Easter Sunday Sermon: “Too Good to Be True!”

The following is my draft of my sermon for this coming Easter Sunday, which will be delivered at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, where I am Pastor.  There’s a lot going on here, perhaps too much, although it’s still not terribly long, and I’d love to hear your feedback.  I am preaching from the lectionary, although modified a little, primarily upon Colossians 3:1-4 and Matthew 27:45-28:15.  I will be incorporating the children’s book, Bear Wants More by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, into the children’s message and into the following sermon.  Thanks for reading. 

UPDATE:  Revision posted 4/22, noon (EST)

When was the last time something happened to you that was just too good to be true?  Like finding out that the one you had a crush on also has a crush on you?  Or that after searching for a long time, you finally got a job that you like?  Or after years of waiting, your prayers are answered?

But we also live in a world where sometimes what could be believed to be too good to be true doesn’t happen and we are just faced with a long line of bad luck.

And we can also conceive of the fact that when things do go our way, and when our prayers are answered, that we are rarely, if ever, satisfied when the things that we believe to be too good to be true actually happen.  They might be “good” but we can always think of something better. 

And we also can relate to times when what is believed to be too good to be true ends up being a big disappointment.  Or even that what is too good to be true ends up being something we wish we had never encountered or desired before.

The problem that we have with our desire for tangible objects and for the consumption of things is that we always want more.  There is almost always something that we want, and when we get it, we are on to the next thing, much like the story of the Bear in Jane Chapman and Karma Wilson’s Bear Wants More.

The situation we are presented with in our scripture reading for this Easter Sunday is precisely about an event that is too good to be true.  Jesus dies on the cross, and he offers a final gasp of desperation, or dereliction, from the cross, the disciples become afraid, and run away.  A guard is placed to watch over Jesus’ tomb to ensure that nothing strange happens, and then—we know the story—Jesus reappears, alive, to the women.  The guards are, the scriptures tell us, so overcome that they shook and passed out, as if they had died, frozen in their tracks. 

But the women are told not to be afraid, to tell the disciples that Jesus has returned.  They are so overcome that they do just this, and then they encounter Jesus, and are so overwhelmed that they immediately leave to tell more people what has happened.  What has happened is simply too good to be true.  The truth of what has happened has become secondary to the goodness and overwhelming joy they were experiencing.  The resurrection of Christ is too good to be true.

*  *  *

The characters that are often overlooked in this story include the guards who are placed to watch Jesus’ grave.  The religious leaders came to Pontius Pilate and requested that a guard be placed to watch the tomb to be sure no funny business happened.  Since Pilate saw Jesus as a threat to the peace between his political control over the Jews, he agrees so as to keep them happy, and he sends several guards.

But when the angel appears at the grave, an earthquake happens, the stone is rolled away, and the soldiers’ bodies convulsed, and, as the Bible says, they “became like dead men.”  What was happening around them was unbelievable, beyond their comprehension.  But the women, who were mourning, and apparently frightened by these events, did not fall down as if they were dead.  Instead, they are told that Jesus has been raised, which up until this point could only have been something that remained with them as an imaginary possibility, as something that would just be too good to be true.  The Good News was something that was in fact Good News for the women, whereas the Good News of Easter could only be something bad for the soldiers, who failed in preventing any funny business from happening.

So the guards had to then answer to the priests, who conspire to make up a story that makes sense—that they fell asleep and the disciples stole the body of Jesus.  The soldiers had to report the facts of what happened to someone, because they are interested only in doing their job, and now that it appears that they failed at their job, they can only respond to the facts by making up a false story that remains within the realm of the possible.  The priests even conclude that their story will dupe Pilate and that the soldiers would then not get in trouble with him.  To sweeten the situation, the priests even give the soldiers money to bribe them to tell the story exactly the way the priests wanted it to be heard.

