Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sunday Sermon

April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday

"Angel gear" is what New Zealand drivers call coming down the mountains with the engine off and no brakes. On Easter morning all Christians should put themselves in "angel gear," turning off all our mechanistic doubts and refusing to put the brakes on the faith and hope that Easter morning represents for each of us.

A lot of non-Christians have no problem agreeing that this first-century Jesus of Nazareth was a gifted leader, a provocative teacher, a prophet and a powerful moral figure that the world should emulate. Sure, there are mountains of evidence for the historical life of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, there were a number of writers in ancient Rome and Israel, who lived at the same time as Jesus or shortly thereafter.

An ancient historian named Cornelius Tacitus, born sometime between A.D. 52 and 57. He was the Roman governor of Asia and the son-in-law of the governor of Britain, and to him we owe much of our knowledge of the Roman emperors, including Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. In his Annals, first dating from around A.D. 117, he wrote: "Christus, the founder of the name Christians, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius."

Justin Martyr, born A.D. 100 in Palestine, called himself a Samaritan but was probably of Greek or Roman ancestry. A well-educated philosopher, he studied the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the Stoics, but decided Christianity was the only philosophy that was "safe and profitable." When forced to defend his beliefs to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, he referred the emperor to the report written by Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus' crucifixion for details of the incident--a report which Martyr presumed must have been on file in the imperial archives. Martyr, of course, was killed for his beliefs.

One of the most famous of these writers is Flavius Josephus, a historian born A.D. 37. A Pharisee, an ancient Jewish sect that observed strict adherence to Judaic Law, he commanded the Jewish forces fighting against their Roman conquerors in A.D. 66, and was captured when Galilee fell and Jerusalem was razed. In The Antiquities of the Jews, he wrote: "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day."

Of the three, Josephus is the most valuable source because he was well known and was not a Christian and thus his views would hardly be biased in this regard.

However, this morning, Jesus' secular well-wishers and the church's members must part company. This morning we move from the man named Jesus, whom history obviously records as having actually lived. This morning we celebrate a mystery and a miracle - the greatest miracle and mystery ever known: The one and the same Jesus is the Risen Christ!

Then why do we so often crack that cornerstone and undermine its stability? Why do we doubt the miracle of Easter morning? Why do we diminish the mystery with all our explanations? Why do we come up with such silliness as the notion that the resurrection was something that happened in the minds of the disciples rather than the body of Jesus? We falsely flatter ourselves when we rationalize our doubts and dissemblings as part of our 20th-century- critical-scientific-rationalistic heritage.

Let's not fool ourselves; the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was just as hard on the faith of first century believers as it is on ours. Death has been around for a long time; first-century folk knew its face just as well as we do. In fact, they saw it more closely and intimately and frequently than do we in our hospitalized, sterilized, death-denying attempt to avoid the whole topic.

We envy those who actually saw the resurrected Jesus before the ascension. We imagine it was much easier for them to believe. But while it is true that none of us had the honor of actually bumping into Jesus in the flesh on the way to church this morning, it is also true that none of us helped pull his lifeless body off the cross on Friday evening. None of us carried his heavy, limp, blood-stained form into a barren tomb and wrapped it in a shroud. For those who had known the living, laughing, loving Jesus, there was no doubt that he was stone-cold dead. Believing that he could be truly alive again, not just some spiritual apparition, but a warm, living being, was an enormous act of faith for the first disciples.

When the news of Jesus' resurrection, the rumor of an empty tomb, began to circulate, the Roman and synagogue authorities got nervous. Having taken enormous effort to post guards so that Jesus' body could not be stolen, these officials now used these same guards to start spreading a rumor that body-snatching was exactly what had happened. The possibility that a genuine miracle had taken place was too threatening, too incredible for those who had opposed Jesus and put him to death.

They did an excellent job spreading doubt, however, for that rumor still circulates today. There are lots of church members who confess faith in Christ yet continue to suspect that the chief priests and leaders probably had the story straight. For these Christians the concept behind a risen Christ is perfectly acceptable, but the reality of an actual resurrection is just too outlandish to take literally.

We expect life and death to follow a certain set of rules and to meet certain rational criteria. Therefore we scramble around trying to find alternative explanations for the empty tomb. Maybe the guards did fall asleep and some well-meaning disciples did come to take the body. Maybe Jesus wasn't really dead - only drugged, or in a coma, or hypnotized - and he came out of it and escaped the tomb. Maybe this was all part of an elaborate plan to prove Jesus' messianic nature.

But maybe, just maybe, all our doubts are wrong!

We take for granted the many things we think our God can do and has done, yet we find it incomprehensible to think that God would come in the form of man. That God would come in the form of His only begotten Son. Come to die and rise for our miserable sakes. We can believe in so many things. Many of which we cannot even explain with any level of modern science, and never will, but we still allow the doubts to creep in.

The resurrection, as rock group U2's Bono puts it, was when "the universe exploded in one man's life." Easter is our spiritual supernova. We must experience it as the true miracle it is without trying to make it fit our expectations and, especially, our limitations. When we refuse to let the miracle be miraculous, when we try to crimp it and cramp it to fit our style, we find ourselves distorting everything that made up Jesus' life and ministry on earth. It is time to let the mystery shine.

Let's quit analyzing Easter. Instead of looking for human explanations for the open tomb, let's look with awe at that mighty angel perched in front of it. Let us be so convinced of his presence that we see the misty vapors of angel breath billowing from his mouth as he tells the wondering women what has happened to Jesus. Then we must walk with bold faithfulness through the tomb's opened doorway, look at its empty, uninhabited space and shout the miracle: "He is Risen!"

Do you see the angel's breath this morning? No? Then you need to remember the first paragraph of my sermon this morning and get in angel gear.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.