Sermon preached on Easter Day at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Isaiah 65:17-25, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
It happens that today is the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which means that, in our tradition, today is his feast day. We here at Two Saints, of course, always celebrate his witness around the time of his birthday when the federal holiday is. But his actual feast day on our calendar is April 4.
The Church has always remembered and celebrated its saints on the date of their death rather than the date of their birth. To celebrate their death is to celebrate their resurrection, their second birth. Easter means that death is not an ending but a new beginning.
Dr. King last spoke publicly the night before he was killed. He was in Memphis, and he spoke at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). They hosted a rally for those supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
Among the first words of his speech were, “Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” He talked about imagining that God would allow him to live in any place and time. He imagined his way through history, from the Israelites’ flight from Pharaoh, to the time of the great Greek philosophers and the heyday of the Roman Empire, through the Renaissance and the Reformation up to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
He said he believed that he would tell God he was happy to live at least a few years in the early days of the second half of the twentieth century. He said about this
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up….That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding—something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same—“We want to be free.”
I believe what Dr. King was talking about was living in resurrection time. Resurrection time is the time when the resurrection is the predominant reality around us. Now, of course we Christians believe that resurrection time is what we have been living in for two thousand years. But we are more or less aware of it at any given time, and there are periods both in our own lives and in history when we are cooperating with resurrection time more than others.
The readings this morning give us some clues to what resurrection time looks like and how we can cooperate with it.
Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb in the darkness of the early morning. She has stayed away from it on the Sabbath—Saturday. But now she is so eager to be there that she leaves almost as soon as she can. For John the Gospel writer to tell us it was dark was no small thing. “Light” and “darkness” are significant images for him. Jesus is the Light of the World. We must choose to walk in the light or walk in darkness. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, so that he can remain hidden under the cover of darkness. As soon as Judas betrays Jesus and leaves the room, John tells us, “And it was night.”
Here night is being redeemed. Night becomes the time of revelation. “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars,” Dr. King said. Mary, like all of us, must face her fears and her grief. She can do so in the knowledge that God is revealed in the darkness as well as the light.
She reaches the tomb; the stone is rolled away. She immediately panics and runs to Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Probably fearing the same thing as she does—that the body has been stolen—they run to the tomb. The other disciple gets their first and, standing outside, can see the grave wrappings without the body. He doesn’t go in, probably to avoid defilement. Peter, however, barges in, and, indeed, discovers the body is gone. The other disciple gets braver and follows him in and is said to believe (probably meaning simply that the body is gone). Resurrection doesn’t seem to occur to them as a possibility.
There is something in Peter and the other disciple’s footrace that tells me that living in resurrection time has an urgency to it. I must be ready to run, exert myself, to get in touch with it. But then there is something like an assurance that resurrection is not an easy thing in which to believe, even for those of us who—like the disciples—have been exposed to the concept for a long time.
The person who seems always to believe in resurrection is rare. Dr. King was one of those people. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been one of them in our day. The rest of us need people like them to show us the way and to bolster our faith.
The two disciples go home. I sense a kind of despair there, like “There’s nothing we can do about this.” Mary Magdalene’s devotion doesn’t let her leave. Weeping, she looks inside the tomb again and sees two angels. Her grief is so great they do not seem to phase her whatsoever! She tells them simply what is overwhelming her: she doesn’t know where Jesus has been taken.
Then turning, she sees someone she supposes to be the gardener. Sir, if you have taken him, show me where, and I’ll take him away (as if she could do that all be herself!). Jesus says, “Mary!” and she knows who he is.
Jesus is the life of resurrection time, the living presence of it, and its heartbeat. And he knows each of us. He is the Good Shepherd who knows us each by name. And we have the power to recognize his love when it touches us.
Jesus speaks to her somewhat strangely. “Do not hold on to me.” Things are different now. You won’t see me as you’ve always seen me. He tells her to go to the disciples and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Jesus’ God is our God! We are God’s children, equal heirs with Jesus. That is the good news of resurrection time. It is the new reality ever breaking into resurrection time. It is what Dr. King struggled for. In his speech that last night he said
And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children.
This resurrection reality is born out in our other readings this morning. Peter in Acts proclaims the reality in resurrection time: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” Resurrection time sometimes—oftentimes—changes our thinking, our perception, and our “discriminations.” Sometimes this means having something we have been taught—even by our faith—turned on its head, like Peter. Peter had been taught all his life that God does show partiality. As far as he was concerned from what he had been taught, showing partiality to the chosen people was part of the very definition of God. That God could change was unthinkable.
But it happened in resurrection time.
And some of Peter’s ancestors had foreseen this, in particular Isaiah of the Exile and his spiritual descendents. They had seen
Thus says the Lord god: I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
That is the mountain which Martin Luther King described on more than one occasion. It was the mountain over which the promised land could be seen. It was the mountain of which he spoke in his last public words, words that also seemed to be foreseeing his death.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
A better description of what it means to live in resurrection time I do not know.
Let us celebrate today Christ’s resurrection, Martin’s and ours! Glory to the God who is partial to no one and who is always creating new heavens and a new earth!
 From “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. James Melvin Washington (HarperCollins, 1986), p. 280.
 Ibid., p. 286.