“Easter Offers us a Choice”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
Every year, millions of preachers around the world step into a pulpit on this day and hope against hope that this will be the year that we hook you with trumpets, music and a message, and that all of you will return next Sunday and every Sunday thereafter. May this be the year!
On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and announced that Apple had invented the iPhone. It had no buttons, but used software to do everything. In one device Apple was offering the world’s best media player, the world’s best telephone and the world’s best way to get on the web. In his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, Thomas Friedman says that 2007 was a huge year for breakthroughs in technology. Thanks to computer algorithms and artificial intelligence 2007 became a game changer.
Facebook evolved from a networking site for college kids to a global social media platform. Twitter expanded exponentially. Amazon released the Kindle, which allowed users to download thousands of books in the blink of an eye, and IBM began building a cognitive computer called Watson that went on to beat two of the all-time great Jeopardy! Champions.
Airbnb was started. Today, Airbnb lets you rent a hotel in Paris, a yurt in Mongolia, a lighthouse in California, an igloo with Wi-Fi, a tepee with a TV or a treehouse in someone’s backyard with just a few clicks. Airbnb now offers more rooms than all the major hotel chains combined. Indeed, 2007 was a breakthrough year with solar energy, wind power, biofuels, LED lighting, energy efficient buildings, the electrification of cars and DNA sequencing.
The problem with massive, rapid change, notes Friedman, is that technology is evolving faster than our ability to adapt. That leaves many of us feeling lost, confused, outdated or left behind. If you lived in the eleventh century, life was not very different from life in the tenth century. But life today is radically different than it was just ten years ago. The massive, rapid changes can be disorienting, and our leaders, institutions and ethical choices lag behind the rapid changes. Just note how disorienting the most recent presidential election was.
I mention this because something similar must have taken place some 2,000 years ago. For centuries, Judaism and the Greco-Roman culture which surrounded it were fairly static. Then came Easter morning, which changed everything. The women who had been with Jesus in Galilee set out to visit the tomb where Jesus was buried, taking expensive spices which they had prepared to anoint his dead body. They were stunned to see that the stone had been rolled away. The last thing that they were expecting to encounter was resurrection.
Two angels in dazzling clothes spoke to them and asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” The women were terrified and ran to tell the disciples, who did not believe them. Who would believe them? After all, in the ancient world women were not allowed to testify in court. Their words were not thought to be credible. So, Peter and another disciple ran to see for themselves. The first one saw the empty tomb, and then Peter entered the tomb and saw Jesus’ grave clothes but nothing else, and the rest is history.
Now these were not the only witnesses. Some scholars believe that as many as 500 people saw Jesus after he was resurrected. His resurrection was arguably the most pivotal moment in history, making the introduction of the iPhone and all of the changes of 2007 look pretty minor. The experience of the resurrection created the Church. Without Easter there would be no Church. Without the Church there would be no Christianity. Without Christianity there would be no belief in eternal life, and without eternal life, many of us would live without hope. All of this makes a great difference in our lives.
Let me give you an example. As many of you know, my mother died in January. Our family will gather next Saturday in Sharon, Connecticut to celebrate her life. On Monday, my older brother sent a box with our mother’s ashes to our home for me to bring to the funeral. When I arrived home the next evening, I found a US Postal Service box at our front door. I texted my brother, “Mom was on the doorstep when I arrived home. She’s safe. I’m glad that she is with us.” But she really wasn’t. We have her ashes, which are sacred, and we will take great care of them, but I trust that Mom is now in heaven with God.
For the past few months, I have had conversations with her every few days, just letting her know what I’m up to and how our family is doing. I used to be able to pick up the phone each day and call her, but now I just have to say a prayer or have a conversation with her on my own. I trust that my mother knows that I love her, miss her and have not forgotten her. Many of you have had this same experience with a parent, a spouse, a child or a very special friend.
The resurrection changes everything. It means that our hope never dies and that there is more to life than what we experience here on earth. In fact, this life is just like a preface of the longest book ever written. Sometimes, our daughters get worried about something that age has taught me is relatively minor. I tell them, “Relax. You will get through this, and in ten years you won’t even remember that it happened.” Think about how our lives must look to God through the lens of eternity. What God did through Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection assures us that the worst of things are never the last things. There is more, and it is good, very good.
