4-5-15 Easter Sunday Sermon, 7:30 AM (PR), Christianity has Pagan DNA

EASTER SUNDAY Acts 10:34–43
ST. PETER’S — NEFFSVILLE 1 Corinthians 15:1–11
5 APRIL 2015 Mark 16:1–8

Text — When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I’m driving in my car about two weeks ago. I slow down as the cars in front of me approach a red light, and I glance at the back of the car in front of me to see what their passions are. I am often inclined to scan what people plaster on the back of their cars, so as to understand how they present themselves to the world. I sometimes learn what kind of family uses the car in front of me based on those cartoon-like figures that people stick on the back left corners of their windows. Sometimes I know the person is a Christian because of the Ichtus fish emblem that is attached to their trunk … and sometimes I learn that the person is a Darwinist, based on the fish symbol which has sprouted the legs and shouts “evolution” to me. I learn where people vacation from those white ovals that tell me they have traveled to OBX (the outer banks), or BB (Bethany Beach) or MYS (Mystic Seaport, Connecticut.) I see clever bumper stickers and business advertisements and occasional statements of faith. It is an interesting way to pass a few moments of time while waiting at an intersection. As I slowed down on this particular day I’m thinking of, it was that last category that caught my attention. Because the guy in front of me had a bumper sticker offering this statement to the world – “Christianity has Pagan DNA.”
The bumper sticker was clearly intended as a slam against Christianity. I presume the driver thought he was announcing something about Christians that we don’t already know …. Namely that some of the core stories that help us define who we are, are stories that have been shared by other religions and cultures throughout history. Our Noah’s Ark story and even the claim of a savior born to a virgin mother, are stories that other world religions also have as part of their cherished religious heritages.
And knowing that the day we celebrate as Jesus birthday, has close ties with the ancient celebration of the winter solstice and the coming of light to the world, is nothing new to Christians, or to others who have used the solstice festivals in like manner.
I suppose that some in the world find these to be threatening statements. But for me, they point to the very heart of the faith that we proclaim every day of our lives, but especially on this day when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Namely that Jesus has come to save the world and everyone that has ever inhabited this planet … whether they think of themselves at a given moment as a child of God or not. This great message that we proclaim is not a message of salvation just for Christians … or just for good Christians … or just for good Lutherans – heaven forbid! … imagine how boring heaven would be were it filled only with Lutherans. Yikes! No, God wants us all … every last child of God. So to do that, God has to be willing to step into the world in all its messiness and all its humanness. And so, when God speaks to this world that is filled with people of different perspectives and different perceptions of the divine, God speaks to us, not solely in the words of Scripture … but in the stirrings of our hearts … and through the beauties of the created world … in the tough questions about life that people ponder … and in the voices of people who may not even recognize that they are sometimes speaking on God’s behalf. And ……… from a dismal, dark and empty tomb in the countryside outside of Jerusalem, whose message is almost 2000 years old, and still going strong. Yes, God’s Word to God’s children is as diverse as are the children whose ears hear this message.
So, do we have pagan DNA in our message? … I certainly hope so. Because our message has to be grounded in a human community that is not always been as closely connected to God’s own voice as it wants to be when we are at our best. And thus God, out of necessity, must speak to us in unorthodox ways at times … using common and earthly means. Because let’s be honest with ourselves … every once in a while that’s all we’ll listen to, right? Most reputable polls will tell you that more than 80% of Americans claim they are Christians. Those same polls will also tell you that only about 40% of Americans say they actually go to church on a regular basis. So even if you factor out the people who listen to religious radio or TV somewhat regularly, there are still a whole lot of us in the Christian family who are listening to something other than the voice of God on a week to week basis. Yes, God’s use of pagan DNA doesn’t bother me in the least – I mean, isn’t that what God has always done best – taking a common earthy event and using it for an extraordinary message? An ordinary baby, born to a teenage girl and an older widower who is proclaimed the savior of the world? A loaf of bread and a cup of wine … a finger bowl of water and an oil smudge on a baby’s forehead … that communicate God’s grace in ways that nothing else quite can? A meeting on a country road to Emmaus with a Christian killer named Saul, which turned him into a Christian recruiter? A weapon of death called a cross, which became an image of salvation itself? Yeah, pagan DNA has worked pretty well for God so far.
