Monday, 20 April 2009

One more Easter sermon: early on the first day of the week

A sermon by Douglas Harink

Text: Matt. 28:1-10; 2 Cor. 5:11-6:2

The arch of the sun’s journey is now noticeably higher and longer. We step into its path and feel its warm renewing power as it passes over. The lawn, only last week heavily burdened with its white winter coat, now wears a lighter green. In that sunny patch of soil on the south side of the house the first shoots of crocuses and daffodils push out from their dark habitation. The robin – even if she is just plain annoying at 4:00 in the morning – joyfully and incessantly announces that she will soon steal four perfect blue ovals from the sky and put them in her nest. A jogger in a tank top and a cyclist in shorts pull on the near fringes of the reluctant season. And all over again we thrill to the very same story: the lamb of spring will slay the lion of winter, and all will be well.

We may be forgiven for thinking that spring is the season of resurrection. Yes, we may be forgiven. But it is forgiveness that we would need. Think for a moment: if you were to travel on this very Easter day to New Zealand perhaps, or the southern tips of Chile or Argentina, another season altogether would be making itself felt, with ever shorter days, and a chill in the air, and leaves falling, and sweaters and jackets being donned rather than doffed. The birds would be flying to warmer climes. The natural rhythm would be tending toward the cold and the dark and the dormant.

Easter is not a season in nature’s cycle. Resurrection is not a stage in the circle of life. The kingdom of God is not a hidden potential in this world. There is no power within us that will bring about the new creation.

In fact, there is nothing natural in any of the events of these days. On Good Friday all of Jesus’ natural human powers – and at the age of about 30 years those would be at their peak – all of his natural human powers are abruptly interrupted, halted, snuffed out: he is arrested, tried, and brutally executed. He is truly dead and buried. On the next day, the Sabbath, Jesus is not resting, as a faithful Jew should. No, he is dead, lifeless, empty – a corpse. His life has come to an end; he has no inner resources of renewal, there is no vital force of nature that can bring him back.

And so Easter is in no sense an awakening; it is not a rejuvenation; it is not a resuscitation, it is not even a miraculous reversal of death. Resurrection is not simply the next thing that Jesus does, or the next thing that happens to him in the natural course of things. No. Resurrection is something else altogether, something wholly other, something from beyond, something purely unnatural. Resurrection is God.

All of this is from God,” Paul declares in our text. If Good Friday is about Jesus’ life being brutally interrupted, captured and destroyed by the powers of sin and death, Easter is about Jesus’ death being even more brutally interrupted, captured, and destroyed by God. Resurrection is the unimaginable power of God’s very own eternal life coming upon the lifeless, empty body of Jesus. Life swallows death. Think on that image for a moment. God’s life swallows the death of God’s Son, destroying death by consuming it. Easter is about Jesus’ dead body being taken up into the indestructible life of God, and being given back to us as the transfigured body of his living glory. Resurrection is the Father’s eternally living YES spoken over the faithful life and death of his only Son in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Resurrection is Jesus’ death swallowed up in divine victory. Easter is God.

And that is why Paul must speak of a new creation. Jesus Christ lives because God has called forth a new reality from the nothingness of death. The powers of this age cannot bring about a new world. No amount of effort on our part can generate a new humanity. Trying harder, planning strategically, employing best practices, gaining more control, moving the agenda forward, being purpose-driven, taking out the competition, defeating the enemy – those are the ways that we get from here to there, from today to tomorrow, from failure to success, from defeat to victory, in our various worlds of family, work, community and nation. They are driven by the fear that there is never enough life to go around, that it is a scarce commodity, that death finally wins. And so we desire and acquire and hoard and defend the means of life for ourselves: water and land, crops and cattle, gas and oil, gold and uranium, drugs and hospitals, weapons and warships – mine, all mine, because there is never enough of life to go around, and I must survive even if no-one else does. Everyone else is potentially an enemy of my life. Does even God want his share? Forget about it!

But the new creation and the resurrection life of God can never be acquired by winning the competition over the scarce resources of life, nor even more gently, by trying harder, planning strategically, employing best practices, gaining more control, moving the agenda forward, being purpose-driven. There is no way from here to the new creation. There is no way from here to the kingdom of resurrection. The kingdom can only come. The new creation can only be given.

And the kingdom does come from God. The new creation is given by God. It pours forth from God’s own inexhaustible excess of life. While we are trying desperately to grasp after life, as much of it as possible – and don’t let anyone get in my way, or have any of what I’ve got – while we are doing that, God is pouring life out freely upon everyone – no limits, no stinginess.

