“Face to Face, Hand in Hand”: An Easter Sermon by Fleming Rutledge

An Episcopal priest now engaged in a nationwide ministry of preaching and teaching, Fleming Rutledge is author most recently of And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament, a collection of fifty-five Old Testament sermons ideal for both homiletical and devotional use.

Fleming Rutledge
Fleming Rutledge

The following Easter meditation has been excerpted from her 2005 volume on Holy Week and Easter, entitled The Undoing of Death.

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The first man [Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [Christ] is from heaven. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

(1 Corinthians 15:47, 49)

The Archbishop of Canterbury was quoted recently on the subject of e-mail and the Internet. He acknowledged the power and usefulness of the Net, but observed that a lot of people thought they were having real relationships by e-mail when in fact there can be no real relationships without face-to-face contact. I know two couples who met on the Internet, and they have given me permission to say that that is the absolute truth!

“I believe in the resurrection of the body.” That’s what we say when we recite the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is what we say at Morning and Evening Prayer. Many of us have been saying “resurrection of the dead” in the Nicene Creed for so long that we have forgotten the phrase “resurrection of the body.” “Resurrection of the dead” is itself a unique affirmation, but it doesn’t make the point as explicitly as “resurrection of the body.” St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth addresses this issue head-on. In his famous chapter on love, he speaks of the future day when we will know the Lord and one another, not “through a glass, darkly” (“in a mirror dimly” — RSV) but “face to face.” He goes on, “Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The Undoing of Death
The Undoing of Death
(Click to order.)

The Corinthian congregation that Paul had founded and nurtured was turning away from the revolutionary Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the body. They were returning to the much more familiar religious idea of the immortality of the soul. In fact, the Corinthians thought that they had already gained immortality. They had a “spiritualized” idea of the resurrection that bypasses the body. Paul writes to them, explaining that if they are going to go that way, they are going to be giving up the foundation of the Christian faith: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? . . . if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; [and] if Christ has not been raised, . . . your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:13-17).

Immortality of the soul was such a commonplace belief in the Hellenistic world of Jesus and the apostles that, even though it was not a Jewish idea, no one would have been surprised to hear it. Similarly, we today hear people talk of rebirth, life after death, personal immortality, reincarnation, and all kinds of other generic religious beliefs almost as a matter of course. Only Christianity speaks of the resurrection of the body. Suppose for a moment that the angel in Mark’s story had stood outside the still-closed tomb and said to the women, “The spirit of your Master lives on,” or “The immortal soul of Jesus has gone into heaven.” Maybe this would have comforted the women. Maybe it would have encouraged them to pick up their lives, warmed them with a religious glow and a sense of possibility. Maybe. In view of what they had witnessed at Golgotha, I doubt it. In any case, this is not at all what Mark describes. His Gospel ends like this:

Entering the tomb [for the stone had been removed], they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” . . . And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:5-8)

This is a very peculiar way to end a Gospel. Some additional verses were added later, but most interpreters now believe that Mark meant to conclude this way. The news of the Resurrection caused the women to run headlong from the scene. Maybe this image would convey the message better than the usual one of the women kneeling reverently and peacefully, bathed in the rays of sunrise. Maybe the best Easter card would show the women hurtling pell-mell out of the empty tomb, terrified. Indeed, I found a card this year that conveyed something of this. The painting on the card was done by a Guatemalan artist in a primitive style. It showed the women reacting to the angel’s message in vivid action. The hair of one is standing straight up as though she had received an electric shock. Another was throwing her pottery jar into the air as though it had suddenly become radioactive. Yet another was shown with her legs and arms splayed out as if she were leaping like a Cossack dancer. The Gospel of Matthew also conveys something of this sense that something truly staggering has taken place: “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men” (Matthew 28:2-4). This is not a story about the immortality of the soul.

The tomb was empty; the body was gone. All four Gospels report this. Yet in a certain sense, the Easter Day sermon is the most difficult of the year because it is impossible to talk directly about the Resurrection. It is often noted that the various accounts in the Gospels do not agree. Most of us who are believers think that these discrepancies simply reflect the ineffable nature of the Resurrection, an event so transcendent as to belong to another order of meaning altogether. Yet in spite of the differences about the numbers and names of angels and witnesses, all evangelists agree that the tomb was empty. The body was nowhere to be found. Only the grave clothes were left behind. “And the disciple saw, and believed.” All of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection convey a sense of something completely unlooked-for that has happened, something altogether without precedent, something that stuns and astonishes with its inexplicable power. Yet this event is revealed — in various stages — as being the Resurrection of Jesus to a bodily existence.

And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament
And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament
(Click to order.)

