Easter C Sermon (2016)

The Day of Resurrection
Texts: Luke 24:1-11;
Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor 15:19-26

AN EASTER MIRACLE STORY

I begin with an Easter miracle story that was in The Lutheran magazine many years ago, told by Harry Pritchett, Jr.1

Philip was a pleasant child — happy it seemed — but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children. He had been born with Down Syndrome — which partly means he learned more slowly than other children.

Philip attended Sunday school, a third grade class. Those 8-year-olds learned, laughed, and played together. They really cared about each other. But because of his differences, Philip wasn’t as readily accepted by his classmates.

Philip didn’t want to be different. He just was.

One year their Sunday School teacher planned a marvelous lesson the Sunday after Easter. He had collected ten egg-shaped containers that panty hose sometimes comes in. Each child received one. Then the children were assigned to go out in the church yard and find a symbol for new life, put it in the “egg,” and bring it to the classroom. They would then mix up all the eggs, open them up, and share what they had found.

The assignment was glorious. It was wild. It was confusing, the children ran around, gathered their symbols, and returned. They put all the big eggs on a table. Then the teacher began to open them.

He opened one and there was a flower. The children oohed and aahed. He opened another one, and a butterfly fluttered out. “Beautiful,” the girls said. It was harder for 8-year-old boys to say “beautiful.”

A rock was inside another. Some of the children laughed. “That’s crazy,” they said. “How’s a rock supposed to be like new life?”

But the smart little boy whose they were talking about spoke up. “That’s mine. I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different. For me, that’s new life.”

The children all laughed. The teacher muttered something about the profundity of 8-year-olds and went on opening the egg surprises.

Nothing was in the next one. The children said, “That’s not fair. That’s stupid! Somebody didn’t do it right.”

My friend felt a tug on his shirt. He looked down and saw Philip standing beside him.

“It’s mine,” Philip said. “It’s mine.”

The children said, “You don’t ever do things right, Philip. There’s nothing there!”

“I did so do it,” Philip said. “I did do it. It’s empty! The tomb is empty!” The class was silent with a very full silence.

For you who believe in miracles, one happened that spring day. From that time on things changed. Philip became a part of that group of 8-year-olds. They took him in and he entered. He was set free from the tomb of his differentness. He was accepted and loved by the other kids, and that truly meant new life for him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Imagine for a moment that Philip had been born 50 to 75 years earlier. The doctor present for Philip’s birthing recognizes immediately that he has Down Syndrome. He does not even place Philip in his mother’s arms but explains his condition to her and recommends that she place him straight away into an institution. Philip’s mother tearfully takes the advice, and never even sees her precious boy. Philip dies several years later in an institution where he never has the opportunity to thrive and be accepted by a group of young friends for who he is.

That, in fact, was a common, tragic scenario several generations ago, right? So what do we say about a doctor in that situation? The mother? Do we say that they are sinful, evil, for making such a choice? That seems harsh because they likely were otherwise good people, right? So how is it that otherwise good people can do sinful, evil things? Let me ask that again, because it’s extremely important to this Easter message: how is it that otherwise good, loving people can do sinful, unloving things? And the answer is equally important: Good people can sometimes do such things, even without their realizing anything’s wrong, because their cultures and their human institutions are sinful. If 75 years earlier Philip’s doctor and mother had placed him to languish in an institution, it was because that was the normal thing to do at that time. We have thankfully created a new normal in our culture for people born with Down Syndrome. They are raised in as normally nurturing environments as possible. We even hold Special Olympics in which their differing abilities can thrive and shine. Can you imagine a more dramatic difference?

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I lift up to you today the often-times underappreciated Good News of Easter: Namely, that Christ’s resurrection not only breaks the powers of sin and death in our lives as individuals, but also for us as cultural and social beings. As Genesis 2 tells us, we were not created to be alone, to simply be individuals — no matter how much we over-celebrate our individualism in our culture. In fact, that might be one of the most important sins of our culture — that we overvalue individualism and can’t see how much our cultures and institutions still are in need of God’s salvation. We are blind to how much we are nurtured in the cradle of culture and celebrate being “self-made” individuals — a phrase that could hardly be a bigger lie.

Cultural sinfulness is generally much harder to see, too, than when a person errs, right? The doctor and mother who might have signed Philip’s death sentence, if he had been born 75 years earlier, didn’t see what they were doing as sinful. Another example is slavery. 200 years ago not enough people saw it as sinful, so it was a common institution in most human cultures across the globe. Today we view slavery as evil and try to abolish it wherever it is still practiced — known today as “human trafficking,” and still quite a problem in many parts of the world.

