The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011   

First Congregational Church

Anchorage, Alaska

Jeremiah 31: 1,3-6                         

Colossians 3:1-4

John 20: 1-18


“I Have Seen the Lord!”

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen, Indeed!

Today is the High Holy, Defining Day of our faith. Easter.  For some of us, it is the one day out of the year when we feel an irresistible calling to follow the heritage of our ancestors, dress up, and come on out to church to reflect on the meaning of our Easter traditions. Getting ready for Easter this year has been an unexpected challenge for me. I am fully aware that most of you have heard enough Easter sermons to preach a very good one yourself.  I even considered having an open mike up here and inviting whomever wished to come forward and offer their own personal Easter meditation.  And each of us, being Congregationalists or almost-Congregationalists, would have a slightly different, non-creedal, view of what happened that first Easter morning and how it has impacted our spiritual worldview. But we might hold one thing in common.

I'm going to ask you to help me articulate, to celebrate, what I believe might be the core belief coming from our Easter testimonials. When I say, Christ is risen, you respond by saying, He is risen, indeed!  This is one of those occasions where I invite you to throw caution to the wind and preach this sermon with me. Christ is Risen!  And you say, He is risen, indeed!

Christ is risen . . . he is risen indeed!

Marcus Borg says virtually all Christians agree that this statement is the core of their faith. How we nuance our individual understandings of what happened that first Easter, however, is the spiritual work we do all year, the reading, the praying, the discussions we have with others seeking a deeper understanding of what this mystery might all mean.  On Easter morning we get to focus on celebrating the fruit of that work. And perhaps each Easter, we will find that our faith has changed a little bit, because a healthy faith like any  living thing, is not static, it grows and develops according to conditions and opportunities given to it.

Along these lines, a member of the congregation this week sent me an e-mail with an excerpt from an Easter sermon preached in 2008 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  After reading over his thoughts a couple of times, I re-phrased them a bit and sort of came up with my own translation:

  • Easter shouldn’t be stuck in yesterday or even tomorrow. Easter is about today, about encountering Jesus of Nazareth today, as a living contemporary. The Church should not exist just to transmit a series of messages about what we ought to believe about Jesus 2000 years ago, the church should exist to help us experience the living, resurrected Christ in our lives today.
  • The sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, isn’t about yesterday either. It is about today. It is an event during which we are invited to meet the living Christ right now, to experience his never-failing presence, forgiveness, and love, right now.
  • The Bible does reflect a great deal about yesterday, but it must be read in the context of today. It is not a call to live in the past; but rather a call to apply the insights of the past to our present condition. So Easter is more than a history lesson. Easter should be the time we sense the presence of Christ with us right now.

And there is an interconnectedness we experience when we come to meditate, to celebrate together, or even think about coming together. As an example, your presence here today has prodded me to develop and define my own faith.  Because I knew you were coming, I spent a whole week thinking about my own personal understanding of Christianity and because I hoped you might be interested in the topic, I engaged people all week in preliminary discussions to get ready for our time together.

We can be solo Christians, sometimes circumstances require that of us.  But for me anyway, talking with real people is ever so much more satisfying and more edifying than reading another book. One real person who drew this to my attention this week was my friend Frank, an 80-plus-year-old Tsimshian gentleman from Metlakatla. Frank and his wife Kathy attend our Tuesday communion and prayer group.  During the sharing time, Frank indicated that he had just returned from Metlakatla where he had spoken at the funeral of his cousin.

            “They all like it when I come back,” he explained, “because I am one of the few who can still speak the Tsimshian language. Those few in town who still speak it, need me to talk to.  It’s a lot like Christianity.”

            I had to admit that I didn’t get the connection, so Frank tried to help.

            “Why would you talk Tsimshian without another Tsimshian to talk to?” he asked. “How can you enjoy the Tsimshian heritage without someone to share it with, or the Tsimshian foods, how can you be a Tsimshian without other Tsimshians?”

            I was beginning to understand. Can we grow in our Christian faith without a Christian community to share it with? When Frank goes back to Metlakatla and speaks Tsimshian, he is enabling each of those he touches to be even more Tsimshian than they were that morning.  When each of us gathers in this sanctuary on Easter morning, we empower each other to be even more Christian than we were yesterday. Christ is with us when we are alone, yes, but Christ is also with us when we are Christ for each other, as well. Together we are community, an extended family.  And Easter is one of the days when the extended family comes together after sometimes weeks and months of separation. It’s a time when dialogue occurs – and our spiritual understandings stretch and  blossom. It’s a resurrection of sorts, after months of dormancy.

