A SERMON PREACHED ON EASTER SUNDAY, MARCH 27, 2005
IN ST. JOHN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH, STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT
THE REV. DR. LEANDER S. HARDING
Christ is Risen! This is the Christian Gospel. He lives and because He lives, we shall live; this is the good news which is the life of the church and which the church has to share with the world. That God raised Jesus from the dead and that there is new life in His name, a life which begins now and which the grave cannot hold is the precious message which the Apostles have entrusted to us and which is our joy and privilege to pass on to you. The church exists for no other reason than to communicate this message, the Christ, the Saviour, is risen. But we proclaim not only that God in Christ has triumphed over sin, evil and death but, the church says, this triumph is for you, this life is for you. Come and stretch out your hands and receive this life. Come and take this cup and drink deeply of this life. This life of love and sacrifice, of holiness and righteousness, this life poured out toward God and poured out toward brothers and sisters, this life which conquers all the enemies of our human nature, sin, evil and death, this life, the life of the Lord, the life of the Saviour, this life is for you that you may live in Him and He may live in you.
The proclamation of the church is that this Risen Lord comes to us as we gather together and that the life that is in Him, He breathes into us as we hear His words in the scriptures, share in the sacraments, serve each other and the world in His name. For He has said,”Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.” And He has said, “Lo I am with you always even to the end of the ages.” The great theme of the Gospel according to St. John is Life, abundant life,”For this reason I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” St. John teaches us about the eternal life that was in the Saviour and which has come into the world. This life that was in Him is most certainly and surely a promise of life eternal with the Father but it is also a new kind of life, which begins now, a new relationship with God and with each other. St. John speaks of this life as light. Humankind is living in darkness. We know much about darkness. A world in which we are forced to choose between war and passivity in the face of evil is a dark world. St. John says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness overcomes it not.” On the cross of Calvary love meets hate, righteousness meets sin, holiness meets evil. Light meets darkness and the darkness does not overcome Light. The light of the resurrection breaks forth from the grave. The purpose of the church is to carry and convey this life and this light. All about us this light shines with rays of the Resurrection. The vestments, the flowers, the music, the light coming through the stained glass, the best offering of art and architecture, our prayers, praises and adoration are all testimony to the Resurrection, all a way of saying with Mary Magdalene,”I have seen the Lord.” All of these things are visible witnesses to this invisible life at the heart of the church, which is the secret life at the heart of the world. Here the life of this world is beginning to shine with the life of the world to come. Here the creation and our human nature, which have become darkened by evil and sin, are being transfigured by the light of Christ. Therefore, St. Paul says, “Let us put away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only a past event; it is also a present reality and a future hope. We believe in the Resurrection because of the trustworthy testimony of the original witnesses but also because when they speak we know what they are speaking of. We live by, with and through that love and that life. We have died with Him to sin that we might live with Him unto God. Therefore, St. Paul says,”You have died and your life is hid with God in Christ.” From the first Easter day until the Ascension the Lord revealed to his disciples the nature of the risen life, which He continues to give to the world. Here in this Gospel this morning a very important aspect of the nature of this life is brought out to us. That is that the Resurrection is a resurrection of the body for the tomb is empty.
In the Apostle’s Creed we say that we believe in the Resurrection of the Body and the life of the world to come. We believe that the Lord was raised bodily. The Resurrection does not proclaim that some part of Jesus, his spirit or soul, survived death but that God raised Him up. What was raised was not a part of Him but all of Him. When God raises us up it is not a part of us that God shall raise but all of us. “Behold,” St. Paul says, “I tell you a mystery. We shall not all die but we shall all be changed.” St. John says, “It does not yet appear what we shall be but when He appears we shall be like Him.” And what is He like? He is completely changed and yet completely the same. There is an awesome strangeness about the Risen Lord. But He calls His sheep by name and they hear Him and know Him and there is nothing lacking, nothing left behind, all is transfigured. When He raises luminous hands in blessing they bear the marks of the nails. Everything He bore in His body has been raised, even the suffering. The wounds are not erased, forgotten but raised, changed, transfigured, glorified. The prints of the nails are the tokens of his victory.
