- Parish House
A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis 50 years ago this past Wednesday. King is now remembered as a voice for peace, a voice for justice and equality. He is remembered for his dreams and for the vision of a beloved community among all people. There are streets that bear his name, museums dedicated to his legacy, and a monument in his likeness among the founding figures of this country.
It is hard for us to remember now, that King’s final year was marked by betrayal, his circle infiltrated by the FBI, his supporters abandoning him as he broadened his call for justice from civil rights to what he called “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
We would rather remember a safer King, suited for a postage stamp, than the man who finally fell to an assassin’s bullet. The postage stamp King is someone we can be sure we would have marched with, attaching his likeness to our envelopes to show our liberal goodness. This is a different King from the man who may well have addressed his letter from Birmingham jail to me, a white southern progressive minister who loves compromise, patient justice, and “reasonable” solutions that make everyone happy.
We like the safer King; just as we like the safer Jesus who we remember with children on his lap preaching messages of love, rather than the man who so offended the people of his day that he was executed by them in the most torturous way they could imagine.
To our credit, perhaps the distance of 50 years or 2000 years helps us to see the beauty we would have missed through the uproar of the moment. We can now see, for example, how beautiful the witness of the church in Acts was with their sharing and the lack of any needy person among them. But as with the beloved community King called for, a vision of deep togetherness rooted in the biblical witness embodied in the church in Acts, we too easily forget the costly context that made such a shining reality possible.
Before we get to the sharing of goods, the heart and soul of the believers united in love, we have the story of Peter and John being arrested and brought before the same authorities who killed Jesus. By the end of the story, all of the original twelve disciples will have been executed or exiled. That is the context in which the beloved community takes form.
You may be thinking at this point, what does this sermon have to do with Easter. Has Good Friday not passed, is the tomb not empty? Those are good questions, questions I’ve been asking myself. But the answer to those questions comes in trying to understand what the resurrection is exactly and what it has to do with the incredible move that brings the fearful disciples from being huddled behind locked doors to living as a bold new community that shares all its property in common. The movement we see between these stories is one that goes from confusion to conspiracy and the power that makes this movement possible is the power of the resurrection.
We begin with the disciples locked in safety behind a thick door, afraid that they will share in the same fate as their Lord. Mary has already told them that Jesus has risen, that she has witnessed the resurrection, but the male disciples seem to be only more confused by this news.
Then Jesus suddenly enters their midst, contained by neither a grave nor locked doors. He shows them his wounds, he appears to them not as hope rising in their hearts, but as a body that has endured the cross and overcome the worst the authorities could do to him. The disciples rejoice as they begin to witness the power in this person who has just been raised from the dead. But Jesus doesn’t let that joy remain as a momentary response. Instead Jesus gives their joy a job, a mission. “As the father sent me, so I send you,” Jesus tells them. He then breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit. It is here that confusion turns to conspiracy. To conspire is literally to “breathe together” and that is what happens as the church is formed through this common breath of the spirit of God.
The breath becomes their bond, but it is the resurrection that becomes their power. It is not a power that promises that it will all work out for us in the end, but rather it is a promise that we need not fear death when we are following the call of God and seeking God’s kingdom. With the power of the resurrection we can trust God with our lives, even if in the end, the Powers of Death put an end to our bodies. In the power of the resurrection we know that the end of one moment of our bodily life is not the final stage of its future.
King faced a moment in which he was invited into this resurrection power, in just the same way that the disciples were behind those locked doors. In the early days of the Birmingham bus boycott, King received a call at midnight from a man who threatened to kill King and blow up his house if he didn’t leave Birmingham in three days. King was deeply disturbed and shaken by this midnight call. As his wife and children slept King went to his kitchen to pray. In the quiet of that night he heard an inner voice say to him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” From then on he kept standing up until fifty years ago in Memphis he met his cross. In that moment he joined James and Peter, Jon Hus and William Tyndale, Edith Stein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and all those in that great cloud of witnesses who await the promise that just as they have shared in a death like Jesus’ they will also share in a resurrection like his.
The question for us now is whether we will move with them from the safe confines of our closed doors, having heard of the resurrection, but not yet having witnessed it. Will we be among those blessed people who have not seen and felt the body of the risen Lord, but have breathed in the breath of God, joining in the conspiracy of God’s kingdom. Will we carry forward that reckless love of Jesus and seek to build God’s beloved community in our midst, even if it might mean we have to die, or that our way of being church has to die, or that our way of doing business has to die, or that our sense of safety and stability have to die. There are many crosses that lead to resurrection and we rarely get to choose which one we will occupy. Our choice is whether or not we will follow Jesus, trusting in the power of the resurrection, wherever it may lead. Amen.