A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Jesus was a dangerous man to have around. He was not a terrorist. He was not a violent person. He did not carry a weapon. But he certainly was a revolutionary.

He challenged societal values. He exposed hypocrisy. He degraded the rich and elevated the poor. He stripped religious leaders of their pomposity. In short, he demonstrated to the world what God was really like and the world didn’t like that very much.

As might be expected, Jesus was adored by some, and hated by most. The majority, or at least the people in power, wanted him dead. He was too great a threat to have around. What if his radical views should become a way of life?! That would so upset the status quo that life would never be the same.

So get rid of him!

And they did. The political and religious leaders got together and arranged for a Roman execution, the torturous death of crucifixion. Followers and Roman soldiers watched him die. Once he was dead, his followers buried him in a tomb carved out of solid rock. And a big stone was rolled in front of the entrance of the tomb.

Jesus was dead. End of story.


Or so the political and religious leaders hoped.

But God had a different idea. God rolled the stone away and resurrected Jesus the Christ.

Now, it’s important to remember that this is not an account of resuscitation. When someone is resuscitated, they are still flesh and blood. And they will still die. No, resurrection is something different. Jesus was there. But the seeming final defeat of death held no hold over him anymore. New life. No more death. God rolled away the stone and brought forth new life.

Millard Fuller (l) and Clarence Jordan (r).

Some of you may have heard of Clarence Jordan. He was a Christian civil-rights crusader and is perhaps best known as the author of “The Cotton-Patch Gospel.” In the 1960s Jordan, a white pastor, founded an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms. He challenged societal values. He exposed hypocrisy. He degraded the rich and elevated the poor. (In other words, he acted in a Christ-like manner.) As a result, he was shunned by the culture around him. Threats were made to his life, but he persevered.

In 1969, Clarence Jordan died of a heart attack. Not one of the local funeral directors was willing to help with his funeral – either out of prejudice or fear of violence – so he ended up being buried in a plain cedar box on a hillside near his farm. Jordan’s friend, Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at the funeral. When everything had been said, and nearly everything done, it was time to lower the casket into the ground. Just as this was happening, Fuller’s two-year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing. She sang the only song she knew: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Clarence, happy birthday to you.”

As Fuller later told the tale, it seemed to everyone there that God was somehow behind that innocent child’s song, for what they had all been celebrating that day, on that Georgia hillside, was not a death after all, but a wonderful, glorious rebirth.[1] That’s what the resurrection is all about: new life coming out of death.

And it’s more than this. You see, God’s resurrection plan doesn’t stop at overcoming mortal death.

The story is told about the old flower lady.[2] She could be found most days in her usual spot – an archway near the entrance to the Cathedral. At her feet one would find an assortment of corsages and boutonnieres neatly laid out on some newspaper. She was dressed – well – shabbily and she seemed to be very old. Yet she always seemed to have a smile on her wrinkled old face. She was alive with some inner joy.

One Sunday morning a woman named Cindy left the Cathedral, noticed the flower lady and, on an impulse, decided to pick out a flower. As she put it in her lapel, she said, “You look happy.”

“Why not?” the flower lady answered. “Everything is good.”

Given her dress and age, this response surprised Cindy. “You’ve been sitting here for many years now, haven’t you?” said Cindy. “And you’re always smiling. You wear your troubles well.”

“You can’t reach my age and not have troubles,” the flower lady replied. “Only it’s like Jesus and Good Friday …”

She paused for a moment. Confused, Cindy urge the flower lady on. “Yes?”

“Well, when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, that was the worst day for the whole world. When I get troubles I remember that, and then I think of what happened only three days later – Easter – our Lord rose from the dead. So when things go wrong, I’ve learned to wait three days and somehow everything gets much better.”

That’s God’s resurrection plans for before our deaths. When we have troubles,

when our lives are stuck for whatever the reason, God wants to work with us to bring forth new life. I can’t guarantee that God will always take care of your troubles in three days, but that it God’s plan: to bring forth new life.

A deeply spiritual movie that I love is “Chocolat” – in came out about 15 years ago. It’s set in a little French village in 1959. This village is governed by a philophy of “tranquilité.” In this town, you know what is expected of you and where your place is. If you happen to forget, someone would remind you. They trust in the wisdom of ages past, including tradition, family, and morality.

