Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling over death by death. Come awake, Come awake, Come and rise up from the grave.// Christ is risen from the dead, We are one with him again. Come awake, come awake, Come and rise up from the grave.// Oh death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory? Oh church, come stand in the light! The glory of God has defeated the night!// Oh death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory? Oh church, come stand in the light! Our God is not dead, He’s alive, He’s alive!
I don’t know what you all think, but those words from Matt Maher’s song, “Christ is Risen,” are some of my favorites from Christian radio because they make me want to dance and shout and cry and praise and do all kinds of crazy things. That’s some serious stuff there. If it weren’t for all those lessons about self-control we learn growing up, I would be a slobbery mess up here just thinking about them. It’s happened before.
The words of that song tell the Easter story from so many directions. They proclaim the historical truth of the resurrection, that our God was dead and is now alive. They point out the irony in this whole situation, that death, which is the only undefeatable force in the universe, proved how strong it was by killing God, and that was its very undoing. The words from this song tell us that the Church is united to Christ and is united in Christ. And then it calls us to wake up, because the time for sleep is over. You’ve been dead, Church, but it’s time to get up and stand in the light. You’ve been quiet for way too long, and it’s time to make some noise!
(Note for readers: If you’re not cheering at this point, you’re probably not alone. But you should be. This story should make you cheer. For reference’s sake, on a 1-10 scale measuring audible excitement, I expected a 2 or 3 from “the average church” and FBC-Marissa was at about a 6. They’ve got some spunk in them. 🙂 )
But we don’t know what to do with that kind of excitement, which probably goes a long way to explaining why the American church is overall pretty stagnant in its membership and missions outreach. We were the dominant cultural force in our country for so long, and we relied on the power it gave us to assimilate people into our midst, but now we’ve lost that position and that power and so we’re waiting on someone to tell us what to do next because we don’t understand what’s going on and how all this happened and what it all means. Even on Easter Sunday.
Not much has changed in 2000 years, because that first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ followers had that same uncertainty. Their world had been dramatically altered because their teacher, their leader was dead – had been arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced, killed, buried, and sealed in a tomb. Turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of John, chapter 20, where we’ll pick up the story at this point and read verses 1-18.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in this text. It was still dark when Mary got to the tomb, but she could see the stone had been moved away from the tomb, so she ran to tell two of the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing. When they arrive, they’re apparently confused. We don’t get much commentary on Peter’s reaction, and we’re told the other disciple saw and believed, but still didn’t understand about the resurrection, so I’m not sure what it was that he believed. All we know is that they went home, which sounds like they were disappointed. Silly boys.
At this point the story switches back to focus on Mary Magdalene. She is crying outside the tomb,still wondering where Jesus’ body could be. She looks inside the tomb to find two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. When they ask what’s wrong, she tells them. Then, all of a sudden, Jesus enters the scene. Well, Mary doesn’t know it’s Jesus, but we do. She thinks he’s the gardener until the Good Shepherd calls one of the sheep by name. He sends her off to tell the disciples what she now knows, and she becomes the first apostle, the first person sent to bear witness to the resurrected Christ.
Mary’s message is simple, just five words – “I have seen the Lord.” This is the heart of the Easter message, not because it should surprise us that God has power over death, but, as Gail O’Day writes, “The heart of the Easter proclamation resides in the moment when we are claimed by the truth of the resurrection” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 379). For Mary, that moment happened when Jesus called her by name. Until that point, we knew what Mary did not; in that moment, we rejoice with her as she realizes what’s been there the whole time. Jesus has been present with her all along, but now she knows it. The truth is revealed to her, a truth that was previously unknown. Her uncertainty was real; so was the resolution of that uncertainty.
There is no real drama in this story for us, though. We know how it ends because we’ve read it so many times before. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get excited about the Easter story. But what if we could? What if we got so excited about Easter that we couldn’t contain ourselves, that we felt like we were about to explode out of our skin the way grace exploded into the world that first Resurrection Sunday? What if our lives reflected the reality of the resurrection in the way we lived, day in, day out? What would that look like? How would we be different people? If the resurrection of Jesus totally changed the course of the world, how might our lives reflect a total change?
I’m sorry to tell you that I have a lot more questions for you today than I have answers. This is only my second Sunday at FBC-Marissa, and it would be presumptive of me to think I could tell you where your lives fall short and where they measure well. All I can tell you is that the process starts for each of us like it did for Mary – “I have seen the Lord.” Something about that encounter, when Jesus called her by name, changed her from a fearful and confused person into a certain witness. She knew who called her, and that was enough. This is where it starts for each one of us, by knowing the Jesus who calls our names and who commands us to go tell others what we know.
Today we celebrate this command because it comes from a risen Savior. We have divine permission to party it up today, and for the next few weeks of the Easter Season. The rest of John’s Gospel is full of liberating stories that move the disciples from being timid folks hiding behind locked doors to a restored, rejuvenated community inspired to do great things because of great hope. Many years later, a similar kind of community would rejoice in the good news of that first Easter Sunday with several praise offerings that spoke to Jesus’ exalted status. Today, and for the next few weeks, may we be able to understand with Mary the true nature of the one who calls us. May we be able to pray the following words from the Book of Revelation, a book that tells the story of another community who, in the face of great uncertainty, were captivated by the power of the resurrection and who were transformed by its promise of new life for all who believe:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! … To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! … Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! … Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”