Easter Sunday Sermon: “Bad Easter Sermon!”

This Easter Sunday I am modifying the lectionary a little bit, preaching on Mark 4:1-20, 14:22-31, 16:1-8, and Acts 10:34-43.   I got the idea for the sermon from a commentary that I read a few weeks ago (Unbinding the Gospel of Mark) that connected some of the Lenten lectionary readings to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a question posed by the great folks at the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, and currently reading and teaching Peter Rollins’ book, Insurrection.  This is a first draft, I’d love to hear your suggestions.  Thanks.

Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, a story we’ve surely heard before, telling of the gardener who planted seeds on a pathway, and on rocks, and on rich soil.  As one might expect, the seeds on the pathway were eaten by the birds, and the seeds on the rocks sprouted up quickly, but, as Jesus says, because they “had no depth of soil,” the plants withered away when the sun scorched down upon them.  The other seeds on good soil sprouted and brought forth grain, increasing thirty, and sixty, and one hundredfold.

Jesus then explains that the seeds on the path had a good thing going but they spoiled it by not nurturing the presence of God and the burgeoning life within them.  The seeds on the rocks and thorns respond to the word of God with joy, but the joy did not endure and they quickly withered away, Jesus teaches that they hear the Good News, but are drawn instead to the things of this world, they desire the saccharine joy of faith but choke on the sweet candy of feel-good religion.  And, of course, those with good contexts around them bear good fruit and prosper.

Now, on Easter morning we then hear the story of the missing body of Jesus in the tomb, the man in white instructs the women to find the disciples, and the man in white singles out that they should find Peter in particular.  I would like to ask:  Why is Peter so central to the story of the resurrection?

We should remember that the disciple Peter was originally named Simon, and Jesus nicknames him “Peter” or “the rock.”  Tradition teaches us that while this may have been Jesus making fun of Peter for being obtuse or even not so bright, we know that “Peter” means “rock” in Greek, so Christianity has also accepted that Peter is the first Pope or institutional leader of the first church, and that he is the firm foundation or “rock” upon which the new religion upon which Jesus begins is to be, and is, built.

But we must also consider Jesus’ teaching about seeds that fall on rocks to unmask what is really happening here.  Jesus tells his parable of the sower and the seeds and the disciples, as usual, just don’t get it, and Jesus begins to explain to them the obvious metaphors of the parable, but yet they don’t make the connections that Jesus is trying to make—in fact, we too make this mistake while reading it as well.  The disciples just assume that Jesus is the sower or the gardener, and that his message is the seed, and those who persecute them or do not listen are the seeds on the rocks, and the true disciples of Jesus are the ones planted in good soil.  We too have often interpreted this teaching to be a statement that those of us who are the true or right Christians are the righteous ones on good soil, and those who are on the outside are on bad soil.

But we must turn this teaching upside down and understand that the joke, or if not a joke, the point of the parable is really on the disciples, and on us!  Jesus is not saying that the disciples are the rich soil, but that the disciples, and we followers of Christ along with him, are the rocks.  And it does not take long to look in our culture to see just how far we need to go to see how good or how rocky our soil is.  This past week the United Church of Christ had to set a new policy on their denominational Facebook presence because we could not keep our conversations about the Trayvon Martin murder civil.  We as a nation have become indifferent to violent language and violent acts:  we have been as a country largely indifferent to the killing of Afghani civilians by one of our own soldiers.  In the past month in Lebanon we saw a terrible standoff with police that ended with one state police officer shot and one person dead by his own hands.  Just this past week one of our local churches was set on fire, we now know that the authorities believe that the fire was an intentional act of arson. We may get upset about these things, but we shrug them off for the most part, unless it hits us directly and personally.

This past week Traci called me while I was driving home if I had heard the news of the woman in Lancaster County who admitted to abusing her nephew.  This was of interest to us because Traci knew that we know her through some folks in our family, in fact, on her Facebook page there are photos of relatives of ours with her children.  Traci didn’t know this at the time, but this woman was actually confirmed with me, as a teenager, in 1993 at a United Methodist Church in the Hempfield area of Lancaster County.  It struck me and shocked me because this was not someone who we only knew through some acquaintances, but this was someone who knelt at the same altar and made promises to live out our baptisms in front of each other and in front of the same congregation.

And then I got home and saw the news of the shooting that left several students dead at a small religious college in California.

And then I made a few phone calls, had some dinner, put the kids to bed, and read a book I have been working on for a few days.

Life goes on.

My point here is that we have become so beat up by the violence of our world that we have become calloused and callous—numb, obtuse, insensitive, impenetrable, hardened:  we have become hard-headed and rock-hard when it comes to empathy and empathizing with injustice and abuse of persons and of power—except when these abuses or injustices touch us personally.