To be sure, it is a different body, which passes through doors, isn’t always recognized, and appears only to a chosen few; yet it is a real body that eats fish (Luke 24:42-43), cooks breakfast (John 21:12), and bears the marks of the nail wounds (John 20:27). The risen Lord was not a disembodied spirit, but a real body with whom the disciples had a continuing face-to-face relationship, as in his dialogue with Peter: “Jesus said to him, ‘Simon [Peter], son of John, do you love me?’ [Peter] said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘Tend my sheep’” (John 21:15-16). This exchange, repeated three times, corresponds to the three times that Peter denied the Lord before his Crucifixion. This kind of intimate human encounter, with all that it conveys of forgiveness, repentance, and restitution, cannot take place without bodily presence.

Paul writes quite sharply to the Corinthian church: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” If immortality is what we are talking about, then everything we apostles have told you about what happened to Jesus Christ is a lie: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain,” Paul says. Furthermore, if you want to just go back to some kind of general belief in a soul that lives on after death, all the benefits of Christ’s Cross are lost to you: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Not only that, Paul continues, you need to know that if Christ has not been raised, your eternal future is at stake also. If there is no Resurrection, then “those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Thus in various ways Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians that the Resurrection is a completely new happening in the world: the single, definitive, and unique action of God to vindicate and enthrone the crucified Messiah.

St. Paul is no fool. He always anticipates objections. He goes on (v. 35): “But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” And Paul’s answer is, basically, “That’s a stupid question.” He’s annoyed that the Corinthians are so literal minded. He wants them to understand that the Resurrection body, though it is recognizably the same person, is of another order of reality altogether: “You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be. . . . God gives it a body as he has chosen.” At this point Paul finds himself in a difficulty, and he is not altogether successful in getting himself out of it. He is trying to explain how the Resurrection body is different from an earthly body, so he starts talking about seeds and plants, birds and fish, stars and suns. The preacher is sympathetic to Paul’s predicament here. It is always tempting at Easter to talk about how the ugly brown bulb is transformed into a gorgeous, colorful tulip or daffodil. The analogy doesn’t really work, however, because flowers come up every spring and we expect them to, whereas the Resurrection was totally unexpected and explosively new. Paul, as he dictates, seems to sense that these illustrations from the natural world are not working so he abandons them and goes on to a much more arresting set of Biblical images.

The first man [Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [Christ] is from heaven. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

Here Paul has more success as he begins to show how Christ is from another world order altogether. Together with us, Christ has borne the image of “the man of dust”; indeed he has borne it to its bitter and shameful end at Golgotha; but because he is “the man of heaven,” his death and Resurrection are the evidence planted within human history that God has broken through from beyond human history, from beyond human imagining, from beyond human capacity. That is what Paul means when he says crisply, “I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” The Gospel of John says the same thing in a different way: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God . . . born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of human beings, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

Just as the Crucifixion has always been problematic, so too has the doctrine of the Resurrection of the body. We don’t seem to want to believe in resurrected bodies. We want to be “spiritual.” But bodies are important. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, the whole world was touched by the grief of his young granddaughter who wept that she would never feel his warm hands again. I’m sure that you remember the famous photograph taken at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing — the big husky fireman cradling the tiny dead toddler. The impact of the picture, reproduced around the globe, came from the sight of the bloodied little limp body cradled in the huge hands of the fireman with the compassionate face. Bodies matter. Faces matter. We want to hold a warm hand, we want to see a beloved smile. I remember when I was young in Virginia and a wise older person said, “Virginians think they love Robert E. Lee. They don’t love Robert E. Lee; they love their image of Robert E. Lee. In order to love someone, you have to have them right there.”

Jesus is right here. He is right here in a way that no one else has ever been. Even now there is a real sense in which you can, as the song says, “put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.” It is very difficult to describe how this can be, but just as the beloved disciple grasped by faith that Jesus’ body had passed through the grave clothes, so also we today may grasp by faith that he is risen and alive. Let us return to Paul’s words:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this? On the contrary, we can scarcely begin to imagine it, for it does not come from human imagination but from God. All our sins wiped away, all evil done to death forever, the devil and his hosts destroyed, our loved ones restored to us, all the injustices and wrongs of human history made right in a new heaven and a new earth.

These things are neither humanly possible nor religiously possible. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. But as Jesus himself said, “All things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). Paul continues his letter in a sort of rapture:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

Changed! Our sinfulness exchanged for his righteousness, our mortality for his immortality, our sorrow for his joy, our bondage for his freedom, and our deteriorating human body for an altogether transformed one that will nevertheless be our very own and no one else’s, a body with which to love others and be loved in return with all the love of Christ himself. “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:54).


Click here to read an EerdWord excerpt from And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament.