Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Easter Day April 1 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale
A few Sundays ago our Bishop reminded us that it is an Orthodox custom for the preacher to tell a joke on Easter Day. The result is called the “risus Paschalis” (the Easter Laugh)… “The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. In a famous Easter midnight sermon of John Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.), he described a vision of Christ confronting the devil and laughing at him.
What a picture… the energy, the power, the dynamic of this day enables us to laugh and to laugh deeply at what causes us the most fear – death and quotidian experiences of dying.
I tell a story that I have told for several decades at Eastertide.
Imagine me a young curate (naïve, energetic, waves of dark hair)… and a curate eager to please his boss, John Watson. And so I drilled the young people constantly with the Easter greeting so that, upon greeting my boss, they would immediately respond correctly.
The day came! One by one John greeted each young person, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” and they dutifully responded, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.” Until… one young lady approached the Vicar, he greeted her (“Alleluia, Christ is risen”) and was met with silence… I could almost see and hear her brain struggle to find the correct response and then she blurted out, “Oh… and also with you!”. But, friends, there is the most perfect theological statement on resurrection… because of what Jesus experienced on that first Easter Day so we experience resurrection at work in us today… in everything that concerns us, in every relationship that baffles us, in every task still unfinished… and so St. Paul comments, “The same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11).
In today’s Gospel (Mark 16), we read of the women that set out for the tomb on that first Easter Day. And let me introduce you to these women… they doubted the resurrection and they were aware of their weakness and yet still they made that journey. Can we not say that their relationship with resurrection was, to say the least, ambiguous and tentative. Some weeks ago a funeral took place in this church. The coffin (no euphemisms please), the coffin was brought into the church and rested here… a grandchild of the deceased became increasingly troubled as she looked at the coffin; her grandfather (the husband of the deceased) assured the child (with all the best intent)… “she’s not really there” to which the child responded, “Well who’s in it then?”. We share with those holy women an ambiguous, equivocal, indistinct relationship to death and resurrection!
They doubted the resurrection! Yes, the Gospel record sheds all pretence and describes how their intent was to anoint Jesus, the dead Jesus with the traditional spices… Mark 16:1 “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint Jesus.” Friends, their expectation was none too high, their faith was none too strong and yet still they set out to make the journey.
And they knew their weakness! Even as they traveled to the tomb they asked (Mark 16:3) “Who will roll away the stone for us?”. I want you to understand the peculiar oddity of this situation. These women knew right well that an enormous stone had been moved by the guards into a deep rut in front of the tomb. They had absolutely no idea how the stone would be removed… but this did not stop their pilgrimage to that holy site.
There is a devilish piece of fake news propagated that only those full of faith and replete with strength can approach the place of resurrection and encounter the resurrected Jesus. This is not so… hear it, this is not so… receive it deeply, this is not so.
Today we are encouraged, urged by hopes deep within us, often inarticulate, to make our own journey to the tomb discouraged neither by our doubt nor by our weakness.
“Who will roll away the stone for us?”
Oh, my friends, there are many stones that deter, frighten, disable us as we confront the power and possibility of resurrection.
Stones of past failures, stones of chronic frailty, stones of disabilitating doubt, stones of a grievous sense of unworthiness and abject embarrassment.
Whatever the stones may be… the ones that need to be rolled away… pledge with me today to nevertheless make the journey. We have nothing to lose and we have resurrection dynamic power to enjoy.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
From John Updike’s “7 Stanzas at Easter”
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
Faded credulity of earlier ages
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
Grinding of time will exclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.