one at 16:8, most often seen as the original, older ending of the story (the remaining verses appear to have been added later). Verse 8 has the resurrection story ending not in joy, but in fear. The two Marys and Salome are commissioned to tell the disciples what they had seen, but Mark indicates that because of fear (trauma?) they hold off on sharing the news. Could Mark be baiting us to decide what we would do in that situation? Could he be irritating our own doubts and fears surrounding the resurrection? How might we finish this unfinished scene?
Gospel of Luke – All four Gospel accounts place the women at the forefront of the Easter moment, yes, but for some reason I’m drawn to this part of the story in Luke’s version. (You could go this route with any of the resurrection accounts.) The origin of the Christian movement was in the voice of women, a bold and subversive move on the part of God. Whatever the resurrection will come to ultimately mean, we see here in the first moments that we’re dealing with major reversals.
Gospel of John – I like that John is telling a new creation story through the life of Jesus, introducing us to his story with the words, “In the beginning.” (Jn 1:1) John also wants us to count the “signs” that Jesus performs, numbering the first two for us as motivation to follow along (Jn 2:11, 4:54). Each sign could be seen as another “day” of creation. But the resurrection appears to be an eighth sign, throwing off the “seven-day creation” story. Or does it? Justo Gonzalez explains it this way:
“Christians, as well as Jews, did not believe that the repetitive cycle of a new week, following another, and a new year following another, would be endless. There would be a day when that cycle would be broken, and a new age would dawn. This would be a final Sabbath, an eternal day of joy and rest. Given their observance of the Lord’s resurrection on the first day of the week, and the manner they related that day with the first day of creation, Christians would soon point out that the first day of the week was also the eighth, and that therefore what they celebrated on that day, besides the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of a new creation, was also the promise of the eighth, the beginning of eternity.” (A Brief History of Sunday, p.29)
The eighth sign in John’s Gospel is the resurrection, which happened in a garden, at the start of a new week; and a garden is where the world began. This is about something new.
Grace and peace,