Well, most of you know that Jesus taught in parables. Parables were made-up stories. And so I thought this morning for my Easter sermon that I would begin with a story. This is a story by Heather Lynn Hansen. And although it's going to sound like a children's story, it's actually a story that I think is going to resonate with all of you, regardless of your age.
This is a story about two children. Their names are Roberto and Ramona. And they have a wonderful dog whose name is Felice. And the three of them would roam around their neighborhood together and have so much fun. Felice would often chase squirrels up a tree, and Roberto and Ramona would sit on their favorite tree stump in the park. And Felice would come and rest with them and wag his tail at them. And when Roberto and Ramona would look into Felice’s big brown eyes, they would talk to him. They would share with Felice their joys and their concerns. And it seemed like Felice really understood what they were saying.
Now on the way home, they had to pass by a big supermarket, and they were often big kids who were there who would tease Roberto and Ramona. But Felice would always growl at them, and the big kids would leave them alone.
Well, one day, something really tragic happens. Felice dies. The children were so sad, they cried and cried. And then they found a place in their garden to bury his body. A few days later, as Roberto and Ramona were roaming around their neighborhood, they saw another dog, and that dog reminded them of Felice. That dog too, is chasing squirrels up a tree. And when Roberto and Ramona sat on their favorite tree stump, the dog came over to them, and wagged its tail, just like Felice. And when they looked into that dog's eyes, they felt the love and spirit of Felice. And it was real, very real.
And then the dog left them, and as they walked home, they had to pass by that supermarket, where the kids would bully them. And though Felice was no longer at their side, they remembered the confidence and the courage they felt when Felize was with them. And so they walked bravely past those bullies. And the bullies left them alone. And when they got home, Roberto and Ramona said to their mom, “Mom, did Felice come back to life as an angel or ghost?” And their mom said, “Well, I don't know for sure. But what I do know is that Felice’s spirit lives. Whenever you think of him, his spirit lives. It's alive in you.”
Now, I love that story, because it speaks truth. Felice’s body was buried in the ground, but his spirit lives. It lives on in Roberto and Ramona.
And that's the Easter story. After Jesus died, his spirit lived on in his disciples, in his loved ones, in a very real way. And they realized that the Light could not be extinguished, that death could not contain him, and that that Light was alive in them.
And my friends, it's alive in you, and it's alive in me. And that's what we're celebrating this morning on Easter Sunday. Now, the world's greatest historians and theologians have no idea of the month or date in which Jesus died. But the early church fathers decided to set the date of Easter around the time at the Spring Solstice.
If you were with us back in December at Christmas, I told you that we also don't know when Jesus was born, but that the early church fathers centered around the Winter Solstice. The Solstice is the celebration of the sun. S-U-N. The early church fathers took those celebrations of the sun and they turned them into the celebration of the SON. S-O-N The Spring Solstice, Easter, is about the rebirth of the Light. The Winter Solstice, Christmas, is about the birth of the Light.
You know the name Easter, that word, has nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity. The name Easter comes from Eostra, who was a goddess, a pagan goddess of spring. People around the world this time of year, regardless of their faith tradition, they're celebrating new growth, new life. The trees that appear dead in winter, the bulbs in the grounds that appear dead – now they're popping up. They're budding. They're coming to life. The Christian reformer, Martin Luther said, “God did not write the promise of resurrection in a book, but in every leaf in springtime.” And that reminds us that during the winters of our lives, during the dark times in our lives, the light is always with us, it cannot be extinguished.
The beginning of the gospel of John, which we're reading from this morning, says, “a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That's what Easter is all about.
We as progressive Christians do not take the stories of the Bible, literally. We understand that the Bible was written symbolically and spiritually. That's how it was written, and that's how it was meant to be understood. And most progressive Christians I know say, ‘Well yeah, of course, there was no talking snake, or burning bush. There wasn't really a Noah's Ark. Jonah didn't live inside of a fish for three days. There wasn't a virgin birth.’ But when it comes to the resurrection, many progressive Christians say, “Well, no, I mean, everything else in the Bible is symbolic, but not the resurrection. I mean, that would literally happen. We can't question that.”