And on a day like today, I gotta tell you, I am pretty excited about it. Because the Easter story we read today from Mark’s Gospel, isn’t exactly the stuff that Christian refrigerator magnets are made from. It is a strange story that doesn’t end well. It follows a disgraced prophet’s three-year career that ends badly with a charge of political treason, just like the other three Gospels tell the story. Mark tells us about the death of this common criminal and the half-baked embalming job that occurred so that Jesus could at least get buried before the weekend holy day of Sabbath, just like the other Gospels. And just as the other Gospels tell the story, in Mark we see the women come back to finish the job that the men could not complete on Friday – yeah, the women doing the clean-up work for the men is an age-old story, isn’t it? … and today it is the biblical story. Yes, much of Mark’s story of Easter Day is the same as the other gospel stories we hear about the end of Jesus earthly life … with one dramatic exception. Unlike the other three Gospels, Mark does not tell us of at least one or two of Jesus followers passing on the word about his resurrection. We see no stories of Jesus walking around town in his resurrection coat. We hear no talk of miracles or meals on the shore of the lake or teachings, like we do in Matthew, Luke and John. What does Mark give us is … fear … and amazement … and terror … and silence. Hear again, the last words in Mark’s Gospel – “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Now I recognize that your Bible may have some other words at the end of Mark beyond these … maybe just a verse or two, or maybe a dozen verses. And they make the story a little easier to swallow, right? But most who put bread on their table by studying these things, will tell you that Mark didn’t write those extra words. Mark ended his Gospel in fear and silence.
And I would say to you today, that we can in fact rejoice over Mark’s ending. Because that is where most of us are on any given day … people who are afraid that everything we think God has promised to us, may not be delivered when the final curtain falls. People who sometimes believe that the cynicism of the world, and its message of look out for yourself first, may in fact be the safest way to go – and thus we keep our mouths shut when it comes to proclaiming our deep trust and loyalty to this extravagant and almost unbelievable story of Jesus. And … that w are the people – you and me – who in spite of our fear and weakness, are still those through whom God continues to work. Remember after all, that no matter what Mark tells us about the Easter Day silence of those who loved Jesus the best … someone must have spilled the beans eventually. Otherwise, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here singing songs about Jesus and listening to Bible stories about how God chose to work through this first century itinerant rabbi. Yes someone told the news of the empty tomb … oh yes, someone indeed did tell this great news and share the story. And 2000 years later, people are still sharing this great story.
Maybe a few of you here do not think God has placed his finger upon you to continue sharing this news. You may think you are only here to make your wife happy … or because your neighbors will wonder what you were doing staying home on Easter Sunday … or because it was too cold outside to have a morning egg hunt in your backyard. You may think you are the least prepared to hear this news that Jesus is Risen, and do anything about it, because your self-perception is that pagan DNA courses through your veins. Well, have I got some news for you. You are exactly the person Jesus is looking for to tell the story of a God who steps into a broken world … filled with struggling people … who are seeking meaning in their life beyond the empty things we collect … and the casual acquaintances we friend on FB … and the dead-end choices into which we sometimes wake up. The first century church gathered a lot of people just like you and me. And God has been gathering us ever since. If there is any day of the year in which we are invited to hear a message that can make sense of a world that seems all wrong at times ….
Then today is the day … when you feel a bit afraid … or whether you struggle with what to say … or whether you think the wrong genetic string of DNA courses through you. God invites you to consider this as the day to hear the news that Jesus has changed your life and the life of the world, and dare yourself to tell someone else. Amen.

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Rev. Craig Ross

Senior Pastor

The vibrancy of life here at St. Peter’s makes my service on our staff a joy and privilege. Visitation, teaching and preaching are the ministries that feed my pastoral identity, as together our staff and lay members share in our missional calling … Building a community of faith by God’s grace.