The first disciples, even after seeing Jesus raised from the dead on that first Easter, still didn’t get it, and even despite hearing further instruction from Jesus, they still saw themselves as the good soil, instead of the rocks who desperately need to reach for the soil.  This is to say, instead of letting the promise of forgiveness and redemption break the hardened rock and let the sprouts welcome the sun, instead of hiding from it, the resurrection was less of a challenge to the disciples than it was something that simply reified and legitimized their privileged place as Jesus’ chosen disciples.

We see this actually play out in the Book of Acts, where Peter gives what may be the first bad Easter sermon.  What strikes me is, if you really read the language of this passage of Acts closely, the dichotomy or distancing between “us” and “them” in Peter’s sermon.  Peter is very quick to boast that “we were witnesses to all that [Jesus] did in Judea and Jerusalem,” but “they put him to death”—“they” for Peter are the Jews.

But the part of the story that he leaves out, other than the Romans government’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, is the part he himself played:  that he believed that he was the good soil, yet he rejects Jesus several times before the cock crows, and that he is on the run while the victim of the human sacrifice on the cross, that is, God, hangs tightly-nailed to the cross, punctured, beaten, naked in the wind, bleeding to death, and dying for all, except his male disciples to witness.  The very event of Good News which he himself preaches, Christ crucified, happened while Peter was hiding from the truth of who he really was:  the rock.  He too quickly jumps to the risen Christ without fully accepting the gravity of his own position as the rock who needs to reach for good soil.  Instead, he too quickly jumps to the part he didn’t miss out, the resurrection, which the white-robed man instructs the women to make sure that Peter notices.  Peter witnesses the resurrected Christ, but, it would seem, he still failed to realize what it really means for him, and the church has since built upon Peter as its “rock.”

*  *  *

If you remember back to your catechism or your own confirmation class you might remember that the season before Easter, which just ended, is Lent, and Easter Sunday is the first day of the new season on the church calendar, which is called “Eastertide” or the season of Easter—we often forget that Easter is more than one day, and the season of Easter is this season of resurrection, and new growth, and of Spring before the onset of the warm summer of the season of Pentecost, which begins for us this year at the end of May.

So tomorrow, the day after Easter, is often called Easter Monday, and some businesses and schools close for Easter Monday and Easter Monday is collectively known as a non-negotiable day off for pastors around the world.  But this year I am drawn to notice that tomorrow, April 9, is the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in 1945.

Now many of you know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer is, and I have talked about Bonhoeffer in our adult education classes and in sermons here before, but let me remind you who he is.  Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who wrote a number of important books, including one called The Cost of Discipleship, who was one of the few brave Protestant pastors who actively spoke out against Hitler during the development of the Holocaust and the rise of the Third Reich.  Bonhoeffer worked with clergy to try to subvert the German people away from total ideological control by Hitler, by running an underground seminary and giving the radical pastors who were willing to sacrifice their own well-being by preaching against the government when it was very unpopular to do so and had grave consequences.  As the author of the book titled The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer’s teaching was that following the Gospel was deeply unpopular and costly.  To follow Jesus is not easy, it is not taking orders, and it is not cheap:  the cost of discipleship is great.

If you know the story of Bonhoeffer, on this day, on April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer appeared before S.S. judge Otto Thornbeck in Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was imprisoned, who condemned Bonhoeffer to death in a hearing that had no witnesses and was not officially recorded.  The next day, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked to the gallows in his prison and hung using thin wire.  The Nazi doctor who oversaw the execution later wrote that before he was hung, Bonhoeffer, naked, knelt onto the floor and prayed, took a few steps, said another short prayer, and then was hung and was dead a few moments later.  Bonhoeffer’s death witnessed by German Christians who were just following orders, who were also victims of the same system and the same horror of the horrific scandal of the violence of Christianity in the twentieth century.

It is difficult for me to separate Easter this year, today, April 8, from the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on April 9.  So often we are quick to celebrate the joy, and the feast, and the blessing, and community of Easter Sunday but quickly gloss over, or hide ourselves from the hypocrisy of Palm Sunday, the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the public exhibition of God’s death on Good Friday, and ignore the total absence of God of Holy Saturday.  But along with Peter, Easter we can handle, and Easter Monday we are back to normal, fattened by lamb and ham, having taken communion just the day before.

Yet on Easter Monday, if we are to take April 9th as seriously as we take April 8th, we must be drawn back to the crucifixion of Jesus, and recognize that the crucifixion of Christ and the death of God is nakedly present to us everywhere.  God died on February 26 with Treyvon Martin.   And God was also crucified with the Afghani civilians dead on March 23.  And God perished when our church and school was burned this past week.  And God is abused when children are abused and neglected in the homes next door to us and in the factories whose products we purchase on the other side of the world.  And God was murdered with the Korean college students who died this past week.  And God hungers when the stomachs of millions of people in our country and the billions beyond this one cry for food and clean water.

