Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Secular Easter

"A Secular Easter"
Hughes United Methodist Church
Easter 2, 2008

Acts 2: 14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
John 20: 19-31

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Doubtless many of you, while singing the last hymn were thinking something along the lines of, “Goodness! This is a strange hymn. Where in the world did he come up with this?” Well, if you look on the bottom right-hand corner of the page, you will discover the tune name of the hymn is MARSH CHAPEL. Indeed, Max Miller, the longtime music director at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, penned the music. And its words express something of our worldview as we seek to minister among the 40,000+ people who make up our community at the fourth largest private research institution in the United States. Our dean, the Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, has put it succinctly:
The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is to be a heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city. In the coming decade we intend to offer a national voice, an ecumenical ethos and an excellent hospitality. Marsh Chapel harbors a non-fundamentalist expression of faith. The roots of our history lie in Methodism. The branches of our future stretch out to the oikumene, the whole ecumenical world. We preach a gospel of grace and freedom, a responsible Christian liberalism.
Here, on the second Sunday of Easter, with the trumpets and fanfare and celebration safely packed away, we may pause for a moment and wonder about the world in which we live. After all, the resurrection of Jesus the Christ takes place in a world. Peter recognizes this, at least in his portrayal by Luke the evangelist in the second chapter of his second volume, the book of Acts. Peter has a particular audience to whom he is preaching, “you that are Israelites.” His message is tailored particularly to them as it interweaves passages from the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible. It is true that the message of resurrection is universal; if it were not, we would not still be preaching it some 2000 years later. But every universal message must be expressed in a particular context. Come, wonder with me for a moment about our time and our place and our context.

First, our world is marked by change. This is not an entirely novel idea; other eras can be noted for their shifts in political and economic systems or in theological and philosophical ethos or in cultural and social relation. But, my teacher Bob Neville likes to point out that Aristotle invented boring philosophy, and this is because for Aristotle, the most valuable things in the world are things that endure and do not change. Aristotle was wrong. Things in the world do change and there is a beauty and a felicity in their changing process. Children grow and mature and become adults. Trees flower and blossom in springtime, then drop their leaves come fall. A favorite metaphor of the Easter season is the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Change exhibits rhythm and balance and gives to life a sense of flow. To be sure, the value inherent in change is not all positive, at least in human perspective. We have some experience now with attempting to change political dynasties and systems in other lands, and we will bear the cost – financial, emotional, spiritual – into the coming decades, if not centuries. The changes brought on by natural disaster are terrifying and life consuming. And as life wanes the changes to body and mind are frustrating especially for their being unwelcome. Christ is resurrected in a world of change.

So too, and not unrelated, our world is marked by chance. It is not the case that life and experience grinds on like a machine, each subsequent moment determined wholly by the moment prior. To be sure, if you flip the switch the lights go off. This regularity gives life coherence and consistency instead of absolute chaos. But sometimes when you flip it again the bulb burns out. Life is not a simple binary of if-then clauses. Life is marked by spontaneity, novelty and creativity. The most interesting moments in life are not when the lights go on but when they don’t. Baseball is interesting and fun because when the pitch is thrown, the batter might hit it, or he might not! Again, the possibilities of chance do not always work in our favor. Sometimes the patient dies on the operating table. Sometimes the war takes years, not days. Sometimes you lose your shirt when the markets shift and your investments are tied to sub-prime mortgages. Christ is resurrected in a world of chance.

Finally, ours is a world of choice. In this respect especially, the early years of the 21st century exhibit unprecedented levels of choice. We can choose what kind and color of car to drive, where we will live and whom we will live with, where and what to study. From the perspective of a student, it may seem that colleges and universities choose you, or not; but speaking from the perspective of a university administrator, I can tell you that we are at least as concerned about your choice as you are about ours. Choices in fashion, music, reading material, hairstyle, career, travel, and on and on are virtually unbounded. There is a dark side of all of this choice. So much choice produces anxiety. How are we to know that we have made the right choices? How can we choose responsibly? And sometimes, we do make the wrong choices. We choose to play instead of work, to speak instead of listen, to hate instead of love. Our power to act combined with the multiplicity of our choices can be a lethal combination. We may have the power to unseat rulers, but we are seeing what happens when that power is enacted without due consideration of the realities at home and abroad. Christ is resurrected in a world of choice.

