Texts: John 20:1-18; I Cor. 15:1-11
Paul begins this section of his letter to the Corinthians with the words, “Now I would remind you”. In other words, you’ve heard this story before, but let me tell it again. It’s funny, as I interact with my preacher friends over social media how we all feel the pinch of telling this story, yet again. Here is this remarkable story, which should be able to stand on its own, and yet through repetition it has become a story that has become forgettable at best, laughable at worst. I wonder if some of us, yes even some of us preachers, have just heard this story so many times that it has become boring to us.
But maybe the problem isn’t the story per se. Maybe we’ve been telling it wrong. Maybe part of the problem is that we aren’t telling it like it is good news.
So hear, let me try to tell it again.
God loves us, but we sin, so God sent His son to die and then God raised his son back to life. If we believe all of that then we go to heaven.
That’s an okay story. Sometimes it’s told like this.
God loves us, but we sin, so God sent His son to die and then God raised his son from the dead and if we don’t believe that, we’re going to hell. You know... because God loves us.
I don’t particularly like that story. Maybe it’s like this:
God created the world. It was perfect. But we rebelled and ruined it. And God got mad at us. And the only way that God would stop being mad is if we slaughtered animals. At some point, there wasn’t an animal special enough to cover up all of our sins, so angry bloodthirsty God sent his son and demanded that he die. And then God raised him from the dead. And if we believe that, and don’t drink or smoke, or swear, or dance, and vote republican then we won’t go to hell.
Okay, I’m being silly here, but let’s face it, that’s not far off from how it’s usually presented. God is so angry with humanity, that the only thing that can stop that anger is blood. And then all that is necessary is for us to give some manner of intellectual assent to this story about God, and adjust our behavior a bit, mostly by avoiding things that are fun, and we’re good to go. I gotta be honest. That’s not very good news. Here’s why: in that version of the story, God’s still angry, the world isn’t set aright, and the whole system is based on fear, guilt, and punishment.
I want a better story. I want a story that sounds like good news, that feels like good news in my day-to-day life. I want a story that is good news for more than just me and people who think and look like me. So let’s tell a different story.
It still starts with God. This God is pure love, but love needs both subject and object. And this God lives in community, but even that community is not enough to be the object of pure love. So God creates in love. God creates a world teeming with every form of life, all of which God loves. But there’s something missing, all of what God made wasn’t able to interact with God as God desired. So God made humanity, both male and female in God’s image (because God’s image is both male and female)… but here’s the kicker, God made these humans free. This is risky, because it leaves God open to being rejected and being heartbroken, but love isn’t love if it’s coercive. So humans had to be free. And yes, there is sin, because in our freedom humans sometimes choose to put themselves above other humans and nature in really unhealthy ways. So, God enters the world, in various forms at various times, always trying to direct us back to a simple path: love of God through love of neighbor. God does this most clearly in Jesus. Here’s the problem, some people have become so comfortable in using their freedom to take freedom from others, that they will fight back against, forcibly if necessary, against anyone who tries to show them a different way. And that’s what happened to Jesus. Because he didn’t just affirm the humanity of the blind, the leper, the fishermen, the foreigner, women, and children, he also spoke out against systems that dehumanized others. So those who profited from those systems conspired together and had him killed…
… and what shall we say about what happens next? Did the physical body of Jesus rise out of the tomb? Are we superstitious or naïve enough to believe such an absurd thing? Well, the first disciples did. Paul did. He goes as far as to say that those who saw the living Christ were among them. It mattered to Paul. It mattered to the early Christians. It mattered because they needed to believe that their way of life was not in vain. It mattered to them because the Gospel had changed everything about the way that they lived. It changed their sense of community. It changed their sense of purpose. It changed the ways they interacted with each other and with outsiders. It changed everything about the way that they were for the remainder of their lives.
