Antonio Correggio, Noli me tangere, c.1525
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Acts 10: 34-43; John 20: 1-18
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (I Cor. 5)
Friends: Grace and peace to you, blessings, joy--all the riches of God’s favor, on this First Morning of the world. And as we take the opportunity every year to brush up our Greek with the ancient greeting of this day and all the season ahead. You might say, the text of the first Christian liturgy: Christos anesti! Christ is risen! And the reply, Alithos anesti! He is risen indeed! [Let’s give it a try . . . .] Century after century among all languages and peoples and nations: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!
So,yes: Easter blessings, and in abundance. Wonderful to see you. Choirs singing, trumpets ringing. Welcome Happy Morning!
Christianity as a religious “system” might seem to be a fairly complex subject. Just down the block at the Pittsburgh Seminary there is a fantastic library with multiple floors filled with rows and rows of shelves, centuries of books and journals—and that doesn’t even begin to touch the vast and expanding universe of what you find once you step out electronically into the digital space: theology, philosophy, ethics, and art and poetry and all the rest. And more blogs than there are stars in the night sky! But in the household of Cornelius the Centurion, in Acts 10, the first account of the missionary outreach of the Church to the gentile world, St. Peter gives his testimony in just a few words. And I think most effective Easter sermon. “They put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
All the rest is really just icing on the cake. All those journal articles and blogs and theological tomes—two thousand years’ worth. On this morning of all mornings, we would settle in right here with Peter. Keeping our focus straight and true on what needs to be said. The elevator speech and executive summary. On the old Dragnet TV show Detective Friday would say, “just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.” Let’s find out first what most needs to be said. As we heard in Luke in last week’s Palm Sunday gospel, if we were silent, the rocks and trees and rivers and seas would need to shout the news. And what the truth is, the truth that we would know and proclaim not just this morning but every morning of our lives, and today of all days it must be presented with clarity: to say simply, that the story we have heard is true, and that it matters, that it makes a difference. “They put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.”
So it’s one of those little phrases in the liturgy: Morning and Evening Prayer, the Baptismal Service: in the Apostles’ Creed--something we may zoom through on a Sunday morning without pausing to reflect on just what it is we’re really saying. “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the Communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting.” But we hear Peter with clarity and then we need to pause this morning and remind ourselves with clarity that this is not poetry. The most ancient expression of Christian belief. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Just the facts. And this the most important fact of all. Otherwise we are just foolish, as St. Paul says in First Corinthians 15, “if Christ has not been raised,” then this is all just a fool’s errand. A waste of time. A delusion. But today, with clarity, founded on the sure testimony of witnesses. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” His body first. And then, because we believe that—and then your body too, and my body. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
It’s difficult--hard to hear, hard to say, hard to believe, no question. The understanding of the New Testament is that it is a spiritual gift to do so. It’s a matter of grace. To hear the testimony, and to find in our minds and hearts that we know it to be true. That we can say it, we can believe it, because God has already moved in our hearts to make that possible. What Peter says here in Acts: he appears to “to those chosen by God as witnesses.” But once it is possible to know, to believe--once it is possible for us to see him, it becomes not simply possible, but necessary. As the old hymn says, “I can’t keep from singing.” Again-if we were silent, the rocks would need to cry out the news.
So whether we’re hearing the Easter story for the first time this morning, really hearing it, or whether we’ve know it almost by heart, trusted in it, believed in it all our life long, that’s the one key thing to know, the “take away,” the bottom line. Why we’re here today or ever. What did the preacher have to say this morning? What every preacher needs to say, or else keep his trap shut. Peter’s sermon. “God raised him from the dead on the third day . . . . He is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead . . . . Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” If we hear nothing else, hear this.
And so, the voice of breathless Mary as she rushes from that precious moment in the Garden to find her friends. If “Christos anesti!” is the beginning of the earliest Christian liturgy, perhaps we would call this the first Christian hymn. On Mary’s lips, singing from her heart: “I have seen the Lord . . . . I have seen the Lord.” The beginning of Christian life and identity, discipleship, stewardship, worship, formation, outreach, mission, pastoral care and community. Where it all begins, where we all begin. The life of the church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. The song of those chosen by God as witnesses: “I have seen the Lord.” I believe in the resurrection of the body.
I sometimes say, you’ve probably heard me say before, that perhaps a natural first response to the Easter acclamation, “Jesus is risen from the dead,” might be something like, “Wow! Lucky for him! Lucky for Jesus . . . . Everybody else I’ve ever known who has died has stayed dead. If that’s not the way it is for Jesus, then wow--great for him!” But what we announce today, this news of Easter, doesn’t end with the unexpected and very strange report that the one who died has now risen from the dead. That’s just the beginning. What we would announce today is that now, because of what we know now about Jesus, things are different for us. I believe in the resurrection of the body. His body first. The sign of God’s vindication. The great victory. And so then, our bodies. Our bodies.
Peter says it here in Acts 10. That it’s true as the Prophets have said, as the Scriptures have promised, as God has intended from the very first hour of creation. We’re not here this morning to puzzle over the reports about the appearance of Jesus after his burial in some detached way, as neutral observers. We are here because here, in this resurrection we discover our death and our resurrection. And it really is my prayer this morning that this is true deeply for you, and that it will become more and more true for you, for each one of us, as we grow together in the knowledge and love of God. We listen to the story over and over, in the words of Scripture, in our songs and hymns and anthems and in our prayers. Let it all sink in. Let it all sink in. It is the Holy Spirit who brought you here this morning. It is the Holy Spirit who is in us already, opening our eyes and ears and hearts to receive this gift. God has chosen us for himself, to know this truth.
“For since by man came death,” as Paul says in First Corinthians . . . “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
May it be blessing for you. Easter Egg hunts and cookies and champagne, choir and brass! And tomorrow, next week. Forever. Jesus, alive! Risen. Healing. Renewal. In this life, and for the life to come. This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow. The first morning of the world. The resurrection of the body—his, and then ours. This changes everything. The freshness of the Garden. The first morning of our new life in him.