A few years ago, after my Easter sermon, someone from this church came up to me very upset. And they said to me, Pastor, if Jesus didn't physically rise from the dead, then what are we doing here every Sunday? Isn't that the basis of our faith?
Well, as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, the earliest gospel writers, people like Mark and Luke, never wrote many stories about Jesus physically appearing to his apostles after his death. And Paul, in all of his letters to the early Christians, never described Jesus's resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a body. Now, the gospel that we're reading from today, John's gospel, that was the very last one to be written, and it was written generations after Jesus lived.
And notice, even in that story, Mary Magdalene doesn't recognize Jesus. She thinks she's talking to the gardener. That person doesn't even look like Jesus. Could it be that Mary felt the love and the spirit and the presence of Jesus in that gardener, like Roberto and Ramona felt Felice’s presence after his death?
Now, we say in our church's mission statement that we are a church that's about questions, that faith is a mystery. We don't have the answers, but we live the questions together. So I don't know for sure what exactly happened three days after Jesus died. But I'll tell you what, I don’t know for sure. And I know it 100%. The resurrection is real. And I know that because I know it firsthand. I don't believe in the resurrection because I read it in the Bible. I don't believe in the resurrection because a pastor told me about it. I don't have second- or third-hand knowledge of the resurrection. I have first-hand knowledge of the resurrection. And that's why I can tell you 100% That it is real.
And a man who died 2,000 years ago, lives in me. I have felt His presence, his power, his light, andhis life alive in me. In the silence of prayer and meditation, I have heard his voice in a very real way. He has guided me, protected me, and loved me.
That's why we're here every Sunday. That's the purpose of our faith. That's the basis of our faith, that he lives on in us. Notice we say at Easter, ‘Christ is risen.’ It's present tense. We don't say Jesus has risen, because it's not about the body 2,000 years ago. When the body of the Christ is alive in us, now it is present tense. The resurrection, the second coming of the Christ, if you will, happens in us. We are to be the resurrection of love, the resurrection of peace, the resurrection of joy in the world.
So how do we resurrect that Christ light in us? Well, Jesus gave us the instructions. That's why he said, ‘All the things I've done you can do.’ And the instructions are, love people unconditionally. No conditions, love them. Serve one another, especially the least of these in your midst. Forgive one another, not just once, but 70 times seven times. My friends when we follow the way of Jesus, we crucify the ego. And when we crucify our ego, we resurrect the Light of the Christ in us. That's what Easter is all about. It's the resurrection of that Light.
So on this Easter Sunday morning, awaken, arise, resurrect that light in you. Let's go and shine that light for all the world to see. So that through us, they will say, “Yes, Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.”
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
As a Progressive Christian, I have always had quite a few unanswered questions about the event that is commonly known as Easter. Growing up in a conservative household, I was raised to believe that Easter meant a literal, bodily resuscitation of Jesus that occurred on the third day after he gave himself up to be executed for the sins of the world. Although I had long ago dismissed the theory that Jesus died for the sins of the world, it wasn't until I read Rev. John Shelby Spong's book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, that I became convinced that a physical resuscitation of Jesus had never taken place at all. Spong argues that the resurrection stories are heavily symbolic and must not (along with the rest of the Gospels) be taken literally. Spong's rendering of Easter is not about believing in incongruent stories that have been disproved by the laws of science. Easter, he says, is about realizing that Jesus is the meaning of God. It is Easter that caused the disciples to travel back to Jerusalem six months after Jesus’ death to proclaim that "Christ is risen!" and "Death cannot contain his Spirit!" Easter also caused the need for early Christian writers to capture the sentiments in subjective, non-literal words so that we, too, can enter the text and experience the moment anew every day. We, too, can proclaim that Jesus lives on in each one of us as Easter becomes a timeless invitation to enter the meaning of God by living for others, expecting no reward, and loving wastefully no matter what the cost. When we do that, we are Easter people and resurrection becomes real. Very real.
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