Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 23, 2008
THE MYSTERY OF EASTER AND THE BIRTH OF
THE MISSIONAL CHURCH
Texts: I Corinthians 15:51-58; Matthew 28:1-10
When did Easter begin? I think the Orthodox church has it right - - and the Easter Vigil tradition. It begins the night before with the great fire of Easter blazing in the night sky. Easter begins in the dark before the dawn.
Denise Levertov writes a poem entitled “...That Passeth All Understanding.”
An awe so quiet
I don’t know when it began.
to sing in me.
song from no song?
When does the dewfall begin?
When does the night
fold its arms over our hearts
to cherish them?
When is daybreak?1
Easter begins in me in the dark before the dawn the mornings of Holy Week as I sit at my desk and begin to form the words for this day - - with birds calling with gathering voice, Awake, awake! Easter begins while we sleep. The New Testament Gospels never show us the actual resurrection of Jesus. We could see it no more than we could see God. It would blind us. We awaken to it.
Matthew’s Easter gospel begins in this way: “After the sabbath toward the dawn of the first day of the week.” One of the beauties of Easter sunrise services is the experience of the slow dawn of this day.
Two Marys come to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph.
Then an earthquake, and the angel of the Lord descending, who rolled back the stone from the tomb and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his garment white as snow.
Pilate had sent a guard of soldiers to secure the tomb. No one in; no one out. But now the guards are shaking with fear and become as dead men. Artists love this scene: Christ resplendent in glory, soldiers in their gaudy armor lying crumpled on the ground.
It is warning to us of our faith in Empire, whether Roman, or Ottoman, or British or American empire. Empire believes it can control reality, but there is a limit to Empire. God and reality cannot be controlled.
We’ve not seen the angel of the Lord since chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew when he spoke to Joseph three times in dreams. First to tell him not to fear Mary’s pregnancy, to marry her and help her bring the child Jesus into the world. Then to warn him to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plan. Third to tell him it was safe to go home.
So now the angel reappears and says what angels always seem to say: Be not afraid. It is God’s most oft repeated word to us in scripture - - which tells you something about our human anxious hearts, and the fear that clings so closely. Our DNA has given us an “anticipator” inside to help us survive, but it often runs amok.
I was driving from Georgetown, S. C., to Charlotte Saturday afternoon a week ago. The first twenty or so miles it seemed half the yards had small signs that said, Jesus Saves. But there were more ominous messages along the way: Turn to Jesus Before It’s Too Late! and Escape Judgment.
It was forty miles inland before I saw a sign that sounded like the angel’s message, outside a church: Love Conquers All.
The angel said to the Marys: Be not afraid. And then delivered the Easter gospel: “I know you are seeking the crucified one. He is not here, for he has been raised. Come and see the place where he lay.”
The apocryphal Gospel of Peter shows the rising of Jesus with the vividness of a Cecil B. De Mille or Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of movie. But the New Testament gospels are far more modest: an angel showing an empty tomb. Could we bear any more? W.H. Auden wrote:
Truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense.2
Or as Emily Dickinson wrote
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.
As lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.3
Then the angel commissioned the two Marys to be the first evangelists of the Resurrection.
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.
Lo I have told you.”
And the women departed quickly: “with fear and great joy.”
Fear and great joy. Both. It is the awe we feel in the presence of the Holy: What Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum,4 the holy trembling we feel in face of the vastness and overwhelmingness of God. But there is also here in the women a great joy. The joy of the miracle of Easter. On Easter the Mystery of God and the Mystery of Good become one.
The women ran to tell the disciples. Ran! Easter is full of running feet!
And on the way, on the way to tell the disciples the risen Christ appeared to them. Suddenly, as from out of nowhere, which is the somewhere of the kingdom of the Spirit, Jesus appeared and greeted them. The Greek word is Xairete, which means “greetings” and “rejoice” and “be glad” all rolled up together. Aloha, he says, and suddenly it is all warmth and welcome; there are flowers placed around your neck. The Risen One comes garlanded.
Instantly the women know who he is and take hold of his feet and worship him.
This is the first and most essential act of the church: to take hold of his feet and worship him. How gracious our God to give us one to worship we can see and hear, with feet we can touch.
I’ve told the story. The little boy was terrified in his bed one night. His mother came to comfort him. She tried to console him by saying that God was with him. The boy replied, “Yes, but I need someone with skin on!”
So we take our hands, extensions of our hearts, and hold his feet and worship him - - him, and the One who sent him - - for our worship of Jesus is always on its way to the One Jesus revealed.
But worship alone is not our full calling. We are called to go and tell: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will see me.” The risen Christ gathers his family - - then sends them.