This can be challenging to believe. One needs only to read about the Syrian military using poisonous gas, Russia manipulating the American election, the Taliban traumatizing Afghanistan or terrorism in Stockholm to think that we live in a Good Friday world. But we don’t. Mercy, life and love will always triumph. That’s what Easter promises us. The world can throw everything at us, adversity, disease and even death, but God will prevail in the end.
At some point, each one of us must choose a narrative to base our life upon – a storyline or a central belief to guide us. You have to add up what you have read and learned, all that your parents have taught you and all that you have experienced firsthand and then decide what you will place your ultimate trust in. Believing in the resurrection requires a leap of faith. If you don’t have a strong faith, the way to start is through small Christian practices like going to church each Sunday, slowly reading one of the Gospels from beginning to end and receiving the wine and the bread at the Eucharist and realizing that God is renewing you from within. Try praying even for just a few minutes each day, helping people who you know are in real need and being more generous and forgiving than you would normally be, because this is what Christians do. And over time, I guarantee that your belief in Jesus and the resurrection will grow.
“Truth must dazzle gradually,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “or every man be blind.” And so, most of us come to a belief in the Easter event gradually over time. You may be tempted to believe that it was easier for the disciples back then to believe than it is for us to believe now, but you would be mistaken. The disciples committed their whole lives to Jesus. They knew that he was crucified. We cannot imagine how frightened they were by his brutal death. So, they went into hiding. The last thing that they were expecting was resurrection.
Then Jesus appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room, met them on a beach and encountered them as they walked on the road to Emmaus. Jesus broke through their fear and galvanized them to speak about his resurrection and carry a message of faith across the Mediterranean. Eleven of the 12 disciples risked their lives and died as martyrs. No one would do that for a myth. No one.
Instead, we read, “And the disciples saw, and believed.” This is not a story about the immortality of the soul. This is a story about bodily resurrection. The truth is that the Easter event was so radical that it took many years to comprehend what God had done and how Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures. The notion that Jesus was the Messiah and had suffered an anguishing death reserved only for a slave or a felon and then came back to life was mind-boggling. No one would have proposed this as a plausible truth. It was so strange and unlikely that it wasn’t until the third century that we discover any image of Jesus suffering upon the cross.
The tendency is for us to spiritualize the resurrection, such as when we say, “Her spirit lives on.” But we Christians believe in a bodily resurrection. In the Apostles Creed, we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” When Jesus rose from the dead, he had a body. It was not the same body that he had on earth. He passed through locked doors. Jesus ate fish. He cooked breakfast. Jesus showed Thomas his wounds. He instructed Peter, “Feed my sheep.” An immortal soul doesn’t eat fish, cook breakfast, show off his scars or instruct his followers. This was Jesus resurrected with a body, not just an immortal soul.
This is why the resurrection was so astonishing and why it took so many years for Christians to comprehend what God did through Jesus on the cross to forgive our sins and open to us the doors of eternal life. And it is why 2,000 years later two billion people are celebrating Easter today.
You and I have a choice to make. We must choose a narrative to guide our lives and make sense of the world and to share with our children and grandchildren. We can choose to believe in a Good Friday world where the worst of things happen to the best of people and then they die and there’s nothing. Or will we accept the witness of millions of Christians and countless martyrs who have died for the faith and eye witnesses who saw Jesus resurrected and trust that just as God raised Jesus from the dead God will raise us eternal life as well?
St. Paul writes, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” Easter reminds us that God – the Source of all Life – is capable not just of creating life, but this same God is capable of recreating it. The God who brought life out of nothingness can take death and bring forth eternal life. Illness, tragedy and death never have the final word. Eternal life lies ahead of you.
So, get involved in what God is doing now. Make a difference with your life. Stake your claim in a church that’s not a social club, but has a strong mission, proclaims the resurrection and give witness to God’s kingdom. Give thanks for all those down through the years who have worked for justice and equality. And let’s do it together, until one by one we are called forth to that bodily resurrection and have our glad reunion with those who have gone before us. Amen.