I just shared my Easter sermon from 2002 with the Wednesday night crowd at church and some of them asked that I post it online. It was the first Easter after September 11, 2001, and for that reason it seemed all the more important to talk about resurrection. Enjoy.
Rewind the Tape
First Baptist Church,Washington, DC
March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday
Today is Easter Sunday, a day when we pull out all the organ stops, bring in the trumpets and timpani, and celebrate with everything that is in us. Although it may appear to those outside the church that our celebration is arbitrary—falling on one day this year and another day next year—it is not arbitrary at all. We celebrate a specific event in history: we celebrate that day on which Jesus broke the bony back of death and opened up for us the way that leads to life. Because of what he did death no longer has dominion over us. Our last and worst enemy has been decisively defeated. Even if you didn’t feel the need to throw a party it would be a good reason to throw one.
But sometimes you do feel the need.
My friend Stan Hastey, who read the Gospel lesson for us this morning, remembers a sermon he heard just a few days after Easter, 1968. He was a student at Southern Seminary inLouisville,Kentucky. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated two weeks before. Race riots had broken out inMemphis, and in this city, and in others. A dark shadow had fallen across the American landscape. The students who gathered for chapel on that April day needed to hear an encouraging word. They looked up hopefully as the Reverend Charles Boddie, an African-American preacher fromNashville,Tennessee, made his way to the pulpit. They shifted in their pews and then waited, expectantly, for Boddie to speak. When he did, his voice was little more than a whisper. Pointing back to the Sunday before he said, “Easter, this year, came just in the nick of time.”
Although it has been more than six months since September 11th I have that same feeling about this year, that Easter has come just in the nick of time. On that day I was watching the news as that second airplane slammed into theWorldTradeCenter. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Neither could the anchorman. He said to the engineer, “Rewind the tape,” and because the engineer was as shocked as we were he forgot to turn off the monitor first, so right there on the screen we saw the image freeze and then begin to do a jerky little dance as it went backward. We saw that huge orange ball of flame being sucked back into the building. We saw shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass defy gravity, and leap back up to their proper places. We saw that airplane backing out of the building tail first and the hole it had punched in the side repairing itself until building and plane and passengers were all intact again. And then the image froze again, and the engineer pushed the “play’ button, and the whole tragic scene unfolded before us once more: the plane smashing into the building; the ball of flame erupting from the other side; the shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass falling toward the ground and all those people . . . gone.
What if there were some way to rewind not only the tape, but also time? Imagine God himself giving the command, and some heavenly engineer pushing the button, and time beginning to flow backward instead of forward. So that the suicide bombing in the port city of Haifa, Israel, this morning would miraculously undo itself as shrapnel came flying back into the bomb, as chairs and tables, plates and glasses, returned to their usual places, as friends greeted one another in that crowded restaurant, sat down, chatted and smiled. Last Monday night the destruction caused by an earthquake in Afghanistanwould be reversed. Ruined houses and buildings would put themselves back together again. Children who had been crushed by falling debris minutes earlier would resume their peaceful sleep. Mothers would stroke their hair, kiss their cheeks, and wish them sweet dreams. And as time continued to flow backward, as September 13th lapsed into September 12th, people from all over the country would begin making their way to New York City, hoping to be as close to Ground Zero as possible on the 11th, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center would heave themselves up out of the rubble to stand tall and proud again. The crowds would cheer when firefighters and policemen came running out of the buildings unharmed. They would cheer again when they saw those two airplanes fly backward out of the buildings and back toward the airports. But their loudest cheers would be reserved for those thousands of people who came out, alive and well and more than a little surprised by all the attention they were getting.
But suppose we didn’t stop there? Suppose we just kept going? Suppose we watched Martin Luther King get up off the balcony of thatMemphishotel and adjust his tie? Suppose John F. Kennedy stepped out of that convertible inDallas, waved to the crowds, and got back on Air Force One? Imagine Japanese airplanes flying away fromPearl Harborwith their bombs undelivered. Or the Titanic floating up off the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean and bobbing like a cork on the surface before steaming back toEngland. Imagine Civil War soldiers—both Union and Confederate—getting up from the battlefield, brushing themselves off, and embracing before heading home. And then suppose we kept going, back through the centuries, watching one tragedy after another undo itself until we stood with Jesus’ disciples and watched as life came back into that crucified body, as the Roman soldiers lowered the cross and un-hammered the nails, as he staggered back before Pontius Pilate, back before the Sanhedrin, back to the Garden of Gethsemane, back to the table where he and his disciples had shared their last supper. Wouldn’t they cheer? Wouldn’t it be good to have Jesus back with them again, safe and sound? Or would even those dense disciples understand that there is a difference between restoration and resurrection. Would they recognize that if time kept moving in that direction there would come a time when they hadn’t met Jesus, hadn’t been called, hadn’t begun to follow, and would they recognize that it would have been better to have known him and lost him than never to have known him at all?