The Mayor is the self-appointed guardian of the town. He writes the preacher’s sermons, guides the townspeople in their moral decisions, and overall, tries to maintain the status quo, to maintain this tranquilité at all costs.

Into this town sweeps a vibrant, young woman named Vianne who is anything but traditional. She does nothing by the any book (except her cookbook). She does not go to church, she has a daughter without a father present, and she has the gall to open a chocolate shop in the middle of Lent.

Her shop and her grace unexpectedly transform the town and its people. A wounded woman finds the courage to escape her abusive husband. A grandmother renews a broken relationship with family members. Even the mayor, after an intense Easter Saturday conversion experience, is described as “strangely released.”

If a young woman selling chocolate can make that much of a difference (albeit in a fictional town) – mending family relationships, breaking the chains of abusive situations, opening hearts for love – imagine what God can do. God wants to roll away the stones and bring forth new life.

The passage we heard from the gospel of John this morning has both types of resurrection stories in it. Mary comes to the tomb and finds it empty. Jesus’ body isn’t there and she jumps to the (logical) conclusion that the body has been stolen. When Peter and the unnamed disciple get there, they discover evidence that the body wasn’t hastily removed; the burial clothes have been neatly folded. But they still don’t understand that Jesus is no longer dead. Meanwhile, we know that’s where the big story is going.

The boys go home and leave Mary alone and we get a glimpse of at both the big resurrection story and the little one. We learn that the grave could not hold the crucified Christ – the life after this life resurrection story. And we learn how little resurrections happen in our lives, now, too.

Standing there, Mary runs into someone she doesn’t recognize. But why would she recognize who he is? She knows Jesus was killed and that’s the last word on the matter. She still assumes that Jesus’ body has been removed, so she asks the stranger (she assumes he’s the gardener) if he’s the one who took the body.

When the stranger calls her by name, she recognizes that she is in the presence of the resurrected Christ. The story implies that she reaches out to him. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Mary’s reaction is completely understandable. Her friend, her rabbi, the one she called “Lord” was dead, killed by the government. She was in deep grief. And when she caught a glimpse of a way out of her grief, she reached for it. I can hear her subconscious saying, “I can hold on to the way things were if I can just hold on to him.”

But the resurrected Christ says, “Don’t hold on to me.” Giotto’s fresco reproduced on the cover of your bulletin shows this scene. Jesus is pulling away. He’s pulling away so hard he’s almost pulling himself out of the frame of the picture.

Holding on to the past feels like it makes sense, especially when we are grieving. There is comfort in knowing what was. And anxiety is a normal response to change. But letting go is necessary if we’re going to experience God’s resurrection in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t stop at what Mary should not do. He tells her not to hold on to him and he tells her to go start spreading the news of the resurrection. “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” God is doing something new in your life, Mary, if you just let go of the past.

It is so easy to live in the past. The slight and the fight with the mate or the family member or the friend was last week, but we still hold on to it, living in that moment, not this one. The ending – of a job, a relationship, whatever – came two years ago, but we still hold on to it, living in that moment, not this one. Whether the loss is coming or it’s already been experienced, we hold on to the past to soothe the pain.

Perhaps more than anything else, fear keeps us from letting go. We fear change and hold on to the way things are. We fear that someone will find out who we really are and we hold on to the façade we’ve built to hide behind. We fear no one will ever know who we really are and we hold on to a loneliness we learned years ago. We fear death and we even fear new life.

Resurrection requires letting go. When we insist on complete control over our own lives, when we try to control our circumstances, our relationships, our futures, Jesus calls us to let go. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection teach us that it is when we have no control over our lives that resurrection becomes possible.

You see, resurrection requires death. It needs sinking down into God and crying out, “Why have you abandoned me?” It needs tear-shedding and truth-telling about that which is already dead in our lives. Resurrection blossoms in us when we are unable to help or fix or change things and instead let go, opening our hands and hearts praying “Thy will be done.”

And God wants this so much for us.[3]

[1] I don’t remember where I gleaned this story from. It’s one of those items that I found in a file of ideas for Easter sermons I’ve collected over the years.

[2] Another story from that file of Easter sermon ideas.

[3] The concluding paragraphs are based on writings by the Rev. Deborah Howland, a UCC Pastor who was serving in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area when I added this to my file of not well-cited sermon ideas for Easter.