My mother was buried Monday this week. If you are scheduled to preach on the Sunday of the Resurrection here are a few things I need to hear (and one thing I don’t want to hear) and it is up to you to make sure I hear them.
I do not want to hear the word Easter. It is time to resurrect, so to speak, resurrection. Call this coming Sunday what it is: Resurrection Sunday. Easter is chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks (and I’ll fight you for the last marshmallow chick, just so you know). But Resurrection Sunday is altogether different.
Here is what I do need to hear. Before you preach Christ raised make sure you preach Jesus dead. This is a frequently neglected point in sermons on Resurrection Sunday. Oh, I know something will get said of crucifixion and dashed hopes, dead fields surging to life, nature’s tender green shoots promising whatever it is they promise. Maybe I will even hear how death has been vanquished, which is okay a little later on in your sermon but not yet.
Right now, I need to know Jesus was really dead. That means Jesus was—like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch—deceased, demised, passed on, no more, and expired. I don’t need to know how on Holy Saturday Jesus was off harrowing hell; that can wait a while. No, on Resurrection Sunday I need to know Jesus was dead, as dead in fact as my mother.
Why must I insist on this? Because trying to pin down exactly how dead Jesus was after crucifixion is a sometimes frustrating exercise among Christians. An amazing number of us become functional Docetists by the time Resurrection morning rolls around. Jesus, since he was about to be raised, wasn’t really dead; well dead, sure, but not, um, a dead corpse like we think of a corpse.
But he was a corpse, and a dead one. It is hard to imagine a live corpse especially since real crucifixion almost always resulted in a dead one. You need to say that.
What’s more, I need to know that everything that was him died as well. The love he felt for his friends, for his mother, and all his brightest memories and his deepest regrets—all that died too. This is what death does if we are human; it is what death did to his humanity. It strips us of everything. In the particular method of his death, something else was taken as well. His preaching, his manner of living, his ideas about the reign of God, even his signs and healings and miracles, all were dead with him.
They didn’t account for anything because those very elements of his life had brought about the conditions that led to his execution. This is the final meaning of crucifixion: repudiation of a way of life so complete as to be a caution to anyone foolish enough to try it for themselves. Death by crucifixion as punishment for the life Jesus lived merits a warning: Do not try this at home. It could turn you into a corpse.
How do you preach death before resurrection? Try something simple and blunt: “Jesus was dead. His lifeless body dropped from the cross like the dead weight it was because Jesus was dead.” You can take it from there.
Oh, and please don’t talk about Jesus’ death the way I’ve heard some talk about my mother’s. Death doesn’t mean my mother has gone to a better place. Yes, I know all about God’s time and our time and the consummation of time and all that, intellectually at any rate, and how in some way or fashion she is in a better place. And I know too well there are cruelties worse than death. But to say “she’s gone on” suggests that her body wasn’t really her, just an old shell she didn’t need anymore.
My gut reality suggests that any tendency to say the human body is only temporary undercuts the resurrection and questions the goodness of created flesh. Besides, right now, this moment, I know exactly where my mother is, in one of those euphemistically named cemeteries, something called Memorial Haven Gardens or the like. I do not regard that as a better place, and no one regarded the tomb of Jesus as anything but a disaster.
So resurrection cannot be turned into a happy-ending, made-for-television story of a guy with a handicap who overcame it. Jesus wasn’t somebody who faced adversity and triumphed. There is nothing here about an athlete ignoring injury to get back in the game, nor a case, as said of Lance Armstrong, of a man literally getting off his death bed and winning the race. Resurrection is not perseverance paying off; it has nothing to do with grit or determination.
You must not say in any way, as our preaching sometimes suggests, “Hang in there Jesus; Easter is only three days away.” A resurrection sermon is not a speech before the Optimist Club. Jesus was dead and from all the reports the bleak and normal prospects clearly were in place—everyone knows once a body is dead it has this stubborn tendency to stay that way.
What resurrection must be this Sunday is a word to us who have been buried by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. So do be sure to say—once you’ve disposed of the corpse—that Jesus was raised. The passive voice is crucial. The thing to get across some way is that when humans die they die eternally. We do not survive death; we are annihilated by it. That’s the way it is, unless God does something to dispute the power of death.
And God did. God raised him. Jesus lives by the Word of God. As he went the way of all flesh we recall flesh cannot raise itself and any sort of after-life is not the inherent right of human beings. Jesus did not awaken on Resurrection morning, take a long stretch, and move on. If, as I do believe, Jesus rose, it was only by the Word of God spoken, “Rise.” The power of that Word always stands in challenge to the finality—the ever-after condition—of death.
After you have said he was raised, be sure to say he lives resurrected, which is different than living on as a soul. Our preaching here tends to be a little fuzzy too.
Let me put it in some relief. Suppose the women traveling to the tomb encountered not an empty chamber, but one still blocked by stone. Suppose the angel was standing outside. Suppose—instead of “He is not here; he is risen”—the angel had said, "The spirit of your master will live on”? Or “Jesus will live forever in the hearts of those who loved him”? Or “You should not grieve; the teacher has only fallen asleep”? Or, again, “He has now gone on to a better place”? Now that just wouldn’t be the same, would it? In fact it sounds sort of icky. No power, no force, no gasping shock or surprise to be told merely his soul lives on.
Where is the shattering energy of resurrection? No, death is the end of our relationship with each other, with our interior consciousness where we talk to ourselves, and most devastatingly, with God. The Psalmist knew it, questioning “Can I praise you from the pit?” The answer is no and the remedy is nothing less than resurrection.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the only gospel with this scene, an angel of the Lord arrives before the tomb, rolls away the stone and sat himself down on it. This hit me with new force this week. I can see angelic legs swinging happily back and forth drumming against that rock, and the angel contemptuous of all our standard notions of what was once behind that stone. From that perch the angel tells the women what you must tell me after you have told me about his death: “He is not here; he has been raised again.” In his resurrected life he vindicates those who in hope stumble along after him, we baptized imitations of the life he led.
A pastor of the North American Lutheran Church, Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.