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.
Mortal Memory and the Human Future
The Parish of St. Matthew, Pacific Palisades
MORTAL MEMORY AND THE HUMAN FUTURE
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge Easter III, April 25, 2004
He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. (II Corinthians 4:14)
I am deeply grateful that your clergy invited me to share part of the Great Fifty Days with you. This is by far the most wonderful season of the Church year, and your glorious Southern California weather makes me want to write a new stanza for the Benedicite:
All ye waves and beaches, bless ye the Lord;
All ye palms and bougainvillea, bless ye the Lord;
All ye hills and canyons, bless ye the Lord;
Praise him and magnify him for ever!
But Easter is not about weather. Easter is not about springtime. In the mud season of New England, in the grey drizzle of Seattle, in the autumn of the Southern Hemisphere, the message of Easter is the same.
But what exactly is the message of Easter? Every year I browse through the racks of greeting cards, and every year it seems that there are more and more cards offering the joys of springtime and fewer and fewer cards having to do with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe that has something to do with the state of uncertainty within the churches. It’s a bit difficult to know exactly where one is supposed to stand. Even those who have been faithful church members all their lives have some reason to be a bit unsure these days. We have all heard voices telling us that belief in the Resurrection of Christ is an outmoded relic of a prescientific age. You have heard the talking heads on TV¾many of them claiming to speak for the church¾telling us something like this: what really happened is that the disciples came to realize that even though Jesus was dead, what he had taught them had not died, and they were able to sense his loving presence with them when they gathered together to remember him. This experience, we are told, is what changed their lives.
But how is that different from any other beloved person’s death? I am the member of a group that gets together once a month for dinner. We raise a glass to toast a departed member whom we all loved. We pause to tell a story about him or reminisce about him. Then we go on to other subjects. It remains to be seen how long this custom will continue as new members join who did not know our friend. One custom of this sort which has lasted two hundred years is the hallowed ritual of the British Navy. Once a year the naval officers gather for a banquet and a toast to Admiral Lord Nelson, who fell in the midst of glorious victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. The presiding officer raises his glass and says, “Gentlemen, the immortal memory!”
Lord Nelson is indeed an excellent candidate for immortality of a sort among the English-speaking peoples, but the French would not be interested. One could not start a worldwide movement based on the “immortal memory” of the British hero. One might think of other candidates that cross national boundaries; Stephen Daedalus lives every Bloomsday in Dublin and around the world where people gather for marathon readings of Ulysses, but the total number of obsessive James Joyce fans will never be large. Not even Elvis will live forever; as the boomer generation ages, the number of sightings gets smaller and smaller.
Well, so what does the message of the risen life of Jesus Christ really mean? Did anything really happen in the darkness of the tomb that night two thousand years ago? And in the end, does it matter? Does it matter to you? I have a friend who has been many times senior warden of a distinguished church in Virginia. He never misses a Sunday service. I asked him once if it would make any difference to him if Jesus never rose from the dead. He said, “No difference whatsoever.”
About twenty years after the alleged Resurrection of Jesus, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth. He was alarmed because they had drifted away from the message of the Cross and Resurrection. They were drawn to generic spirituality, a sort of gnosticism, a New Age type of religiosity. Some of them thought that the Resurrection did not really matter; they believed that the Eucharist had permanently immunized them against death. They called this lifetime dose the “medicine of immortality.”
Paul wrote the Corinthians a whole long chapter about the Resurrection¾I Corinthians 15. He said, If Christ is not raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (15:14). Strong words. We need to hear them again today. I would like to read the whole chapter this morning. But my sermon text is just one verse today, from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. He writes, [God] who raised the Lord Jesus [from the dead] will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence (II Corinthians 4:14).
The earliest testimony to the Resurrection that we have is in Paul’s letters. He began writing these letters no more than twenty years after the Resurrection, so they are much earlier than the Gospels. I have noticed that people who want to sidestep the Resurrection don’t refer to Paul very much¾in much of the Church Paul’s letters remain much less well known and less honored than the four Gospels. But the great apostle to the Gentiles is a force to be reckoned with, and if we forget that, we have forfeited much of the heart and soul of Christian faith. We have enough letters written by Paul to get a clear sense of a distinct individual with a very specific and identifiable point of view. So when this man declares¾in his own direct, unmediated voice¾that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that his apostleship is a witness to that fact, it is not so easy to explain it away as though it were just some vague form of religious wishing. When Paul founded his churches and wrote his letters, most of the people who had known Jesus during his earthly life¾those who had been there when he appeared after the Resurrection¾were still alive. We do not have the slightest hint that any of them were in disagreement with Paul’s proclamation of Christ raised bodily from the dead and Christ’s own raised also with him. Peter, James and the others may have disagreed with him about other things, like circumcision and dietary laws, but not about this. The entire early church was united in this announcement: He [God] who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about the skeptics who want to deconstruct the Resurrection (and I will admit to you that I have been there myself) is that they don’t generally focus on God one way or the other. Their point is that the disciples had an experience of the presence of Jesus after he died. Paul says something quite different. He says that God raised Jesus from the dead. Anyone who really knows the Old Testament will understand this. In the Old Testament, God is the one who makes everything happen. God created the universe out of nothing. God brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm. The God of the Old Testament is the God who made a way out of no way at the Red Sea. So from the earliest beginnings of the Church, the mighty acts of God in the Creation, at the Passover and in the Exodus were linked with the most mighty act of all, the raising of Jesus from the dead.
