This morning the people of Sunnyside Church and University Park Church celebrated Easter in Portland together in Sunnyside's historic sanctuary. It was a beatiful morning with wonderful music performed by members of both congregations and much lay member participation. Below is the text of my sermon.
The Kingdom Ressurrected
We come to this place this morning – gathered as two church communities, as family and friends – to celebrate the Resurrection. Even in times when humanity has walked away from God the reality is that God has never abandoned God’s creation, with which at the beginning God declared to be “well-pleased.” The moment of the Resurrection of Jesus stands in history as the most profound example of God saying to the powers and the principalities of the day that not even death can silence God’s call for us to be a people of reconciliation, compassion and mercy.
Even today we experience the Risen Jesus in worship, in prayer, and sometimes even in personal moments of revelation. Jesus is still calling to us, like he did to those frightened first disciples, to spread the good news that the Kingdom of God is already here and that hope born out of our experiences with God demands that we seek a create a world where justice, kindness and humbleness overcomes evil and turns the darkness around us into the brightness of noon.
This is a time of rebirth and redemption.
Theologians and lay people debate to this day whether or not Jesus was physically raised or whether the disciples (and later Paul) interacted with the spirit of Christ. Like Marcus Borg and others, I think that debate asks the wrong questions. It doesn’t matter. What matters is in ways that may very well surpass human understanding Jesus revealed himself after the cross with the ones he taught and loved, and that his spirit still moves many today in wondrous ways.
Walter Wink once wrote:
Killing Jesus was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it. It was like shattering a sun into a million fragments of light.
It is the power of that light that calls us today to be a Resurrection people, a people who in community and enveloped in the spirit of love reach out to build up the Kingdom of God so that all people might have new life.
Let’s remember that Jesus came to shake up the world. The Gospel of Luke chronicles the beginning of his ministry:
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Jesus was a teacher, the Son of God sent to help bring the world back into right relationship with our Creator. He wanted us to learn from him, to follow him, to see the world in new ways. But why did his death have to be part of the lesson? One possible answer comes from Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest, scholar and author. She writes in this excerpt from her book Home By Another Way:
Jesus probably died right side up, since all four gospel writers agree that there was a sign above his head. That being the case, he probably died of suffocation, as his arms gave out and his lungs collapsed under the weight of his sinking body. Blood loss is another possibility. Heartbreak is a third. Whatever finally killed him, it came as a friend and not as an enemy. Death is not painful. It is the dying the hurts.
Another thing that was finished was the project he had begun, way back when he first saw what kind of explosion it would take to break through the rock around the human heart. Teaching would not do it. Neither would prayer nor the laying on of hands. If he was going to get through, he had to use something stronger than all of those, and he had to stake his own life on its success. Otherwise why should anyone believe him?
That project that Jesus came to start was the building up of the Kingdom of God, what The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would call the Beloved Community. Taylor continues:
Self-annihilating love was the dynamite he chose. “No one has greater love than this,” he said on the last night of his life, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Having explained it to his friends, he then left the room to go do it. Less than twenty-four hours later it was over.
Jesus did not go to the cross as part of some vengeful God’s need for a sacrifice. He went to the cross because the Roman authorities saw the Kingdom of God as a threat to the Empire of Rome. Crucifixion was a crime reserved for enemies of the state. Jesus went knowing what his fate would be but believing there are ideas and principles worth dying for.
We read in Matthew 22:36-40 as Jesus is asked by a Roman sympathizer:
36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Jesus kept company with women, with lepers, with the poor, with tax collectors and with children, and said to them that the Kingdom belonged not to the rich and the powerful but to the lowly and the outcasts. His way threatened to turn the Empire upside down and the religious authorities who conspired with Rome to keep their positions and their comforts were quick to try and hand Jesus over to the cross. This is where, tragically, the myth built up that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. But all religions, including our own Christian faith, have had leaders who have abandoned God for the favor of emperors. In reality, we need to remember that not only was Jesus was Jewish but that so were his supporters.
The Greatest Commandment challenges us still - and the reality of the Resurrection, in whatever way we might understand it, forces us to wrestle with the idea that there are no real endings…even in life (Jesus did not die when he died, and neither do we). But there are many possibilities for new beginnings.
What we need is a Resurrection attitude in which we can envision the world in the new ways that Jesus envisioned when he proclaimed the Kingdom. And we need to be willing, as Jesus was, to carry our crosses in the pursuit of this better life. Eternal life may great us when we die but Jesus taught that the Kingdom was in the here and now and that it was an ideal worth dying for.
As a people of the Resurrection, we need to work toward new life that protects our environment that we have been given stewardship over so that God’s children in generations to come inherit the sustainable earth we have been gifted.
As a people of the Resurrection, we need to work towards an end to gun violence – and violence of every kind – and follow instead the path of Jesus, who practiced non-violence. This work of ending violence must extend from our neighborhoods to every corner of the earth.
As a people of the Resurrection, we need to be concerned, like Jesus was, with children and the elderly, with those living in poverty, and all those on the margins. This calls us to join the struggle for equality for all people in ways both big and large, to be concerned about freedom for people everywhere, to be concerned about education for boys and girls, to demand safe streets to walk on along, and for paths that people can walk that lead from hopelessness to hope.
Some will say that such hope for the world is too idealistic or the work to hard. But I have experienced the Resurrection. I know there is hope where darkness exists because I have experienced the Risen Christ in my heart, through our Scriptures, and in moments of worship such as this.
And I’ve seen moments of Resurrection in our world. It happened when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison to become a president. It happened when people – just like us – tore down the Berlin Wall as the armies of the world’s superpowers stood down. Those were moments of Resurrection, life pulled back from death, and in each of those moments – just like each time a volunteer feeds a hungry child – the Kingdom is born anew and the life of Jesus reaffirmed.
No, Jesus did not die on the cross. His life endures. We are the inheritors of his mission. Let us proclaim today:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because (God) has anointed (us) to bring good news to the poor. (God) has sent (us) to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’