I. BEGINNING

A number of years ago, The Simpsons had a special in which the Simpsons characters related a number of classic Bible stories. The stories included things like the Garden of Eden and King Solomon’s wisdom, wherein Homer Simpson played King Solomon deciding who was the true owner of a pie claimed by two men. (Homer’s decision: “The pie will be cut in half. The two men will be killed and I will eat the pie.”)

About This Sermon

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
April 12, 2020—Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1–10

But the scene that sticks out in my mind today was their reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt. Nerdy kid Milhouse Van Houten plays Moses and in one particular scene after the deliverance through the Red Sea and the revelation of the Law asks Lisa Simpson to check the Biblical text she has: 

“So, Lisa, what’s next for the Israelites? Land of milk and honey?”

“Hmm, well, actually it looks like we’re in for 40 years of wandering the desert.”

“40 years?! But after that, it’s clear sailing for the Jews, right?”

“Umm, more or less… hey, is that manna?”

Milhouse says, "40 years?! But after that, it's clear sailing for the Jews, right?"
Image courtesy frinkiac.com

And the reason this particular scene occurs to me is that it reminds me a little of how I feel about Easter.

That seems like a strange thing to say, I grant you. After all, this is Easter Sunday.  We’ve made it through all the trouble.  The long wilderness of Lent and the suffering and sorrow of Holy Week have yielded to the Promised Land of Easter.  Christ is Risen and everything’s wonderful.

Why wouldn’t there be clear sailing? Why wouldn’t the arrival in the promised land be the happy ending to the story?

II. TEXT

Today is Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The surprising reversal of fortune that greeted the women as they arrived at the tomb that early Sunday morning in Jerusalem.  When expecting to find Jesus’ body in the tomb to be anointed with the funerary spices, they instead experience an earthquake and encounter an angel who rolls the stone away, and the body gone. The angel announces that Jesus has been raised.  They run to tell the disciples and encounter the risen Christ at whose feet they drop in praise.

This was a surprising thing.  But if you want a clue as to how surprising it was, the disciples, we are told in Luke’s version of the story, thought it to be all “nonsense.”  The disciples. Those who were closest to Jesus did not even expect this turn of events.

Of course, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a twist ending to the story of Jesus.  The kind of twist ending that M. Night Shyamalan would pay good money to be able to pull off again.  The resurrection of Jesus is understood to be a cosmic reversal.  A turning of the world on its head.  The reversal even of life and death.  A definitive moment in the history of the world, nay, the universe.

III. EXPECTATION

In first century Palestine, the Jewish people had this deeply held sense that the world was not as it should be.  The line of David had been cut off.  The first temple had been long destroyed.  The ark of the covenant was long lost.  The people were living under a brutal military occupation by the most powerful empire the world had ever known.

But the Jewish people had faith in a God who would not abandon them.  And in spite of all the things wrong with the world, God would set all things to rights. Many Jews understood this to take place when God’s anointed ruler—God’s messiah—would come and save the people.  

This coming king was seen as more than just a political redeemer.  The Lord’s anointed would establish justice and peace throughout the world. Put an end to suffering and oppression.  Would lead all the nations to the worship of the God of Israel.  And the dead would be raised to everlasting life in a resurrection of the dead, followed by the coming to earth of the very Kingdom of God itself.

It was against this backdrop of hope and expectation that Jesus’ ministry took place.  Against this backdrop that his entry into Jerusalem took place.  Against the backdrop of a deliver-king that his crucifixion took place. And so when the women arriving at the tomb discover that Jesus has been raised from the dead, it is not simply a neat parlor trick, it is the vindication of their hopes for the transformation of the world. 

And it took place during the Passover, when the Israelites celebrate their liberation from bondage in Egypt and their journey through the Wilderness toward the Promised Land.  Deliverance.

Indeed, when we proclaim Christ risen we do more than testify to one particular event, we testify to the transformation of the world and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into our world.

Now, from the very beginning, the early Christians recognized that the world had not radically changed, but they believed it was about to.  Jesus’ return was imminent.  And this spurred them off to every corner of the Empire and beyond to proclaim this message.  These followers of The Way went to the Jewish communities around the Roman world and proclaimed Jesus as one who had been raised from the dead and who would return to usher in the Kingdom of God.  This apocalyptic proclamation was at the heart of these early missions.  The world was in the midst of changing forever. 

