“Rebecca Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 20, 2019
Easter Vigil

Texts:

The Perfect Easter Sermon

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I learned in seminary that the preacher’s job is to preach the good news. That’s it. Christ is risen!

I thought about sitting down at this point tonight. Thought about how Billy Graham used to say: “The greatest news that mortal ear has ever heard is the news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.”[1] He didn’t make that up. As early as 400, John Chrysostom preached an Easter Sermon in which emphasized this distillation of the good news:

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead. [2]

From ancient of days, preachers have recognized that the good news is simply and succinctly stated in tonight’s acclamation: Christ is risen!

I’ll say a little more, but rather than trying to add my words to the perfect sermon, I want to draw our attention to the very first Easter sermon. It’s a sermon in three-parts, with by four preachers, “none of whom,” in the words of Bishop Burton, “are human.”[3] Let’s listen to their sermon as recorded in our passage from Luke.

“On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices they’d prepared.” They walked slowly, deliberately, sadly. They were heartbroken, sure they’d never see Jesus again. Adding insult to injury, after he’d been killed and placed behind a stone in a temporary tomb, the chief priests and Pharisees had called Jesus an “imposter” (Mt 27:63) and convinced Pilate to seal the stone in place with wax. Thus secured, the stone spoke certitude – a great “period that stopped the sentence” of Jesus’ life.[4]

Reaching the tomb that morning, the women “found the stone rolled away.” Their eyes shifting from tomb to stone traced not a period but a comma? I imagine a question rising – albeit unconsciously – in their minds: “Didn’t he say something about stones last Sunday as he rode into the city? Yes! He was responding to the Pharisees who’d ordered him to silence the crowds. ‘If these were silent,’ he’d said, ‘the stones would shout out.’” And now, into the silence of this morning, this stone proclaimed the first Easter sermon: “I’m not a period at the end of the sentence of Jesus’ life. Look – I traced a comma in the dirt for you? Step inside! The Lord is risen!”

But the stone speaks in words the women, with their human ears, can’t hear. Somehow, they received part of the message, the part beckoning them to step inside. “But when they went in, they did not find the body.” That’s when two men in dazzling clothes took the pulpit, asking: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

So much is conveyed in that question. “You’re on a fruitless search, ladies. You’re here to embalm the past. But past doesn’t need embalming.” This sermon, the women can hear. I can hear it, too – and it’s good that I can. For, I am just as guilty as they of engaging in this fruitless search, and I’m not alone. Nancy Claire Pittman, President of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, keenly observes that we all:

tend the corpses of long dead ideas and ideals. We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches as if they might come back to life as long as we hold on to them. We grasp our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change, to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger. We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, because it is safe.[5]

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The messengers’ preaching convicts me as I stand, spices in hand, prepared to embalm my rusted resentments, wasted wounds, and ghosted goals. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And then, they preach the good news – the very best news – and they speak in words for human ears: “He is not here, but has risen.”

Now it’s time for the final preacher to land this first Easter sermon. Now the empty tomb itself takes the pulpit. “Look!” it says. “There’s literally no body here. Jesus told you not to concern yourselves with the dead. Remember that man who wanted to become his follower as soon as he’d buried his father? ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’ (Lk 9:60). He wasn’t just talking to that would-be disciple; he was talking to you. Jesus isn’t in here; he’s out there and he’s alive. He told you before he died, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’ (Jn 14:2). ‘If you’re serious about following him, you need to stop coming back here and go and find that place with your name on it.’[6] Christ is risen!”

This first Easter sermon is all about the power of God. The power of God to defeat death – not only Jesus’ death but our own. The power of God over our rusted resentments, wasted wounds, and ghosted goals. The power of God to turn periods into commas – to bring light and life into the darkest corners of the world. The power of God to create spaces for each of us – with our names on them – into which each of us is called.

That first morning, the women at the tomb heard the first Easter sermon and, “returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and all the rest.” It didn’t matter that the others thought their words “an idle tale.” Had I been there, I’m not sure I would’ve believed them either. I’m pretty sure I would’ve run with Peter to see for myself. Of course, he missed the messengers, but the stone and the tomb were joined by another preacher who waited for him: “the linen clothes by themselves.” It didn’t matter that Peter had to check it out himself. The women heard that first Easter sermon – “Christ is risen!” They believed the good news – the best news – and then went out into the world to proclaim it.

What will you do now that you’ve heard that first Easter sermon? Who will you tell? Will you join your voice to that of Christians throughout the years and proclaim the good news?

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed.

 

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[1] See, e.g., Billy Graham, “The Meaning of Resurrection Day for Each One of Us: An Easter Message”, April 12, 2009.

[2] John Chrysostom’s “Easter Sermon”, circa 400. Full text available online at http://www.anglicansonline.org/special/Easter/chrysostom_easter.html.

[3] Bishop Anthony Burton, “Exit from Necropolis”, sermon preached on March 27, 2016. I am indebted to Bp. Burton for this notion of the preachers at the tomb that first Easter morning!

[4] Walter Wangrein, “Holy Saturday” from Reliving the Passion.

[5] Nancy Claire Pittman, “Easter Vigil, Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.

[6] Bishop Anthony Burton, “Exit from Necropolis”, sermon preached on March 27, 2016.