About thirteen years ago I returned home from school for Easter and on Easter Sunday, the Senior Pastor of our church opened his sermon by announcing that he heard some rumors that there were people in the congregation who didn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  And then he talked about how more liberal churches in town don’t really believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  And then he said, “I want to take a quick poll to see how Christian we really are.  I’d like to ask all of the Christians who are here today to stand up if you believe in the resurrection as something that happened as an event in history.”

Immediately, the whole congregation stood up, and as us stragglers and those of us who don’t take too well to being ordered to stand during the sermon, all eventually stood up.  And once everyone was standing, a fervent applause broke out.  The minister then looked around and said, “I sure am glad that everyone in this United Methodist church is a true Christian,” and then he instructed everyone to sit down and he proceeded to preach some message I have since forgotten.

Today, on this Easter, I’m not going to ask you to stand up as a test of your faith.  I’m not going to ask you to give your soul to Jesus.  What I am asking today is that now that we are past the suffering of Lent, and in the celebration of new life and New Creation and abundant Spring of Easter, that we not let the cross be in our rear-view mirror.  Rather, we step into Easter Monday ready to recognize the crucifixion of the world all around us and utilize our restored and resurrected spirits to bear the cross for the world ourselves.  That we preach Christ crucified as the Good News precisely because we ourselves have picked up the cross, that we speak truth to power, that we reverse the nihilism and backwardness and crookedness of the world by and through a willingness to let the Spirit blow into this church and into this community to make a difference in the world now, to realize and make actual the triumph of the cross is not in winning an ideological argument, but doing, and practicing, and building with our hands and feet and mouths the Kingdom of God in an Easter Monday world.

I’m not going to ask you to stand as a statement of belief in this sermon.  Because I know we deny the resurrection every time we allow the world to make us more callous to the death of children, and to the burning of schools and churches, and to unnecessary wars fought by the poor.  Every time I put on clothes made by children in sweatshops on the other side of the world, every time I fill my car up with gas, and every time I use my class and privilege, often unknowingly, to my advantage, I am denying the resurrection.  Every time we use the church and its rituals as a security blanket, and every time we vote or speak out of our own interests and not of the common good, and every time we refuse to speak or remain silent in the face of racism and injustice,  we deny the resurrection of Christ.

Church, we have denied the resurrection long enough, and it is time for us to admit that we, like Peter, have skipped to the fun part of Easter without realizing the full sacrifice of ourselves which Easter demands, of which we are reminded in the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  In celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion, this morning, this Easter, in this worship service in this church, right here in Bethel Township, here, from our altar and from our font, we call upon the Holy Spirit to provoke in us a renewed Spirit that transfigures our disbelief from seeds resting on rocks to seeds reaching for soil:  Seeds well aware of the judgment of the Sun arising upon the New Creation, and seeds welcoming the danger of being exposed, laid-out and bare, before the sun.

But on this day, the day before Easter Monday, we come to our table of bread and wine, our altar of re-membering the dis-membered, openly denying the resurrection.  For we confess that we have apprehended the Kingdom of God, for we have not dined with the poor in spirit, and we have not comforted the mourning, we have denied the meek, we have denied the right to assemble to those who thirst for justice, we have been vengeful against the merciful, we have hijacked the meaning of being pure of heart, we send the peacemakers to war, and we persecute the faithful by raising up ourselves in our denial of the risen Christ.  Whenever we participate in a system, or act as token torturers within the system by our complacency in our spending, our actions, or deeds left undone, we deny the risen Christ, and there is no question that we are a church and a nation of resurrection-deniers.  We turn our back on this world, which God so loved that he sent his only-begotten son, we continue the crucifixion of God to bleed to death under our known knives.

When we reverse the course of this world, and not only give to the poor, and feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and laugh with the mourning, we affirm the resurrection of Christ.  When we take up our cross and bear it for our neighbor, who, like Bonhoeffer, paying the true cost of discipleship, we then affirm the resurrection of Easter.  The challenge of the Gospels and the failure of the church to respond to the Gospel, today falls on us.  Do not simply stand up for Jesus; break out of the system for Jesus.

4 thoughts on “Easter Sunday Sermon: “Bad Easter Sermon!”

  1. Chris: You’re always giving us something which shakes up established verities! I especially appreciate your emphasis on Easter being about more than reifying Christian self-righteousness and triumphalism, but as a call to love and service. The example of Bonhoeffer speaks to this. It has been part of my Easter practice for a number of years to remember his life with gratitude. This year I reflect on the fact that when he was called to execution he had just shared a message with his fellow-prisoners on the passage: “By his stripes we are healed.”
    Blessed Easter!

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