Paul’s own mission to non-Jews was driven by this same apocalyptic fervor.  Jesus is the resurrected messiah, ushering in that age when all the nations shall turn to the worship of the God of Israel.  And so Paul proclaimed this message to Gentile communities throughout Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world. In the words of Jesus himself, the Kingdom of God was “at hand” and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the proof. 

IV. RESPONSE

But here’s the trouble: is it really working out for us like that? Is this really the Promised Land?  Has our world really changed that much? There are times when it seems an awful lot like the Wilderness.

Is it not much more like the words of the hymn?

Still your children wander homeless;
still the hungry cry for bread;
still the captives long for freedom;
still in grief we mourn our dead. 
[1]

Doesn’t the disciples response make a little more sense now? It seems like nonsense to think that the world has changed in any decisive way.  The fact that even for us it is sometimes sunnier on Good Friday than it is on Easter Sunday may be another sign that the world isn’t quite where we’d like it to be.  Is the resurrection so short on reach? 

Indeed, as the years went by and Jesus failed to return, this prompted a new theological reflection in the Church.  And over the centuries there evolved in the church two basic responses to this challenge.  

A. The Present Kingdom

There were those who affirmed that Jesus had established the Kingdom of God—in its fullness. It exists as a spiritual reality found in the community of the faithful.  That is, we need not wait any longer for the Kingdom of God, for as Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “The kingdom of God is already among you.” It is known in the fellowship of believers, the profoundly changed nature we have as Christians and the radically different lives we have separated from the world around us are how this Kingdom is made manifest in our midst.  The Promised Land is a spiritual reality we share when we reject and set ourselves apart from the Wilderness of the world all around us.

B. The Indefinitely Postponed Kingdom

Or, there are those Christians who decided that the Kingdom of God wasn’t going to come any time soon.  Some even became embarrassed that we talked about the Kingdom of God at all, either because it sounds so patriarchal and authoritarian, or because the whole waiting for God to come fix the world sounds so quaint and idealistic.  Waiting for God is like waiting for Godot, long periods of nothing happening punctuated by the occasional appearance of one religious buffoon or another.  

These Christians decided that the only way the world was going to get any better was to fix it themselves.  The redemption of the world lay not in a divine reversal of the ways of the world, but in the various programs, efforts, and initiatives that we could establish to change the here and now.  The Promised Land wasn’t going to be delivered, we were going to have to go out and build it ourselves.  

C. The Problem

And this presents a problem.

Both of these responses—the kingdom is here and the kingdom isn’t coming so we’ll build it ourselves—represent two different views of what is called “eschatology.”  Two different views concerning the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  But to tell you the truth, neither one is satisfying. And therein lies our problem.

It is certainly tempting to conclude that the Kingdom of God is already here and exists within the community of the faithful.  Anyone who belongs to a community grounded in love and support like this one could easily be convinced to that they had experienced the Kingdom of God in that fellowship.  And certainly that would be true. But what about the world out there?  What about the many homeless or the poor and hungry?  What about those living under oppression and injustice?  What about the creatures of the air, land, and sea suffering under the degradation of the environment?  What about the lost and the lonely, the heartbroken and afflicted?  What about those who mourn the death of a loved one or who experience profound personal loss?  Does the Kingdom of God exist only for them by belonging to one Christiain community or another?  

Has God basically abandoned any promises about universal peace and justice, about the restoration of the creation, and the redemption of the entire world?  Is the salvation of God something that lies only on the other side of death? That doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer to conclude that God wasn’t really intending on redeeming the world.  That God is only going to literally redeem the world in the sense of literally that means the exact opposite of literally.  

In the same way, deciding that God is not going to deliver on the promises without help from us seems like a theology devoid of any power.  Why should I ever put faith in God or hopes in God when God seems so powerless or inept? What is it then that separates the church from any other social service organization or non-profit?  What does our ministry have anything more to do with God than anyone else doing the same work?  What power is obtained by those who are in the community of faith? Is God delivering us to the Promised Land or are we just delivering ourselves? How is God even necessary for any of this?

V. ENTERING THE PROMISED LAND

Throughout Lent, we have explored some of the wildernesses we experience in life: want, despair, tragedy, death, betrayal.  Here we stand on Easter Sunday poised to enter the Promised Land, but there still seems like so much Wilderness around us.  The temptation to either spiritualize away the Kingdom or to indefinitely postpone its arrival is tempting.  But that is not why we are here.

