Morning Has Broken
Our use of “Morning Has Broken” as a song to commemorate the birth of the Christian religion and the birth of this particular church, makes me think of something else. We have a little more music than usual on this Easter Sunday, a change I not only welcome but which I think is entirely right for the mood of the morning. My personal feeling is that on Easter, especially, we should have even more music and fewer words. Words are the right medium for an appeal to reason and logic; music is the right medium for an appeal to feeling and emotion. It isn’t that they never cross those lines, but as a general rule language addresses itself to the mind, music addresses itself to the heart.
For many years, in the company of a fine musician and chairman of the Fine Arts division of a large university, I have enjoyed fervent but friendly debates about which of those two preeminent gifts should occupy first place in the pantheon of human achievements. My friend, like most musicians I know, is convinced that music deserves the highest rank. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I am equally convinced that language is our sovereign gift. Without it we do not name things or talk to each other. We do not tell stories, we have no history. I thought about this when I was present recently at a luncheon for retired university faculty where percussionist J. C. Combs provided the entertainment. I watched carefully the way minds in that room responded when he talked to us, and how emotions responded when he played. When he spoke, faces smiled and heads nodded in agreement as the words prompted us to think. When he chose an instrument, bodies began to move in rhythm and feet started tapping as the music struck straight through to our emotions.
So what, you ask, does all this have to do with Easter? Well, what I am trying to say is that I’m glad we have special music on this particular Sunday because for most worshippers it’s a day for feeling more than for thought, for mood more than for logic. The Christian world is united in celebrating the emotions of joy and hope on this day, but it has profound differences about the intellectual basis for that joy and hope. Let’s put it in the simplest possible terms: millions of Christians believe that the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth came back to genuine physical life , threw off the grave-wrappings, and walked out of the tomb with renewed heartbeat, kidney function, hunger and thirst, including the painful memory of his dreadful recent suffering. Millions of other Christians, including devoted ministers and dedicated scholars, believe that the resurrection story is more symbolic than it is literal — that it is meant to celebrate the ongoing power of the spirit of Christ, which has given life to churches and to individuals for twenty centuries. Ask these people what the story was meant to teach us and they will explain it as I might, in these words: my father died many years ago, but as a profound influence he still lives. Not as a physical presence, with the intense blue eyes and the strong jaw, but as a living presence in my mind and heart. I cannot feel his hand on my shoulder as I once did, or his arms around me on a return visit home , but his influence — purged of impediments of space and substance — is greater in some ways than it ever was. I mean to say that the very essence of that man lives on in me.
This may not be enough for some who sit here this morning, and I respect the convictions that brought them on this day and that motivate them on every day of the year. I ask you to believe me when I say that I have no fervent wish to change the very literal nature of their Easter faith. I do wish to remind them that the Christian world is divided on the meaning of the resurrection story, and that we should make every possible effort to understand and appreciate one another. When we hear deeply devoted and highly intelligent ministers say, as I heard some say last week, that “most of those who worship in my denomination do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus” we owe it to ourselves to ask why…..and these are some of the things we will hear.
“If God is a spirit,” they ask, “and if flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, what possible difference can it make what happened to the physical body of Jesus? And if it was truly a physical body that walked out of the tomb, what happened to it when Jesus — according to another story — ascended into heaven? A physical body cannot do that, so did the physical Jesus first die, then live again in the flesh, only to be transformed one more time in order to make the ascension story possible? I have a feeling that went by too fast. Let’s try it again. If one reads the resurrection story in a literal way — that a physical body was re-animated — what kind of body does Luke have in mind when he says that a little later, while the disciples were watching, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight”? These are not easy questions.
Is it wrong, somehow, to ask such things and to confess to some confusion about how to read the stories? Surely not, it seems to me, when we find confusion and ambiguities in the stories themselves about the nature of the risen Christ. One moment we read that the disciples are in a room with the doors locked and Jesus simply materializes on the inside — something we pretend the fictional characters on the Starship Enterprise can do, but which we know doesn’t happen to actual physical bodies. But in the next moment, we are told that Thomas puts his fingers into the nailprints — the writer insisting that we imagine a corporeal, physical body just like ours. What, exactly, are we to believe?
If some of you have studied the resurrection narrative as long and as carefully as you have studied medicine or law or biology or business, you know one thing without my having to mention it — and that is that the four different Gospels differ remarkably in how they present the details of that story. I used to finish my “Bible as Literature” classes at the university by putting the four Gospels side by side, in easily referenced parallel columns, so students could see that about the only thing they all agree on fully is that their Lord and Master lives. But they leave us with ambiguity about HOW he lives. Was the life that arose a physical self, or an unconfined spirit — set free of physical limitations to dwell in the hearts of people through all centuries to come?
If the greatest and most devout minds of 2,000 years have not been able to settle these questions, we are not likely to — which brings me around full circle to where I began by saying that I think we are better off to celebrate this day with music than with words. Last year we did that, and Bob Scott assures me will do it again next year, but in between I have had to make a sermon of words when I’d rather hear the brass, look at the lilies, feel the truth of resurrection in the warm sun and the springing grass. If any of you have ever wondered what I will enjoy most when I am no longer making sermons, the answer is easy: not having to intrude ever again into the pure emotions of an Easter Sunday audience. My plan will be to seek out churches on Easter where music is heard and nobody speaks. But that indulgence is still in the future. So why not, somebody asks, just go ahead and speak the cliches and forget about the long history of doubts and questions? Why not speak in exclamation marks, like the newspaper ads for Easter Sunday? Why remind us of questions and trouble our thoughts when what many of us want is to rejoice without having to think?
Believe me, that is exactly what I wish I could do — and it is an impossibility for me to do it. I do not know how to stand in front of you and pretend that on the far side of the bunnies and the bonnets, the lilies and the trumpets, there are no deep and puzzling differences among Christians who will be in churches all over the world on this day. Since I know my own convictions best, the greatest compliment I can pay you is to express them honestly and give you the chance to agree or to challenge. They are not unique or original. In every generation people who honored Christ and tried to follow his way of life have said such things as I shall say next.
It seems quite clear to me, for example, that Paul, who wrote the earliest and most authentic documents of Christianity, did not interpret the resurrection of Jesus in any other than a spiritual sense. He sees no distinction whatever between the appearance to himself of Jesus on the road to Damascus and the appearance to the earlier disciples like James and John, Peter and Andrew. What is important to the great apostle is that the spirit of Jesus, a man he probably never saw in the flesh, lives in him and transforms his life. It is vital to my conception of Christianity that the resurrection of Jesus takes place in the human soul, which is what I think happened to those who had loved and then lost a physical presence. They became convinced that he was not absent, but with them always, even to the end of the world….that in Him was a power death could not destroy… and that this power now belonged to them. What Easter says to us, when we are tempted to live in the basement, is that His spirit is present in us and we have risen above such behavior.
So even though you knew I was going to say the famous three words of Easter, don’t you think I should say them anyway? Even though you’ve heard them a thousand times before, don’t you, in some sense, never tire of hearing them? I think I know you well enough to know that the sense in which I will say the words is your sense, too, and so I say them with conviction: He is risen. We are the body into which he is resurrected. He lives in us. Remember the jubilant cry of the great apostle: “He lives in me!” For him, as for me, that is the essence of the resurrection story. And if he had known the special song we sang a little while ago, he might have used those words to say that after the darkness of his life, “Morning has broken!”
God of April light, and morning stillness, and the hope of each
new day, come to us, abide with us, and make us whole…by the
living spirit of Christ our Lord. Amen.