This evening we continue our series, “Conversations on the Way: the Man, the Message, the Movement”. These sermons are meant to be provocative; that is, to provoke questions. You are welcome to join us for a simple soup supper following the service, when we can reflect together.
The topic this evening is “the message”. If Jesus had a message, what was it? If there is a core message, what is it? If there were a contest to summarize the message of Jesus in as few words as possible, what could we say? My entry into this imaginary competition is five words. Here are my five words summarizing the core message of Jesus, as I hear it today: “Join me in the Resurrection”. Five words. Actually, I’d like to tack on five more words of clarification: “Don’t wait ‘til you’re dead.” Join me in the Resurrection–don’t wait ‘til you’re dead. My entry in the “Message-of-Jesus-in-as-few-words-as-possible Contest”.
In the Gospel story the disciple bends down to look into the tomb. Stoop or crouch down might be a closer translation. You can still see first century tombs today in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). What’s left of what is believed to be the actual tomb of Jesus is covered with a kind of mausoleum, but just a few feet away off a side chapel are a couple of first century tombs hewn out of the limestone bedrock. They’re often called “oven tombs”, because they look like and are not much bigger than ovens. They’re not much more than a yard or so wide and waist high. You have to crouch down to go inside.
These tombs are small, confining spaces. And with a stone covering the opening, small, confining and dark spaces. You can’t stand up in an oven tomb. But Jesus stood up. The biblical word for resurrection is ανάστασισ—literally, standing again, rising again. For Jesus to stand again, he had to be out of the tomb. Out of the place of darkness and confinement. For Jesus to stand to his full height, he had to leave the small, dark place of the tomb. And so it is. For us to rise up to our full stature, we must leave the small, dark places of life. We must leave the many and various tombs of this earthly life, and find our way to the broad, open and light filled places.
“Join me in the Resurrection,” Jesus calls out to us today. “Even now, even today—don’t wait ‘til you’re dead.” Come out of the small, dark, confining places of life into the broad and bright places—stand up, rise up to your full height.
When we say we believe in the Resurrection we usually are thinking of what we might call the Great Resurrection: our entrance into life beyond the gateway of death, our eternal life. I want to state unambiguously that I believe in that Great Resurrection. But I don’t know much about it and have little to say, just that I’m sure it will be wonderful beyond our imagining.
But resurrection is woven into the texture of life in the world we live in now. We understand Christ to be the one through whom all things came to be. We understand Jesus Christ as one abiding in us, as we abide in him. He is all in all. And he said, “I am the Resurrection”. If Christ is all in all, and if he is himself the Resurrection, we should expect to find something of the Resurrection all around us in the world we live in, the world created in and through and for him. He said he would be with us always. If he is with us always, we should be alert to the possibility of resurrection all around us—resurrection in all its manifestations, even in the most ordinary things.
What about some of the other big ideas we associate with Jesus’ teaching? What might they have to do with resurrection? I think they are variations on a theme. Like in a musical theme and variations, the variations may sound completely different and yet all have the same underlying structure.
What about, for example, ethics of love and compassion. Isn’t Christianity all about loving our neighbors, even loving our enemies? And, animated by this love, pursuing justice and provision for all? It is, indeed. But there is resurrection in these things. Fearing our neighbors or hating our neighbors is a small, dark place. Fear and hatred are tombs. As are contempt and disdain. And we are not meant for tombs: we are meant for life, for light, for the freedom of broad and bright places. “Join me in love,” he says. “Join me in love, in compassion, in generosity and the pursuit of justice,” he says. “Join me in the broad and bright places of life–join me in the Resurrection.”
Or, what about forgiveness? Isn’t Christianity all about forgiving others and being forgiven? Isn’t the cross about God’s forgiving us? Yes, indeed. And there is resurrection in these things as well. Not being forgiven can be a very dark and confining place to be. And not being able to forgive someone else can create its own kind of claustrophobia. We’re called to seek forgiveness and to forgive others. You will probably know how liberating this can be. When people are able to forgive one another there is a sense of release, a sense of openness and light. This, too, is resurrection. In this freedom we can rise to our full height.
Or, what about healing? Isn’t Christ the great healer? Yes. Indeed. Physical and mental illnesses and addictions can be kinds of tombs. Life can become very dark and confining when we are ill. We seek healing not only to be relieved of our suffering, but also to be open to new possibilities. When we experience healing, we can know something of fuller and greater life. Being healed, being released from the captivity of our suffering, we can begin to rise to our full stature.
Or, what about following Jesus? Isn’t Christianity about following Jesus? It is, indeed. It is what St. Francis meant to do. Today is his feast day. Francis found the wealth and status of his family too confining, too small a space. He sought a larger life, a more expansive way of being. He was like the rich young man in the gospel story, except that he actually did give everything up and follow Jesus. The poverty he embraced, following the example of Christ, was for him a kind of liberation, a freedom. His conversion was a kind of resurrection; his new life provided the space for him to rise up to his full stature as a human being.
Jesus was known, of course, for teaching in parables. His death and burial and resurrection is his greatest parable, a parable in flesh and blood, a parable embodied. The parable of all parables. The great theme upon which infinite variations are possible. Leave the small, dark, confining places of life—come out into the broad and bright places and discover the freedom to rise to your full height.
I want to squeeze in one more thought before I finish: Sometimes—by sheer determination–we can just kick the stone away from the door of the tomb and march out triumphantly into Resurrection Life. More often, we must wait: wait for circumstances to change, wait upon on God, wait on others for help. When Lazarus was called out of the tomb, Jesus said: “unbind him.” You –you friends and family of Lazarus—you unbind him. Sometimes we cannot unbind ourselves, but have to wait for others to help us into freedom.
So, what is the message of Jesus? Is there a core message? If there is a core message, what is it for you? I’ve told you my entry in the “Message-of-Jesus-in-as-few-words-as-possible contest”: “Join me in the Resurrection—don’t wait ‘til you’re dead!” What would your entry be? I look forward to hearing from you over clam chowder.