What is interesting to me here is that the guards, who are interested in the facts, become, according to the scriptures, “like dead” when encountered with the resurrection of Christ.  A radical reversal is occurring here:  those who are mourning, and those who thirst for justice, that is, the women, are no longer walking in a death that ends like a dead-end, but instead, in the death of Christ they are faced with a reality that is too good to be true.  The truth of the events no longer matters, because death, and burial, all become relative to a New World that is Now Occurring.  Little would they understand that while they watched Jesus bleed to death a few days before, and listen to Jesus cry out in dereliction a bold statement of atheism, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”—that is, Jesus, as God, renouncing God on the cross—that through this death of God on the cross, life itself is now given new life, it is given new meaning.

To try to understand the resurrection as a factual sequence of events, as something that historically happened in the past, is something that is being done in churches all around the world on this Easter morning.  The reality is that the conspiracy of the resurrection of Christ as simply a historical event of the past began on the first Easter Sunday, as this is what the guards tried to do when they awoke, as they began to make sense of what happened and tried to figure out what to do, and then they went to the priests, who could only make sense of the resurrection by denying that it had any reality at all.  To the priests, it made no difference whether the resurrection happened or not, in fact, I suspect that they believed that it happened; yet they were far more interested in explaining what had happened, because this secret of the resurrection was just too good to be true.

I am convinced that by reducing the resurrection to an argument about history—which is what I would suspect you would hear in many churches today, on this Easter morning—is really no different than what the priests instructed the soldiers to tell Pontius Pilate on that first Easter morning.  In fact, as some of you know I have been reading the holy text of Islam, the Qur’an, in the past few months, and I have always known that Muslims deny the resurrection of Christ, but I have been especially struck by the words of the Qur’an, which claims that neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection happened, but instead, the book teaches, the Christians “just imagined it,” and that Christians “have no knowledge” about the end of Jesus’ life, instead, we are “just guessing”  about Easter (Sura 4:157).  The Gospel of Matthew, at the conclusion of our reading today, said that the story the priests told the guards to say about Jesus “is still told” today, and I believe that this statement is true.

The reality is that we don’t know exactly what historically happened on that first Easter Sunday morning, and if we do take a historical position we just create an argument.  The Good News of this Easter is that we have a third option away from the argument about whether the resurrection happened or not as a fact:  namely, this third option is the position of the women who encounter Christ in the garden, where the resurrection is too good to be true, and it’s too good to be false.  The return of Jesus enacts in us a call to step away from the downward spiral of our typical lives, and of our sufferings, and of our angers, and our mournings, and our injustices, and in this suffering, find new life and New Creation.  When it’s too good to be true, the absurdity of the resurrection calls us to joy.  When it’s too good to be true, we are led from our ordinary lives to something extra-ordinary.

*  *  *

A good question might be raised about the practicality of living out Easter, and what this might mean.

I think we can learn something from the children’s book Bear Wants More by Jane Chapman and Karma Wilson.  In the book, the bear comes out from his hibernation in his cave, and walks around the forest, meeting his other animal friends, and his hunger and desire for food leads him to eat, and eat, and eat.  And while he is out getting food, some other friends are back at his cave getting ready to throw him a party.  But when the bear returns, he has become so fat that he can’t get in his cave anymore.  The bear gets stuck, and his friends pry him out, and throw a party for him outside of the cave.

I like to think that if we are to find ourselves in the story of Bear Wants More, we’re not really the bear, although we can see ourselves in the bear, always wanting more, and for some of us, getting so fat that we don’t fit through the doorway of our caves anymore.

I would suggest that living the Easter life, the resurrection life, is being the friends for the bear, preparing food for the bear after he is out-on-the-town, in the forest, eating food that is not fulfilling.  The bear came out of his cave and intends on returning to his cave.

Because we do not live in death, because Easter is just too good to be true, we meet our friends who are determined to live in their caves, or tombs, outside of their caves, and meet their basic needs.  We seek those who are poor, and mourning, and downtrodden, and we feed them, we comfort them, and we work to dismantle the social powers that hold them in chains.  And in doing so, we teach and proclaim that now it is Spring, and a New Creation is blossoming all around us, and there is no longer any need to stay indoors, in our caves, and hibernate.  We all know people who stay in their caves, or tombs, all year long, watching flickering shadows of the world on their walls, and never really venturing to see the new life that awaits them outside. 