“All of this is from God,” declares Paul. And it is all from God through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It comes to us from God, only because God has made all of us, the whole of humanity, sharers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ we have already died. When Christ died, we died with him. “One has died for all; therefore all have died,” says Paul.

We have to grant that this is a strange thought. What can it mean? It at least means this: not even death can separate us from Christ. He himself was truly dead, and we ourselves have already truly shared in his death. The death which will still inevitably come upon us has already come upon Jesus – and yet it could not hold him. We have already died with Christ. How can death hold us in fear and bondage, if we have already been to hell and back with Jesus? Death is still real, but it has no real power, no power to bind, no power to destroy finally, and therefore no power to terrify. For Jesus Christ himself, once dead, has been raised up and now lives eternally with the very life of God. Death cannot hold us, not now, not ever. “He died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

Easter is God’s life poured out on the crucified and buried Jesus; and poured out also on us, because our life, like our death, happens first in Jesus. A whole new human reality comes into being when Jesus is raised from the dead. He himself is the Human One, the very reality of human being fully alive with the life of God, living for God. If you want to know human being in all its truth, look to Christ. He is the new creation. If you want to know your friends or your neighbours or your fellow citizens or your enemies in all their truth, look to Christ. In him they are created anew. “From now on,” Paul declares, “all of the old standards of judgment are gone. If anyone is in Christ the new creation has already dawned; the old no longer has power; the new is all there is.”

Christ alone is the measure not only of what we see, but also of how we see. There is no human being who has not already died in Christ; there is no human being who is not already being called to life in Christ. That is how we are to know and live with every person whom we now encounter. We are not in a fierce competition with either friend or enemy for resurrection life as a scarce commodity. Easter inaugurates the economy of God’s life in abundance. Even if I share all that I think I have with another, I have not made a dent in the supply. The root of reconciliation with God, and reconciliation with my neighbour, is sunk deep in the inexhaustible soil of resurrection life.

Easter calls us to life, to be alive in that very power of divine life which raised Jesus from the dead. In him we live; for him we live; to him we live. Do I need to spell out in detail what that life looks like? I don’t think so. Would it not look like life lived according to the vision of the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus tells us? Would it not look like life bearing the fruits of the Spirit, as Paul tells us? Would it not look like the life of holy love and practical care that we read about in the letters of John and James? Would it not look like a life of patient suffering in the face of persecution of which Peter writes? But before all, and above all, and in all, would it not look like the very life which Jesus Christ himself lived from the day of his baptism to the day of his crucifixion? He is the way, the truth and life; and this is the life given for us and to us; this is the life we are called into; this is life beyond the reach of death.

Each of the four gospels records that the risen Jesus appeared at dawn, early on the first day of the week. I believe that is much more than a note about the calendar. In those three days of Easter – the sixth day of the week, Good Friday; the seventh or Sabbath day, Holy Saturday; and the first day of the week, Resurrection Day – in those three days we find ourselves on the very hinge of creation, time and history. In the first creation, on the first day of the week the light shines in the darkness and the story of creation moves out from there. The whole week of creation finds its culmination in the seventh day, in the Sabbath of God’s delight. But through human sin and cosmic catastrophe that first creation is now in bondage to decay and death. The cross of Christ now stands as the emblem of the whole week of creation in bondage. The Sabbath is no longer the emblem of divine rest and delight, but of the deathly silence of the Word made flesh, who takes his place among the dead.

Will God abandon his Holy One to the grave, and in him all the work of his hands from the very beginning until now?

No! “Early on the first day of the week,” God renders judgment. This one who was crucified shall live with the very life of God. All of creation in its bondage to death, and all of humanity in its bondage to sin, shall be gathered up into this one human body. Nothing shall be left behind. All things, contracted to this span, shall in him now explode with the light and life of God himself. Early on the first day of the week, this day, the day of resurrection – early on the first day of the week, creation begins again, humanity begins again, life begins again. “All this is from God.” We do not live toward this day, as we once lived toward the Sabbath. We live from this day. Or rather, we live in this day. “Look,” says Paul, “now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation!”

Early on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, the day of new creation, the day of the LORD – that’s today! Live in it.

12 Comments:

Kim Boldt said...

Thanks Doug. A rich reflection on the new creation life of Christ.

Brad said...

Thank you for this wonderful, and needed, conclusion to your earlier sermon. "The inexhaustible soil of resurrection life," indeed.

tortoise said...

Easter is not a season in nature’s cycle. Resurrection is not a stage in the circle of life. The kingdom of God is not a hidden potential in this world. There is no power within us that will bring about the new creation.Man, that's good.

David said...

Thanks Doug. Wonderfully hopeful, poetic, and spirit/thought provoking words which gave helpful pause to a sociologist who often wonders how best to engage my students with the question of why Easter is both spiritually and sociologically good for us.

