Every year we trace the life of Jesus by our liturgical cycle. Sometimes it can be a bit jarring….like today. It was just a few short months ago that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then Friday we watched his cruel death. And now today we witness his resurrection. In our worshipping life all of this happened between December 25 and April 1. In the space of 97 days we have gone from birth to death to resurrection.
With just 97 days to make this journey we lose so much of the context of Jesus’ life. We don’t have the time or energy to fully experience his journey. I think that is especially true in a church with a progressive theology, like this one. We so badly want to focus on the love that the reality of Jesus’ life gets lost in translation.
To understand Jesus, it is important that we understand that the world into which he was born was not a hospitable place for a poor boy like Jesus. The Book of Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Augustus was Emperor. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire and Augustus had a pretty sweet deal. Augustus imposed a Pax Romana – a Roman peace. That means there was peace, as long as everyone submitted to the power of the Empire. Some people were grateful for the illusion of peace after so much upheaval and civil war. Some people event thought Augustus must be divine and thus the Emperor Cult was born. The theology of the Emperor Cult was this: Caesar is God. The Empire wanted to be worshipped.
And it was into that Emperor Cult that Jesus was born in a remote village on the margins of the Empire to a peasant girl and a blue-collar worker. By the time he was thirty years old his people were pretty tired of the taxation and the threats that kept them submissive. They didn’t want to call Caesar “Lord”. They knew it was blasphemy. They prayed unceasingly for God to send them someone to do battle with the Roman Empire and free them from this hell.
God gave them Jesus but Jesus didn’t tell them to go home and get their assault rifles and meet him back at the village square. He didn’t tell them they needed to create their own Army. He said, “You get to choose which empire you live in. Do you want to live in Caesar’s kingdom or God’s kingdom?” “We want to live in the Kingdom of God,” they said. Jesus said, “The good news is you already do. Caesar’s empire is an illusion. Reject the power of Caesar and any other powers that dare to collude with Caesar, even if these voices come from within the Temple. Instead, focus your eyes on God and live in God’s kingdom now and forever. ” “What? We already live in God’s kingdom? It sure doesn’t seem like it,” they said.
Over and over again for three years Jesus had this same conversation with people. He extended his invitation to the poor and oppressed. He used parables to try and help them understand. He called their religious leaders “a brood of vipers.” He shook up their rules of table fellowship. He held their children and healed their sick. He told them that the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. He refused to give Caesar anything that was owed to God. He threw the moneychangers out of the Temple. He didn’t slice off anyone’s ear. He didn’t encourage people to buy weapons. He simply told people over and over and over again that the worldly powers that threatened them were impotent in God’s divine community.
The Empire didn’t like his total disregard of them and their power. They decided they would do the worst thing they could think of…arrest him, beat him, and execute him for the public to see. The Empire wanted everyone to see what happens to those who call the Empire powerless. “See what we can do! End of story!”
But it wasn’t the end of the story. That is why we all showed up here this morning. God raised Jesus….and more importantly, his message from death.
Then Jesus started making all these appearances as the Resurrected Christ. He came to Mary in the garden and she mistook him for the gardener. He walked with Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus and it took hours before they recognized him. He showed up in the locked room to the disciples….and because Thomas was gone at the time, Jesus came back so Thomas could see him, as well. He cooked Peter and the other disciples breakfast on the beach and told them to “Feed my sheep”.
He kept showing up and reminding them that they live in the Kingdom of God now and forevermore. He reminded that their job is love and service. He let them touch the nail holes or fall at his feet but he cautioned them that they couldn’t hold onto him. He said to them, “The job I began is yours now and the Spirit will come to help you.”
Jesus had to keep on showing up because the truth of the matter is that until Jesus showed up to them as the Risen Christ, they still thought about the world like everyone else, that they were just pawns to the powerful. They thought they were powerless. They thought Caesar had won. They thought they had just wasted the last three years of their lives following a powerless loser around Galilee. They couldn’t pivot and see the world as God’s Kingdom. They still had their feet planted squarely in the Empire. The parables, the Sermon on the Mount, the cleansing of the Temple…it was all lost on them….until they met the Resurrected Christ.
What happened in each of those encounters is the true miracle of resurrection. Those followers of Jesus left the locked room where they were hiding and were loosed into the world. Suddenly the Empire lost its sway over them and they got busy continuing the work of Jesus…the work of love…the joy of service. They became the true April fools.
Understanding this miracle is so vitally important and I think that it often gets lost in translation. Much of American Christianity interprets the resurrection through the eyes of victory. “We are the winners now! God’s Kingdom has now replaced the Empire. Now Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Now we worship Jesus not Caesar. We are the special ones God has chosen to save. We are all going to heaven!”
Please believe me that this is not the reason for the resurrection. God didn’t send us Jesus so that we could say, “Hey, we have a new king now. We simply replaced Caesar with Jesus.” Don’t fall prey to that kind of thinking or you will miss the miracle. God is way more subversive. God sent us Jesus to demonstrate God’s love for us and thereby show us how we are called to act with the kind of love that has been lavished on us. It isn’t about victory. It isn’t about worship. It isn’t about replacing one kingdom with another. It isn’t about the after life. It is about a relationship with God that even death cannot end. Resurrection lets us know that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God ….here and now…and that relationship with God asks something of us.
That is what the disciples learned. They finally understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them for the last three years. God loves you so much God is like a parent welcoming back a long lost child. This knowledge is so precious it is like a treasure you would buy a whole field to have. If you know this truth, nothing the Empire can dish out will stop you from holding onto the truth of God’s love. They can put you in prison. They can beat you. They can even kill you. But nothing can kill the truth that this is God’s world and nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Those first disciples became true April fools. They ran out on the streets and started preaching and healing, loving and welcoming, rabble-rousing and community organizing, forgiving and throwing away the rules. They were no longer trying to live as if the kingdom of God existed. They were living in the Kingdom of God. The Empire tried to squash them but it didn’t matter if they beat them or killed them, the movement of love spread and their joy could not be extinguished. It was unquenchable. That is the power of resurrection. That is the miracle.
We are not unlike those first disciples. No matter what we say down deep in our hearts we believe that we live in the Empire….the Empire that terrifies us with its politics and armies, courts and prisons, money and threats. We feel beholden to the Empire, even while we know it rules us only by fear. We believe ourselves to be powerless and inadequate. And so we hide behind our locked doors, whispering our discontent. We have our eyes focused in the wrong direction. We miss the truth of whose world this actually is.
My husband died two years ago in April. Anniversary months are hard for me. But I want to talk about it because I want to tell you what became so real for me after his death. I now know with 100% certainty that what the Apostle Paul tells the church at Corinth is true. Love never ends. I don’t just mean that I will love Bryan until the day I die. I mean that I still feel his love coming my direction every day. I know that he still loves me. I can’t see him but I rest in his love.
That realization has flooded me with the truth that if I can feel Bryan’s love, how much more can I experience the love of God if I open myself up to its truth? How much more can I love others? Friends, it is Easter and we are called once again by the Risen Christ to open ourselves to the love of God. We are called to quit giving the Empire its power. Pivot away from the Empire and place yourselves in the hands of the great I Am…Hear God’s voice: “I am the Resurrection and the Life….I am the Way, the Truth and the Life….I am unending Love. Nothing will separate us.” That is the miracle of Easter. Now go, be April fools…alive and filled with joy for this truly is God’s world. Amen.