God, you see, is the acting subject of the entire Biblical story. The Bible is not a story about humanity’s search for God. The backbone of the Biblical narrative that holds the whole thing up is the story of God’s search for us. “Adam, where are you?” It was not fallen Adam who searched his way back to God. It is God who found the way to Adam. It is God who has brought his people out of slavery into freedom. It is God who raised Jesus from the dead. And it is God who, the apostle says, will raise us also with Jesus. So the question about the Resurrection is the question about God. If the Resurrection does not matter, then God does not matter. We all need to ask ourselves whether we believe in God or not, and what sort of God we believe in. The God that Paul proclaims to us, in one of his most radical teachings, is the God who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17).
The world today presents an alarming aspect. Psalm 33, which we read this morning, contains these verses:
The Lord brings the will of the nations to naught;
he thwarts the designs of the peoples.
But the Lord’s will stands for ever,
the designs of his heart to all generations.
These words seem singularly pertinent today. Our nation’s mission is not accomplished.. Even here in this idyllic setting we are uneasily aware that terrorism may be on our doorstep. Can God bring peace into existence where peace does not exist? Can he bring reconciliation where there is hatred? Can he create life where life has been extinguished? I well remember today something that a former Israeli minister of justice said a couple of years ago: “The Israeli war against the terrorist infrastructure will give birth to more terrorists because the terrorist infrastructure lies within people’s hearts.” This is the real meaning of Original Sin. There is a terrorist infrastructure called Sin and Death that holds us captive, and there is no human antidote to it. The antidote is beyond our capacity. It has to come from another sphere of power altogether. That is what happened in the Resurrection. Jesus is not an “immortal memory.” Jesus is the living Son of God, present in all his risen power. God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus, co-equal with the Father, now reigns on high with him.
Almost everyone agrees that in the year 33 AD something happened. Something happened to cause an utterly demoralized, defeated, discredited group of disciples to arise and go out and begin a worldwide movement based on the news of a crucified Messiah. The question is, what happened? Those who want to jettison the tradition have exchanged the New Testament proclamation for an “immortal memory,” something that anyone could dream up about any favorite hero. But the apostolic preaching tells us that what happened on Easter Day is beyond human memory, beyond human heroism, beyond human imagination. According to the New Testament, not even angels could have imagined the Resurrection (I Peter 1:12). The Son, fully equal to the Father in power and majesty, voluntarily gave himself up that night in Gethsemane to become the victim of the terrorist infrastructure of the human heart. He gave himself up to the very worst that we could do. And on the third day, the terrorist infrastructure lay in pieces around him. God raised Jesus from the grave of human nature.
And what’s more, beloved people of God, the Father who has done this mighty and unlooked-for thing that we sinners had no right to expect¾ the God who has raised the Lord Jesus¾will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. This news of a crucified man raised in power from the dead means that he is able to bring us¾his family, his brothers and sisters by adoption and grace¾along with him into the divine life of God, the life of the eternal Age. This is entirely beyond our capacity to conceive. The Resurrection was something completely new in the world, because God is the one who calls into existence the things that do not exist. And truly, the God who can do that can do anything.
Not everyone will be convinced by this message. There will always be those who prefer free-floating “spirituality.” But what a poor thing that is compared to a future in the presence of a very real brother and friend, our Master who is at the same time God, who entered the realm of death and overcame it on our behalf, who enfolded friend and enemy alike into his transforming embrace, who stared down his pretended judges with a sovereign self-command that still speaks, who submitted to the depths of the terrorist infrastructure in the human heart yet continued to place himself confidently in the hands of his heavenly Father. If you are one of those, today, who would like to be placed there too, for the present and for the eternal future, rejoice today. For he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 That’s why Paul wrote to them, as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes (I Corinthians 11:26).
 The reference is to the famous “Mission Accomplished” sign that hung over the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln when President Bush landed there after the first stage of hostilities in Iraq ended in 2003.
 Yossi Beilin on The New York Times op-ed page, 3/30/02.