Sermon at the 9 a.m. Service of St. Andrew's Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011, by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate
A couple of years ago one of the big Bible publishing companies conducted a survey to find out people’s favorite Bible verses. Let me give you the top five:
5. Romans 8.38f: Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
4. Philippians 4.12f: In any and all circumstances… I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
3. John 3.16: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
2. Jeremiah 29.11: I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for good and not for evil, to give you a hope and a future.
1. Proverbs 3.5f: Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.
I saw the list before I thought about what my own favorite might be, but both No 1 and No 5 would certainly be in my own top five. Another favorite of mine, that I’m surprised not to find listed, is from the 23rd Psalm, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. But if I had to pick one I suppose I’d vote with the majority: Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths. Those are words that have strengthened me many times over the years I’ve been a follower of Jesus, and I know I’ll turn to them for encouragement in the years to come, too.
The interesting thing about these verses is that they all address the power of God in our daily lives. None of them are about the things theologians argue about, none of them are about the nature of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ; they’re not about the issues of morality that are such a thorny issue in so many churches today; they’re not about the social issues that we all agree are very important, like ending poverty or caring for the environment or making peace. They’re about God’s power in the life of the individual: God showing us the way ahead when we’re not sure, God’s plan for each of us, God giving us hope, being content in difficult situations, knowing that Christ’s love for each one of us will never fade away.
What’s interesting about this today is that none of them could be called Easter verses. No one’s favorite is the Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon! Only one of the verses even hints at the resurrection. But it is Easter that gives all those verses their power. The great thing about the Easter event is that it assures us that those words of encouragement that have comforted or strengthened so many people so many times aren’t just comforting words. Sometimes, when we’re afraid, someone tells us that it will be all right, and we like to hear that even if we’re not sure they really know whether it will be all right or not. But because of Easter, these verses are not like that.
Easter is not someone whistling in the dark, it is an eye-witness account of infinite power at work in the world, power strong enough to overcome the worst that can face us, strong enough to overcome death itself. So Easter is not only about Jesus—it is about us, too. The New Testament calls Jesus the first to experience resurrection, but promises that He will not be the last. In fact, No 5 in the Bible hit parade, about nothing separating us from the love of Christ, is the conclusion to a passage that says exactly that: it says that God shows us how to become like Jesus, so that he might be the firstborn among many. The power at work in Jesus Christ is at work in all who trust in Him, and can give them, give us, new life, just as it gave Him new life.
And those verses are favorites for so many people because they remind us that this power is not only available at the end of our lives, but every day during it. God’s word achieves God’s purposes, and those verses, and others like them, bring the power of the resurrection into the events of our daily lives. Remember No 4, the Philippians verse, In any and all circumstances… I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. No matter what situation we face, God’s power is there for those who ask for it, whether it’s the power to change our situation or the power to change our ability to cope with it. The God who can raise the dead can, and does, stand by His people no matter what.
One of the reasons we don’t always feel this to be true is that we don’t always recognise God’s power at work. In the gospel account we just heard, Mary Magdalene was looking for Jesus, but almost missed Him because she thought He was the gardener! I knew someone once who met a bishop when he was not in uniform, not our bishop, I hasten to add, and thought he was a used car salesman! Fortunately, Mary spoke to the gardener anyway, and discovered Jesus, but too often we don’t do that, but turn away, sure that what we see in front of us can’t be God at work. It’s just not the way we expected God to answer our prayers, so we don’t recognise it as an answer to prayer.
Because of Easter, we can trust God a bit more than that, and if we’d be just a bit more willing for God to answer our prayers in unexpected ways, we’d find that God answers our prayers far more wonderfully than we hoped. That’s what happened to Mary Magdalene: she did not find the Jesus she was looking for, because she was looking for a dead Jesus, to Whom she wanted to pay her last respects. Instead she found a living Jesus Who called her by name, who told her to go and tell others that He was not dead, but living, that He had conquered death, that power over death was loose in the world. That’s the way it is with God’s power: with His power we always find more than we hope for, with our own power we always find less than we hoped for.
Everybody knows that the world we live in needs radical change if it’s to be the way we all know it could and should be, the way the Bible tells us it was intended to be. You only have to read the newspaper to know how desperately change is needed. And there are millions of opinions out there about how to bring that radical change about, but no power to change anything. Lots of talk, but the talk never changes the situation on the ground except when it makes it worse. Easter points to a real power, not just talk, but real power to bring about change that’s more radical than most of us would even dare to hope for.
Raising the dead is about as radical as it gets—for all the wonders that modern scientists have achieved, I’ve not heard any of them claim any success in that line. When we take Easter seriously, we are in touch with the power that has raised the dead, in front of eye-witnesses, and many of us can tell a story about how that power has changed our own life. If we can get the world to take Easter seriously, the world itself will be changed, will become again the world Isaiah described in our first reading: it’s still possible for it to be the world God gave us instead of the mess we’ve made of it.
But it can only happen if we follow God’s plan. All the promises that human beings make to us about making things better, all the isms that human beings have invented in order to get God’s world without God, are a waste of time. Until one of those human beings can raise the dead, there’s no point in even listening. But we don’t have to wait in hope that some human will pull that off, because God has already done it. He’s shown us that there’s nothing He can’t do. If God has a plan for us, it will be a plan that will work, as well as a plan for good and not for evil. That’s why these verses, which promise us God’s help with the things that matter to us, are such favorites. They are Easter in action in the lives of believers.
When people ask whether the Easter story is true, they mean the story about the empty tomb that John told. And we can tell them that it is true, because we can also tell them the story of Easter in our lives, that the God more powerful than death is involved in our own lives, and ready to be involved in the lives of those who have not yet put their faith in Him. Those interested in the truth of the Easter story not only have John’s witness, they have ours too. Of all the Lord’s doings, this is the most marvellous in my eyes.