The anxiety begins around mid-February Palms sweating, lips thin and straight as a mail slot, you peek ahead in your calendar. There it is staring up at you from the page—the queen of Christian festivals, the holy day of holy days, Easter.
Your heart begins to thump like a tom-tom. "A sermon," you whisper through clenched teeth. "I'll need an Easter sermon. What will I talk about?" You feel the fear spreading inside of you like weeds. You recall the taunting indictment of Markus Barth: "Who has ever heard a good Easter sermon?"
You say to yourself, "I could talk about.. .no, I did that last year."
You feel your blood racing through you like a roller coaster rising to the top of your brain, then plunging, twisting, lunging through the deep, steep tun nets of your body.
You get up from your desk and pace around the room feline and restless. You worry about the unbelief that hides in your flock, and in your heart. You try to calm yourself: "Whoa, boy. Steady. Get a grip." You tell yourself that Easter is just another Sunday. And a voice from within replies: "Right. And the Grand Canyon is just a hole in Arizona."
"I could do a first-person sermon!" you assure yourself. 'I'll view the resurrection through the eyes of. . ." But then you remember. "No, I'm no good at first-person sermons, and people will think I'm copying that show-off Baptist minister down the street. Where does he get all those costumes, anyhow?"
Before You Begin
Proclaim The Resurrection—Don't Debate It
Easter falls this year on April 19, the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21. The congregation will look to you for a sermon, a message imaginatively conceived, artfully executed, and crackling with relevance. What will you say?
Let's begin with some ground rules. First, rid yourself of the idea that people can be argued into believing the gospel. ("Humanity's instinct for eternal life proves that there is one! Would geese fly south if there were no south?") This is nonsense on stilts. Philosophical arguments and illustrations from the world of nature will not make Markus Barth change his assessment. I have never met anyone who was argued into the Christian faith. Neither have you.
Proclaim the gospel—don't debate it. That is what the disciples did. They did not argue the resurrection; they simply announced it: "This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death" (Acts 2:23-24). Announce the resurrection—don't argue it. God wants witnesses, not lawyers.
Start in the Bible—But Don't Stay There
The preacher's task is not only to expound Scripture, but to apply it. Biblical integrity is worth precious little without a clear, insightful application. It is not enough, in a sermon, to explain what Paul was saying to the Corinthians; you must explain what Paul is saying to us, now, today. This applies to every sermon, of course, but it seems an especially important reminder for Easter Sunday.
Preaching should begin in the Bible, but it mustn't remain there. It should visit the hospital and the college dorm, the factory and the farm, the kitchen and the office, the bedroom and the classroom. Preaching invades the real world in which people live, that real world of tragedy and triumph, loveliness and loneliness, broken hearts, broken homes, and amber waves of strain.
Preaching invades the real world, and it talks to real people: the high school senior who's in church because he's been dragged there by his parents; the housewife who wants a divorce; the grandfather who mourns the irreversibility of time and lives with a frantic sense that almost all the sand in the hourglass has dropped; the farmer who is about to lose his farm, and the banker who must take it from him; the teacher who has kept her lesbianism a secret all these years; the businessman for whom money has become a god; the single girl who hates herself because she's fat. They'll all be there on Easter Sunday, sitting in the pew, wanting to do business with God. Preach to them, not to the Corinthians.
A Sampling of Easter Texts
Corinthians: "If I Should Wake Before I Die ..."
The pulpiteer in search of a resurrection text might well begin his or her journey by paying a visit to the so-called "resurrection chapter," 1 Corinthians 15. What a treasure chest of Easter material it is.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20.
Seven times in these few verses Paul uses the word "if." "If Christ has not been raised," says the apostle, then preaching is in vain, faith is futile, forgiveness is a myth, and there is no hope of heaven. "If" is a pretty big word for having only two letters. Think how different American history would be if Washington had lost the battle of Trenton; if Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg; if Lincoln had not gone to Ford's Theater that night; if Lee Harvey Oswald's aim had been a hair off. Things would be altogether different—if....
The greatest "if" is this one: "If Christ has not been raised ... ." But Paul doesn't stop with "if." He concludes with a ringing affirmation: "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead."
1 Corinthians 15:35-41.
"But someone may ask," says Paul, "'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?'" Paul answers with a parable of sorts. He talks about the sowing of seed, and his point is this: There is an intimate relationship between a seed of corn and a cornstalk. But if you had never seen a cornstalk, could you imagine what one looked like just by studying a seed? Just so, we cannot imagine the resurrected body by looking at the bodies we possess now.
1 Corinthians 15:51-58.
Easter is about living. The message of Easter is not merely a comfort for those who expect to die; it is a bracing word of assurance for those who expect to live. How does Paul end his song of triumph in 1 Corinthians 15? Does he say, "Therefore, do not be afraid to die"? No. Paul concludes, "Therefore, do not be afraid to live!" "Therefore, my dear brothers," says the apostle, "stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
Paul is not talking about dying; he is talking about living. The child's prayer goes "... if I should die before I wake," but Paul's message is for those who expect to wake before they die. Paul's conclusion is "Therefore, do not be afraid to live—for Jesus Christ."
The Gospels: They Can't Harmonize, But They Sure Can Sing
"Can any of you guys harmonize?" Bing Crosby asks a group of boys in The Bells of St. Mary's. People love to harmonize the gospels. Look at what we've done to Christmas: Luke's shepherds and Matthew's magi fraternize in the same stable, and we think nothing of it.
