Delivered at Ames UCC
on April 16, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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What is the power of God?
In our scripture last week, and throughout his public ministry, Jesus rejected the understanding of God’s power that he saw most people practicing.
He goes into the temple: Stop selling doves, stop killing, he screams. God does not want your sacrifices. Did we not learn from our many, long years in the wilderness with Moses that using intermediaries between us and God just drives us further east of Eden, not closer to it? Did God not bring Abraham back from the brink of infanticide with the hopes of, once and for all, getting us to hear that sacrifices are never pleasing?
God is not greedy for gifts! Holiness is not an exchange commodity.
But then Jesus dies. He dies as so many men and women have died: at the hands of a state that just needs someone to point a finger at in order to justify their show of force. It is the state that loves a sacrifice. It is the state—which is just a group of humans—that lusts for gifts, especially those that will devastate other humans into submission. Humans, not God, want a sacrifice.
ORTHODOXY AND ACCESS
I know that is contrary to the most recent thousand years of Christian orthodoxy. But in the first thousand years, the notion that God needed Jesus to die as a sacrifice was not so prevalent as it is now. There is no evidence, in a Christian church before the tenth century, of Jesus on a cross.
What mattered in the earliest days—and what continued to get followers of Jesus in trouble with the state—were the practices of feeding and tending to each other without regard for social hierarchies. Just as in the time before his death, in the decades immediately after, the good news continued to be about egalitarianism and God’s love for everybody and every body, not just priests or kings who claimed special access.
Everything in Jesus’ life was about total access: Children, you have access; women, you have access; the sick and disabled, you have access; foreigners, you have access. Access to God is in the radical generosity of feeding and the radical relationality of healing.
But then what do we do with Holy Week? If Jesus had such great access to God through his walking, talking, eating, feeding, resting, and resisting but still died, what is the power of God? Couldn’t the later theologians have simply heard God still speaking, as we profess happens, and figured out that, while God may not have wanted the sacrifices of birds and cows, God somehow wanted one of Jesus?
AT THE TOMB
This morning we watch three named women—James’ mother Mary, Mary of Magdala, and Joanne—and an unknown number of unnamed women, go to Jesus’ tomb. Way back in chapter eight of Luke, we first met Joanne and Mary Magdalene, and learned that they were both healed by Jesus and so supported Jesus in his ministry and on his travels. Here, they are continuing to provide for Jesus through the mourning rituals of their culture and faith.
Instead of finding Jesus, they are confronted by strange men with strange countenances. The women are understandably frightened. The strangers remind them that Jesus’ absence is all according to the plan he had previously revealed to them. Oh, yes, they remember, and go to update the others.
The others are incredulous—the male disciples are not ignorant of what should happen to dead bodies versus what the woman are claiming—and so Peter goes to look for himself. He does not meet angels but the empty burial shroud seems to be enough to convince him that Jesus’ prediction of his own restoration had come true.
So what is the power of God? Not blessing in exchange for blood. The power of God is life over death.
LIFE OVER DEATH
This may mean for you that Jesus literally, bodily left the tomb. Or, it may mean that what Jesus inspired did not die with him on the cross, but lives on with such strength and tenacity that we know him still.
I am not the boss of your soul or arbiter of your discernment. What Peter’s reaction to the Marys’ news shows is that each of us needs to seek understanding of the empty tomb for ourselves.
But I will say this with some certainty: When we take Jesus’ teaching and the reports of Easter morning together, we see that God’s power is a rejection of death. The story does not end with the corpse of a man on an idolatrous altar. Our inheritance from the disciples and the earliest Holy Communion communities is a story of life in spite of death.
In spite of all the deathly efforts of state and society—segregation, discrimination, nationalism, and all of the dirty water, poor schools, and large bombs that go with them—the divine continues to give life through the practices of radical generosity and relationship.
What else can explain a Christian church in the middle of Iowa with giant signs out front affirming both the queer and the Muslim people in our lives and in our neighborhoods?
We are the oldest church in Ames. One that is mainly white, mainly educated, mostly well-employed, pretty straight and cis-gendered, majority American-born, and pretty physically capable. We have every reason to make this a country-club of self-congratulation, comfort, and close-mindedness.
But we are the leader in community efforts to care for refugees and immigrants, and for those who need affordable housing. Even though we have the most to lose—some of us in our lifetimes have lost exclusive access to marriage and voting—we are actively asking what death-dealing lies we can shed next in order to make earth heavenly.
It is God’s power of life over death that makes this a sanctuary of invigorating love rather than a shelter of suffocating hate.
Unlike the rulers of an imperial church a millennium ago, we do not need to use Easter morning to make ourselves feel special or more favored by God.
Instead, this morning we celebrate the sacred power that impregnates the most vulnerable with hope, heals the poor of their marginalization and the rich of their self-aggrandizement, and continues to invite all of us to feast together.
Christ is risen. Look around you: The living Christ is yet rising, indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia!