Preaching in the “After Easter”
What do we say about an empty tomb? How do we bear witness to an ascended Jesus? These must have been some of the earliest questions that troubled the followers of Jesus after the resurrection and ascension.
In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to listen to a number of excellent sermons from students in an Intro to Preaching course at Boston University. I assist with the course as a teaching fellow, and have been entrusted with the task of guiding a section of students through the process of writing and preaching sermons. One of these sermons was to be a testimonial sermon in the style of Anna Carter Florence, as described in her seminal homiletic text, Preaching as Testimony. For Florence, “testimony” refers to the mode of preaching in which the preacher shares what they have seen, heard, and come to believe. This may or may not involve personal life stories. Instead, it may look more like an invitation to the hearers to join the preacher on a journey through a biblical text. The mode of testimony requires attentiveness and vulnerability, as the preacher richly describes the scene of the text, while also sharing a conviction about what God is up to in the text and in our lives today. The mode of testimony honors the power and validity of perception, and upholds human experience as a site of divine revelation.
Our class conversations about testimony have been ringing in my head for the past several days, through the rhythms of Holy Week, Easter, and now “after Easter.” One could easily argue that the origins of Christian preaching may be traced to Easter, and indeed to the first testimonies of the resurrection. Regardless of our go-to styles of preaching, we find a common ancestor in a single cluster of proclamations, which resonated from the mouths of first-century women who testified to what they had seen: an empty tomb. They had gone to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus, but instead they were met with an absence. The tomb was empty. When they testified to what they had seen and heard, they were largely reporting on that which was not there. They bore witness to something inaccessible—something that was missing.
Is this not what we do every time we preach? Try as we may to convince our listeners that we know something beyond the shadow of a doubt, at the core of our preaching is actually an empty tomb. An absence. Something we cannot see. Our preaching is a wager of faith, as we attempt to bear witness to that which evades us. We preach of a Jesus who is both there and not there, one who lived and walked among us, and who is now experienced as a post-ascension being. We hope others will understand the truth which somehow feels more real than the breath in our lungs, and we hope they will hear the urgency in our testimony. But when we went to the tomb, we came back empty handed and a little panicked: where has Jesus gone? And what will it mean for us if we must continue to gather and proclaim this good news with an absent Messiah? How do we preach in the “after Easter” every single Sunday?
In the Intro to Preaching course, one of my students preached her testimonial sermon on Jesus calming the storm. She appealed to some shared experiences among her classmates: the stormy life of a seminary student tossed between crushing deadlines and seemingly endless self-doubt. More particularly, she shared about the terror and agony she experienced in the days following the hurricane that struck Puerto Rico. She had not heard from her family, and she had begun to fear the worst. She then drew our attention to a print of Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, an intense depiction of the boat tossed in a raging sea, moments before the miracle.
The student explained how much she loved this painting, and that she had been eager to go see it at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston. She had planned to make a day of it, as she loves exploring museums. She had known that witnessing this painting would somehow draw her into deeper contemplation of her text for this sermon. With bubbling anticipation, she had wandered through the many rooms of the museum, looking here and there for the painting. Through her sermon she recalled finally reaching the location of the painting, only to discover an empty frame. It was gone! The painting was gone! It was then that the student had discovered the painting was stolen in 1990, along with several other pieces from the museum. The painting has yet to be recovered. So my student made her way to the gift shop and purchased a poster of the painting. She knew that this imitation of the painting would have to suffice. And as she sadly spoke of the missing painting, and of the agonizing absence she experienced in the aftermath of the hurricane, I remembered the missing body of Christ.
I can’t help but imagine that in our joyous Easter Sunday proclamations about Christ being risen, there lingers an ancient sadness: the one we love is no longer here. The one we hope for, the one we follow, the one who taught us how to live and love, the one who initiated our communion, is not here in the same capacity that he once was. The passing into death and resurrection was rapid, unexpected, and untraceable. We’ve barely wrapped our minds around his death, when suddenly the tomb turns up empty, and we want to know where he has gone.
Proclaiming what we have seen, heard, and come to believe is complicated by the fact that we cannot prove to our listeners what we have come to know. All we can do is testify to what we have come to believe: that indeed Christ is risen and, perhaps more importantly, we have not been abandoned. Even though we preach in the presence of an empty tomb, we preach in faith that the absence we experience is entangled with a strange otherworldly presence. Testimony in the “after Easter” means that we continue to hold our faith in the balance of this great mystery, that what has died has been brought back to life, and that the absence and longing we experience are deeply connected to hope and promise.