The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles sets the stage for today’s entire service, and indeed for the next six weeks: St. Peter exclaims: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” While Easter Day past us seven days ago, the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ continues for 50 days, seven full weeks, all the way until Pentecost. God has raised up Jesus who had been killed. There has been a great reversal, a great overturning, a great undoing. Death is the most certain and stable fixture of natural human existence, the great enemy of insatiable appetite, who ultimately devours all life, from whose jaws no one escapes. Death steals from us everything we love, being a constant source of sorrow and grief. This great enemy has now been shown to be vulnerable, conquerable, and indeed their destruction reversible. Jesus has burst his three-day prison of death, re-entering the realm of life, light, love, and joy.
Surprisingly, the announcement of this great reversal of life over death in Christ was not popular with the political and religious leaders. The religious leaders shouted, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Why the great objection to this message of hope, rebirth, and renewal? One reason is because death, the great and invariable constant of human experience, has suddenly become vulnerable, movable, and even removable. Therefore certain structures of human experience less certain than death, such as political, religious, and social hierarchies, have that much more become destabilized. And that unsettles the people perched at the the top of those hierarchies.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 118, continues this theme of reversal, though having become a part of Jewish worship well before Jesus walked on the earth. There is a surge of triumphant joy at the beginning of the portion we heard: “There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous,” because God “has become my salvation.” In the preceding section, the Psalmist describes their situation of distress: enemies “hem me in, they hem me in on every side…They swarm about me like bees; they blaze like a fire of thorns…I was pressed so hard that I almost fell, but the LORD came to my help.” Though it looked like all hope was lost, the Psalmist makes a defiant declaration: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” They experienced such a profound and great deliverance, it was almost like being brought back from the dead.
Our third reading is from the book of Revelation, a wild, kaleidoscopic, apocalyptic narrative describing the spiritual conflict between Christ’s rulership and kingdoms of this world. And the message to the world’s empires is this: your peace is rooted in violence and bloodshed, your prosperity is grounded on exploitation, your justice is a perversion, your freedom is an authoritarian deception. The kingdoms of this world are a counterfeit and farce in the light of Christ’s reign of liberating and life-giving love—where suffering is alleviated, nations are reconciled, every person is endowed with sacred worth, and tears are wiped away from all faces.
In verse five of chapter one we are told Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” To be first implies a sequence. To be firstborn from among the dead means to be the first of many siblings who will experience the resurrection to eternal aliveness. St. Paul uses a similar expression when he calls Christ the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Christ’s rising from the dead is the first fruits in a sequence of actions that comprise a single harvest. Jewish expectation around the time of Jesus, as described for example in the Book of Daniel, did not conceive of isolated and individual resurrections. Rather the resurrection was part of a single complex event where the regeneration of life, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of all creation was experienced by the faithful all together at the end of time. At Easter we announce Christ is the firstborn in that resurrection event that has already begun. Christ is the firstfruits of a single harvest that has already begun— “the first-fruits of the holy harvest field, which will all its full abundance at his second coming yield.” But the radical, radical proclamation in this verse is that this complex event of regeneration, restoration and renewal has already begun in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is not only for some time in the distant future. It begins now.
There is a line in the prayer book funeral service: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” This captures the truth that even while we are still alive before we die, we experience within us and around us the ravages of sin and death. During Easter we celebrate the inversion: “In the midst of death we are in life.” In the midst of a world marred by death, while living among the kingdoms and empires of the world marked by violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression—in the midst of death, we are in life, through our union with the Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life. Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the whole creation cries, “I shall not die, but live!” With Easter faith we boldly confess that the entire world will be renewed, and that renewal has already begun in Christ’s resurrection. And it continues through the Church who is the body of the resurrected Christ.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann describes it this way: “those who believe that in Christ the redeemer is already present, and those who sense in themselves the first signs of the life of God's Spirit, know that in fact true life does already exist in the midst of the life that is false. The future has already begun. The conflict between the rising sun and the departing shadows of the night is already being fought out. There is already a struggle for justice against injustice, and a protest of life against the forces of death.”
In our Gospel reading we find the disciples the evening after Jesus rose from the dead. Yet they are experiencing nothing of the renewed and restored life of resurrection. In their minds Jesus is still dead and we see them exhibiting three features:
1) Negative emotions
3) Loss of meaning
1) Negative emotions—they are full of despair, fear and anxiety, despairing the loss of Jesus, anxious for their future, fearful of their lives, hiding from the same powers of injustice that killed Jesus.
2) Disengagement—they are detached in their own enclosure, cut off from the outside world behind locked doors, engaged in no tasks other than self-preservation
3) Loss of meaning—before Jesus died, the disciples believed they were part of something bigger than themselves. They experienced solidarity in serving a larger purpose, in contributing to a larger cause. Now there was nothing. Just themselves and the walls around them.
And while the disciples were huddled behind locked doors, experiencing negative emotions, disengagement, and loss of meaning, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Having believed Jesus was still dead, the resurrected Christ appears bodily before them. People often marvel that Jesus here apparently either walked through the wall, or teleported into the room. But what happens next is much more significant: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed into them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As God sent Jesus to effect a great reversal, to inaugurate the resurrection, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of the whole creation, in the same way Jesus now sends us. In the midst of death, we experience life—and are sent to bring life. In a world of violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression, we are sent to bring peace, equity, justice, and liberation. And in doing so, we experience our own liberation. We awaken to the positive emotions of love and joy that come from whole-hearted engagement in tasks that enrich the lives of others. And when we engage in these tasks together—in partnership with one another, we find both the relationships and sense of purpose that give life meaning.
In this endeavour we are not sent empty-handed. Jesus breathes into the disciples the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that hovered over the waters when God brought forth creation in Genesis 1, the same Spirit that God breathed into the first humans in Genesis 2 to make them alive, and the same Spirit that God sent to raise Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 8:9-11) is sent to live in and through us. When we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and are renewed by the Spirit in Confirmation we receive into ourselves the very power that reanimates life, that reinvigorates hope, that renews this suffering world. And when we come to the Altar at Holy Communion, we receive into ourselves and become united with Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead and inaugurates in himself the renewal of all creation. We begin to experience liberation from the dominating grip of negative emotions, the paralysing disengagement, and the loss of meaning that so plague our age. We find courage to have hope and joy in the face of life’s challenges. We find courage to emerge from behind self-preservation to engage in significant tasks and risky endeavours. We find courage to discover meaning beyond the narrow confines of our own self-interest—to give ourselves to a larger purpose—to join with God in the renewal and restoration of life that began in Christ and continues in and through us, the Body of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).
 Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012)
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.
1307 Holmes Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64106