A Sermon Preached In St. John’s Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut,
On Easter Sunday, April 10, 2004
By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
Christian Faith is faith in the Crucified and Risen Lord. The preaching of the Apostles is without exception Resurrection preaching. In the reading that we have from the Acts of the Apostles today, St. Peter tells us what it is to be an Apostle and he tells us the message the Apostles bring, that Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the saviour king, promised by the Jewish prophets, has come. God has anointed Him not with oil like the Kings of old but with the Holy Spirit and power. In Him, as St. John tells us, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He was rejected by His own people. He was condemned and crucified. God has raised Him from the dead and He is Lord of all, the king of everything. Early Greek-speaking Christians called Him the Pantokrator, the ruler of the cosmos. If the witness of the Apostles is true, if Christ is really Risen and Lord of all, the Resurrection is the single most important event in human history. It is, as the church has always taught, the beginning of a new history, a new creation in which there is a new way of being human in a new community formed by the New Testament, that is the New Covenant in Christ which is marked by the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are two sources of belief in the Resurrection. There are the reports of the original witnesses in the Gospels, the Book of Acts and the Letters of the Apostles, and there is the church’s experience throughout two millennia of the continuing presence and activity of the Risen Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, in her preaching, her sacraments, her fellowship and her service to the world both in the lives of the great saints and the most ordinary Christians.
These two witnesses are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The historical evidence alone is very compelling to anyone who will approach the texts without prejudice. The first witnesses are the women. Not the way you would write it given the status of women in the ancient world, unless it was the way it happened. The Apostles tell us through the Gospels that when the chips were down they all fled and that after the crucifixion they were all hiding because they were afraid. How unlike any other religious text I know is this honest self-portrait of a frail humanity. You instinctively trust the honesty of a reporter who reports honestly about himself. C.S. Lewis, the agnostic Oxford don and professor of English literature, who was converted to Christianity at mid-life and who went on to become one of the greatest Christian writers in the Twentieth Century, said this upon encountering the Gospels in a serious way as an adult, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that none of them is like this.”
The skeptical, secular historian has an insurmountable problem in explaining the origins of Christianity apart from an objective and supernatural resurrection. How to explain the conversion of this frightened and defeated band into those men of whom their opponents complain in the Book of Acts 17:6, “ these who have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”
Michael Ramsey, the late Twentieth Century Archbishop of Canterbury, said in his justly famous book on the Resurrection, “The present writer would ask sympathy for two very modest presuppositions. The one is that the biblical belief in the living God, creator, redeemer, transcendent, is true. The other is that the events must be such as account for the Gospel which the Apostles preached and by which the first Christians lived.” Skeptical presuppositions aside, the events as recorded by the original witnesses account for the origins of the faith and the church far more adequately than any of the speculations of doubters.
The reports of the original witnesses are twofold. They report that the Tomb was empty and that they saw the Risen Lord. Both of these things together are important, so important that the meaning of their union has been immortalized in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The proclamation of the Apostles is that Jesus has been raised bodily and that in Him we shall likewise be raised. The point is that the resurrection faith is not about the survival of some aspect or part of us beyond death. The proclamation of the resurrection is not a proclamation of survival, that the soul or spirit survives death but a proclamation that everything relating to the humanity of Jesus, that our entire human nature, body and soul, our psychosomatic unity has been recreated in Him through His sacrifice of love. It was not some part of Him that survived but all of Him was raised from the grave, the first example of a new humanity in a new creation, destined to be the elder brother of many siblings in a new race. Because He shared our lives of sin and death, He has the power to give us the gift of sharing in His new and Risen Life which is a life in which everything pertaining to our human existence is transfigured and made new. Even now, through the power of the Holy Spirit He begins to recreate those who come to Him in faith. This is the meaning of the church’s teaching that in Holy Baptism we are regenerated, born again, made new.
This desire to be made new, to be made over is very deep in the human heart. There is a current reality TV show that plays upon this profound human longing to be a new person. The show is called, “Extreme Makeover.” It is a show about plastic surgery and people are chosen for a free extreme makeover. The plastic surgeons do their best from head to foot. The promise of the show is not only that the people will look better but that they will also feel better, have better lives in every way and especially in their relationships with other people. The promise is that those getting the extreme makeover will feel better about themselves and that other people will change their opinion of them as well. In other words, change the outside and the insides will change, there will be a complete and positive change in identity and in reality. Like so many of the shows on television just now, this is a show about salvation.
There is some truth in the premise. Someone has bad teeth and they don’t smile, fix the teeth and the smile and it does change things. There is also truth in the intuition that ultimately, if you are really going to be a new person, you must have a new body and that there is a connection between the body and our relationship with others. What the surgeons can deliver of course is only a temporary fix.
There is only one physician who can deliver on the promise of extreme makeover. He works not from the outside in but from the inside out. He works with sacrificial love and He transfuses us with His life and with His recreated humanity and we really become different in every dimension of our lives. We really do have a different relationship with God, with each other, forgiven and forgiving. We have a different relationship to our own faults and failings. We know we are not alone but have access to a power greater than ourselves, the Holy Spirit that the Risen Lord breathes into His people. We have new friends and we find fellowship and a new solidarity with others in praising and serving God. We have a new relationship to God’s good creation which we believe also will mysteriously in Christ be raised. We have a new relationship with the suffering world as the place from which the Crucified and Risen one calls to us to serve Him in His distressing disguise. He changes everything about us and there is no aspect of our humanity, including our bodies, that is not touched by His recreating work until He has made over into His image which includes giving us a body like His.
The Resurrection of Christ is something that is all ready but not yet. He is Risen and He is raising us and His Resurrection in us is something that is all ready and not yet. The Resurrection is something which we know about from the witness of the scripture and something which we experience as we immerse ourselves in the life of the church. Even this thing of the recreating work of the resurrection on our bodies is something which can be seen to be all ready and not yet.
Recently there was a celebration in Rome for the beatification of Mother Teresa. It is one of the steps in the Roman Church on the way to sainthood. At the end of the impressive ceremony there was unveiled a portrait of a very old, very frail, very wrinkled, very used up little woman. It was the portrait of a very beautiful face, a face changed, made over from the inside out. It was a portrait of something invisible breaking through to the visible. So St. Paul says in the 15th chapter of the First Letter To The Corinthians, “this mortal must put on immortality” and “it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” Here St. Paul says we get a down payment of the life of the world to come. In the face of the saint perhaps we catch a glimpse of the beauty of the body that the grave cannot hold.
It is one of the great privileges that I have as a parish priest to see people change as they grow in the life of faith and they don’t just change their thinking, they change their being and their look and I tell you I can see people become more beautiful in the Lord. It is often an extreme makeover and not a temporary one but a token of even more radical and complete changes to come.
I trust the original witnesses and I trust the reported experience of the church through the ages. I trust my own Christian experience. I believe in the Resurrection of the body.
As you come to make your Easter communion, bring this deep desire of the human heart for an extreme makeover, this longing to be made new, to be beautiful, inside and out. Ask God for the grace to open your heart and life so that you might receive the new human life the Risen Lord brings us at the price of the cross and in the power of the Spirit, that life which begins now and which the grave cannot hold, that life which makes it possible for us to say with confidence, “ I believe in the Resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” Amen.