For the fact of the matter remains that we are here because those women at the tomb and those disciples—even if they were slow on the uptake—did believe that their world had radically changed.  Their experience of the Risen Christ convinced them that God was indeed at work and doing something amazing in our midst.  They dedicated their lives, and in many cases lost their lives, working to proclaim this reality breaking into the world. 

 They proclaimed the arrival into the Promised Land in the midst of the Wilderness.  A proclamation that would often pit them against the oppressor, the wicked, and the mighty.  It would often force them to choose between loyalty to the kingdoms of this world— to the princes of the wilderness, and the Kingdom of God and the prince of the Promised Land.

And so, those early Christians entered into the Promised Land in the midst of the Wilderness.  Through their acts of witness, mercy, justice, and solidarity, they testified to the reality of the Kingdom that they now expected but that they knew was not here in its fullness.  They lived in the tension between the already and the not-yet.  They wouldn’t pretend that the Kingdom had come already, but they weren’t going to say that it hadn’t come at all.  Their experience of the risen Christ had convinced them of that.  But their experience of the continued brokenness of the world convinced them that neither was the world fully redeemed.

We, too, are not an either-or people, we’re a both-and people.  And we live in a world that is simultaneously in the promised land and still waiting to enter it.  

VI. END

In the Book of Joshua, when the Israelites finally come to the Promised Land, they enter it from the east, and cross the River Jordan much as they had crossed the Red Sea a generation earlier.  And that’s where we are, crossing the river. In Joshua, the Israelites pass through the river on dry ground.  It’s not that easy a journey for us, and the river we cross is at times perilous and buffets us with strong currents, though sometimes its currents are tranquil and its waters calm and peaceful.  We are no longer in the wilderness, though the wilderness surrounds us. But we are not quite in the Promised Land, though through the resurrection we can see the shore on the far side of the river.

For us as Christians, the Promised Land is not where we live.  It’s what we live into.  Because of the resurrection of Jesus, it is a reality we are confident in, but one that we do not dwell in fully.  But when we live out lives that reflect the Kingdom of God, we live lives that anticipate what that Kingdom will be like and we live into the Promised Land.

It will be the same for us when the current pandemic is over. The world will not go back to the way it was right away, perhaps not ever. The world might be ripe for some meaningful changes going forward. But even a hopeful vision after this pandemic will not happen the moment we can all step outside and go to the movies again. It is a reality that we’ll have to live into.

Today is Easter Sunday, the day we proclaim Christ risen from the dead.  But it is not the only day.  No, rather our whole lives should be one of proclamation of the resurrection.  Every day we should proclaim the risen Christ with our words and actions.  For in so doing, we claim the reality that is coming into our lives.  In so doing, we live into the Promised Land.

When we choose the way of mercy over judgment, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we create a community of welcome for all, regardless of age, race, ideology, sex, orientation, gender identity, or any other of the world’s categories, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we work for justice, challenging the systems of oppression and violence, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we ensure equal access to the ‘gifts that life affords,’ when we ensure that those who are ill may find help and resource, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we create cultures of compassion, recognizing even our bitterest enemy as a child of God worthy of love and grace, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we take care of the creation, we demonstrate a faith in a God who will redeem the entire world, and we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we build real, meaningful relationships, helping people to overcome the isolation and loneliness of modern life—and of our current need for social distancing, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we live out lives of love and grace for all, we proclaim Christ risen and live into the Promised Land.

When we stand in solidarity with the marginalized, with those who suffer, we proclaim Christ Risen and live into the Promised Land.

Easter is a time of celebration and indeed it should be.  The Resurrection is the sign that the promises we have longed for will be fulfilled, even if they are not here in their fullness.  But in the meantime, we will live into the Promised Land in spite of the wildernesses that still surround us.  In spite of the brokenness of the world, in spite of the fact that it’s not all “clear sailing” from here on out, we will live lives that testify to powerful presence of the Kingdom already present but not-yet come.  In the midst of a world very often suffering the sufferings of Good Friday, we can loudly proclaim the Easter message: Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


THE TEXT

Acts 10:34-43

Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Matthew 28:1–10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


[1] Albert F. Bayly, “Lord Whose Love Through Humble Service,” 1961, in The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989.

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