As a resurrection people, it’s our job to stand by the tomb and proclaim that we have seen the resurrection, and it isn’t just about making our life better, and it isn’t about starting an argument about what has happened at the tomb of Christ, but instead it’s about the life that is better than life in the cave, that the un-resurrected life is not worth living.  That there is an abundance of new life outside of the tomb.

*  *  *

You have surely heard of the story about the minister, who, on Easter Sunday, decided to quiz the children during the children’s sermon.  He asked the children if they knew what day it was, and they looked at each other and answered, “Easter.” 

He then asked them what happened on Easter.  One very astute child courageously spoke up and boldly proclaimed, “The stone rolled away from the big hole!”

The congregation chuckled at how bold the little child said this, and then the pastor said, “But then what happened?”  The same child rose her hand, and the pastor said, “How ‘bout we ask someone else to talk?”

A little boy looked up and asked the pastor a question, “You mean what happened after Jesus came out of the hole?”  The pastor nodded and said, “Yes, do you know what happened then?”

The little boy said, “Jesus came out of the big hole.” 

The pastor said to the boy, “Very good!”

But then the boy added:  “And when he saw his shadow, there was six more weeks of winter.”

This is my point.  Easter gives us the opportunity to step out of our tombs, and to help others in coming into the light outside of their caves and encourage them, against the choice of letting the moment of Easter to be sealed in the tomb of a dusty story of long ago.  We must proclaim that the resurrection of Christ is not only Good News for Jesus, as the one raised from the grave on the first Easter, and Good News is not only Good News for the women mourning by the tomb on the first Easter, in taking the next big step of history by proclaiming that this Easter, our Easter, is too Good to be true.  It is stepping boldly out of our own tombs, basking in the light, and joining Christ in our own transcending of “life” and of “death.”

For if we are bearing the cross of Christ on our journey, and fulfill our baptism as being baptized in Christ’s life and his death, we too are invited to cry from the cross in our darkest moments, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And out of the deep and empty cave of our cries of dereliction and abandonment, we may have hope for ourselves, and for others, that these dry bones may find new life, and that must proclaim boldly that this New Life, which is truly too good to be true, loudly into every cave where there is death and despair, for this Good News is not just a resurrection of Jesus, but a resurrection of ourselves, as we walk out of this church this morning, smashing behind us the chains and tombs that hold us back from living New Life.  For on this Sunday, this Easter, we are empowered to enact the New Creation with every person we encounter and touch, and ask those around us, “why are you weeping?”  Our presence alone, as living New Life in Christ, is now reason alone to reverse the course of the world.

10 thoughts on “Easter Sunday Sermon: “Too Good to Be True!”

  1. I certainly have the easier task of preaching Good Friday. Those who come to a Good Friday service are prepared to hear death but I don’t suspect that many attending Easter Sunday are actually expecting to hear life. The conversations here and other places around Death of God thinking has significantly influenced my preaching this Lent (and certainly Good Friday). I don’t know how I would preach an Easter Sunday service at this point.
    I appreciated your observation of the ‘reversal’ with respect to the soldiers. I think that could be further developed. I appreciated the move away from making this an historical case but then as the second half played out it began to come off more like a feel good can-do approach. Perhaps that is the extent of what we can offer. I don’t know. I suppose the resurrection story if it comes must come from the site where we may still mourn but have written off as dead (and others are invested in keeping dead). I know the trajectory in Death of God thinking is towards the community and that is how I conclude Good Friday with Jesus turning Mary to John and John to Mary. Is that also, already, Easter? The only clarity that is emerging for me this Lent season is that it is important to consider where we gather. I take this to be your call to live outside the tomb. This call again though feels a little too much like self-help thinking. This is just an impression. The community to be formed seems to be among those considered undesirable and inconvenient (never mind threatening) to the structures of religion and state.
    Perhaps I need clarification on what the ‘caves’ are that you refer to. Are these the blinders (illusions) we live in that allow us to continue destructive patterns at the expense of others or are they the caves of fear and hatred that keep us bound from loving our neighbour. That is, are the caves pious illusions for those in power or psychological prisons that enslave people?

