- Parish House
Sermon for Easter Sunday
Year C, Matthew 28.1-10
The Rev. Scott Walters
I do realize that sermon references to pop culture these days are usually made to establish that a preacher is hip, clever, and relevant. It’s also probably true that if one is going to rail against the godless entertainment industry and its anti-christian themes, Easter Sunday might not be the best day to do that. But I’m sorry. Here I stand. I can do no other.
For our collective scorn this morning, I offer a scene that has haunted me for some time now. It’s from the NBC series “Highway to Heaven,” which starred Michael Landon as an angel named Jonathan. Did that show get cancelled yet? Hip and relevant as I obviously am, I don’t keep up very well.
Anyway, here’s the scene. Jonathan is walking across a grocery store parking lot in his signature leather jacket, his wavy, shoulder length Jesus hair, and the gentle grin that every Michael Landon character seems to wear at all times in every show he’s ever starred in. It doesn’t matter whether his little house on the prairie is getting buried in a snowstorm or he’s just visited another random act of angelic kindness on someone. Same smile for all situations.
So he’s standing in the parking lot smiling when a guy in a pickup zips into a handicap spot. As the man starts making his very able bodied way to the store, Jonathan, of course, assumes he must have overlooked the bright blue sign in front of his vehicle. So he gently points out the mistake. But the guy blows Jonathan off and keeps walking.
Well, our villain does his shopping, but when he returns, he finds his truck right where he parked it, but upside down. He scratches his head in wonder, as Jonathan watches from nearby, his unchanged smile now somehow registering a sort of righteous angelic gloat.
I know. It’s probably good that the younger children have left for children’s chapel, isn’t it? We can’t have them exposed to such a blatantly unchristian image. Because there may be nothing less Christian in all the world than vengeance. Seriously. There may be nothing less Christian at all.
So let’s talk about vengeance, shall we? And for our purposes, let’s call vengeance any twinge in us that wants to bring the moral order of the universe back into balance. Let’s call it anything in us that thinks and acts and wishes in ways that see sin as something for which a price must be paid rather than a wound that must be healed. As something other than a wound that will invariably be passed on to someone else if it isn’t tended to.
I know. I know. You’ve been told things like, Jesus died to pay the debt of our sins. So clearly we do need to think of sin and forgiveness in terms of ethical ledgers that have to be balanced out. So a sinless person died the most unjust and horrible death imaginable. Which somehow cancels out all the unjust and horrible things we’ve ever done.
The logic is strange, if familiar. And the problem is that when we accept it, we can tend to go around like little gods ourselves, making sure the proper suffering is doled out for any infraction. We’d turn over a few pickup trucks if we had the angelic power to do so. And we think the world would be a better place if we did.
But the truth of Easter is not that vengeance must be paid. The truth of Easter is that God will have none of it. Vengeance was put to death on Good Friday. Because vengeance is not a corrective to sin. Vengeance is how sin stays alive.
The sinlessness of Jesus is a strange doctrine to modern people. It seems strange and, frankly, useless to us because we hold on to the terrible image of God demanding a pure sacrifice to balance the moral scales. But how many times in the Hebrew scriptures does God say, “Listen. I don’t actually need your sacrifices. In fact, I need nothing at all. I just want you to learn to stop the violence. I just want you to be merciful and kind and humble.”
God has no need to be appeased. The sacrifices were meant for our benefit, not God’s. Because human beings have to have some way of displacing the anger and vengeance that grows up around our wounds. We have to find ways to keep from passing on the wrongs done to us to other people. If we don’t, the hurt stays alive. The pain keeps moving. Once upon a time people put that pain on a couple of doves, hoping not to put so much of it on their children, their neighbors, the strangers they meet.
So to say that Jesus was a sinless victim isn’t to say he never had naughty thoughts, and was therefore a pure enough offering. To say Jesus was a sinless victim is to say that Jesus passed on none of the violence, none of the hurt, none of the sin that a violent, vengeful world dealt him. The story of the world’s redemption told through Holy Week to Easter morning is the story of Jesus making a perfect rupture in the terrible cycle of retribution that this world has been caught in from the beginning.
It’s a cycle you and I are caught in too.
You see, to be alive in this world is to be the victim of some kind of pain, some kind of wrong, some kind of sin, is it not? From the moment we’re born, life hurts us sometimes. Life is not fair to us sometimes. And from the beginning we have to do something with that hurt. We instinctively lash back out. But as soon as we do, we’re caught. Caught in the cycle of victims who pass their injuries on to other victims. Before we’re even old enough to know what we’re doing, our vengeance is what keeps some of the world’s pain moving through the world.
Of course, we get cleverer as we grow up. We call our vengeance justice, and we convince ourselves that our righteous anger is just what the world needs to get it back on track. But the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus tell a different story. They tell us that vengeance and retribution don’t put a stop to violence and sin. Retribution is oxygen to sin’s flame.
But vengeance dies on the cross. Jesus hangs there on Good Friday, hands and feet pinned back, saying with his whole body, “Look at me. What else must I do for you to understand that nothing of what follows, nothing of my resurrection and nothing of your redemption will be according to the vengeful terms of a violent world. I’m absorbing all of this so that it won’t keep absorbing so much of you. In me, right here. It is finished.”
And what the two Marys witness in the dark that first Easter morning—the earthquake, the shining angel, the shaking guards—what they experienced was not some snappy light show to pay back the Good Friday naysayers and prove who’s boss. They saw that the end of vengeance opened up a new future. Christ was still alive. Headed to Galilee. They had a new direction in which to go. A path made by grace and forgiveness, not violence and vengeance. The resurrection first felt like a new way, after the Good Friday feeling that all ways forward have been violently shut down again.
Maybe the question of Easter for us, then, is What is the way Jesus cuts for us? How do we bring the power of his resurrection — that perfect interruption of the cycle of vengeance we’ve been caught in — how do we bring his resurrection to bear on our lives? How might it renew our minds, as St Paul insisted it could?
Part of the answer will involve Christians looking out at a violent and vengeful world and witnessing to another way. Insisting that retribution, wherever it exists, only makes a path for more violence, more sin, more pain. Jesus showed us another way. We’re called to show the world that way.
But for Jesus’s people, before we try to mend the world, we must tend to our own wounds so that their destructive power is buried with Jesus, and raised as new ways of living a life fired by grace.
I don’t know your wounds or your ways. But I’ll leave you with a short poem by Scott Cairns called “Possible Answers to Prayer” that speaks to mine. See if it rings true for you.
Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
Friends, Christ is risen. And Christ’s resurrection wasn’t some pickup truck upturning or score settling for the sins of the world. Christ’s resurrection was the perfect end of vengeance. The perfect divine refusal to play by a vengeful world’s rules.
And, friends, all these Easters later, the resurrection still has power to burn away our angers, our zeal, our lipsmackingly righteous indignation toward our enemies. It still has the power burn in us whatever must go away in us, so that we can see how near the fervent, liberating love of God has been all along. It’s been as near as our wounds. As near as the ones we’ve wounded. Because the wounded, which are all of us, are precisely the ones God adores.