An Easter harmonization, however, is a bit more difficult. In John's gospel the resurrected Jesus seems to have a non-material presence, passing through closed doors to join his disciples in the upper room. In Luke's account, Jesus eats bread and fish and calms his frightened followers by saying, "It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (24:39). Matthew and Mark remember one angel at the tomb; John and Dr. Luke report two. And then there's Matthew's earthquake, which seems to have escaped everyone else's notice.
The Easter symphony thunders with dissonance. But this much the gospels have in common: they all affirm that Jesus died and rose again. "The resurrection is a great mystery, an event beyond human understanding," said Luther. True. But in one sense the resurrection is a simple matter. It is simple in that either it happened or it didn't. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not. It's either yes or no, true or false. It has to be one or the other. The gospels sing out with one mighty voice: "He is risen!"
A standoff with the Sadducees concludes with the glowing affirmation, "He is not the God of the dead but of the living." The point here is that God is faithful. God's relationship with his people is permanent.
"Man appoints, God disappoints," quipped Cervantes. The two fellows on the road to Emmaus are disappointed. They had hoped that Jesus "was the one who was going to redeem Israel." Many people feel that the Almighty has let them down. Their deepest desires have been nailed to a cross. Their fondest hopes have been crucified, dead, and buried. But after crucifixion comes resurrection, and the story that begins with disappointment ends with the words, "The Lord has risen indeed!"
"Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father," says the Master. Mary thinks that Jesus has returned to be forever with his followers. "I will be with you always," says Jesus, "but not in the form you see me in now." At a deeper level, perhaps Jesus is saying: "Do not cling to me, because our former relationship is over, and not until you let go of that old relationship can you begin a new relationship with a risen Christ."
Easter Sunday is a good day to let go of the things that need to be let go of, to let die the things that are dead. Perhaps there were ambitions, ideas, and relationships that once made sense, but no longer—and they need to be declared dead. You cannot get on with the new until you let go of the old. You cannot have a resurrection until you first have a grave.
Jesus appears to the ten, bearing Easter gifts: peace, purpose, and power. He gives a peace that banishes doubt and fear. He gives purpose: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Confronted with so great an assignment, we are suddenly conscious of our shortcomings; we are jolted with an awareness of how poorly equipped we are for this assignment. But there is one final gift: "Receive the Holy Spirit." The Lord empowers his church!
The gospel of John is a happy hunting ground for the preacher in search of Easter material. Don't overlook John 10:10, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full," and John 11:25, "I am the resurrection and the life."
The beloved disciple's fourteenth chapter is strewn with gems for Easter preaching: "In my Father's house are many rooms ... I am the way and the truth and the life . .. Because I live, you also will live."
Other Sources: Planting Seeds of Hope Under Dark Skies
You've already preached through 1 Corinthians 15, and you want to give the gospels the day off? There are plenty of other sources you can turn to. Here are just a few.
In his sermon on Pentecost, Peter tells the people what they did ("put him [Jesus] to death by nailing him to the cross") and what God did ("raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him"). Death has a strong grip, but not strong enough to hold King Jesus.
Paul is charged with spreading the word that Jesus is alive, and poor Fes-tus is "... at a loss how to investigate such matters." Judge Festus is handed a case that doesn't fit into any of the usual categories: public disorder, treason, incitement to riot, and so forth. Festus couldn't investigate this matter, and neither can we. The affirmation of the creed, "I believe in .. . the resurrection of the body" is a statement of faith, not a flat report of verifiable truth.
"We will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection," but new life in Christ begins here and now, as we live a life "dead to sin but alive to God." There are more people in church on Easter than on Good Friday. We are more eager to celebrate Christ's victory than to take up our crosses and follow in his footsteps. Paul links new life in Christ to personal righteousness. Go and do likewise.
E.B. White's wife was a Christian. When she died, he wrote of her: "Katherine was a member of that resurrection conspiracy, the company of those who plant seeds of hope under dark skies." Paul plants a seed of hope under a dark sky: Nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord!
Romans is rich in resurrection references. In addition to the passages listed are Romans 1:4 and Romans 14:7-8. And don't overlook Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection."
Last Easter I preached on Colos-sians 3:1-4, and the year before that my Easter sermon was based on the "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1.
If You See a Butterfly, Stamp on It
A final note. On Easter we affirm our belief in the resurrection of the body. What a surprising thing to affirm!
Surprising because, for one thing, we know perfectly well what happens to our bodies after death. "Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim thy growth," wrote William Cullen Bryant, "to be resolved to earth again ... to mix forever with the elements." Even the most massive burial vault will not prevent the fulfillment of those ancient words of Genesis: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Surprising, too, because not many Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. They say they do on Sunday, but come Monday what emerges is a belief in the immortality of the soul. (The body is the cocoon; the soul is the butterfly. After death the soul wings its way to heaven, while that old cocoon is buried in the earth. Sound familiar?) Thanks a lot, Plato.
This idea that we possess immortal souls is not biblical. Such a belief devalues the body, treating it like a prison. It defines human beings as incarcerated souls, rather than as animated bodies. It treats death like a liberation to be welcomed, instead of "the last enemy to be destroyed." It makes Jesus' attitude toward his own death seem strange indeed.
This Easter, let's not contribute to the pervasive popularity of this ancient Greek idea. If you see a butterfly in your sermon text, stomp on it!