    A question of curiosity. How has Girard influenced your view of atonement (if at all)? I have just begun reading him and (as I hear often happens) I am having that OMG experience.
    Thanks for posting.

  2. I had a question concerning the death of god, as someone who is not so well-versed in that theological tradition. Would you say that the death of Jesus on the cross “as a factual sequence of events, as something that historically happened in the past” is necessary for thinking the death of god, or is the mere historical occurrence of the crucifixion secondary in the same way that the factual event of the resurrection is presented as secondary in your sermon?

    What I’m trying to sort out is the difference between “believ[ing] that it happened” and “explaining what had happened”, or earlier on in the sermon, simply “what has happened” and “the truth of what has happened” that becomes secondary. In the case of God’s death, then, is it to be believed without being explained or without being true? Is the death of Jesus also just imagined, so that we “have no knowledge” and are “just guessing” whether the mourning women or frightened soldiers were really there on Easter Sunday, either to be joyful at an event whose truth is secondary or to be fearful of a non-event for which one must make up an event-ful story?

    And to what end? I don’t quite understand what the threat (for the soldiers) or the joy (for the women) is of a resurrection that is so historically ambiguous. And if the historical status of the death is equally ambiguous (in which case the women and the soldiers presumably aren’t even at the tomb on Sunday morning), who remains to come running back to give us the good news?

    And good news of what? What joy? Joy at what? At an imagined (sick minds indeed!) execution and resurrection that “enacts in us a call, and a wager, to step away from the downward spiral of life, and of our sufferings, and of our angers, and our mournings, and our injustices, and to fine new life and New Creation”?

    I take it that some counter-factual events can have good factual effects on people, so I don’t want to simply discount the significance of a resurrection for which factual historicity is secondary (even though I myself take Paul in 1 Cor. 15 to be speaking about the importance of historical facts). But I am having trouble understanding why a group of disciples thirsting for justice would take a man’s (or a god’s) non-factual death and resurrection as an impetus for “stepping away” from their (pretty darn factual) suffering. What does non-historical death or return from death have to do with the lives and deaths of people as they are mourned, trampled upon, or left to thirst for justice? Is it just a good story, like Bear Wants More? Then why not just read the childrens’ book and avoid the hassle of a heart-wrenching Holy Week?

  3. David and Evan:

    Thank you both for your feedback and good questions.

    David, you are right that the main event of Christology in an Altizeran theology, as I understand it, is Good Friday. In fact, Tom told me once that he celebrates Easter on Good Friday. But Easter is separated from Good Friday by Holy Saturday, and the descent into Hell is a kind of metonymical metaphor for the whole of his Christology.

    So the question of preaching on Easter is a tough one in this paradigm, because it takes more of an Orthodox take on the significance of Easter, that it is symbolic of something actualized on Holy Saturday. Made possible through the death of God on Friday. But the descent into Hell is the death of God, and so also is the resurrection.

    This leads me into Evan’s question, which reminds me a bit of Caputo’s critique of Altizer in After the Death of God, where he says the problem with Altizer is that it is a creation of one Tall Tale with another Tall Tale. This isn’t exactly what you are saying. But the question of “truth” replacing another “truth” becomes important here.

    This might seem like a bit of a cop-out, and I’ll keep it kind of brief, as this is one of the main conclusions of my dissertation (and I am taking this a little bit from Mary Daly). But I’ll answer your question… I believe in the death of Jesus on the cross as a Primary Reality. The language and theology of the death of God is a Secondary Reality which attempts to make sense of the primary. The moment I say that my theology is a primary reality, I believe, I do violence to thinking itself, and thereby may do violence to both the primary and secondary realities. So I would never say that the secondary is “true,” or “historical” but it is historical, say, in a Hegelian sense.

    So the radical theology view, I think, would be apprehensive to attach “history” to its own theologies, however, at, least for an Altizeran view, to use Leahy’s words, “the diachrony of the sacred” is essential to the worldview; god changing in history.

