4.3.10 Easter Vigil Sermon: “An Idle Tale?”

Text: Luke 24:1-12

This is it! Tonight is the night! The night where Jesus crossed from death into new life. The Great Vigil of Easter is a unique worship experience that the Church has practiced for years. In it, we cover the scope of God’s saving work through his chosen people of Israel, which culminates in Jesus. Right now, we are in the dim light of the sanctuary. We sit with Jesus in the darkness of the tomb. Right now, we are just waiting. Waiting to experience that new life, to have that encounter with the resurrected and living Christ.

But if we look at tonight’s gospel lesson, we get the feeling that the three women who went to the tomb were not expecting to find good news there. Desperate and grieving they come. Perhaps depressed and anxious. Their whole world has been torn out from underneath him. They had spent the last months and years following Jesus, traveling around with him, hanging on his every word, putting their faith in him. And yet now he was lying in a tomb. Had they misplaced their trust in him? Was everything that he told them about himself an idle tale?

We live on this side of the resurrection. We have the luxury of being able to look back, having knowledge that these women did not have as they approached Jesus’ grave. The Church has been proclaiming the truth of the resurrection for nearly 2000 years. And yet, do we still not come, looking for Christ, but wondering whether it is just all an idle tale? What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to believe, to understand, to encounter the resurrected Christ? In many ways, we are still a little like those women that came to the tomb.

We find ourselves at times asking, where is the power of the resurrection in our lives? Where is the power of the resurrection in our church?

Perhaps sometimes we have trouble seeing the power of the resurrection because we sometimes try to keep Jesus in the tomb. After all, things are safer for us there. If Jesus is kept safely in the tomb, we are free to exercise our own power, our own agenda, our own desires. We don’t have to worry about God intervening and messing up our well-made plans. This is a problem that we sometimes have as Christians, but the story of the resurrection blows all of that out of the water. I’m going to read a bit more in Luke’s account of the resurrection. After the women and Peter were astonished by the empty tomb, the story resumes with two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. We pick up with the story in 24:15.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes did not recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In this story, we find something very interesting: Jesus is at first completely unrecognizable after his resurrection. The disciples can’t recognize him. He doesn’t look entirely like he did before he died. The disciples, who thought they knew Jesus better than anyone couldn’t even tell who he was at first, and this teaches us a very important lesson: What we think we know about Jesus is always challenged. Just when we think we know exactly who he is and we have him figured out, there is still something in him that is unrecognizable, that goes beyond our comprehension. We can’t contain him. The resurrected Jesus is a Jesus that we can walk with, talk with and eat with, but we can’t hold onto him. In the story, when the disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread, Jesus then vanishes from their sight. In the same way, the resurrected Jesus meets with us. He meets with us, but we can’t hold onto him. He isn’t ours to hold onto or to possess or to wield as we see fit. One of the great temptations we face as human beings is to try to mold God into our own image, and to make our agenda God’s agenda. The disciples can see and touch the wounds that Jesus bore as a human being, but as the resurrected and glorified Christ, he cannot be contained. We can’t domesticate him for our own purposes, or keep him inside a box. The resurrection breaks through any boundaries we might seek to place around God. Just as the boundary of the tomb and death could not restrain Jesus, neither can we.

Some of you may be aware that this coming week there is an extremist Christian group that will be protesting various things in various places in Charleston and Wheeling. This group believes that they are pronouncing God’s righteous judgments on America, and that they are the only ones who truly get God’s message, that they are the only ones who truly get Christ. Their tactics are extreme, as the picket all around the country proclaiming God’s hate for anyone who doesn’t look like them or believe exactly as they do. I struggle with anger when I hear about this group that has so blatantly molded Jesus to fit their own agenda of hatred. And yet, while they may do this in an extreme sense, we all domesticate Jesus at some level. We all try to create Jesus in our own image, rather than allow ourselves to go through the lifelong journey of being conformed to his image, the image of the invisible God.

I read an interesting book called “American Jesus” a couple of years ago for one of my classes in seminary. This book was a study of how Jesus has been defined and redefined within American culture, over and over again. He starts by looking at the way Thomas Jefferson redefined Jesus as “an enlightened sage” and literally took a knife to his Bible, removing all of the parts that didn’t line up with that image of Jesus. When Jefferson had finished, he had very little of the Bible left. You can still see copies of this Jefferson Bible today. During the second great awakening of the 19th century, Jesus was redefined as a childlike and feminine “sweet savior.” The early 20th century saw a move towards painting Jesus in a more masculine, manly redeemer, with a charismatic personality. Those are just a few examples from our history. This book was very interesting for me to read because it helped me to realize that throughout our own history, we have been guilty of recreating Jesus in our own image, and in doing so, we miss out on who he really is: the living God.

It is natural to imagine Jesus in our own image. After all, as the church, we do emphasize that he came down as a human being. We focus on the incarnation and affirm that he was fully human. He had experiences that we all go through. He loved, formed relationships, grieved, felt physical pain, needed sleep, showed frustration, along with everything else that we experience. So it is easy to begin to imagine that Jesus is just like us. But tonight, tonight as we make witness to the night when Jesus rose from the tomb we are reminded that Jesus is not like us. He is God. He is the living God that goes beyond our ability to fully comprehend or hold on to or possess for ourselves. Jesus is something entirely different from us. This is the great mystery of our faith. That Jesus should be fully human and identify with us, and yet, he is God, utterly transcendent, utterly divine, and we can’t box that up. We can’t keep it and control it, and craft him into our own image.

As we continue to move in the direction of reaching out into the community of Dunbar, seeking to reach those who do not know Christ or who are outside of the Church, it is an important lesson to remember that we are not the sole possessors of Christ. We get the joy and privilege of inviting others to encounter Christ, to be a part of our church family, and to go on the journey of discipleship along with us, but he doesn’t belong to us.

A few weeks ago, I was in the Kroger parking lot about to go get some groceries. I was getting out of the car when am woman came up to me. I could see that she had been putting pamphlets on people’s cars. She handed one to me, and I said, “what’s this?” She then proceeded to tell me that I needed Jesus Christ and that she could bring me to him. I politely explained to her that I already did know Jesus Christ and that I was actually the youth pastor at the church right down the street. She looked a little surprised when I told her that. But I tell you this story to give an example of what it means to think we can possess Jesus. The woman saw me, made an assumption that she had something that I didn’t, and only she could give it to me.

So let’s look back again at our story. Jesus has walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and he has sat down at the table with them. When he blesses and breaks the bread, it is in that moment that they recognize him, and that they sit and eat with the resurrected Jesus. But as soon as they meet him, he vanishes. We, tonight, will come to meet Jesus in the breaking of the bread as we share in Holy Communion at his table. We meet him, talk with him, and get to know him. But we, in the church, do not and cannot possess him. He is not an object we hold where we get to decide who can have him and who can’t. Instead, he is the image of the invisible God who we can simply reflect. It is a privilege to seek to be a reflection of him.

Is the resurrection an idle tale? It is if we try to hold onto Jesus and fashion him in our own image. Where is the power of resurrection in our church? What if we came to Jesus not expecting that we know everything already? What if we come to meet him with minds open to the idea that God could reveal something new to us? What if we came remembering that God is always beyond that which we can fully understand? As we reaffirm our baptismal vows and come to the communion table tonight where Jesus comes to meet with us, let us remember that we meet the living God who possesses us and is fashioning us in his own image. May we always come seeking the God who is so much greater than we can ever fathom and be thankful that he extends his love to us, and to all.

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