Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Can It Possibly Be True?
Can It Possibly Be True?
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge Easter 2012
Text: I Corinthians 15:12-22
Saturday a week ago, the day before Easter Sunday, I was in the supermarket. Everybody was saying, “Have a nice Easter.” I must say, it made me a little sad. As I’m sure most of you know, today is Easter Day in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. At Easter, we should all be Greeks—recession or no recession. You know the Greek custom at Eastertide—greeting a friend in the street, one says, Christos anesti! And the response comes, Alethos anesti! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! “Have a nice Easter” sounds pretty inadequate in comparison.
When I first went to work at Grace Church in New York, I drove into the city from the suburbs on Easter morning. This was the early 1980s, not such a good time in New York. It was drizzling, cold, and very grey. As I passed along lower Broadway, I was greeted with a profoundly dreary prospect. There was no traffic—that was the good part—but there were no people in the streets, either. It looked dead. There was nothing green. The storefronts were all covered with ugly burglar-proof gates. I thought it was the gloomiest Easter Day I had ever seen, and I felt very dispirited.
As I pulled into a parking space opposite the church, I saw one of the Grace Church ushers standing in the open door. As is the custom at Grace Church, he was wearing a sparkling white carnation in his buttonhole. He was holding programs and waiting for the first arrivals. As I got out of my car, I shouted across the street, “David! The Lord is risen!” and without a moment’s hesitation he shouted back, “The Lord is risen indeed!” As I sprinted across Broadway, my spirit soared to the sky. Easter had truly come.
Easter is not about springtime. In the Southern Hemisphere, the feast of the Resurrection comes in the fall. Easter isn’t about springtime renewal or spiritual regeneration. Easter is a piece of news—electrifying, earth-shattering, world-overturning news. It’s so important to retain that quality of astonishment in our Easter celebrations. It’s not about flowers and bunny rabbits. It’s about something unthinkable—the return of a man who was “crucified, dead, and buried.” It’s about the victory of the Lord God Almighty over Death and Hell. It’s about the news spreading like wildfire from one dejected and defeated disciple to another: “Have you heard? The Lord is risen! He is alive! He has appeared to Simon!” Can you imagine this? It’s truly unimaginable, you know. It’s crazy, frankly. Who comes back from the dead? What is this claim at the heart of Christianity?
I’ve traveled around the churches all over this country all of my life, more than most people have. My impression is that most people in the mainline churches aren’t sure if they believe in the resurrection of Christ or not. In fact, my informed guess is that quite a few churchgoers really haven’t given a lot of thought to the matter. I have a friend in the South who has been a pillar of his Episcopal parish all of his life. He never misses a Sunday, he has served several terms as senior warden, and he gives liberally in every way, financial and otherwise. His religious beliefs, however, are somewhat vague. I once asked him if it would make any difference to him if the resurrection hadn’t really happened. He said, evenly, “No difference whatsoever.”
That’s an extreme example, to be sure. But I make a habit of browsing through church bookstores—I visited two just last month, in different parts of the country—and it’s always amazing to me how few real Easter cards are on display. Everything is all about flowers, butterflies, birds, generic rebirth and renewal. I can find more religious cards at CVS than at some of the church bookstores. In my home town in Virginia, where there’s a large African-American population, there are always many cards in the drugstore that triumphantly announce the resurrection of the Lord. I don’t think this is insignificant. A population that has arisen out of centuries of slavery and oppression knows something about the hope that lies beyond human hope. Trayvon Martin’s family seems to know something about that.
What does it mean to say that the man named Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead? He was denounced by the religious leaders of his own people, condemned to die by the Romans, and executed by one of the most cruel and revolting methods ever devised. Crucifixion was specifically designed to dehumanize and degrade a person so completely that his identity and even his existence were permanently erased from the record. There was no posthumous notoriety for crucified victims. Today we remember the names of some executed criminals and mobsters, and a perverse memory, even a sick sort of glamour adheres to some of them, but out of thousands upon thousands of people crucified before Christ, not one name remains. It is as though they had never been. What then caused the name of this one crucified victim to be remembered? And not only remembered, but revered, honored, worshiped, and proclaimed as the Name above all names, the Name which St Peter hailed with these words: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). Do we realize what we are saying? Are we all crazy? Are we suckers? Are we deluded?
A great many people think we are, and some of them are within the church. Resurrection of a dead person? It’s impossible. That’s why the message has been toned down so much as to be unrecognizable. It’s as if we’re embarrassed to believe our own message—so we try to transform it into a bland message about spiritual regeneration.
That’s precisely what was going on in the Christian congregation at Corinth. St Paul founded the church there only 20 years after the Resurrection. After Paul left to take the gospel to other cities, the Corinthian Christians began to drift, just as we do. Because they were seaport dwellers, they were surrounded by every kind of religion, every kind of spirituality. It was very tempting to just go with the flow. They began to lose hold of the message of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, they began to substitute a message similar to what many religious people believe—that we are spiritual beings by nature, and we have immortal souls, so there’s no need for any resurrection of the dead. In fact, resurrection is rather too material a doctrine for the Corinthians—too bodily, too literal, too “historical,” even, to be a proper religious belief. So Paul wrote them a letter. Chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians is by far the longest, most thorough exposition of the resurrection that we have. Paul gets blamed for everything, but he is the one who tells us the most about what the Gospels mean. And don’t forget, the letters of Paul are 30 or 40 or more years earlier than the four Gospels in their present form.
