What a joy it is to be able to stand up here and celebrate this Easter morning with you. I look forward to this every year, partly with joy and excitement for the wonderful music, the enthusiastic crowds, and a glorious spring morning. Partly I also stand here with a sense of fear and trembling. This is a very common feeling among ministers on Easter morning. It would be impossible, I think, to prepare for an Easter worship service without being aware that it is likely to be the best attended, most highly anticipated worship service of the entire church year, Christmas not-withstanding. That awareness makes for, let’s say, a little heightened anxiety.
I am reminded of the old story of the little boy who was touring a candy factory with his class. At one point in the tour, he accidentally tripped and fell into a barrel of molasses. As he began to sink into the goo, he immediately shouted out a prayer. “Dear Lord,” he said, “please give me a tongue adequate for this occasion.” I can appreciate that prayer. I often approach Easter hoping that I will be given a tongue adequate for the occasion. However, the fact is that there are no words adequate for the occasion of Easter. Whenever we talk about the resurrection, we are grappling with the outer limits of human comprehension.
You may know the story of Thomas Aquinas. He was a great medieval theologian of towering intellect, who was the author of the “Summa Theologica,” his life’s work. It’s a massive piece: thirty-eight treatises, three thousand articles, ten thousand objections. Through this work, Aquinas attempted to bring together the sum total of human knowledge up to that point from all the various areas of study: anthropology, science, ethics, psychology, political theory, theology, you name it. His mission was to show how all human knowledge serves to reveal and describe the essential nature of God. Can you imagine? I bought a copy of the Summa Theologica in seminary. It gathered dust on the shelf in my office for years until I finally gave it away. It isn’t exactly what we would call a “page turner.” It’s a bit drier than your average, massive theological work.
Before Thomas could finish it though, something happened. On December 6th, in the year 1273, Thomas Aquinas abruptly quit writing. He had been celebrating Mass when he suddenly had a vision of all eternity. It must have been an extraordinary experience. At that very moment he realized that all his efforts to describe God fell so far short of the reality that he decided never to write again. His secretary, a man named Reginald, begged him to continue his work, but Thomas was adamant. “Reginald,” he said, “I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as so much straw.” Exactly. When I sit down to write my sermon for Easter, I’m usually very aware that, compared to the reality of the events of this day, anything I might decide to say could only ever be so much straw. There is no tongue adequate to describe the mysteries of God, and there is no greater mystery than the resurrection.
What always seems to happen on Easter though, is that we become caught up, not in the mystery itself, but in trying to make a case that the mystery is believable, that it actually happened. We know that the resurrection lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. We also know that a literal, historical resurrection is something our modern, rational and scientific world has a great deal of trouble with. That’s a problem. If the central affirmation of the Christian faith is not believable, it calls the entire church into question. Doesn’t it? Aren’t we made out to be ridiculous by all who those many people who are convinced that Jesus could not possibly have risen from the tomb? These questions come more into focus on this day than they do at any other time of the year. On any ordinary Sunday, it usually isn’t necessary to engage the resurrection directly. There are, after all, a great many things we can talk about. But on Easter the resurrection is pretty hard to ignore, even if we wanted to.
Maybe it would be helpful to know that this is hardly a new problem. As far back as the New Testament, people were finding it necessary to convince others of the believability of Easter. That is certainly the theme of Paul’s words in his letter to the Corinthians. “Some are saying that Christ has not been raised.” This letter dates back to about thirty years after Jesus’ death, but there is plenty of evidence that the credibility issue goes back even further. There were many people in Israel who could not be convinced that Jesus was the messiah.
To begin with, Paul himself was one of them. John’s gospel tells the familiar story of “doubting Thomas,” who wouldn’t believe until he saw with his own eyes. I’ve never really thought it was fair to give Thomas such a hard time. None of the disciples believed the stories the women told about having just returned from an empty tomb. It wasn’t until Jesus appeared among them, until they saw with their own eyes, that they got on board. We can imagine that believing was easier for people in first century Palestine, but all of these stories suggest otherwise.
