Princeton University Religious Life

Easter Sunday

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
April 4, 2010
Luke 24: 1- 12

It is the Day of Resurrection. God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The power of death is blasted away. Heaven is opened; new life is opened to us all. No longer will the fear of death keep us from living life to the fullest. The life that really is life is ours for the grasping. The love of God is the strongest force in the universe. What have we left to worry about? At the end of our days is an eternity of blessing - enjoyed right now by the ones we love who have gone before.    With what peace and reassurance can we live out our own days! With what faith and confidence can we approach all that becomes or befalls us!

The Good News of Easter morning can be too much really to fathom, and too much - as you are witnessing here - to adequately describe. How can we witness to, how can we respond to, the fact of resurrection, of life everlasting? How could we possibly do it justice?

These are the questions that have particularly claimed me this past Holy Week. Heaven is. Resurrection is. New life is. What do I do? How should I live? How can I just keep plodding along like I did yesterday? Who should I be? A phrase from the lips of Jesus keeps returning to me: “Go and do likewise.” Well, how can I go and do likewise when I do not have the power to raise people from the dead? I have plenty of faults, but delusions of grandeur aren’t some of them – I know I’m not God! How could I effect resurrection? How could we?

Some years ago, I heard a dear friend tell the story of a friend of a friend of his. I guess that would make this person our friend – three or four times removed? He was a young American man who had grown up attending church. He was now at a point in his life, however, when he didn’t feel very spiritually engaged – not in anything. He was on auto-pilot, with a good life but one without spiritual depth or richness. He decided to take a few months off and go to Calcutta to volunteer with Mother Theresa and her order, the Sisters of Charity. There, he thought, the spirituality of the nuns, the service to the suffering, the simplicity of a pared-down, non-electronic life would all help him reconnect to God and feel again the warm presence of the Holy Spirit in his life.

It worked; the weeks passed by. He labored hard alongside others with some of the poorest people on earth who had terrible diseases, severe malnutrition; many of all ages had been abandoned. For him, it was physically and emotionally challenging work but spiritually quite fulfilling.

One day, he went to the community’s chapel for the noontime mass. He was especially glad to be there that day. He felt particularly spiritually attuned. He was really looking forward to receiving Holy Communion, of ingesting deeply the very presence of Christ. Just as the communion liturgy was beginning, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Mother Theresa herself, and she was beckoning him to come with her. He was disappointed; he wanted to receive communion first, but there was no way to say no to her.

Mother Theresa proceeded to lead him down narrow alleys and through the warren of streets. They soon got beyond the maze of byways in which he had his bearings. Farther and deeper they walked, past shanties, smoking piles of rubbish, and wide-eyed stares. At last, Mother Theresa came to a stop, and it was in front of a bony, old man lying in the gutter. His eyes were glassy and he was covered with oozing sores. Mother Theresa motioned to our friend to pick up the man. He did not want to touch him, but again, he couldn’t say no. He reached down, got a good handle on the sticky bag of bones with a soul, and as he lifted him up, he heard Mother Theresa say quietly, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Our friend had received Holy Communion after all. I imagine that it was a quiet walk back to the convent and hospice.

I tell this story of our-friend-four-times-removed on Easter morning because I think it can teach us so much about the presence in our midst of the body of Christ, and about the work of resurrection. “Broken for you,” said Mother Theresa. How was that beggar’s body broken for our friend, and for us? Are the beggars around the world broken for us, dying of malnutrition because we die of clogged arteries? In a world of finite resources of every kind, including power, do they have so little because we have so much? Are bodies breaking so that we may maintain our standard of living?

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” she said. Our friend had gone to Calcutta to find his spirituality. Was Mother Theresa commenting on that, on the subtle obscenity of hoping that others’ suffering might bring us to a better place? To his credit, this young man’s transformation came not from the charity he offered to others but in hearing Mother Theresa’s statement to him. It was St. Vincent DePaul who said, “You must love the poor very much or they will hate you for giving them bread.” If we perform a sacrifice for another for their benefit, we love them. If we do it for our benefit, we don’t. Every good work we do (and let us fill our lives with them!) must be only for the benefit of those we serve and never because we will feel good, or look good, or have a stronger résumé or application, or even become more spiritually grounded. Then we are using others, in their suffering. I preached here several weeks ago on the difference between charity and justice, noting that charity comes from our kindness, justice from our love.  Jesus Christ did not endure torture and execution because of what it would get him but what it would get us. He did it out of love, and he beckons us to walk in love as he loved us.

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” said the nun. I wonder if she was also telling our friend that his journey to Calcutta had him looking for Christ among the dead and not among the living – the living at his very feet. The women who went to the tomb so early on Easter morning are told by two men in dazzling clothes not to look for Christ among the dead but among the living. Christ was – and is – not dead at all but among the lovely human beings around us, flourishing and suffering. Jesus told his disciples that whenever they shared food, shelter, companionship, mercy, love, with others, they were doing it unto him. Yes, our friend in Calcutta was picking up the very body of Christ.

On Easter morning comes the proof of our great statement of faith, “We believe in life after death.” I am very fond of that statement’s complement, which I first saw on a poster from a Church of England aid agency: “We believe in life before death.” We do – we believe in both! After death, our souls are in the loving hands of God. Before death, bodies and lives are in the hands of us. We don’t wait for death in order to do our own work of resurrection. We give the walking dead new life – the despairing, the hungry, the violated, those covered in running sores. We lift them up so that they may have life in this life, before we entrust them to God in the life beyond life.

On the first Sunday of the month (which this is), we celebrate Holy Communion. In a few minutes, we will receive the body of Christ, broken for us, resurrected for us, the bread of life. As we feed on him, let us allow him to strengthen us in faith. Let us allow him to help us see him everywhere. He is not dead but he lives. He ascended to God in heaven yet he tells us to see him everywhere. He asks us to do his work of resurrection – to raise the walking dead to life before death. He tells us that whenever we ease the needs of those who suffer, we have done it to him. Christ is present among us this very moment, and every moment.

It is Easter morning, the Day of Resurrection. The power of death is blasted away.  Heaven is opened. The love of God is the strongest force in the universe. What have we to fear? Let us commit ourselves to being Easter people – always. God has resurrected the body of Christ from the grave. Let us go and do likewise. Happy Easter!

Amen.

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