“Good and gracious God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you.”
Happy Easter! It’s good to look out from this pulpit and see so many familiar faces. I also love looking out and seeing many visitors—we’re glad you’re here this morning and hope that you connect with God in a powerful way.
We have a saying here at St. John’s that we really mean: wherever you are your spiritual journey, you’re welcome here.
We’ve had some strange confluences between the sacred and secular calendars this year: Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. Easter falls on April Fool’s Day. I’m not exactly sure what to do with that other than to say perhaps we’re called, as St. Paul writes, to be “fools for Christ” this Easter.
We make a bold claim today that many in our world still find foolish: as Christians, we trust that God raised his only Son from the dead on the third day. We trust that we will one day share in Christ’s resurrection and live eternally with God and each other.
Notice I didn’t say believe. When we say “believe” nowadays we mean that we’re making a rational decision based on empirical evidence, that we’re offering intellectual assent to a concept or idea that makes sense. Which isn’t to say that we lack evidence for Christ’s resurrection.
We have eyewitness testimony recorded in Scripture. We notice that a rag-tag band of disciples, a group of ordinary men and women, changed the world through their witness and ministry.
Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene: the trio who have the courage to go to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. Paul, who reminds us today that he’s the least of the apostles.
Their hearts on fire with the Spirit of God, they lived as instruments of the Good News, as instruments of God’s light and love, as instruments of the peace that passes all understanding. You and I can be like them. Our hearts can be set on fire this Easter Day.
Resurrection has never been about ideas—it’s about a relationship with a Living God who won’t let us go. It offers us a vision of a God who will stop at nothing to defeat everything that destroys life.
When we have faith, when we trust that God loves us that much, it’s the wisest move we can make in this life.
I want us to begin this morning in the windy city of Chicago at Loyola University. If you’ve been following college basketball, you know that the story of the season is Loyola University, an 11th seed, making the Final Four.
Last night, Michigan put a stop to Loyola’s storybook run, but that doesn’t take away from what the team was able to accomplish.
The interesting thing is that much of the media attention hasn’t been on the Loyola players or their coach, Porter Moser. It’s been on Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain. Sister Jean has served in that role since 1994.
On Coach Moser’s first day on the job, he found a folder on his desk with a detailed scouting report drafted by none other than Sister Jean. She knows the sport of basketball and isn’t afraid to offer her opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of players.
But her primary role is spiritual support for the team. She prays before each game, always beginning with the same words: “Good and gracious God . . .”
After each game, she writes a message to the players. While most of her words apply to the whole team, she also takes the time to send individual messages to players.
Here’s what senior Donte Ingram has to say about her ministry: “There’s been days throughout my last four years when I had a bad game, a down game. We might have won. We might have lost. But at the end of the message, she always found a way to make me feel better.”
Loyola is a Jesuit University. The founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, is St. Ignatius of Loyola. If you were to stand outside the Loyola basketball arena, you would see St. Ignatius’s words emblazoned on the wall: “Go forth and set the world on fire.”
Meaning: be so filled with the light and love of the risen Christ, that you make a real difference in the world.
According to Coach Moser, Sister Jean is one of those people: “She lights up every room she goes into,” he explains. “She’s always smiling. She has an energy about herself. I connect with that.”
The message that I hear in our Scriptures today is that the risen Christ is calling you and me to go forth this Easter Day and set the world on fire.
On this joyful day, we’re so filled with the light and love of God that we can light up every room and have that same energy that Sister Jean has. When we have that energy, people connect with that.
Easter is a celebration of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death and everything that prevents us from fully becoming God’s children. It’s not a commemoration of an event that took place in the past.
It’s the recognition that Christ is alive, Christ is with us, Christ is as present to us as he was to his disciples.
A recognition like that changes everything. It sets our hearts on fire. It makes us want to go forth from here and make a difference in the world for good.
That’s exactly what the disciples begin to do today. The Gospels don’t agree on every little detail about Jesus’ resurrection, but they do all agree that Mary Magdalene, a female disciple of Jesus, is the first person to visit the empty tomb.
The church has in the past and still has a very mixed record regarding the status and role of women. For far too long, the church has often been a part of the problem rather than the solution to gender inequality.
But if we stay focused on how Jesus himself related to women, we witness the best way forward. He saw women like Mary Magdalene as disciples just like men, as partners in ministry, as friends.
It’s no surprise, then, that Mary and the other women have the courage to stand by the foot of the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s no surprise that Mary is the very first one there at dawn that first Easter morning.
When she discovers that the stone covering Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away, she runs to tell the other disciples like John and Peter, who then have a footrace to see who can get there first. John, the younger disciple, wins the race, but out of deference lets Peter go into the tomb first.
Yet, it’s John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, whose heart is first set on fire. He sees the empty tomb and immediately gets it. Peter and John return home, but Mary stays and grieves by the tomb.
When a man appears, she thinks he’s the cemetery gardener . . . it’s like her imagination can’t even begin to fathom the possibility of news this good . . . that Jesus is alive, not dead. And so she exclaims, “Sir, where have you put his body? Tell me, and I will come and get it.”
And then, as soon as he calls her by name, Mary gets it: it’s Jesus, her rabbi, the one who treated her as a partner in ministry, a friend, an apostle. That’s what Mary becomes in this moment: an apostle, which means “sent one.”
Mary is sent by Jesus to deliver the very first Easter sermon to the other disciples, a message of five words: “I have seen the Lord!”
Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, and Paul: when they meet the risen Christ for themselves, they go forth and set the world on fire. We know this because we wouldn’t be here if not for their courage to go forth and proclaim the Good News through word and deed.
I trust in Jesus’ resurrection for many reasons. One of them is that ordinary people like you and me met the Risen Christ and made a real difference in the world.
Ordinary people like St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was born into a wealthy and powerful family in Spain at the end of the 15th century. Like many young men, he had romantic notions of war. By taking up arms and fighting as a soldier, he thought he could win glory for himself and his people.
During a battle in Pamplona, Ignatius was seriously wounded and spent months convalescing in Loyola. During that time of healing, God turned his world upside down.
Day by day, his heart was set on fire with love for God, and his desire for violence and human acclamation was replaced with peace and a hunger for God.
The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius developed during this time and throughout his life have transformed countless lives, including the life of Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt, who reminds her players to “go forth and set the world on fire.”
And not only the basketball players. Sister Jean lives in a residence hall at Loyola, where she lights up many students’ lives.
She leads a prayer group and a program called S.M.I.L.E., which stands for Students Moving Into the Lives of Elderly, a ministry that brings college students and older adults together in meaningful ways.
And so whether you’re a college student or 98-years-of-age like Sister Jean, know this: it’s never too early or too late to trust in Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, to trust that we will live eternally with Christ and each other, to trust in a God who sets our hearts ablaze with love.
With Mary Magdalene, I can say: “I have seen the Lord!” I’ve seen the Risen Lord in God’s Word. I will see the Lord as we share in Christ’s Body and Blood around this altar. I see the Lord today in your faces filled with joy.
Alleluia. He is Risen! Go forth and set the world on fire.
A sermon preached on Easter Day 2018 by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee.