Easter: Saved by Love

Holy Absence, Jan Richardson

Holy Absence, Jan Richardson

Easter Sunday • April 1, 2018
Recommended Readings:
Matthew 28:1-10 and Luke 24:1-5, 13-35
Pastor Jeff Wells

          Don’t you want what those disciples had? Don’t you want that experience? It makes me want to sing… “I want Jesus to walk with me….” Wouldn’t you love to have Jesus walk and talk with you for a while and then sit down at the table and break bread together? You can imagine the deep grief and pain these disciples felt at the execution of their teacher and friend. This was the man they had spent so much time with and who they thought was the messiah who would redeem their people and nation. You can, too, imagine their deep desire to be with him again. It was, perhaps, a desire profound enough to elicit a vision and an experience of a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. 

          Now, we have just listened to portions of two of the several bible accounts about the Easter events. Already you can see, I am sure, that there are significant differences in these stories. If we took the time to delve more closely into all of the biblical stories of resurrection and of encounters with the risen Jesus, you would see many more differences and even contradictions. You would learn, if you did not already know, that in the earliest stories that were written down about Jesus’ resurrection and post-resurrection encounters – in the writings of the apostle Paul and in the Gospel of Mark – there is no story of Jesus appearing in bodily form to his followers. Paul couldn’t see Jesus because he was temporarily blinded. In the Gospel of Mark, in its original form, no one sees Jesus. The story ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb… period.  Later Christian leaders and and writers were so disturbed by this that they added two different possible endings to Mark in order to make it square with the stories in Matthew and Luke. These early versions of the resurrection story were not written down until many years after Jesus was crucified. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John, and the Book of Acts were written between 40 to 90 years later. And none of these versions of the stories of Jesus were written by Jesus’ original followers – none by the witnesses to the actually events of Easter – resurrection day. Moreover, these accounts are about angels declaring that a dead person has come back to life and even has encounters with his friends who knew him and saw him crucified. Let’s admit it – friends, these stories are hard to believe. So, many people – even Christians – reject a literal belief in the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances. I don’t find that disturbing. I am not telling you to believe or not in the literal biblical resurrection stories. But I agree with Marcus Borg, a great scholar and one of the founders of progressive Christianity, who said, “Believe whatever you want about the stories Jesus’ life. Now, let’s talk about what they mean.” 

          As we planned for this Easter Sunday worship, the question we posed for ourselves was this: “what does Easter have to do with salvation?” More specifically, “what does it mean to say Jesus was raised and Christ is risen and what does that have to do with our salvation?”

         In traveling to Jerusalem – into what he knew was great danger – and then submitting to arrest, Jesus showed his radical willingness to give himself – in fact, to die in the cause of love. His execution by the Roman empire would have left him a martyr and hero to his followers, but easily forgotten by history. But in Easter something much more powerful happened. Jesus was not just a charismatic preacher and teacher who threatened the ruling classes of his time. He was so open to the divine that he made himself available for God to come alive and reveal God’s self to humanity through him in a new way. In his teaching and ministry and in the way he lived his life, Jesus powerfully embodied and expressed the love and justice and forgiveness of God. 

Because of this power and love of God working through him, after his death, many of his closest followers had intense experiences of Jesus’ being alive and present with them. Theologian Bruce Epperly has put it this way: “I believe that resurrection happened…and still happens, especially when we need it most. I trust the experiences and accounts of Jesus’ first disciples, both women and men. I affirm Paul’s mystical experience on the road to Damascus. You don’t risk your life for a falsehood or a made up story. Something life-transforming happened, something that transformed Jesus’ first followers – from fearful hiding to courageous proclamation, from denial to affirmation, from scarcity thinking to abundant life. This something can’t be pinned down, but it can transform us.”[1] For Jesus’ original followers, then, their experience of his living presence changed their whole perspective on what had just occurred and on what now they were called to do.

          The truth is that even if the resurrection stories are not literally true, they are spiritually true. Even if they are story and not history, still they have the power to shape and transform us and to help us experience the Jesus’ living presence, too. After all, stories are very powerful! We know that! Jesus certainly knew that – because he told stories all the time. We often refer to them as parables. Take, for example, the parables of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. Very few people would claim these moral tales are literally true, yet what a power they have to grip our imaginations and to inspire us to think and act in ways that are ethical and compassionate and forgiving and loving. Clarence Jordan, a twentieth-century Christian anti-racist hero, said this: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” In other words, Jesus lives in and through and for us. 

          So what does Easter have to do with salvation? What saves us in the story of Jesus overcoming death to be a living presence with us? It is the same thing that saves us in Jesus’ life, teaching, healing, acts of political resistance, and his death – it is love. It is the love of God in Jesus but also his own amazing unconditional love poured out for you and for me and for all humanity. Let’s be clear this morning – Jesus did not leave us with a long list of of rules. He did not proclaim a series of doctrines and dogmas we have to accept. He left us a lot of stories – stories he told and stories about him – that teach us how to live and love and act in relation to one another. He offered his first followers and us one commandment that he said supersedes and embraces all other commandments. He said, “love God with your whole heart, spirit, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” We are not saved by doctrines or dogmas or belief or non-belief in the literal bodily resurrection. We are saved by love

          Now, that little phrase captures a very big truth. It is shorthand. To be saved is to be called into the sacred flowing river of God’s love and justice. To be saved is to be called to battle racism and all forms of oppression. To be saved is to fight to end the power of all empires – including the one we inhabit and from which we benefit. To be saved is to struggle to build social systems that attend to the thriving of all human beings and not just the power and wealth of a few. To be saved is to participate in the healing of the world. To be saved is to learn profoundly how to love one another. And, to be saved is to be offered God’s forgiveness for all the ways we fail to do all of these things.

           You see, it is love that has always saved people – even before Jesus. It is the love of God for us but also incarnate in us – lived out in our bodies – that makes salvation possible. We affirm the resurrection and we demonstrate our belief in the living Christ when we embody Christ in ourselves. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who had an extraordinary vision of the risen Jesus, we, too, recognize and experience Jesus alive among us when we break bread and share grape juice together in communion with God and one another. We also recognize and experience Jesus alive when we gather as a community to worship, to feed hungry people, to proclaim that black lives matter, to rally against transphobia, when we care for the sick and dying among us, and whenever we show extravagant signs of peace and love for one another. In, through, and with Jesus, we are saved by love. Jesus is risen, Christ is risen. Alleluia!