“If Not Now, Why Then?”
WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER NIGHTS?
This year, here at Holy Wisdom there are two answers to this question that opens Jewish and Christian paschal celebrations:
- Tonight is the night when the Christian people of God celebrate the victory of the Risen Christ over the threat of death….
- … and tonight is the night when the people of Wisconsin hope to celebrate the victory of their basketball team over the threat of Kentucky!
- There is, unfortunately, a clash of celebrations that marks this night special. They’re both happening at the same time!
- And I feel privileged to be with the “chosen” of our community who chose to be here tonight – though I remind you to turn off cell phones and internet connections!
- But why did we make this choice? Why are we here? What are we really celebrating or commemorating on this most important feast of the liturgical year, the Easter Vigil?
- I fear that if we answer that question with the simple “We’re here to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus,” we might be missing the power and depth of this service. So I would like to suggest to you that:
WE CAN MISS THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION BY FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON WHAT HAPPENED TO JESUS AND NOT ENOUGH ON WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FOLLOWERS, INCLUDING OURSELVES.
The Easter stories and the liturgical language we have inherited understandably have to do with Jesus;
- He has been raised from the dead. He steps out of the tomb. He is exalted to the right hand of the Father. Like no one else, he returned from the dead. He is the Lord of Lords, exalted above all others. – This is the language we hear in tonight’s and tomorrow’s liturgies.
But as theologians and spiritual teachers tell us, we really can’t be certain just what happened to Jesus.
- Like the stories about Jesus’ birth that open the Gospel accounts, these closing stories about his resurrection evince a greater use of symbol and myth than in other parts of the Gospels — accounts of angels, sudden appearances, walking through walls, disappearing and reappearing.
- So there is much disagreement among scholars about what kind of a body Jesus rose with. While Paul, who gives us the earliest accounts, insists that the resurrected body is spiritual, not physical, the Gospel writers, some 20 to 40 years later, describe a body that can be touched and that digests fish.
- There is also much controversy about the Easter appearances, in their often contradictory variety. Were they historical encounters with Jesus that caused faith? Or were they stories that people at that time easily told to express faith?
So, given the resources we have in the New Testament, we can’t be entirely sure exactly what happened to Jesus in the resurrection. But –and this is the point I would like to explore with you tonight – we can be quite certain about what happened to his followers. And this, I suggest, reveals what the resurrection really was and is.
WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FOLLOWERS?
After his execution on the cross, the followers of Jesus were thoroughly demoralized.
- They had come to believe, as Jesus most likely also did, that he was going to usher in the Rule of God, in the midst of the Roman oppression. But he didn’t. The Romans took care of him; as El Salvadorans would say, they “disappeared him,” as they did with so many other trouble makers.
- Jesus’ followers were, understandably, distressed, even terrorized. This is what is communicated in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, which is the very end of the original Gospel: there are no appearances of Jesus in the original Gospel of Mark: “They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them … they were afraid.”
But not long afterwards, we find Jesus disciples – or, they found themselves – enabled to recommit and renew their faith in what this man Jesus stood for and believed.
- As a German New Testament scholar puts it, the resurrection means that his followers were convinced that “die Sache Jesu geht weiter” – Jesus continues to do his thing in and through his followers.
- His followers came to experience that death did not put an end to him and to what they came to believe through him. They discovered that the force of love that Jesus called Abba-God continued to sustain them and call them to commit themselves, despite difficulties and even threat of death, to a world of greater compassion and justice.
- This force, this divine energy, which they encountered in his body during his life continued to be present through his living Spirit. They were now his body—his mystical but at the same time his new physical body—in the world, through history.
- James Carroll, in his new book Christ Actually, describes this transforming experience powerfully: “The meaning of the problematic failure of Jesus to return was changed by finding a presence of Jesus in the community of those gathered to tell and hear his story. Where is he? He is here, in the Gospel itself,” in the community. P.112
- The early gatherings of Jesus followers, Caroll tells us, came “…to the realization that Jesus, who they were expecting to come in glory at the end of history, was not so coming but was, indeed and truly, present in their midst. How did they know this? It happened, or was happening, in their communities.” 114
- How did it happen? How did they come to experience this and know it? Was it through actual physical encounters with him? Or was it, as many New Testament scholars suggest, because they heeded the call of women in the community, the same women who had stood with him under the cross while his male followers fled, to reassemble and follow his instructions to break bread together and remember him. And through this coming together, and through what would become the Sacrament of the Eucharist, they felt his presence in their midst. In a different but real way he was still with them and—as St. Paul would announce, in
The role of St. Paul
- Paul is the one who developed and described this experience of Christ continuing to live in and as his followers. It’s in today’s reading from Romans, where he speaks of being “baptized into Christ Jesus,” of “dying and living with Christ,” of being “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
- For Paul, to be a Jesus-follower, is “to be in Christ Jesus.” This phrase – en Christo einei” comes up 160 times throughout Paul’s letters, written around the year 50. It is to experience that “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in and as me.” (Gal. 2:20) Richard Rohr calls this passage from Galatians Paul’s “one-liner” to describe the Easter experience. (Daily Meditation, April 1, 2015)
- In Rohr’s words: “The Christ that he [Paul] met was not the Christ in the flesh (Jesus); it was the Risen Christ, the Christ who is available to us now as Spirit, as ‘an energy field’ that we eventually called the Mystical Body of Christ, the Cosmic Christ.” (March 31, 2015)
- In experiencing this still living Christ Spirit in us “We eventually know that Someone Else is working through us, in us, for us, and in spite of us. After enlightenment [after experiencing the Risen Christ], our life is not our own. Now we draw from the One Big Life, the Christ mystery, the Christ nature, the Christ source. We stop fretting about our smallness.” (Rohr, March 22, 2015)
IF NOT NOW, WHY THEN?
Now I can give you the title of this sermon: If not now, why then?
- If the resurrection does not continue to happen in us, what difference does it make if Jesus stepped forth physically from the tomb and stood before his followers? So what if something happened then, if nothing is happening now.
- But that’s the point of Easter: it is happening, or it can happen, now. Like the first followers of Jesus, we gather and break bread together, remember his message and example – and realize that the power that he discovered and embodied in his life is still with us. We don’t have to fret about our smallness!
- Through our regular liturgical practice here around this table, through our personal contemplative practices of prayer and silence at home, through our continued prophetic practices of trying to bring our world, and our neighborhoods here in Madison, closer to Jesus’ vision of a society built on economic justice and mutual compassion — we can, if we trust and keep at it, experience and so know that the Christ Spirit is alive in us and through us. –
- Easter is fundamentally a mystical experience that tell us that It is no longer we who live but the Christ Spirit who is living in and as us.
- To realize this, to feel it, is to spontaneously cry out: “Alleluia.”