In an extraordinary little book called Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman imagines all the impossible permutations of time. In one chapter he describes a world like the one I have been describing to you, in which time flows backward. A woman who was near death begins to get younger and stronger. The deep lines disappear from her face. Her hearing comes back. Her eyesight comes back. And then one day her husband is carried back into her house. “In hours, his cheeks become pink, he stands stooped over, straightens out, speaks to her. Her house becomes their house. They eat meals together, tell jokes, laugh. They travel through the country, visit friends. Her white hair darkens with brown streaks, her voice resonates with new tones. She goes to a retirement party at the local high school, begins teaching history. She loves her students, argues with them after class. She reads during her lunch hour and at night. She meets friends and discusses history and current events. She helps her husband with the accounts at his drugstore, walks with him to the foot of the mountains, makes love to him. Her skin becomes soft and smooth, her hair long and brown.”
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, this reversal of time? Don’t we wish we could make it so? Don’t we wish we could reverse the aging process at least, so that our own skin would become younger and smoother, our bodies stronger, our eyesight clearer? Imagine celebrating your 80th birthday knowing that next year you would be 79. Imagine making plans to run a marathon 40 years from now, when your body would be in better shape. It all sounds good up to a point, but only up to a point. Listen to how Lightman continues his story: “The woman sees her husband for the first time in the library of the university, returns his glances. She attends classes. She graduates from high school with her parents and sister crying tears of happiness. She lives at home with her parents, spends hours with her mother walking through the woods by their house, helps with the dishes. She tells stories to her younger sister, is read to at night before bed, grows smaller. She crawls. She nurses.” Lightman stops the story right there but if he had continued you know that this woman who had become a girl who had become a baby would next become a fetus, then an embryo, then an egg, and then nothing at all. She would disappear completely if time flowed backward.
Some would say that’s what happens to all of us anyway. In a world where time flows forward we grow old, we die, we are buried, our bodies decay, and in the end there is nothing but the memory of us left in the world and soon not even that. And this is where the testimony of the disciples is most helpful. They saw Jesus die. They saw him buried. But they also saw something else. Three days after his death they saw him alive again. And this was no studio special effect: this was real. In Matthew’s version of the story it is the women, running back from the tomb to tell his disciples the good news, who encounter the risen Jesus on the way. “Greetings,” he says, and they fall at his feet to worship him, trembling with fear and joy.
At first they must have thought that he had been brought back to life like Lazarus, that God had caused time to flow backward and Jesus had been restored. But eventually they came to see that this was not restoration, but resurrection. Jesus had not retreated from death, but marched forward to meet it, smashed through it, and emerged on the other side alive. It wasn’t as if someone had rewound the tape of his life, but fast-forwarded to that time when God will raise up all who believe. If you can forgive the expression it was a “preview of coming attractions,” and it changed everything. It gave those early Christians a confidence in the resurrection that made it possible for them to live their everyday lives with extraordinary courage. Death no longer had dominion over them. They no longer had to be afraid. Paul who had been knocked off his high horse by the risen Jesus, who had seen the future and lost his fear, could thrust his chin forward and say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
But what about you?
Push the “pause” button on your life for a moment. Stop everything right here where you are, on Easter Sunday, 2002, in a pew at FirstBaptistChurch. If you had the power to reach out and push “rewind” would you do it? For some of you it would be wonderful to feel life and strength flowing back into tired bodies. For others there are tragedies that have marked your life that you would love to see undone. For others there are missed opportunities that you would like to go back and seize. For others harsh words spoken that you have always wished you could take back. If you had the power, you might be tempted to push the “rewind” button. But I believe that God raised Jesus. And I believe that he will raise me too. And it is my confidence in the resurrection that gives me the courage to reach out and push “play,” even today, even after September 11th, and weeks of Anthrax threats, and months of war inAfghanistan, on a day when the situation in theMiddle East seems ready to explode.
This year and every year, Easter comes just in the nick of time.
—Jim Somerville, 2002
 Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1993), pp. 103-104.