Did you catch the significance of “my brothers”? The last time we had seen the disciples this is what we read: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).
And now he returns to call them “my brothers.” The first message of Easter is forgiveness. Its first act: reconciliation. As Frederick Niedner put it:
He hadn’t come back to get revenge or condemn anyone. No, he returned to
What if they’d never heard him call them “brother”?
The women are the founders of what we could call “the missional Church,” the church sent into the world with the gospel of Christ, a community that knows itself as a people sent by God as Jesus was sent by God to speak, to be, to do the gospel. Do you see how important these two women were? They were the human link between God’s act of salvation and the disciples’ guilty, remorseful, bewildered and despairing hearts. What if they hadn’t been told? What if we’d never been told?
A little girl once asked her mother: “What is behind the sunset?”
And now we get to tell the news the Marys heard and saw: that behind every sunset is the dawn of Easter.
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
German New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz traces the effects of the Enlightenment that cast a skeptical eye on Easter by posing this alternative: that Easter was either an objective, scientifically verifiable event or only a subjective experience in the hearts of believers. We are all children of the Enlightenment.
The mystery of Easter confounds and transcends all our categories, even our modern ones. Resurrection: An historical but unprovable event, experienced in fleeting encounters with the risen Jesus, carried forward in history in human testimony and on the fragile wings of faith, made real in the abiding presence of Jesus in our midst. The Mystery of Easter.
Kallistos Ware, great Orthodox theologian, writes of the word “mystery”:
In the Christian context, we do not mean by a “mystery” merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed –but they are also opened.6
Luz comments that Enlightenment scepticism influenced art. Artists stopped drawing the resurrection and concentrated on painting the death of Jesus. The death of resurrection was a death of the imagination.
We need to draw the resurrection again.
Raymond Carver wrote an extraordinary short story called “Cathedral.”7 It is narrated by a man we don’t like very much. His wife has invited a blind man to spend the night with them. She had begun a warm friendship with the blind man ten years earlier, and they had kept up with each other by sending tapes back and forth.
The blind man’s own wife had just died and he had traveled to be with relatives nearby; so she invited him to visit.
The husband was not thrilled. He didn’t like blind people - - they made him nervous - - and he wasn’t wild about his wife’s long friendship with the man, something he couldn’t quite understand, or get inside of.
The night came when Robert showed up. It was a nice but slightly stiff evening - - especially between the husband and the blind man. Later in the evening the wife fell asleep on the couch, leaving the two of them to carry on by themselves. The husband turned on the T.V., and a show about cathedrals came on.
As the show went on Robert began to ask questions about what the cathedrals looked like. The husband tried describing the cathedrals: the shape, the size, the massive stone work, the spires, the flying buttresses; but he realized he couldn’t begin to convey the grandeur and beauty of the cathedral.
“I’m not doing so good, am I?” he said, and was about to give up trying. Then Robert said,
“I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you find us some heavy paper? And a pen. We’ll do something.”
The husband went and found the paper and pen. As he placed the paper on the table, the blind man felt its edges and texture.
“All right,” the blind man said, “let’s do her.”
The blind man found the husband’s hand, the one with the pen, and he closed his hand over the man’s hand.
“Go, ahead, bub, draw. Draw, you’ll see. I’ll follow along with you.”
So the man began to draw: the rectangular box that looked like a house, the pitched roof, the spires, the windows with arches, the flying buttresses.
“You’re doing fine,” the blind man said, and the husband kept drawing.
His wife woke up, “What are you doing?” she asked.
The blind man replied, “We’re drawing a cathedral. Me and him are working on it.”
The husband kept drawing. The blind man said, “You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas, now. You know what I’m saying?”
Then he said to him: “Close your eyes now and keep on drawing.”
The man kept drawing. Then the blind man told him to open his eyes, to see what he’d drawn. But he wasn’t ready to open his eyes. He kept drawing.
“My eyes were still closed,” the husband remembered. “I was in my house. I know that. But I didn’t feel I was inside anything.”
“It’s really something,” he said.
So the two Marys have come to us this day and said, “Put your hands on our hands. Let’s draw the resurrection.” We put our hands on theirs.
And we begin to smile as they draw and we feel through their hands what they saw and heard that Easter morning. We’re drawing the resurrection!
This is the mystery of Easter. And this is the birth of missional church.
1 Denise Levertov, “...That Passeth All Understanding,” Selected Poems (New York: A New Directions Book, 2002), p. 145.
2 "New Year Letter” (London: Faber & Faber, 1941), p. 27.
3 Poem 1129, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960), pp. 506-507.
4 The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 25ff.
5 Christian Century, March 11, 2008, p. 21.
6 From The Orthodox Way.
7 Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories (New York:Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 356ff.