But wait, Br. Larry, all of this wonder at the world sounds, well, awfully secular. Ah, you punster you! Of course you know that “secular” means worldly. To speak of the world can be nothing if not worldly. The beginning of the good news that I bear to you today is that this is the world that God creates, a world of change and chance and choice. God creates this world and calls it good. Christ is resurrected in this world, making the secular sacred and sacramental. But what does it mean for Christ to be resurrected in a world of change and of chance and of choice?

In John’s gospel, plopped down between Luke’s first and second volumes, we hear testimony of the risen Christ to the disciples. Three times, “Peace be with you.” Jesus has said this before in the gospel of John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” God has created this world and Christ is resurrected in this world and the good news of this second Sunday of Easter is that we need not be afraid of the changes and chances and choices of this life.

“Peace be with you.” It is a strange answer to our question, we who ask looking for practical and implementable advise. But as we read the gospels we shall have come to expect the answers of Christ to be not what we expect and yet just what we need. The answer of the resurrection of Christ in this world is not an answer of certainty; it is an answer of peace. That is to say, in a world of change and chance and choice we are not given certainty – certainty is not a quality that is possible in the world as God creates it – but we are given confidence. We may be confident that grace, mercy and peace abound, even in the ambiguities and ambivalences of change, chance and choice.

Whence comes this strange confidence that is not what we expect but just what we need? Well, we have preached God’s creation of a world of change, chance and choice, and we have preached Christ’s resurrection bearing peace and confidence in the world God has created, so it is for the Holy Spirit to complete our trinitarian reflection. John testifies to this also, that Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Our confidence rests in forgiveness.

But this forgiveness is strange too, is it not? Our confidence and peace rest not in our own forgiveness but in the forgiveness we offer to the world in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase.” The ambiguities and ambivalences of a world of change and chance and choice leave us feeling that our world is broken, and we are broken in it. But the healing of the world in confidence and peace comes not from some external and supervening power but from the outworking of the grace of God resurrected in us as we forgive the world that wounds us.

It is not an oxymoron to preach a sermon on a secular Easter. If Christ is not resurrected in and for the world then we have no business singing and praying and speaking of good news. But we need to be careful. We have explored some symbols to constitute our world, symbols of change and chance and choice. We have found some symbols too to redeem our world, symbols of peace and confidence and forgiveness. But symbols only refer truly when they are broken. We must know their limits as well as their possibility.

And so we remember, In hoc signo. Oh dear, you may be thinking, here he goes with the Latin again! But no, dear friends, this symbol you have claimed as your own. You have emblazoned it front and center on your altar. The year is 312 and the Roman general Constantine sits encamped just outside Rome, preparing to take the city. His chances are slim. As he is surveying the city, he sees a vision in the sky of the Chi Rho, the sign of the cross made by superimposing the first two Greek letters in the title Christ. Accompanying the vision is a voice saying In hoc signo, in this sign, vinces, you shall conquer. And so he did. It was under Constantine that the Roman Empire became Christian; Christendom was born with the sign of the cross in conquest.

We Christians have a distressing propensity to employ our symbols to justify conquest. Ironic, is it not? “Peace be with you.” But when our confidence devolves into certainty, peace at the point of a sword suddenly seems reasonable. A perverted form of rationalism overcomes the strangeness of the answers Christ offers. Of course, certainty is also a denial of the very world God creates. Change, chance and choice are nonsensical in a certain world. But certainty is more comfortable that confidence, and the answers of conquest and triumphalism more straightforward than peace and forgiveness.

To preach a sermon on a secular Easter is to remind us that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes the world sacred and sacramental. We must be careful that our confidence does not cross over into certainty. When the limits of our symbols are crossed, they become demonic and the sacred becomes profane.

Let us live together the good news of Easter. God creates a world of change, chance and choice. Christ is resurrected in and for this world and offers us peace as we share forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a gospel of grace and freedom.

Christ is risen! Alleluia, alleluia.