Easter Thursday, 2011
at Episcopal Divinity School
Gospel: Luke24: 36b - 48
This is the time of year when I most miss parish ministry – not Xmas, but Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter, which I always see as a happily conjoined pair.
I love the 50 days of festive Easter celebration – the Easter hymns and acclamations, the descants, the buoyant joy of it all. I also loved crafting, week after week, step by step, liturgies designed to help ground us in the solemnity and penitence of Lent – the counterpoint that gives Easter its resonance.
Now, it may sound a bit paradoxical for an old feminist theologian to love the penitential aspects of Lent. I came of age theologically in the 80s, on the heels of Valarie Saiving Goldstein’s pivotal journal article wherein she opined that, while Pride might be the original sin of man, that its opposite, lack of pride, might be the original sin of woman – the self-abnegation that caused us too often to consent to our own disempowerment – and, thereby, to fail to put our talents to full use in the love and service of God. Penitence, guilt, we thought, were just the Churches’ equivalent of the medical establishment’s valium; patriarchy’s tools to suppress our outrage, our righteous indignation – to keep us docile and in our place. So we rejected patriarchy’s tranquilizers – whether they came in plastic pill bottles or ancient liturgical texts.
And that was a good thing. But, like many revolutionary good things, in the long run it works better as one part of a both/and balance than as one pole of an either/or.
Revolutionary in its time, in this age of “look at me, me, me”; trophies for everyone; salvation through self-esteem – in such an age as this a guilt and penitence-free Lent looks more like an acquiescence to culture than a critique of it.
So I embrace a good old-fashioned Lent as, once again, a counter-cultural act and because, still, it is the ballast that gives Easter its meaning. I need Lent to remind me that I need Easter. I can’t be the person God created, and intends, me to be without God’s help – without Jesus. Which takes us to the heart of today’s Gospel.
Today’s Gospel speaks of both repentance and resurrection.
Before we fully dive into that, let’s pause and acknowledge that Jesus’ scolding of the disciples for doubting their eyes (or perhaps he was just poking fun, but, wither way) was a bit unfair. They saw him die; they’ve been hiding in terror for their own lives ever since. Now they see him standing before them and he laughs at them for thinking they’re seeing a ghost rather than recognizing that he’s their real, flesh and blood, companion restored to them?
But that’s what the text says – flesh and blood, standing before them.
This, by the way, is the point in the story when you lose credibility with a lot of the Xmas and Easter only church-goers. It’s why they checked out in the first place. There’s no way they’re going to believe shat is, rationally, impossible. You can, at this point, show off your great seminary education. You can brush off your Greek, your historical criticism skills, your best quotes from, and critiques of, the Jesus Seminar.
Or … what I usually do is simply acknowledge that there may well be people in the congregation who doubt that Jesus was really resurrected in the flesh. And, if so, they’re in good company. Many very smart and very faithful people share their skepticism and disbelief on that point. And many other very smart and very faithful people believe that’s exactly what happened. And we could spend a great deal of time arguing the point. But I won’t. Nor will I tell you which camp I fall into. Because I really don’t much care.
You see, I think the real danger is not believing wrongly on the facts of this matter. The real danger is getting so absorbed in the question of whether it’s factual that we forget that it most certainly is true. The truth matters far more to me than the facts. And the truth is – something profound happened. Lives were changed, the world was changed. Resurrection happened then. It happens still. I’ve seen it – in the Biblical texts, throughout history, in my own life, and in the lives of others.
Flesh and blood don’t matter all that much to me – resurrection and redemption do. Lent has reminded me that I need them – that I can’t be who God made and intends me to be on my own. I can’t know the fullness of life in God or grow into the full stature of Christ alone. Even on my best days I don’t get all the way there. And many of my days are not my best. I cannot save myself. I need Jesus. Jesus, who, this Gospel reading says, was to suffer and die.
This takes us into another conundrum aptly articulated by Joanna Dewey last week – Atonement theology. Atonement theology posits a God who functions as a sort of dispassionate bean-counter. Our sins carry a price. We don’t have enough virtue capital to cover that cost. The only way to stay out of debtors’ prison/hell is for someone to cover our bill. No one has that much virtue capital – except Jesus. Jesus dies to cover our debt, the books are squared, we get out of prison. Jesus, as the text says, must die.
Frankly, I have a hard time imaging how I could ever worship and serve such a God as that. I think I’d rather stay in hell.
But it says – the Messiah must die.
Could that, though, not mean that Jesus’ persecution and death were inevitable given who Jesus was and how the world is? Not that God intended, and wanted, Jesus to die but that the Father and Jesus both knew what the inevitable outcome of a life lived as Jesus lived it would be?
The world, as Lent has reminded us, is filled with both the wondrous goodness of creation and with sin. And sin, faced with absolute integrity, unblinking Love, always tries to kill it. Being completely, fully, who God intended Him to be, living with absolute integrity, Jesus was bound to anger and frighten and shame the powers and principalities – of course they killed Him.
Being who He was, of course Jesus must die – for our sins.
And, rather than cave to that oppression, rather than give us a half-hearted, partially actualized example of what it means to live into the fullness of Being, the full glory of God, Jesus saw it through – even unto that quite predictable death.
Jesus died – for us.
We who follow the way of Jesus won’t pull it off as well as he did. That perfection of integrity will elude us (not because we’re bad people but because we’re people) yet if we manage to do even a middling good job of following Jesus, the world may well kill us, too – our bodies, or our dreams, our career, or our sense of self. It’s apt to happen; we may as well prepare for it.
But here’s the Good News –the Easter News:
Resurrection is true – whatever the facts of the matter. Resurrection is true. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, I am a witness.
When we get it together to risk and face those deaths – to go through them rather than around them – we invite resurrection and redemption; we become strong through our very wounds. We find ourselves blessed in ways that exceed our hopes and our best imagining. Through those little deaths we find ourselves ushered into new life – resurrected, born again, becoming ever more who we were created to be, redeemed.
And when we let God into our lives that profoundly; when we, through fasting and prayer as well as feasting and celebration, through hard work and service and steadfast love and joy cooperate in our own growth into the full stature of Christ – what our heirs will discover is that even the big death is not the end of us. Our lives, lived with that integrity, that openness to death and resurrection and redemption, our lives will comtinue to make a difference even after our bodies have returned to dust.
When the people of God gather to worship, work, or play together; when they stand at the altar, or march on the Capital, or kiss a child, we, too, will be in the midst of them continuing to bless them and shape the world.
We, too, will be resurrected, never really to die.
And that’s the Truth.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
Occasional Sermons by Episcopal priest, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.
- Name: KHR+
- Location: Massachusetts
you can always google me at "Katherine Ragsdale" OR "Katherine Hancock Ragsdale"
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Easter Thursday, 2011