A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, March 27, 2016
Easter Sunday, John 20 1-18
Six years ago, a South African Dutch Reformed pastor named Jannie Swart and his family were part of St. Matthew’s community. I know that some of you remember him and his family.
Jannie grew up as a white Afrikaaner, privileged by apartheid. His Christian faith made him question apartheid, and he dedicated his life to bringing about its demise. He worked for the ANC, becoming friends with Nelson Mandela. But the struggle against apartheid came with a price. For a time Jannie had to go into exile in London.
When apartheid ended, Jannie was called to be the pastor of a 6,000 member all-white Afrikaans speaking Dutch Reformed church in Johannesburg that desired racial reconciliation and integration. At the heart of Jannie’s faith was the belief that Jesus’ resurrection makes possible reconciliation across lines of difference, the restoration of community and freedom for all. He believed with all his heart that the movement of the Holy Spirit was the only reason South Africa had not descended into civil war after apartheid. He had a deep trust in God’s power to restore community, even in the most broken situation, places, and people.
Over the course of eight years and through a lot of prayer, messiness, risk and struggle, the church Jannie served became multi-racial and multi-ethnic, with services in several different languages. Exhausted, Jannie then came here to do his doctoral work and sojourned with us. He moved to Pennsylvania when his PhD was done.
A couple of years ago, Jannie died suddenly and tragically from a heart attack in his early 50’s while playing ultimate Frisbee with some of his students at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. While he never took great care of himself – he boasted about not exercising and often joked that in South Africa chicken “was a vegetable,” he was experiencing a lot of work-related stress when he died.
Recently Mari, Jannie’s wife, had a dream in which he visited her. This was only the second time since his death that Jannie had appeared in one of her dreams. In it, Mari grabbed and hugged Jannie and asked him “where have you been?” He mentioned spending time with someone in “Vryheid,” a town in South Africa whose literal translation is “freedom.”
For two thousand years, followers of the Way of Jesus have understood life after death to be something liberating, something that frees and connects us with the Source of life and with others who have gone before us. And yet when I read scripture, or think about the lives of some of the Christians I most admire, one of the most important things about Jesus’ resurrection is that it enables us to live as free people now. In the resurrection, God conquered the thing we fear most about death: separation from God and those we love. Our ultimate future is community, not disconnection and isolation. What God did to Jesus is our future too. For this reason, Jesus’ resurrection enables us to live into that ultimate vision of community now, to invite others into that freedom, and to participate in God’s work to liberate all who are oppressed, or captive to some one or thing.
This Lent our congregation has journeyed from a desert to a garden, from ashes to a place of fruitfulness and new life. It’s no accident that in today’s Gospel Mary of Magdala encounters the risen Jesus in a garden, or that she mistakes him for a gardener - for he is the one who brings new life. No matter how bleak and barren our lives and world, Jesus does not give up. He faithfully returns to us and prepares the soil of our lives for the new growth that will emerge. Doing so involves pruning and truth telling. It can be painful to alter longstanding habits and ways of seeing the world, even if they are unhelpful, because they are the only ways we have known. It is costly to take on the powers of this world.
When Jesus encounters Mary he does not launch into a theological treatise about the importance of the resurrection, or even explain the physics of how the resurrection works – even though some of us wish he did. Jesus simply calls Mary by name. And she in turn does not try to convince Jesus’ other followers about what happened using lofty rhetoric. She just says, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Her personal encounter with Jesus, experiencing his overwhelming love and tenderness, was all she needed. When she recognizes Jesus and names him as her rabbi or teacher, she is also recognizing who she is: not only a student of his Way, but also a witness, an apostle or sent one who shares her experience of the risen Lord with others.
Let us never forget that Jesus’ resurrection took place in the context of messiness, confusion, violence, empire, pain, and dislocation. The resurrection does not make the messiness and brokenness of our lives and world disappear. The resurrection does give us a new, hopeful future, in which the struggles of this life need not destroy our relationship with God and others. Violence, racism, terror, suffering, setbacks, and even death are not ultimate. Life in communion with God and others is ultimate.
Christianity is not a pie in the sky religion that looks the other way in the face of human suffering. It is a faith that proclaims that Jesus inhabits the human condition and is in solidarity with us and others as we experience unjust violence and suffering. Through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, God is able to restore us to community with God and those we’ve loved and lost. This future promise and hope informs our present. It makes us free, regardless of what happens to us and those we love. We are freed from guilt, shame, fear, and despair. We are free to walk into a new and different way of living. The hopeful future God offers enables us to live lives of abundance, generosity, hospitality, and freedom from fear. In an age of anxiety, tribalism, division, and narcissism, God frees us to live for others.
“I’ve been in freedom.” No matter what we’ve been through or done, no matter what we face, no matter what happens in our Cities or world, God offers us freedom. God desires freedom for everyone.
Across time leaders like Jannie, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others have stood up to the people and structures that keep others from being free. Doing so is risky and costly. What enabled them to stand up bravely and serve as God’s agents was the knowledge that Jesus’ triumph over death has already initiated a future of hope, freedom, and reconciled community not possible through any other means. They tasted this freedom, and trusted in it. They knew it was possible through God’s presence, work, and power. May we too walk in the freedom of the resurrection.