Easter: The Day of the Resurrection. Yr. C. March 31, 2013. (Text: Hebrews 10:34-43)
In the years after the resurrection of Jesus, his followers spread out from Jerusalem. As they went, they shared their memories of the things their Master had said and done. But what impelled them to talk the most was their experience of his Resurrection.
A dear lady down in Florida, a member of my first parish who is now 95 years old, told me something long ago that I’ve never forgotten. She said, “A person with an experience is never at the mercy of somebody who just has an argument.” That’s what this sermon is about.
Jesus’ first disciples were all Jews. But their fellow Jews ultimately came to despise them as blasphemers and drove them out of their synagogues. So, as we read this morning, Peter and Paul began to preach about Jesus to non-Jews. Some of them became Christians but many later fell away because the personal cost of following Jesus was too high. Nevertheless, the number of Christians grew steadily, in spite of hostility from the Jewish establishment, occasional bloody persecutions by Roman emperors, and the scorn of their pagan neighbors who mocked them for worshiping a crucified carpenter.
It’s logical for us to ask what made Christianity grow in popularity when there was so much opposition.
The answer is simple: it was their experience of the Risen Christ.
Encounter with Jesus after he had been raised from the dead made Peter and the others bold and fearless. It transformed them. It became the foundation of their lives. The changed lives of people like Peter, who had denied even knowing Jesus, and Paul, who had persecuted the young church—their willingness to die rather than deny Jesus—is valuable testimony to the truth of the resurrection. People just don’t accept death or persecution for the sake of a claim they know is false.
If Jesus had not died and risen again, there would be no Christianity today. But Peter and the others who had met the risen Lord could not NOT tell their stories. The experience of meeting Jesus, alive and with them again, was not something they could keep quiet about.
Today we heard about Peter telling a group of Gentiles about Jesus. Peter told them that God had chosen him to be one of the witnesses who met the Risen Lord. You might be surprised to know that I, too, am a witness to the resurrection, and I want to tell you my story. It was the transformative moment of my life.
When I left grad school and went to seminary in 1969, I had my sights set on being a church history professor. I was career-focused. I had a plan for my life, and I was working that plan. The priesthood would fit into my plan, but only as an adjunct to my academic career. I didn’t want to work in a parish.
I wanted to lecture on church history in a seminary, but I was uninterested in preaching. And that was mostly because I really had no “story” of my own to share. I know that now.
I had taken Greek in college and I focused my seminary studies on the New Testament, but the Bible was mainly an academic interest for me. I was a historian, and I was on the quest for “the historical Jesus.”
I doubted whether the gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection were anything more than that —just stories, tales, legends. In November of 1972 I was ordained as a priest. At the most solemn moment of the ordination service, as I was kneeling on the floor of the seminary chapel with the hands of the Bishop and many priests on my head and the Bishop was praying for the Holy Spirit to make me a priest, I suddenly heard a Voice speaking inside my head. I’d always made fun of people who claimed they had “heard the Lord,” so this was an unexpected experience. The Voice that was speaking within me even drowned out the voice of the Bishop as he said those powerful prayers. The Voice said, “Until now you have done what you wanted to do. Hereafter, you shall do what I would have you do.” This made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Nothing like it had ever happened to me.
I was stunned. The experience shook my intellectual foundations. I was a philosophical rationalist. I was a bright guy with an ivy league degree. I did not believe in things like this! I thought people who “heard God” were sick in the head. But I knew I was not sick in the head. I was mentally sound, and I was having an experience I had never expected and could not explain.
My life suddenly changed. I began to read the Bible differently. Instead of reading Scripture in order to have grist for academic debates, I began to read in order to hear God speak to me. And he did.
Six weeks later, I was back home in Texas visiting my family for Christmas. The rector of my home church had the flu, and he asked if I would fill in for him on the Sunday after Christmas. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.
Preaching still wasn’t comfortable for me, so I worked extra hard on my sermon —just the second one since my ordination. The sermon was pretty tedious, long, and overly academic. My dad, who always called a spade a spade, said, “Son, that was awfully bookish.”
But what I remember about that sermon is how deeply the gospel for the day spoke to my heart. It connected with what was happening to me. The gospel for that day was from the first chapter of John. You know the passage. It begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And it goes on to say “...He came to his own people, and his own people received him not. But to those who received him, who believed on his name, he gave power to become the children of God.”
As I drove back to my parents’ house after two services, I was still thinking about that gospel. I was reflecting on how much it resonated with everything that had happened in my life since my ordination.
As I sat in the car at a stop light, feeling happy and peaceful, suddenly it happened again. I heard the same Voice! But this time the Voice sounded like someone suppressing a laugh. Through his chuckles the Lord said, “Yes, it’s true. My gospel is true. —And behold, I am alive forever more!”
Tears began to run down my cheeks. And I sat there at the traffic light, crying, as the signal changed from red to green and back again and cars honked and drove around me. Finally, I collected myself and drove on to my parents’ house. I hadn’t gone half a mile before I had rationalized the whole thing.
I said to myself: “I’ve just had an emotional experience, nothing more. Those were merely echoes of my own thoughts.” I went home and said nothing about this episode to anyone for four years.
But the experience changed me immediately in two ways. The first was that, after hearing the Voice again while I was in the car, I couldn’t even make myself doubt the resurrection. All the contrary arguments now seemed beside the point. I had had an experience. I had heard the Lord, and I knew he was alive. The second was that I began to want to preach!
Though I was back at the university, teaching undergraduates and trying to figure out my dissertation, the pulpit suddenly became more interesting than the lecture hall. Now I had a story to tell, as I have told it to you today.
That was what I call my “Easter experience at Christmas time.” Because of it, I can say that I too am a witness to the resurrection. And, trust me, there are other people you know who are also witnesses to the resurrection—in similar or more dramatic ways than I. Some of them are probably even sitting here this morning.
“A person with an experience is never at the mercy of somebody who just has an argument.” Our experience of the Risen Christ empowers and defines us. —Nothing can change that.
Witnesses to the resurrection have bad days, just like everybody else. I lose my temper and get mad; I grumble; I get depressed; I fuss about trivial things. But since that Sunday after Christmas forty-one years ago, I have never been without hope, never doubted the future, and never feared death
—because I have met the Risen Lord. I had an experience, and that experience made all the difference in my life.
My Easter advice to you is this: Get ready for a surprise, because the Risen One is now on his way to meet you!
For a pdf version of this sermon, please click here.