Let me tell you something. As far as our faith is concerned, it doesn’t matter that we live twenty centuries after Christ, in a modern, rational and scientific world. What matters is whether or not something we have seen or heard or experienced in our own lives has managed to move us across the boundary between doubt and faith. Maybe you have had a vision, a dream or an answered prayer. Maybe you can tell stories of near death experiences or moments of inspiration that seem miraculous. Maybe you just grew up in the church and the stories we tell have sunk down into your soul. Or maybe you are waiting and hoping for something like this to happen. Regardless of where you may be on the great continuum of doubt and faith, the question is not whether the resurrection is believable, the question is, “Do you believe it?”
For my part, I absolutely do. Yet as soon as I try to describe what it is that I absolutely do believe, I find myself right back there with Thomas Aquinas. The words fall so far short of the reality, that it’s always just a little too tempting to say nothing at all, which I doubt would go over very well from the pulpit on Easter. It isn’t that our faith has nothing more to say to the world after 2000 years. What makes it so hard to speak, at least for me, is that the world is so filled with resurrection. Easter isn’t difficult because we are forced to make a case for the empty tomb. Easter is difficult because the reality it embodies is overwhelming. It is difficult because the resurrection, in any meaningful sense, simply won’t fit into the space we create for it, which usually amounts to about twenty minutes, once a year, on Easter Sunday.
Resurrection is not simply about one faithful man, Jesus, returning to life in one very powerful historical moment. Resurrection is the whole power of God, it is the fundamental principle of the universe. For those with eyes to see, the whole world fairly shimmers with it. Do you not find life awe-inspiring? Have we become so jaded that we fail to see the miraculousness of even the most ordinary events? Children understand it, sometimes better than adults do. They seem to know, at least to begin with, that life is under girded with a wonderful, almost magical quality. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God being all around us, I am confident he had something like this in mind. In the great wrestling match between life and death, life wins. Jesus didn’t create the resurrection by rising from the tomb. What he did was reveal it to us.
The story of Jesus, and especially the part of the story we remember today, embodies all that we know and hope to be true about life. That’s why it’s the greatest story ever told. That’s why it has been told and retold in so many different ways. To give just one example, C.S. Lewis did a beautiful job of retelling the story of Jesus in his book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s true that the Chronicles of Narnia are children’s stories, but the best children’s stories always seem to carry a message that adults need to hear from time to time.
Narnia, you may recall, is a magical land we are introduced to when four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, discover a secret passage through the back of their wardrobe. When they arrive there, they find Narnia under the spell of a terrible Witch, who has proclaimed herself queen and brought down an endless winter in which Christmas never arrives. The children join with the forces arrayed against the queen, but Edmund is captured and forced to become a traitor. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it is in the form of the beautiful and fearful lion, Aslan.
As the story draws to its climax, it seems that the queen has gained the upper hand. She has brought Edmond to an ancient stone table of sacrifice She claims her right to kill the traitor, a right granted to her by what she calls “the deep magic.” But Aslan offers himself up in Edmund’s place, an offer the Witch readily accepts. As Lucy and Susan look on, the great lion allows himself to be cursed and beaten, bound with cords, stripped of his mane, and finally sacrificed upon the table. But early the next morning, the girls hear a loud crack, and are the first to witness a table of sacrifice now empty and broken.
Much to their astonishment, Aslan appears; no longer dead, not a ghost, and with a fully restored health and appearance. When the girls ask in wonder what it all means, Aslan responds to them in this way. “It means,” [he] said, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim, who had committed no treachery, was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
What do you think? Is the resurrection only a story for children, or does it have something to say to us as well? A long time ago, a man who had committed no treachery dared to give up his life for the sake of others. He had plenty of opportunities to be false and self-serving. Instead, he chose to be faithful and self-giving, and in doing so he revealed to us the deeper magic. In the great wrestling match between life and death, life wins. That is the deeper magic. That is the resurrection.