Easter is the hardest Sunday of the year for me to preach. Every year our church fills with new visitors who understandably want to hear the typical children’s tales of Easter. How could these poor people know that our church is filled with freethinkers who would walk out if I preached such a message? These innocent visitors expect to hear the story about a dead guy who got up on Easter morning. They want to hear that they and their sweet children will also physically rise up from the grave if they recite and believe the magic words of religion. They have been taught a version of the story that denies death instead of one that illumines life. No wonder they do not really want to be in church!
I can see the flowers in their Easter bonnets begin to wilt as I tell them that Easter happened, not when a corpse got up, but when the disciples began to see Christ in each other. Visitors do not want to be told that Easter has not yet happened for them if they cannot see Christ in the face of a gay or lesbian person. Or that Easter has not yet happened for them if they cannot not see the face of Christ in the people they are calling “illegal immigrants.” After Easter has happened to a person, he or she can hear the profound love behind an atheist’s hatred of superstition. Easter is a celebration of this universal love that alone could save our world.
Most Easter visitors do not want to hear a living message that makes them uncomfortable. They prefer a comfortable story about waking cadavers that does not require that they, themselves, resurrect into the common life. They do not want to hear that the cross represented the threat of empire and so now the church is standing on the wrong side of that cross. Instead of presenting itself as a living sacrifice for the whole world, the church now consecrates the cross of the American Empire. The church must be told that, if they cannot see the cross in the form of our own killer drones, if they cannot admit that poverty is a form of crucifixion, then they are worshipping a dead Jesus not a living Christ.
I understand that Easter visitors not want to put on fancy clothes only to be reminded that those garbs were woven in sweatshops, which are also a crucifixion. Visitors at Easter certainly do not want to hear about the young Muslims arrested on the word of bounty hunters and now on hunger strike in Guantanamo because we took away their Korans. After Easter, to refuse to renounce our power and privilege over the weak and the poor is to deny Christ.
Easter is not a magical denial of death. It is a symbolic affirmation of life. Easter is not about a miracle that happened only for the Christian Church, it is an awakening into our one common life. Easter is remembering that, when we give ourselves to the one life, even our death teaches the Way.
This is the sermon I have been waiting for since a child! i believe these could be the words of Jesus to the apostles. ‘I tried to teach you how to live, not wait for your death to get started!’
Thank you Kim. You say it very well.
Thank you Jim!
You’re welcome Kathleen. I appreciate your reading it.
This was great. I regularly read (and occasionally pass on) your columns. Reading this brought to mind an essentially complementary essay written by Thomas Merton, “He Is Risen.” (I sent the full essay to aol address I found on your church’s website. What follows is a short excerpt.)
Our Christian religion too often becomes simply the cult of the dead body of Christ compounded with anguish and desperation over the problem of moving the immovable stone that keeps us from reaching him.
This is no joke. This is what actually happens to the Christian religion when it ceases to be a really living faith and becomes a mere legalistic and ritualistic formality. Such Christianity is no longer life in the Risen Christ but a formal cult of the dead Christ considered not as the Light and Savior of the world but as a kind of divine “thing,” an extremely holy object, a theological relic.
This is the result of substituting something else for the Living Presence and Light of Christ in our lives. Instead of the unspeakable, invisible, yet terribly near and powerful presence of the Living Lord, we set up a structure of pious images and abstract concepts until Christ becomes a shadow. At last he becomes a corpse-like figure of wax. Yet people go to extraordinary lengths to venerate this inert object, to embalm it with all kinds of perfumes, and to make up fantastic tales about what it can do to make you rich and happy by its powerful magic.
We must never let our religious ideas, customs, rituals, and conventions become more real to us than the Risen Christ. We must learn, with St. Paul, that all these religious accessories are worthless if they get in the way of our faith in Jesus Christ, or prevent us from loving our brother in Christ.
I’m grateful for Merton’s sermon and the nice words, thanks.
Excellent summary of what most visitors to a church expect when they walk through the door of an Easter Morning. They do not want to hear about the things that Jesus taught us, nor do they want to hear about exactly what God’s will for “His only begotten Son” was when He sent Him to be crucified. They do not want to hear anything about how living by the law, as is increasingly being taught by most mainstream churches, becoming increasinly Pauline in direction and increasingly pushing the Ministry of Jesus to the back burner.
For the first thousand years, after the life of Jesus and the Apostles, the primary focus was upon the Four Gospels and the writings of Paul and the other Apostles were meant to frame the ministry of Christ in the cultures to which they were being addressed. Over the years, with the loss of the languages and oral traditions, added to the influences and agendas of Fundamentalists and other forces within the many sects of Christianity, it would seem that Christ is increasingly becoming more of a verb, of varying definition, rather than a specific noun noting the existance of a certain individual.
Thank you, Jim, for a wonderful summary of where we are at, relative to where we should be. I am so glad that I do not have to stand in your shoes and write a sermon for this Sunday. May God bless and give you the wisdom to produce a sermon that will affirm life-giving values, that Christ professed, and not fall short to popular beliefs of a dying empire.
Thank you for both of your comments. I appreciate the encouragement for Easter morning and will take it to heart. Also thank you for your own testimony about your experience of not fitting into preconceived gender polarity of our culture.
Jim did you go to LIFE bible college at all???
Kendle, I don’t even know what that is. Teach me please.
Hear, hear. This is pretty much why I’m not preaching tomorrow as our church schedule says I am, but instead doing a reflection with Bible passages and poems. I just don’t feel Resurrection-y enough right now – I can only use the words of others. But fortunately I’m in a church that knows how to lament, and that cares about the marginalized and oppressed. We’re tiny, so we don’t manage to do much about it, but we do what we can. In fact, if time allows, I would love to read your post as part of my reflection. Is that OK?
I would be honored. I would also be curious about what you finally come up with for Easter. Is your church in England?