Easter B Sermon (2024)

The Resurrection of Our Lord — Easter Day
Texts: Acts 10:34-43;
John 20:1-18; Isaiah 25:6-9

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 25:00): https://fb.watch/raBvmdwQYZ/

THE EASTER VICTORY AS A MOVEMENT FOR EQUALITY

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. 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 more fully 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

When people ask me what can we do about the shrinking numbers at churches these days — which can be accentuated on a day like today; we remember Easters of the past when we were overflowing — my answer is, “We can begin by revitalizing our basic Christian message.”2 How do we do that? By getting back to Jesus’ basic message which revolved around the coming of God’s kingdom into the world. In fact, the events we celebrate this weekend — the death of Jesus on the cross and God’s raising him on Easter — signal the launch of God’s reign in this world. Our Christian messaging has in recent generations been focused on the afterlife: that if God’s kingdom has come, it only means in heaven, which is where we go after we die. But that messaging contradicts some basic things in the New Testament and also parts of our tradition, like praying every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why do we pray that, if the coming of God’s reign is only for being in heaven after we die? We’re trying to talk about a Christian message that’s more relevant here and now.

The next question many people ask, then, is: if God’s reign has been coming into the world since Jesus died and rose again, then where do you see any evidence of that? How have things gotten any better? The beginning of my answer often begins with stories like that of Philip. A hundred years ago, when a Down Syndrome child like Philip was born, mothers were often counseled to immediately place there precious child into an institution where he or she quickly languished and usually died too young. Today, we hold Special Olympics for people like Philip and offer them their best chance at flourishing just like everyone else. The revolution in how we treat differently abled persons like Philip has come on the backs of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement — movements that seek full equality for every person in our nation. We are still waking up, like in our story from Acts 10, where apparently Peter is having, a year or two after the first Easter, an “Aha!” moment: “Oh, I get it! God shows no partiality!” God wants life, full life, for everyone, for all God’s children. More recently, we’ve been moving, and sometimes struggling in the church, to include LGBTQ persons in those efforts.

On Thursday evening, in fact, I shared how I believe that democracy is a sign for me that God’s reign is coming into this world. The authoritarian governments of kings and dictators and emperors can never be the final shape of God’s kind of reign in this world. We say that Jesus came as king, but we have to realize that that means a very different kind of king. Because God’s reign seeks to bring an equal chance to all of God’s children that they might flourish to their utmost. As we celebrate today, God’s reign is about life. Life! Jesus came to bring abundant life. For everyone! It can never do to have small groups of powerful people in charge to realize their full potentials while most other people have their opportunities restricted, while those especially on the margins languish and die. People like Philip in previous times. That the ideal of our nation begins with the claim “All people are created equal” is a sign to me that God’s reign is slowly but surely coming into the world — even as we as a nation continue to struggle to live into that creed.

Which raises the next question you might have: “OK, even if we grant that there are some signs of God’s different kind of reign coming into the world, why is it taking so long? Why is it so slow and gradual? Can’t God make it happen any faster?” That involves a longer answer that we’ve been addressing in recent sermons,3 and will continue to address, since it is so much a part of the scriptural witness: namely, that God’s reign comes through the power of love, not the power of force. Force gets things done fast. Instead of a few powerful authoritarians being able to force their will upon others, God’s reign comes through the power of love, which never forces itself, otherwise it wouldn’t be truly love. Instead of forcing its desires on others, the power of love seeks to honor the loving desires of others and to help them flourish.

This is why the revitalization of our Gospel messaging can be so timely. I believe that 2024 is a pivotal time for our nation. Will we continue to enable the wonderful experiment of democracy and its drive toward fully realizing the creed of all people being created equal, with equal opportunity at flourishing? Or will we give in to authoritarians who seemingly offer us shortcuts, using force and political violence to make things happen their way, that will ultimately end up with the typical regimes that litter human history, where only the most wealthy and powerful seem to flourish while everyone else languishes. Especially those on the margin. Especially the most vulnerable like Philip. Here’s how his story ended.

* * * * * * * * * *

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! God is doing a new thing through the power of love in Jesus Christ. And the Easter miracle story of Philip is living proof. Do you perceive it? Can you and I invite our family and friends and fellow citizens to see it, too, and welcome them to join in with us? To living into what we pray so often: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, March 31, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 25:00): https://fb.watch/raBvmdwQYZ/

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 (subscription required): http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/1985/summer/85l3113.html

2. We began exploring revitalization of the basic Christian message in the Epiphany Season, especially beginning Epiphany 3B.

3. The difference between the power which human beings typically rely on, the power of force, and God’s power of love is a theme that’s been rather consistent over the past couple months — also related to the difference in politics between God and human beings, a politics of healing and new life vs. a politics of division, conflict, punishment, and the use of force. See a sampling of sermons: Epiphany 4B, Epiphany 5B, Lent 5B, Palm/Passion B, Good Friday.

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