    So to the question, why not read the children’s book on Easter? I’m not sure how to respond. This sermon exists as part of a larger community activity that involves children, and it’s important to me that the children’s message does not victimize children to the liturgy or make them didactic tools for the audience. Why not enter the realm of secondary reality through the imagination of children?

    Some other responses… I need to read Girard, I know I should…

    Regarding self-help. This is a concern I have. But I am also mindful that Easter is a day when my preaching audience is larger and perhaps not as theologically literate or Biblically literate as on other days.

    I have also been reading some Norman Vincent Peale in the last few months, and trying to learn to take him seriously as a thinker. There are a few things I have learned to appreciate from his larger project, and one thing I have learned is, when I use his ideas in pastoral care and other aspects of my ministry, I am really moved by how many people respond to his line of thinking. I don’t think it’s because he is just saying what people want to hear, but quite honestly, a lot of people need to hear what he has to say. And I have no real way of thinking through his project beyond concluding that it is trying to create a Resurrection style of life. But Peale does not really do this through a conclusion of historical facts–in fact, I know many conservatives that still think Peale ruined evangelicalism by moving them away from factual emphasis–toward an actualization of the resurrection, and a living out of scripture in very broken, human ways. I am not sure if this is making sense?

    There is more to think through here (my wife noted to me last night that it should say “six weeks of winter,” not six months of winter) but I really do appreciate your feedback as I will begin to revise this soon.

  4. I appreciate the realities you are trying to navigate. I have found it mentally jarring to prepare a sermon for Good Friday and a service for Easter Sunday at the same time. I suppose Easter Sunday is a time to celebrate life, period. Wherever it is found, as it is found . . . especially that life where death was and now is no longer.

  5. What would you suggest for someone to start with Girard on atonement?

    The other thing is this… I think my sermons through Lent (which I have posted here) have been a bit heady or a bit more overtly academic for my preaching contexts, though I don’t think they have fallen on deaf ears. I wanted to do something a little more universal on Easter. In fact, when I started writing this I thought I would preach on the cry of Jesus on the cross, which I might go back and add some more in at the end, as the main focus.

    I do like your suggestion about entering the church/sanctuary into the discussion. In fact, that was one of the better meditations I read from the commontaries this week, surprisingly, from the Abingdon Preaching Annual. (Which is fairly inexpensive on Kindle.) I decided against that direction because I am not sure how a Pentecost-type sermon on the “church” would be heard by a crowd that will hopefully have some church visitors.

    Regardless, I really appreciate your comments. It is extremely helpful for me to hear other perspectives and feedback. And also to reflect on the complexities of preaching a sermon for a live audience with a history and actual context, etc.

  6. I picked up Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and it seems to provide a very easy entry point to his larger project. It is in a conversation format and allows you to jump into various places without missing too much (although I might not know what I was missing).

    I think universal is fine. And it is a fine line figuring out how to adapt to audience. The reality though is that everyone coming into that space has a lot of shit directly or indirectly connected to them. Perhaps in this case the ‘caves’ needs to be played in both directions as the difficult movement of entering the piercing light outside the mechanics of being in control and the expansive of light of those suffering under the mechanics of control.

  7. As I see it, the death and resurrection were always primarily stories anyway, tall tales or otherwise. The historicity of the events told actually seems secondary to the historicity of the telling, even when it is claimed otherwise.

  8. Chris,

    I tend to think that Easter works best when the sermon is a declaration more than either an explanation or a story.

    So thinking about your sermon, what is it, really, that you want or need to declare on this day? Not say. Not wonder about. Not invite others to think through– but declare.

    Is this not what the angels in the story do? Is this not what these women then do?

    As we would say in my home church– Come on now, say it. Say it! Preach it, brother, preach it!

    Perhaps the capacity to declare is part of what attracted folks to the preaching and writing of Norman Vincent Peale, even more than the content he declared.

  9. Colleagues,

    I really appreciate your help with this, and it is exciting to get this feeback on the Easter sermon. I just updated the above with some changes, most prominently the end has been expanded.

    Thank you!

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