The Resurrection of the Body, that when He appears we shall be like Him, is our hope for the life of the world to come. The Resurrection of the Body also speaks to us of the kind of life the Risen Lord offers to us now in this life. When He was raised, everything pertaining to our humanity was raised with Him and that Risen Life is being offered to us now, communicated to us now. St. Paul says that we are being given an arabon which means a preview, a down payment, a first installment of the life of the world to come. We are members of the body of the Risen Lord and the life of His Risen Body flows into us through the Word and sacraments.
We must think for a moment what the body is. Our body is intimately connected to our personality, to our individuality. We know the footsteps of our loved ones. That the body is raised means that everything which makes you, you will be raised. Your uniqueness as an individual is of eternal significance. We will recognize those we love and they will recognize us. God intends you to grow from glory to glory in the life of the resurrection and become more and more yourself as you grow in the love of God and in the fellowship of all the saints. But you do not have to wait to begin to become truly yourself. God now wants to give you the glorified humanity of His Son. God wants you to grow now in his love and service and in fellowship with all the saints. You were never meant to be scarred by sin, your own sins or the sins of others. If we turn to God with repentance, if we turn to God for healing, God will give us the new humanity of His Son which will be embodied in us in a way which is eternally unique and you will already begin to become more you than you have ever been. You will certainly begin to change on the inside and you may even look different on the outside.
The body is the means through which we process information and through which we come to knowledge. Even the knowledge we have of spiritual things comes to us through the body. When we begin to understand something we say that we have “come to our senses.” In heaven we shall truly come to our senses and we shall know even as we are known. But we do not have to wait begin to know the truth that will set us free. We do not need to wait to open our eyes and see and open our ears and hear and be believing and not doubting. We are invited even now to handle and touch holy things.
The body is the instrument through which we receive and express feeling and emotion. When we are embarrassed we blush. We burn with shame or with anger, we are sick with love or grief. It is not for nothing that we speak of “gut feeling.” The Resurrection life will be a life full of feeling, full of joy and peace. This joy and peace will not be a forgetfulness of this life but our sadness and grief transposed to a new key. The depth of suffering will by the transfiguring mystery of Christ’s suffering be the depth of joy. But we do not have to wait to begin to feel the life of the Resurrection. When we confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, our suffering turns to joy. When the hurts that others have done us are brought to Christ’s cross and seen in the light of how we have hurt Him, anger and hate begin now to turn to forgiveness and compassion. His love for the Father and His love for brothers and sisters is offered to us now, and here and now we begin to feel the life of heaven.
Our bodies are the means by which we worship and by which we serve. We bow our heads and bend our knees, or we stiffen our necks and turn away. We stretch out our hands in worship to God and in service to each other, or we use our hands to steal from God and from each other. In the life of the Resurrection we shall be able to perfectly express worship to God and perfectly love and serve each other. But God does not want us to wait to begin to taste of that life. Even now He wants to give us the hands of His Son, hands of sacrificial service and loving adoration.
Our bodies were given to us that we might know and love God and love and serve each other. Our bodies were given to us that we might know love, peace, joy and the abundance of God’s blessing and God’s creation. Our bodies were created fair and pure. Our bodies were created for righteousness and holiness. Our bodies, our memories and emotions have become marked and scarred by sin and evil. We are scarred by what we have done to others and what they have done to us. Our poor frail bodies are impotent in the face of death. He has died our death and offers us His life. He has clothed Himself with our body of sin that He might clothe us with His body of righteousness; now in this life imperfectly but really and truly, and in the life of the world to come completely and perfectly. If we come to Him now and to His church now, hungry for this life that He brings up out of the grave and which He is breathing into us now, we shall find a confidence in saying, we believe in the Resurrection of the Body. For we shall know however through a glass darkly the sort of thing of which the creed speaks. We will know because we will have already received new eyes and new ears, new heart and new hands, a new character and a new expression, a fuller communion with God and a richer fellowship with each other. We shall be fitted for a new life in the new heaven and new earth that Risen Lord will bring to pass when He returns to bring all things to their perfection. And when at last we come to die, then shall this saying have come to pass,”O grave where is thy victory, O death where is thy sting.” ‘Then shall this corruption put on incorruption and this mortal put on immortality.” Let it be so. Amen.