For anyone who has doubts about the resurrection, or anyone who thinks it isn’t really important, the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians should be in your pocket, at your bedside, and in your heart. Every time I have doubts about the resurrection, which is about once a week, I turn to this chapter. Paul is so manifestly a real person, not some ethereal spiritual guru. He has such a distinctive voice that we can recognize the way it differs from other biblical voices. At the beginning of chapter 15 he tells us how he was “the least of the apostles,” not only because he was the last one to see the risen Jesus in person, but also because he was an unbeliever who was persecuting the new Christians. Paul writes about this with great emphasis. This is “of first importance,” he says. These are the basic facts underlying our faith:
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day…
And then, Paul goes on,
He appeared to [Peter], then to the twelve...then to all the apostles. Last of all….he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles…because I persecuted the church of God.
Every time I read that, I think, is Paul lying to us? Is he talking about something that didn’t really happen, or that happened only in his imagination? This letter was written when many people who knew Jesus were still alive. Were they all perpetrating a hoax, or was it some sort of mass hypnotic delusion? Many would say so. The Corinthians themselves seemed to be troubled by the impossibility of it all. They wanted something more conventionally “religious,” more familiarly “spiritual.” And so it is with many of us today; we feel uneasy about the resurrection of the dead, let alone what the Apostles’ Creed says—“I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
So that’s some of the background for what Paul writes. Let’s listen to this part again:
How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain...If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Does that sound to you like a message of springtime renewal? The more I go over and over this message the more it sounds like nothing we have ever heard from any other source.
In order to understand fully the reading for today, we have to know something about what Paul teaches about Adam and Christ. He writes,
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
We can’t just hurry over these sentences, because they contain the heart and soul of the Christian gospel. To really understand this, we have to go back into Romans where Paul tells us about Adam and Christ. I wonder if there’s anyone here who has heard the expression “the old Adam.” It used to be quite common to hear old-timers say, if someone behaved badly, “that’s the old Adam in him.” “Adam”—the name—stands for the human race in its fallen, sinful condition. Adam—that’s you and me—got driven out of Paradise. We don’t live there any more, and we haven’t any access to paradise any longer, no matter how much the ads and commercials tell us we can. Adam is the whole of humanity tied up in knots without any ability to extricate ourselves. And Adam is above all subject to death.
I just saw Ingmar Bergman’s famous movie, The Seventh Seal, for the first time in a long while. In a series of arresting scenes we see various people trying to cheat Death. One of them actually plays chess with Death and genuinely hopes to defeat him. Others, in various states of naïveté or self-deception, try to elude Death. In the unforgettable final image, we see all the characters—young, old, rich, poor, wise, foolish—all of them being led willy-nilly by the hand over the hills by the figure of Death. It is the fate of “the old Adam.” “In Adam, all die.”
Andy Rooney, who died recently, was a militant atheist. I knew him quite well personally. He flatly refused the consolations of faith. And yet at the same time he contributed something to faith by his acknowledgement of Death as the last and greatest enemy. In his retirement interview on television he said bluntly, “I’m going to die.” His colleague Morley Safer, with his trademark ironic expression, asked him how he felt about that, and Rooney said, “I don’t like it.” That’s refreshing, in a way. No talk of spiritual rebirth or the immortal soul. Whatever else he may have been, Andy Rooney was not a Corinthian. Unlike them, he was willing to face the truth that “in Adam all die.”
But! The gospel message so often begins with a “but”! “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead! As in Adam all die, even so shall all be made alive!” Is that trumpet call the voice of someone who was deluded? Was Paul making that up because it made him feel better?
Preachers are frightened of preaching the Resurrection. I am frightened of preaching the Resurrection. More than any other aspect of the Christian message, this one seems to be beyond words. It seems impossible. How can we put this unutterable message into a sermon? Maybe the best thing we can advise you to do is to get hold of a recording of Handel’s Messiah and listen to the soprano (preferably Kathleen Battle) sing the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” with these words:
For now is Christ risen…
for now is Christ risen
from the dead,
the first fruits of them that sleep….
And then the chorus:
Since by man came death…
Since by man came death…
By man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die…
Even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
Handel was up to the task. I am not. And yet it is my calling today to be the vessel for the message. The raising of a dead person is impossible. Yet it was Jesus himself who said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27 and parallels). The apostolic message of the raising of Christ from the grave tells us of an event that is “powered on” by a source beyond any realm known to us.
I have doubted this message. I have questioned this message. I have wondered if I am on a fool’s errand. But Paul’s testimony in I Corinthians 15 brings me back every time. It is the integrity of this earliest written witness to the Resurrection that gives this preacher, this day, in this place, the liberty to deliver to you once again the unimaginable news: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and as Paul continues, the God “who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (II Corinthians 4:14-15).
So let’s not “have a nice Easter.” Let’s have something altogether different. We are not playing chess with Death, this season. Some One else has already won that match. This is the feast of the victory of our God. For now is Christ risen from the dead.