Erin said...

[i]Trying harder, planning strategically, employing best practices, gaining more control, moving the agenda forward, being purpose-driven, taking out the competition, defeating the enemy – those are the ways that we get from here to there, from today to tomorrow, from failure to success, from defeat to victory, in our various worlds of family, work, community and nation. They are driven by the fear that there is never enough life to go around, that it is a scarce commodity, that death finally wins. And so we desire and acquire and hoard and defend the means of life for ourselves: water and land, crops and cattle, gas and oil, gold and uranium, drugs and hospitals, weapons and warships – mine, all mine, because there is never enough of life to go around, and I must survive even if no-one else does. Everyone else is potentially an enemy of my life. Does even God want his share?[/i]

I know I quoted too much, but this is simply the most helpful paragraph for people in my church I have heard in a while. Excellent writing, thanks! I plan to use this repeatedly, with proper citation, of course :)

Reg said...

Doug, thank you for your fresh words and images - insightful and motivating. The power of your testimony encouraged me to ask the following questions:

"And the kingdom does come from God. The new creation is given by God. It pours forth from God’s own inexhaustible excess of life." Could it be that this same life of God that you so wonderfully describe is the same life that brought forth the first creation. That the resurrection of Christ is not only an event but a sign of what has always been going on?

"The whole week of creation finds its culmination in the seventh day, in the Sabbath of God’s delight. But through human sin and cosmic catastrophe that first creation is now in bondage to decay and death." For others who like me see the universe as an unfolding one could it be that from God's first beginning there has always been an overlap between eternal life and death? That the way God has structured the universe physical death is always present but at the same time death in terms of living independently of God coexists with life lived out of "God’s own inexhaustible excess of life" either unknowingly or knowingly as witnessed by our life and its fruit as defined uniquely by Christ's life, death and resurrection?

If this were the case then the Christ event would not be so much about atonement as a sign of what has always been going on - that Christ's life is God's purposed life for everyone, from the very beginning.

Hope this makes sense.

Anonymous said...

@REG
Sir; this makes absolut sense for me...at least I hope so;
in my understanding, pelagius ment the same and -without being polemical, I hope- textbooks in "religion"classees in austrian schools are constantly referring to christ as an exemplary person and they also stringently speak of the "christ event"-christusereignis.
I, for my part, would be very disappointed if this would be all "resurrection" was about...
respectfully
kurt usar,md,graz,austria

kim fabricius said...

Superb, Doug, just superb.

Doug Harink said...

A couple of comments. First, good to hear from you, Kim Boldt (not to mention Kim F.).

(My apologies in what follows for the use of CAPS; I'm not sure how to use the HTML tags.)

Second, responding to Reg. It is of course very tempting to think that resurrection is something that, as you put it, "is always going on," a kind of constant potential in the "first creation." In fact, that's the notion I was trying to get at (and reject) in my first couple of paragraphs.

To be sure, life is good. We must be grateful for and not denigrate the goodness and beauty of the first creation, insofar as we can experience it beyond all of the distortions of sin and corruption. In the light of the resurrection we may even find types and figures of the resurrection amongst that goodness and beauty. But all things in the first creation are finally now destined to death -- "in bondage to decay" as Paul says in Rom. 8. Natural powers of renewal and regeneration are parasitic on death and decay. God's life is not. It COMES UPON death and decay as a wholly new power of life (which is, to be sure, revealed also as the power of creation ex nihilo) and TAKES THE DEAD THING UP into that life. There is no power of resurrection buried within the first creation. The first creation must therefore be raised from the dead or, which is the same thing, CREATED AGAIN.

I hope that clarification helps.

Finally, it's not clear to me what "Anonymous" is trying to say. Do you agree with Reg, or are you saying that his view of resurrection is "pelagian" and finally disappointing? If the latter, then I would agree with you.

hopelens said...

"The Sabbath is no longer the emblem of divine rest and delight, but of the deathly silence of the Word made flesh, who takes his place among the dead."

This sentence first startled, then moved, and now continues to challenge. Thanks for this.

Reg said...

Thanks Doug for taking the time to respond and for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

@DOUG
Sir!
Thank You very much for Your sermon.
Would You please excuse my shortcomings in the english language
yes,indeed, i reject pelagius`thinking and those of his modern day followers, who with phrases like
"auferstehung heisst mitten im leben aufstehen"(f.e. dorothee soelle)
tentatively translated
ressurrection means rising up-to political, ecological,...action-
in the middle of your life,
in my opinion, despite noble intentions,fall short of the full meaning of the occurence
he is risen indeed
thanks for your interest
kurt usar

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