It changed them because they began to imagine themselves in a different story. Instead of living in the story that told them that God was angry with them, they began to live into the story that God was for them. Instead of living in the story that said they were only worth what the empire said they were worth and they imagined a story in which their worth was that of those who bear the image of God. They began to imagine that God was so for them that God would go to great extents to show that they weren’t alone.
Faith begins when we are willing to imagine a new story. A bigger story. A better story. Faith requires that I imagine a world that is not the world I see everyday. Faith requires that we imagine a world where the blind, see, the lame walk, and the dead cannot be confined to tombs. And if we can do that, it will force us to imagine a world where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, where weapons of war are used as tools for growth, where predators no longer prey on victims.
Growing up as I did, I always assumed that one must believe the fact of the resurrection to live into the truth of it. What I have come to understand is that there are many who have historically denied the facts of the resurrection while living into it’s truths. A great example of this is a man named Albert Schwietzer, the man famous for bringing the quest for the historical Jesus to the English speaking world. While Schweitzer denied the existence of any real person who was named Jesus who did the things depicted in the scripture, he took the example of Jesus so seriously that in 1905 at age 30, he went to Africa and began an medical mission that served thousands of people while also being an outspoken critic of the colonialism that had separated people into class by race. He actively opposed the development of nuclear weapons along with Albert Einstein. He did all of this because of the gospel that he believed to be true, if not fact.
As I have gotten older, and my I wrestle with what my faith means in the face of science, in the face of all of the world’s ills, in the face increasing religious fundamentalism of all stripes, I have become far more interested in the truth of Easter than the fact of Easter. Jesus rose from the dead? So what? What does that do about hunger? What does that do about war? What does that do about discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, or race?
The truth of Easter is that a new world is possible. A world where the needs of the hurting are cared for. A world where the dividing lines between people are broken down, a world where violence and domination are exchanged for justice and compassion.
Paul tells the Corinthians that through this truth they are being saved. Not that they are saved. It is a process. You grow into a new reality. You are shaped and molded. The walk of faith is an ongoing journey, not a moment, but a continually revelation of the expansiveness of the grace of God.
As Mary came to the tomb she came expecting to find a dead man, she left with heart full of possibilities… for if the one who she saw crucified was alive, what else might be possible. She becomes the first evangelist because she was the first to encounter the reality that death does not have to win out over life.
Easter makes more sense to me after going to Haiti. I’ve probably mentioned that the 2010 earthquake that killed thousands happened on my 30th birthday. And you may call this crazy, but from the day it happened I felt God calling me to go there. So I went last summer. If you want to understand what Easter means, go to Haiti. Go to a place where death is evident, but the imagination tells them that things can be different, that a new world is possible. Go to a place where being resurrection people is a little more than a clever metaphor. Go to a place where people hope when hope is the most foolish thing they could do.
The thing that is being saved within us is our imaginations. Kids can imagine a world without fear. They can imagine a world without pain. They can imagine a world where resources are shared because that’s the world they live in. They can imagine a world where people play together, because that’s the world they live in. The resurrection first and foremost saves our imaginations. It gives us the grace and freedom to imagine a better story. The story of God, the dream of God, the kingdom of God.
So yes, I believe in the truth of the Gospel. I wrestle with the facts, but much less than I used to. The truth of the Gospel is that a better world is necessary and through the example of Christ a better world is possible. And for me, there was no better disciple than Mary Magdalene. She sees and experiences the Risen Christ and she immediately begins to give witness to the new reality. This is what we are called to do. Through our love, through our service, at times through our words, but definitely through our generosity and compassion, we give witness to the truth that the systems of death are not the only way to exist in this world. This is what we are called to do. We are not called to be people that argue the facts of the resurrection, we are called to be people who live the truth of the resurrection.
Friends, this morning we are invited to find our role in a new story. A story in which the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free. A story in which wars shall cease and injustices made right. A story in which those who have been victimized, abused, oppressed, and beaten down can lift their heads and know their worth. Nothing worthwhile in this world has been accomplished without a good dose of Holy imagination.
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Imagine. What else might be possible?