A Sermon for Easter Day, April 21, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 65:17-25 ++ Psalm:1-2, 14-24 ++ 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 ++ John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord…(John 20:18)

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.[1]

This sounds like an excellent news lede for the resurrection, as if a first-century journalist happened to be present at the tomb on the that first Easter morning. Sadly, there was no scrappy cub reporter there, and this quote on the utterly impossible actually comes from the typewriter of the late, great New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Red Smith in his October 4, 1951 column on “The Shot Heard Round the World,” when the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit a ninth-inning, three-run home run off the Brooklyn Dodger’ Ralph Branca to win a three-game playoff, once again denying the Dodgers a trip to the World Series. 

There is a certain symmetry in proclaiming “He is risen” and “play ball” around the same time every year.

Reality has strangled invention, Smith wrote.  John might well have written the same. Who could make up such a story as a man come back to life? 

Who could make up such a story as a woman being the first witness to the resurrection? We’ve spent some time over the past week talking about whether the Jesus we get is the Jesus we want or expect, and there was no onewho was expecting a Jesus who revealed his resurrected self to a woman.

This was no ordinary woman, however. She was Mary of Magdala, who had already experienced a resurrection of her own: healed of seven demons, demons that barred her from community, from love, from acceptance.

This Mary who, restored, became the most faithful of the disciples, not abandoning her teacher, watching and waiting at the foot of the cross, coming to the tomb before dawn on the third day. And it was her solo presence in John’s account that caused her to be called Apostle to the Apostles by the 3rdcentury theologian Hippolytus of Rome. 

Yet even Mary who had experienced the wonder-working gifts of Jesus, who had surely seen and known of the raising of Lazarus of Bethany, even shecould not at first recognize the inexpressibly fantastic. It is not until Jesus called her name that her eyes were opened.

And then she ran to where the disciples were hiding and preached the very first Easter sermon: I have seen the Lord (20:18).

If it’s the only sermon I ever preach or you ever preach, what more needs to be said than, “I have seen the Lord?”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

In an age in which explosions rip through churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Day, war is starving millions in Yemen, U.S. servicemembers continue to be killed in Afghanistan, and migrant children are separated from their parents – perhaps permanently – at the southern border, how can we possibly proclaim resurrection? Has anyone seen the Lord?

Well, if there’s one thing that the death on the cross teaches us, it is that no darkness, no horror, no violence is too deep to keep God out.

If God can humble God’s self to become human, can live just as we do with exasperating friends and under constant threat from the time of his very human birth, and can be arrested and tried on trumped-up charges, and put to death by a ruthless occupying regime – if God can be there, then can’t God also be in Colombo, Nogales, or Kabul?

We live in fearful times, and one doesn’t have to look very far to find the voices that fan the flames of that fear. Even in our gospel accounts of the Great Three Days, there was plenty of fear to go around.

Yet it was not the voices of fear that won. Even if Mary wasafraid, her love for her Lord was too great to keep her away. She didn’t even wait until the sun was up. 

In almost every other biblical account, the appearance of angels is announced with the words “Do not be afraid,” but not here. They surely knew that there could be no greater fear than what this woman had witnessed already in the last few days. 

If fear wins, then we might as well just stay on Good Friday. A culture of death and violence in an endless cycle is one that can only exist on Good Friday, when darkness prevails even in the middle of the day.

But there is no resurrection there, on Good Friday. There is no resurrection in protecting ourselves from enemies known and unknown, in seeking our safety and security by isolating ourselves from others, from human contact, from relationship. For we who sit on this side of Easter know that the way to resurrection also leads through the cross.

Anyone who has ever stood at a tomb or a grave or at a hospital bedside or on a field of war knows that death is not the end. Death does not have the final word. God did not stop working on Good Friday, and we who are so willing to accept from God’s hands all the good that we believe comes from God, are we to refuse to accept that in loss and failure and pain and sorrow, God might also be present? 

In the primordial darkness, God brought light from the void. In the darkest hour just before dawn, Mary discovers light shining from the tomb of darkness and death. Just as John begins this gospel with light shining in darkness, he never lets us lose sight of Jesus as the light of the world.

At our glorious Easter Vigil last night, we lit the new fire of Easter and brought the light of Christ into this place with the Paschal candle, and we proclaimed “Christ is risen.”

And if we truly believe that, then we can look out into the broken and bruised world and say “We have seen the Lord.” There can be no hedging our bets on this – either we believe it or we do not. And if we do not, then, to paraphrase Paul, our faith is nothing.

In an Easter sermon preached in 1981 at Riverside Church in New York City, William Sloan Coffin said: 

Yes, fear and hatred kill, but love never dies – not with God, not even with us. The Easter message says love is stronger than death. The Easter message says God is never driven out of human life. The Easter message says that all the strength and tenderness that on Good Friday was scourged, buffeted, and stretched out on a cross, all that goodness incarnate is once again alive. “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Until all eternity Christ will be alive, in the form of the Holy Spirit, trying to bring about our own spiritual resurrection – “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” – and through us to bring to naught all the principalities and powers that spell distress unending to our fellow human beings and ruin to our beautiful earth.[2]      

Friends, we may live in a Good Friday world, but we are people of the resurrection; we are people of hope, and we have a message for the world that the world desperately needs to hear, now more than ever.

It’s a message that says that no matter what the worst seems to be, love wins; God’s extravagant, radical, reckless, prodigal love wins.

Yes, the art of fiction is dead.

The utterly impossible has happened.

The inexpressibly fantastic has occurred.

We have seen the Lord.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!


[1]Smith, Red. On Baseball (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000) 126.

[2]Coffin, William Sloan. The Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years, volume 1(Louisville: WJK Press, 2008) 426.

ASEPA Sermon for Easter Day, April 21, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas