Fr. Bill Carroll – Easter Day, April 4, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of us, no doubt, remember 1968. The Vietnam War had deeply divided our country. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. There were riots in the streets. King was gunned down in Memphis, where he’d gone to support striking sanitation workers. Today, April 4, is the fifty-third anniversary of his murder.
And, just four days before, King had preached his final Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral. That sermon borrowed from the text of a commencement address he gave at Oberlin College just a few years before. It also echoed other speeches he gave the last few years of his life. Reading it, especially the changes he made to the Oberlin text, makes it clear that King knew he might be killed any day. He certainly knew the night before he died.
He begins his sermon by appealing to the story of Rip Van Winkle—the man who went up on a mountaintop and fell asleep for twenty years. He suggests that, when we retell the story, we often forget one of the most important details: It is a story about regime change. Before Van Winkle goes up the mountain, he sees a picture of King George the Third. But, when he wakes up, it is a picture of George Washington, the President of the newborn Republic.
“One of the great liabilities of life,” King says, “is that all too many people find themselves living amid a period of great social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses—that the new situation demands. They end up,” he says, “sleeping through a revolution.” That’s what I’m here to talk to you about today: about sleeping through a revolution. Easter is a revolution. It is God’s revolution of love.
King goes on to describe three main challenges facing humanity. First, we must develop “a world perspective,” he says. Second, we must “eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation.” And third, we must address a “closely related” problem, namely “to rid our nation and the world of poverty.”
Although the world has changed a lot since then, these challenges are still with us today. We also live in turbulent and divided times—with a real threat of violence in the air. We too run the risk of failing to develop the new attitudes and responses that our situation demands.
It’s been like that since the very first Easter. We have yet to live up to the life and teachings of Jesus, or the Good News of the resurrection. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that we still have to catch up with Dr. King. Far too often, in the last two thousand years, we have fallen asleep. We have failed to adopt the new attitudes and responses that are required by God’s revolution of love.
Sure, we see signs of it all around us. We see those signs especially today, on Easter. We can see it in the flowers and the smiling faces. We can taste it in the Bread of Life we share. We can hear it in our raucous hymns of joy. Something is different today. Because Jesus is alive. And we can find him alive in the lives of his saints, in movements for justice and peace, and in the quiet, humble witness of love. We see it in AA meetings in church basements, where those suffering from addiction find recovery and new life. We see it in ministries that feed the hungry, house the homeless, or visit those in prison. We find evidence of it in our own changed lives. We are different, because we know Jesus, and we have decided to follow him. And we can see him at work in our families (in our churches, in the whole community) wherever forgiveness is extended, healing offered, or strangers are welcomed in his Name. Whenever the love of Jesus is effective in the world, we can see him at work.
We catch glimpses of God’s revolution in all these places. But truth be told, we are often asleep. Too often, we give in to our fear, indifference, or cynicism. Too often, we fail to bear witness to the hope that burns in our bones, the hope that the Holy Spirit put there, when we became convinced that Jesus is alive.
We are like most of the disciples that first Easter morning. They are sleeping away. Only a very small group of them, the women who stayed faithful to Jesus to the very end—only that small group of women go to the tomb early in the morning to care for the body of Jesus. They have been traumatized. They are depressed. The king they thought would save the world and redeem Israel has been crucified. Some of the disciples denied him. One of them betrayed him. Most just ran away. But the hope they felt in the presence of Jesus seemed to die with him on the Cross.
How shocked they must be, when Mary Magdalene comes back from the tomb, amazed and terrified. She is out of breath, with her heart racing. She is running, bearing good news of great joy. They don’t really believe her. She herself can’t believe what she saw. They can’t believe what they’re hearing from her about what she found at the tomb—that the stone had been rolled away and that the body of Jesus was not there. They don’t believe her, when she reports what she found. And yet, Peter and John run to the tomb to see for themselves. They are amazed to find things exactly as she said. And they come to believe. Before long, Jesus himself appears to them—first to Mary, and then to Peter and John and all the rest. To James, then to 500 at once (it says), and last all to Paul, the least of the Apostles.
And suddenly, on that first Easter Day, it’s as if, during the three days of terror, mob violence, and death, they have been asleep for twenty years, only to find out they’ve slept through a revolution. They went to bed with no king but Caesar, only to discover that Jesus is Lord. They went to bed thinking that evil had won the day, only to discover the victory of Jesus. They went to bed convinced that death has the last word, only to discover that Jesus is alive—that he lives and reigns forever.
There’s a regime change going on here. The Prince of this world has been cast out. Jesus has reclaimed the world for God.
This is the faith that propelled the Gospel like wildfire throughout the Roman world and beyond. And (though we’ve often fallen asleep on the job), wherever the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are celebrated, God’s revolution can break out anytime, anywhere. This is our faith and the meaning of this holy day. It is the source of our hope and our death-defying love. It is the one thing (the one very important thing) that makes all the difference in a world that is so often ruled by sin and pain and death and division: Jesus is alive.
That same faith has moved many, many people since to shed their blood in the cause of freedom. It moved King to go to Memphis, knowing that he might be killed. Listen to what he said just four days before he died:
…[H]owever dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent the explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.” We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—truth crushed to earth shall rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing [in our hymn] earlier today, “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, stands a God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
Brothers and sisters, on this happy morning, we know that King was right. We know that Mary Magdalene and the women were right. We know that the other disciples of Jesus were right. He is risen from the dead. And so, we know that God’s Truth has already won. In the end, the salvation of the world depends not on our faithfulness—but on the living God.
Jesus is risen. He is the firstborn from the dead. He is the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, who will share in his victory over death. He has tasted death, the thing that most of us fear the most. And yet, he conquered it, so that we may rise in him. He is the beginning of God’s new creation. He is the Lord, who makes all things new and sets us free. And so, his love, his movement, and his Kingdom define our future. And we know that he is keeping watch over us. If we trust in him, we cannot fail. The world doesn’t know it, but it’s true. We cannot fail. Because Jesus has already won.
God’s revolution is over.
He has fought with death, and life has won.
So let’s wake up, and start living like it!