Sermon preached on Easter Sunday for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
What if the world isn’t supposed to be this way?
That’s the question, right? That’s the question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point, staring at some particularly bleak headline, or during some particularly harsh heartbreak, or in some particularly cynical mood. Is this—all this—really how it was supposed to go down?
I recently watched a Netflix hit called The Adam Project, a Ryan Reynolds vehicle that’s better than it deserves to be. If you haven’t seen it, and don’t mind a bit of language, and have any tolerance for sci-fi, I recommend it. It’s an oddly sweet movie. I would call this genre comfort food sci-fi—really nothing new to it, but a collection of old tropes and themes that give the kind of answers we want to hear to questions we’ve been asking for a long, long time.
On the whole, there are two motives for time travel in sci-fi: curiosity, and pain.
The first is more fun. We just want to go back and meet Shakespeare, or forward to see whether humans ever colonize Mars. But the second reason—pain, with the pain, hope—makes for better stories.
These are the stories where something has gone wrong, and the only way to fix it is to go back in time. These are the stories where there is pain, and every avenue to resolve it has been exhausted. When there isn’t any way forward, the logic goes, you have to go back. That’s where the hope lies.
In The Adam Project, the titular hero, Adam, comes from a painful future, both personally and cosmically. And so he asks himself that timeless question: is the world supposed to be this way? Is this pain and suffering how this was all supposed to turn out?
Science fiction offers us new ways to answer that question—maybe the world is wrong, maybe some villain came back in time and ruined everything. Science fiction also offers us a new solution: just send the hero back in time, and everything can be sorted out. Evil can be stopped before it ever gets a toe hold.
It’s why science fiction can be such a comfort. It promises us, with a few reversed polarities and enriched ionic quarks, that we can rewrite history. Rewrite our own stories, so that we get the endings we crave.
Isn’t that what so many of us long for? A chance to rewrite our stories? A chance for a better ending than the one we got?
I found myself drawn to Paul’s writings this week, preparing for Easter. Of course I love the gospel stories of the empty tomb, the women who come searching, the angels who boldly declare “he is not here; he is risen.” But I was intrigued by Paul, writing to a congregation in Corinth who did not visit the tomb, and have only heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection third or fourth or fiftieth hand; in other words, a congregation much like us. I was intrigued by how Paul attempted to make sense of the resurrection for them; why it mattered, what it means.
The Corinthians, it seems, are beginning to worry that Christ’s resurrection does not matter. That it was a nice break for him, to come back from the dead, but that it doesn’t make any difference for us.
Paul knows better. Jesus’ resurrection makes all the difference, Paul says. Christ’s life is what gives us life.
And the argument Paul makes is this: on Easter, Jesus rewrites our stories. Jesus offers us a different ending than the ones we’ve got.
For thousands of years, the Jewish people had passed down the story of Adam and Eve, the first people, people who disobeyed God and invited death into the human story. The first few chapters of Genesis make it clear that death is an intruder, an error; it wasn’t supposed to be part of God’s world. But God gave us choices, and this is what we chose.
Death came through a human, Paul writes. That’s how the story begins.
But then, Paul continues, resurrection has come through a human being too—Jesus Christ—fully human, fully God. Jesus rewrites Adam’s story, but this time, the ending is different. Jesus’ story ends in life, not death.
So now we have a different path, Paul argues. Jesus has carved out a new path for us, and if we follow him, we follow him all the way to life everlasting.
We will be made alive, Paul promises. In Christ, we are made alive. Starting the minute we believe it to be true.
Many of you may be familiar with Brene Brown, a professor of social work and researcher who shot to fame after producing a TED Talk on vulnerability and human connection. One of Brene’s main tenets is that we all go through the world filling in the gaps of what we cannot know, especially about what is going on inside other people. She calls this telling ourselves stories.
In one of her books, Brene offers a simple example of what this looks like in daily life. One day, after everything else had gone wrong, her husband opened the fridge to work on dinner and sighed loudly instead. By the end of that sigh, she had convinced herself that her husband was angry at her for being a terrible wife and mother, and she had her claws out ready to fight back in self-defense.
But instead of joining her ready-made fight, Brene’s husband asked her what was wrong, and in a moment of clarity, and vulnerability, she was able to tell him: the story I’m telling myself right now is that you think I’m a bad partner.
He didn’t. He was just hungry. And by sharing the story that she was unconsciously making up out of her own fears and shame, they were able to disarm it, and write a new ending together. I hope they ordered pizza.
Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are personal: no one really knows me. I don’t have anything to offer. I always mess things up. I’m not worthy of love.
Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are cosmic: the world is only getting worse. No one can really make a difference. We’re all just going to hell in a handbasket. What’s the point of trying?
But hear this, my loves: they’re all stories. Filling in the gaps in our knowledge with our worst demons of fear, cynicism, and despair.
Humans are storytellers. God knows that. And so God gives us a different story. There were a million ways God could have chosen to save us; but on Easter God gave us a story we cannot forget. A story where we show up expecting death, and find life instead. A story where we think that evil has won the day, only to find goodness has wriggled, laughing, out of its grasp. A day where we think Christ has abandoned us, only to find him right back in our midst.
Paul takes this story even further. For Paul, Easter is not the end of the story. It’s only the first hint of how good the ending might be.
The dominos are gonna fall, Paul promises. First, Christ proves that life is more powerful than death. Then, Christ will make us each alive as well. Then God will tackle the whole world—every ruler and authority and power that isn’t God will be drained of energy, dwindled down into nothing. The NRSV says that God will destroy those powers, but that makes it sound like we all just have to wait until some far off battle day, and that’s not really what the Bible says. The Greek word there is much closer to something like ‘make inactive’ or ‘drain of energy.’ God is working towards goodness even now, sometimes so subtly we’ll never notice, sometimes in ways that take our breath away.
With his eyes glued to the empty cross, Paul writes that God will stall out everything that hurts and haunts us on this planet, even death itself, until Christ’s kingdom is all that is left. Everything that pretends to play God in this world will be dwindled back down to nothingness, and all we will be left with is the garden of life.
Now those powers might have a lot of energy in the tank right now, and they may be real and frightening: the specters of war, the ravages of disease, the complexities of mental illness, the political division between neighbors, the real, physical, body-breaking hunger, the poverty of millions, the despair of those who are abandoned at the bottom of society, the greed and caprice of those who hover at the top. All these powers have a lot of energy in this chapter of the story, our chapter, but God is steadily, steadily, draining them down. And at the end of the day, only God will be left standing.
Maybe this sounds like a fairy tale to you today. It certainly has elements of a fairy tale. Maybe it sounds like sci-fi, the next project for Netflix to tackle. Maybe they could call it the Jesus Project.
And maybe your faith can’t quite stretch far enough today to see all the way out to a world where there is no weeping or distress, the new heavens and new earth where life is a joy and a delight, always, always. Maybe that story is too big for you today.
But this is what I know: you are telling yourself a story. Whatever you believe about the world, whatever you believe about yourself, you are telling a story. You are filling in gaps that you cannot have answers to. And that story matters.
A colleague and I were talking this week and I mentioned I was feeling drawn to these big cosmic promises, of the one fine day when all will be made right.
“But doesn’t that just encourage us to be lazy?” she asked. “If we think God will just take care of everything?”
I thought about it a minute, but I found the truth pretty quickly. No. For me, it’s despair that drives me to inaction. It’s despair, and the stories I tell myself that I can’t make a difference and that the world is falling apart, that send me to my couch to watch Netflix and eat cinnamon sugar Cheetos—which, yes, are real, and no, I do not recommend.
But when I lift my head, and tell myself the stories of my faith, that’s when I get the courage to get up and try again. When I remind myself that I don’t have to be the hero of the world’s story, but one of the sidekicks, that’s when I can see the next right thing. When I make my story Jesus’ story, that’s when I come alive.
Humans have asked each other forever if this—this—is really the way the world is supposed to be. And our faith gives us a resounding answer. No.
God says no, the world isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I designed it for something better than this. I have plans for something better than this. But until then, I’m asking you to help me write this chapter. I’m inviting you, my disciples in 2022, to rewrite this story with me, and move it towards the ending I’m dreaming up.
In those time travel stories, there is always a hero who can go back and fix the past. But Jesus invites us to change the future, instead. Jesus invites us to fill in the gaps of our stories with hope, and to find the courage to follow him into the light. Jesus invites us to tell new stories: that we are loved, that there is enough for everyone, that peace is possible, that prayer does make a difference, that graves can become gardens.
The story God is telling us, in scripture, in Jesus, in every quiet encouraging whisper in the darkest night, is that there is a brighter day coming. The story God is telling us is that God will not stop until every power that is not God is wound down to nothingness. The story God is telling us is that life will win in the end. And if life, glorious, exuberant, abundant life has not won? Then it’s not the end yet.
If you set your heart to believing this story—if you are brave and reckless and hopeful enough to believe this story—what might you find the courage to do?
How would you live if you believed God will carry the day? Would you act more bravely? Would you give more deeply? Would you follow more closely? Would you love more wildly? Would you live more joyfully?
In Christ, we are made alive.
Alive, now and forever.