It’s like the old saying about a “fish in water” not noticing the water while immersed in it. A fish doesn’t notice the water until it is removed out of it and begins to gasp for oxygen. It’s similar with us and our cultures. While we are immersed in a certain culture, we don’t even notice the culture itself, much less it faults — the ways in which the powers of sin and death still pervade it.2

That is the message of our First Reading from Acts 10 today. It is the end of a much longer story that begins with the Apostle Peter being jolted by God in a dream — a nightmare, really. Peter sees himself being asked to eat all kinds of food unkosher for a Jewish person. When he wakes, God asks him to go to the home of an unkosher person, a Gentile, an army commander of their enemy, no less. It’s in crossing that huge gulf of a cultural boundary and going to Cornelius’ home, that Peter realizes the power of sin and death that keeps he and Cornelius as enemies, rather than the children of God that they both are. From inside his typical human culture, Peter sees outsiders like Cornelius automatically as a sinner, as unclean, unkosher. And so God in Jesus Christ is teaching Peter to finally realize that it is seeing his enemy as sinful which is itself sinful. Unlike us, “God shows no partiality.”

Peter responds by beginning to preach the cross and resurrection: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” says Peter, “but God raised him on the third day.” Think about that proclamation in the context of what we’ve been talking about. The Easter proclamation is basically that Jesus has let himself become a fish out of water, so to speak, gasping for air. He has let himself be considered as an outsider to his own culture. Jesus had always lived on the fringes: among the poor, the sick, and those considered as sinners. Finally, in his trial, he lets himself be called a Blasphemer of God, the most serious of crimes for his people. The Romans, too, count him as a rebel leader, a revolutionary, and he is duly tried and executed.

Do you see what is happening here? In raising Jesus three days later, God is not only proclaiming Jesus “Innocent!”, God is also showing our cultures and institutions themselves to be deeply infected by the powers of sin and death. But with the power of forgiveness and new life, God is also promising to free our cultures from sin — even though that’s a much bigger task that’s going to take a long time. Two thousand years later we are still in the midst of that transformation, with primarily sacramental signs to give us hope in the meantime. And so Peter breaks out one of those sacramental signs: baptismal water that signals to Cornelius and his entire household that they can be fish in the water of God’s dawning culture. They are invited to fully thrive as God’s children, too.

Two thousand years later the Easter miracle story about Philip and his third grade friends is a wonderful sign of how God’s culture is breaking into the world. In past cultures, people with Down Syndrome were given up for dead, but today they are made to thrive as much as possible. And that’s always the test for the culture God is offering in Jesus Christ: does every single person have a chance to thrive and be the best they possibly can be?

One last question: how do we situate ourselves in this Easter miracle of new life? As fish in the water of our current American culture, how can we apply this test of God’s culture coming to light? Where are the sinful barriers that continue to bar the way from all of God’s children thriving and having the chance to be the best they can be? We’ve made tremendous strides with differently-abled people like Philip. We’ve made some strides with better equality for women and people of color, but we also have a lot of work to do there, right?

And we are right in the middle of asking these questions with our gay and lesbian friends in mind, which this congregation ran up against back in December — a challenge to us that more work needs to be done. We ask, “What does it mean to fully welcome people who are different from us into our family?” I hope that at this point in the sermon, it is clear that warm, kind welcoming relationships aren’t always enough, as important as that is. We also need to examine how our culture may present barriers to a full welcome.

But that isn’t a task we are going to bring to completion this morning. We are here to celebrate God’s making it possible to take on such a task with hope. So let’s finish Philip’s story to that end.

* * * * * * * * * *

Philip has since died. His family had always known he wouldn’t live out a full life-span. Many other things had been wrong with his little body. So, having developed an infection that most children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died.

He was buried from the church where he had gone to Sunday school.

The day of the funeral his classmates marched up to the altar — but not with flowers to cover the stark reality of death. Nine children with their Sunday school teacher marched to the altar and placed on it an empty egg — an empty, discarded, old panty hose container.

It’s empty! The tomb is empty! Christ is risen indeed! You and I are freed from death as individuals. But we are being freed from cultures of death, too. And the Easter miracle story of Philip is living proof. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, March 26-27, 2016

Notes

1.  The story of Philip is based on “One Egg Was Empty,” by Harry Pritchett, Jr., from The Lutheran magazine (April, 1983), pp. 10-11. An online version can be found at the Christianity Today website: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/1985/summer/85l3113.html

2. The reality of the powers of sin and death infecting our cultures and institutions is behind St. Paul’s proclamation in today’s Second Reading: “when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor 15:24b-25).

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