A number of you have been participating in the DVD discussion group every other Tuesday evening, so I figured I’d better check with Marcus Borg – the featured Biblical scholar – about Easter.

            Borg agrees that Easter and the resurrection are at the heart of Christianity, but he stresses a spiritual resurrection, not a physical resuscitation, focusing on the importance of a developing relationship with God as experienced through Jesus.  And that relationship with God results in a transformation, both personally and as a society. Borg suggests the task of doing Christian theology involves a lifelong, “unending conversation” about the meaning of that transformation. Let’s take a look at the transformation of Mary Magdalene, as an example.

Here we are outside the tomb with Mary.. We have chosen the story this morning as told by the Apostle John.  Details are somewhat different in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and I encourage you to read about the resurrection in all four Gospels for comparison sake.  But I chose John for today, because he presents a simple, straight-forward story, with just Mary of Magdala going to the tomb by herself. It was still dark, John tells us, when Mary arrived and saw that the stone has been rolled away.

Did Mary Magdalene go to the cemetery because she expected the resurrection to happen? I don’t think so. Mary, had been there with Jesus all day Friday, through the whole horrible ordeal. She had been with him when he died, when they brought him down from the cross, when they laid him in the tomb, and when the stone was rolled in front of the entrance.  She was there. She knew he was dead. But she needed to be there anyway – before anyone else. And when she arrived, he was not there.

Mary sees the empty tomb and runs to tell Simon Peter and the others.  “They have taken my Lord away!”  The men came running, entered the empty tomb, and after mumbling together for a few moments, they left!  But as always, Mary stayed.

It is only then that two angels happen by and ask her why she is weeping.  She turns around but the two angels aren’t there now. Instead, there is a man whom she doesn’t recognize.  “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” “Mary?” he says.

She has thought the man might have been the gardener, but when he says her name, she recognizes him.  He talks with her for a few moments and fades out.

Mary runs back to the disciples again – this time shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” 

This is why they call Mary the apostle to the apostles. It is she who stays long enough to talk with her risen Lord, to experience a new understanding, the beginning of a transformation, and to act on it. And her very first act was to expand the community, to tell others what she had experienced at the tomb, the transformation of Jesus and the transformation she was experiencing in herself.

As I said, each of the gospels tell the story a little differently. We don’t know exactly how many angels there were, or how many women showed up at that early hour, nor what exactly happened.  But something happened. And however Mary Magdalene experienced that Something, it becomes the core of her being. It gave her new life, a new purpose, and, like I explained to the children earlier, tradition says it took her places she would have never dreamed of before – including the court of Tiberius Caesar to preach and teach about the resurrection – but also to get rid of Pilate! Both a spiritual and a political agenda, and she was successful at both.

Now we know that Scripture records several other post-resurrection conversations between Jesus and his followers. Most indicate that his friends did not recognize him at first, thought he was just an ordinary passerby – yet, with time, they knew that the passerby was Christ, Immanuel, God with Us. He came into their every day worlds and walked with them, just as he had promised, infusing them with new understanding and new life, right then, today.

So my message is not a new one, but an important one. Certainly Christ is not in some dusty tomb, but I don’t even think he spends much time in some far away place sitting at the right hand of God. For me, Christ is not only alive today, but he walks among us and meets us where we are – sharing today’s joys and today’s sorrows.. All year we wrestle with our angels and we wrestle with our demons, but on Easter morning, I urge us to set aside those struggles, and join Mary of Magdala at the tomb, perhaps a little uncertain, a little apprehensive – but open to the possibilities – open to the change that occurs when we hear Jesus call our name and we recognize that voice.  

The Easter message is, if we choose to hear it:

Ours is a loving God who forgives our failings;

God as Holy Spirit walks with us through all the darkest valleys and emerges with us on the other side;

God as Christ urges us to seek the Kingdom on Earth, while promising us that the Kingdom of Heaven is waiting for us as well.

Today, friends, our assignment is not to figure all out all the details, but simply to accept some things on faith.  To celebrate the Good News. The tomb is empty. Jesus walked out of it, and so can we. We have seen the risen Lord and he is with us.  Let us shout for joy! Alleluia. Amen.


Please join me in Hymn No. 224, “Christ Arose”


The Lord God commanded Jeremiah:

Take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful!

He has Risen!  He has Risen, Indeed.

Go in peace -- to love and serve our living Lord.   Amen.


(Choral Benediction with tambourines!)

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