Sermon Given at St. John’s Cathedral, Knoxville
This morning, let me add my welcome to you here at St. John’s Cathedral on this first day in the Easter season. The good people of St. John’s have outdone themselves in preparing for this morning’s worship and its glorious celebration.
The flowers are a witness to resurrection and their fragrance fills the room. The light and the color and the vestments convey new life and eternal hope. The music, if for no other reason, you would believe in the resurrection because of the music. Full disclosure—my wife is in the choir, but I’m not biased. Music truly can convey an interior belief and desire that mere words, offered unadorned, cannot.
The good people of St. John’s have thought of everything this morning in wanting to welcome you here and to aid you in joining them in proclaiming the Resurrection of our Crucified Jesus. They have thought of everything.
Except, one thing is missing.
Now, before I mention what is missing, hear me say that I want to REALLY affirm all that is here. Flowers, light, color, music, people…did I mention the flowers? However, we did forget one thing.
This is awkward to even say this. Jesus. We forgot Jesus.
In the gospel lesson appointed for us to read this morning, Jesus doesn’t actually show up. The women are there, two men in dazzling clothes show up, apparently dressing up for Easter started immediately, the apostles show up offstage, and Peter’s arrival at the empty tomb closes the scene.
Now, the two men in dazzling clothes do mention words that Jesus had told the women and his followers about crucifixion and rising again. But I do not think we came all this way this morning believing we would only hear people talking about Jesus. We came here this morning to see Jesus. But, he’s not here.
This is going to go viral. East Tennesseans remember everything for Easter, except for one thing…Jesus. If you get a call from the news media, do not talk them. Have them call the Cathedral clergy.
So, now that I have your attention, let me allay your fears. Jesus is here. He is right where he told us he would be. We are reading the right gospel on the right day in the right year in this very strange world in which you and I now live.
This gospel begins with women. Let me say it is such a remarkable thing that the Church has ever and still does debate the appropriate role of women in leadership in the Body of Christ. In this lesson, it is the women who are going to attend to the body, the original body, tortured and disfigured and disregarded. For his body, no matter what the Empire did to him, it was still the body of their Lord.
The women come to the tomb. And the stone is rolled away. They do not run. If I came to a tomb and it was broken open, I would back away. My first impulse would be not to go forward. Thank God for people whose first impulse is to go forward when faced with an uncertain moment. Firefighters in Paris this past week went into harm’s way in order to save a cathedral that was already in some kind of ruin before the fires began. Yet, they went forward. Was that faith? Was that belief?
In the tomb, they do not see Jesus but they do see two men, dressed in dazzling clothes.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Of all the confessions of faith ever proclaimed, ever committed to memory and held up as able to say what the Church wants to say, both in ancient times and in contemporary moments, the two in dazzling clothes say it as well as it has ever been said. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
You and I still meet folk like these two men in dazzling clothes. The women at the tomb do not know them. We do not catch their names. To be honest, dazzling clothes at a tomb is not exactly appropriate attire. Something a little more business casual somber is called for. Yet, these two in wild clothing, in bright color, break open the story just as the Risen Jesus, through the Spirit of the Living God, broke open the tomb.
I sometimes go out of my way to avoid people I do not know. People I know are so much easier to know, right? Yet, it is so often the people we do not know who come to us and say something which has never been said to us before and change our lives. Easter is not simply a time when we celebrate that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Easter is also a season when strangers tell us Good News, when they wake us up, with outlandish outfits, telling us Good News, often by simply reminding us what we already knew.
The two men tell the women what Jesus had already told them. Don’t you remember? He said if you came to the tomb, you would simply see a failed tomb. If you are looking for Jesus, go back out there, into the world. Wherever you find life, no matter it is flourishing or suffering, there you will find Jesus. He is now forevermore counted among the living, having passed through the dead.
The women then return to the apostles, the eleven who remain. The women return with Good News, they tell the apostles what they did and did not see at the tomb. They tell the apostles what they heard, what was told to them, what was remembered back to them. He is not here…he is risen.
And the apostles reply with…we do not believe you. It is an idle tale.
Remember when I mentioned how important it was to have women in leadership in the Church? This is the moment in the gospel lesson today, when the women are told by the apostles that their empty tomb account is an idle tale, that we recall you just can’t help some people. How many hours and how many times and in how many ways did Jesus attempt to tell the apostles what it means to follow him?
Now, the women, being reminded by the two in dazzling clothes, are telling the apostles what Jesus had told them about the cross and the tomb, yet their first response is disbelief. So, please know that the Church is a place of grace and forgiveness and starting over again and again when you consider just how many chances Jesus gave to his closest followers. The tomb is broken open and the Risen Jesus is on the move, but his apostles do not believe.
You and I live in a time when not believing is the new belief, yet grace abounds, people in dazzling clothes, if they could only catch our eye, would return us to our first love, our first confession, our first moment of witnessing life where we expected to find the dead.
This past Monday, an ancient cathedral suffered a devastating fire. Much of what was there will never be returned. But from that fire, from that place of traumatic destruction, something new and alive will emerge. People will pray in that space again. Even as they pray, people will walk past them, saying it is but an idle tale. Still, the ones praying, the women, the ones willing to move forward even as the times in front of us are uncertain, will keep praying. They will pray for the lost and the found. They will pray for our belief, and for help with our unbelief.
This morning, St. John’s Cathedral has remembered everything. The flowers, the light, the color, the music, the scriptures, the bread, the wine are all to be found here. You and I are also here.
While we did not “see” Jesus in St. Luke’s account this morning, we now know that we were not to look for him there. We are to look for him here, in this moment, among the living. He has been crucified. He has been touched by the Empire’s hottest fires. Yet, his body, burned, was not consumed. His body remains, here with us.
My prayer is that you will have a joyful and blessed and believing Easter.
The video of Bishop Brian’s sermon may be found here. The bishop’s sermon starts at 43:44 in the beautiful Easter service at St. John’s Cathedral.