Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
April 16, 2017; Easter A: Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
Monday was such a magnificent day that I decided to take my dog for a walk at Willard Beach. When I arrived the sun was shining just right on the fish shacks so I hurried to the shore to take a picture before the light changed. On my way, I ran into a woman I often see walking her dog in my neighborhood. Over the years we have talked a lot about St. Luke’s, about music, about politics, and about our neighborhood. When she saw me, she smiled and I said something about it feeling like spring had finally come. Her face lit up. She said, “We made it!” With those words, something shifted in me. I knew she was talking about getting through the winter but I also knew she was a great fan of St. Luke’s and her words struck a deeper chord. Her use of “we” was striking as well. She wasn’t just talking about me but about herself and our community of neighbors. We had made it through together. I had come to the beach because it was a beautiful day. Because of her, I paused to experience it, rather than rushing by. I still went and took that picture but when I came back I just sat in the sand to take it all in, while my dog happily played in the waves.
In our gospel, Peter and the other disciple were so busy rushing around the empty tomb that they never paused to ask what it meant. Despite the gospel writer’s little add-on about the disciples’ belief, they obviously didn’t get it. They saw the linens Jesus had been wrapped in but didn’t see Jesus right in front of them. At first Mary Magdalene didn’t either. First, she thought Jesus was the gardener. When he said her name, however, she recognized him. Look at the vocabulary. Instead of calling Jesus “Rabbi” (which means “teacher”), she used the more personal title “Rabbouni” (which means “my teacher”). There’s an intimacy and love here that the other disciples had completely missed. When Jesus said her name, Mary’s heart was filled with joy. When Jesus said her name, Mary knew that the resurrection was real.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say anything to Mary about the forgiveness of sins. People who think that Good Friday and Easter are about forgiving sins forget that Jesus forgave people’s sins all the time while he was alive. He didn’t need to die on a cross to do that. Consider Mary Magdalene for a moment. Tradition says that she had what you might call an interesting past. None of that came up in her conversation with Jesus because Jesus had been taken care of all of that a long time ago. Mary didn’t need to be forgiven, or told she was accepted or loved because she had been forgiven and accepted and loved the first time she and Jesus met. The same, by the way, is true for you. God is a God of love. The song, “He’s making a list and checking it twice, going to find out whose naughty and nice,” isn’t talking about Jesus… and isn’t talking about Easter. The idea of someone needing to die in order to appease an angry god might have made sense in Medieval Europe or in the world of Game of Thrones. It doesn’t make sense in our modern world and it’s what we are celebrating today.
Last Sunday I quoted a friend who said that “Jesus didn’t die for our sins. He died because of them.” This is worth repeating. Jesus didn’t die in order to pay the price of personal parking tickets promulgated by our private peccadilloes. Jesus died because he turned over the tables in the temple. Jesus died because he spoke the truth to power and lived in a way that threatened the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Jesus died because he proclaimed a kingdom that none of the kings of the earth could even imagine. Jesus died because he dared to love and put that love first of all. Sin can be defined as separation from God. Jesus died because the world was in a state of sin. Jesus died because humanity was separated from God and disconnected from the source of life, of love, and energy in the universe itself. Jesus was raised to put those connections back in place. Jesus’ death and resurrection are a bridge over the gap between the way things are and the way they were created to be. Jesus’ death and resurrection are a way to get us back in relationship with God and one another.
Jesus’ dialogue with Mary Magdalene did not say anything about the forgiveness of sins. It did, however, speak about Jesus being in the process of ascending to the God. For Jesus, the resurrection is about reconnecting with God. For Jesus Easter is made complete with the Ascension, with his going back up to God. Building on this, you could say that Easter is only made complete for us with the coming of the down of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost — which for the gospel of John takes place the very next week. With Pentecost, we are, like Jesus, are not just raised ourselves, but given the power to raise others to God as well.
This is important because once Jesus ascends to God the responsibility for the resurrection is our own. With Jesus in heaven, you and I have the responsibility for giving people the hope and promise of Easter on Earth. After the resurrection, the wording of the Bible changes and Jesus’ disciples are referred to “apostles,” “those who are sent.” As I mentioned, Mary Magdalene came from humble and possibly troubled beginnings. Yet, with the knowledge she was loved and fed by her experience of the risen Lord, she was able to become what Pope recently called the “apostula apostalorum,” the apostle to the apostles, and closest friend of Jesus. Though not well known, Mary even has her own gospel, her own version of the Good News. In that moment outside the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene learned what Easter was all about. She learned that in Jesus God is with us and that through Jesus, we have a fresh start, a new beginning, and can be all that God has created and called us to be. If this is true for Mary, it can be true for you as well. As I said in my e-pistle cover, every language except English uses a derivation of the Latin word Pascha for Easter. Pascha means “Passover.” Thus, Easter is the Christian Passover: a celebration of both Jesus’ passing over from death to life and our own.
That is precisely what has happened here at St. Luke’s. It’s hard to imagine that on Easter Monday one year ago tomorrow scaffolding went up, the Rose Window and wall came down, the parking lot disappeared, the pews moved and the front garden became a staging area for equipment and supplies. Do you remember? Today, after raising more than 1.5 million dollars and completing an enormous amount of work, the window and wall are back and Phase One is done. We are now gathering data for Phase Two and are refocusing our efforts back on strategic planning areas of mission, looking at improvements in our ministry with youth, newcomers, and communications, and living into our mission of being a place and a people who are opening and welcome to all. At the vestry retreat we began exploring the possibility of soon calling an assistant priest and experienced a level of hope, energy and enthusiasm that I haven’t seen since the construction began. We have come through death and resurrection to the Ascension, the image so clearly visible in the magnificently redone Rose Window you can see right behind me today. On this Easter Day the message of that woman on the beach rings in my ears: We made it! We made it through – not you or me but “us” – all of us together with God. New life is all around us and spring has sprung. Tomorrow I begin a sabbatical from which I will return in September. I thank you for this amazing opportunity and will remember you fondly in my prayers. I go forth knowing that God is doing wonderful things in our lives and in this great cathedral we call home.
The new life of Easter I am talking about is wonderfully summed up in a prayer we used on Good Friday. Let me end with it today: O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world know that things that were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.