Sermon For Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Luke 24:1-12

+ Forgiveness: A Season Of Release +

“Forgiveness Opens Up Resurrection“

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To watch the video of this sermon, click HERE:

I believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest act of forgiveness ever known to humanity, or creation itself, for that matter.

But, I’ll be honest, I don’t believe that statement in the way most people think I might, and certainly not in the way the vast majority of preachers are addressing it this morning.  I am not saying they are wrong, I just don’t think they are sharing the entire Easter story.  Today, I want to bring balance to the conversation, and find a new way to rejoice in the Good News that first was proclaimed by the women at the tomb: “He is alive!”

Many, if not most, people might assume that when I say “the resurrection is the greatest act of forgiveness ever known to humanity” that I mean in raising Jesus from the dead God forgave us for all the sins we ever did because, the reasoning goes, these sins were the reason Jesus died in the first place.  There is a great deal of conversation, not to mention popular paraphernalia for purchase, that put forth the perspective that “our sins” are what “nailed Jesus to the cross,” and it was God’s act of intervention that brought Jesus back from death to life.  I will not preach that sermon, because it is proclaimed prolifically and is readily available on the internet, radio, television, in books, and in most church sanctuaries.

There is another understanding of these events, and it is one that I think is not only faithful to scripture, but has had its evangelists, scholars, and believers throughout Christian history.  I believe it was love that led Jesus to the cross and it is love that burst forth from the tomb that first Easter morn.  And this love held no judgment whatsoever; only forgiveness.

Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ, Annibale Carracci, 1585. Web Gallery of Art

Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ, Annibale Carracci, 1585. Web Gallery of Art

Along with most theologians, I do believe that the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was God’s indwelling in creation.  But I think we need to take that incarnation to it’s ultimate conclusion: in the crucifixion and death of Jesus, I understand that God for the very first time became completely and utterly aware of the gravity of the human condition.  Thus the resurrection of Jesus was an act of forgiveness, but it was creation’s act of forgiveness offered to God, who since the time of Adam and Eve had been working under the distant and all-too-often disembodied notion that faith is easy and sin was simple for us, God’s lowly creatures.

Until God-In-Jesus hung on that cross, the Master of all Divinity, the Creator of all Creation, the Unmoved Mover and the Being Beyond All Beings never fully and completely “got it” that this life outside the garden of Eden is so very, terribly hard!!!!  When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that if it be divine will then “take this cup from me,” it was nothing less than God’s very own self staring into the face of the abyss of evil, suffering, and heartache!  In that painful utterance on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” it was God crying out to humanity that for perhaps the first time ever God truly, deeply, fully, and profoundly felt our pain in the way we feel it, and understood why we all too often do very bad things to ourselves and one another!

As many of you know my father died of cancer a few months before I was born.  What you may not know is that as a child I was convinced that my father had not died, but had been taken hostage and was being held captive in a secret room in the center of our house.  I spent most of my childhood and, if I were honest, my young adult years believing my father saw and heard everything I did, especially when I was inside that house.

Wesley Dalton "Spike" Harris, my father

Wesley Dalton “Spike” Harris, my father

When I went into therapy years later and dealt with what this fantasy meant to me, I began to understand how I was essentially regulating my own behavior.  I wanted to always be good for my father, and my mother of course.  But my father knew and saw things that were my secrets, unknown by my mother.  When I was good, I knew my father was proud of me.  When I wasn’t so good, my father was very, very disappointed in me.  To some extent, I believed his future captivity was dependent upon my behavior, and my being a “good boy.”  You can imagine my humiliation when he was never released.

It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to release the incredible well of fear, shame, guilt, and anguish I had built up.  That release came when I realized that yes, in fact, my father did know and see everything I did, but not from a hostage cell in the center of my childhood home, but deep from within the heart of God where he, and my grandmother, and all those who have gone on before us sink into upon their death.  But more importantly, the true release came when I realized the eyes and heart of my father which looked upon me growing up were not eyes of judgment and disappointment, but eyes of love which teared up not because I was bad, but only because life was so very, very hard and because he loved me very, very much.

Writer and theologian bell hooks, in her beautiful essay “Love’s Alchemy” reflecting on love and

bell hooks

bell hooks

perfection, as set forth in John 4:18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has no torment.  The one that fears is not made perfect in love.”   She pinpoints what I think is the common default position during Holy Week for most Christians when she writes, “To a grave extent, the transformative power of love is not fully embraced in our society because we have come to believe that torment and anguish are our ‘natural’ condition.’” (1) I think this is why so many of us find an odd fascination with the brutal torture and grisly death of Jesus, and why we feel so comfortable with theologies that rely upon our shame and guilt to justify Jesus’ death and God’s knight-in-shining-armor benevolence to justify the resurrection.

But what if we only looked at these events through the eyes of love?  Trying to fathom why we default to shame and guilt, hooks ponders, “We cannot know love if we remain unable to surrender our attachment to power, if any feeling of vulnerability strikes terror in our hearts.”  (2) I think she is right.  As long as we have to have a God that is fully, completely, unquestionably in power over us, who cannot be moved by the exasperation of the human condition, we cannot entirely know love.  By acknowledging that even God can grow in perfecting love and that the divine can, in fact, be transformed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, I have let go of the classic understanding of God’s power.  I acknowledge that.  But then bell hooks finds glimpses of hope: “As our cultural awareness of the ways love has been taken from us gains recognition, our anguish intensifies, but so does our yearning.  The space of our lack is also the space of possibility.  As we yearn, we make ourselves ready for the love that is coming to us, as gift, as promise, as earthly paradise.” (3)  It is in this space of yearning that I believe the truth of the resurrection bursts forth, like light from an empty tomb.

heart-of-godWhat if we found a different way of looking at Easter, one that gives life rather than reinforces death?  What if we followed a way that is far more in the great biblical tradition of a God who is not locked in the center of the house judging us but who is out on the journey with us and who ultimately chooses to be on the side of hope, possibility, and love?  If we saw the resurrection of Jesus as the natural culmination of the Adam and Eve story, then we might comprehend that the God who was saddened as the kids matured and went out into the difficult world actually left that lofty, holier-than-thou post on high and became an embodied participant in that world, living and breathing with us, laughing, drinking, loving us… and then who came to know how hard this world really is in the most horrific way – through the betrayal of friends, the unbridled power of an empire, and ultimately through the bloody way we treat one another when fear rules.  But this God would also experience the gentle loving way we work together when grief and love lead us back to the tomb of our dead loved ones prepared for whatever we might find just so we can bathe God’s body in love.

Easter Morning, James B. Janknegt. Contemporary.

Easter Morning, James B. Janknegt. Contemporary.

My beloved, this year let us turn our ears, eyes, and hearts from the gory fascination with theologies of humiliation and punishment and hear the part of the story of Easter which is quiet, but just as real, perhaps even more real.  Let us see in the empty tomb a great release from guilt and a great forgiveness so that once again God and all of us who are God’s creatures can sing the Alleluia of love!

Alleluia!  Jesus Is Alive!  We Are Forgiven!  God Is Forgiven!  Alleluia!


(1) bell hooks, “Love’s Alchemy,” in Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke (1997: Little, Brown, and Company), p. 112.

(2) Ibid, p. 113

(3) Ibid.