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Great Light – Gradually


A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Easter Sunday         April 16, 2017
Luke 24:1-12

            In the life of the Christian Church, Easter is a day of great light and unbridled joy, a celebration of wonder and awe and astonishment.

Yet, for many people in our time, even within the Church, Easter is a difficult day.  And the reason is precisely because it seems to be all brightness and light and alleluias… and frankly, that’s not where they live.  They would like to be there… would love to be there, in fact… but they have a problem.  Their lives are more shadows than light.

Emily Rose Proctor is a Presbyterian pastor and poet.  She captures something of this Easter enigma in her poem, “Too Soon.”

They say the day that Jesus died
a part of the Trinity folded in on itself,
like what? Like one papery corner
of a golden rain tree seed pod?
Like the head of a comma,
curling back? No, no. Like a —
How did She do it? Hold death
for a time—for all
time? — unbelievably
inside of her, while
the Spirit for once
had no words
for this? This
happens somewhere every day —
every day, do you hear me?

They say the noonday sky went dark,
and the earth shook, and something
between us tore with a loud ripping —
and that — that sounds more like it —
and I can almost feel
the God I need
closer — Except
the part that’s hard
to stomach is salvation
coming on the third day—the third
day — the third day, which is when it really
hits you, the reality of the thing,
the gray future that can only be
not what you had imagined.
I don’t want to spare God
the full weight of that day.

Or the next with its iron air
and still crying — Or the next,
with its paroxysms and still cramping — Or the next,
when you try, but can’t make it past — Or the next
when you almost wreck the car
so far is your mind
from where it needs to be — Or the next, with its shell crackling silences—
Or the cavernous next — Or the tick tock
next — the business-as-usual masqueraday — No —
the third day is too soon — too soon
for resurrection. Just ask the women — ask the women
trudging toward the tomb — the weight of their losses
bending them like canes.[1]

She is right, no?  For many people, Easter Day is too bright too soon. They are weighed down by great grief, perhaps, that lays heavy on the heart… or by nagging feelings of guilt over something done or left undone… or by a corrosive bitterness over some slight that eats away at their better selves… or by growing fears about a world that seems so unstable and lacking in any real leadership… or by or by debilitating doubts that stand out in such stark contrast to the confident hymns and the sturdy prayers of Easter worship.  In their angst or brokenness – trying to deal with broken hearts or broken promises or broken spirits – Easter seems too stark a contrast with reality to be… well, real.

So, if Easter is to make a stand in their hearts, it will have to do so over against some pretty stiff opposition.  It will have to contend with the shadows that obscure the dazzling light this morning heralds.  Such shadows, of course, are not the sole province of modern circumstance, nor do they have anything to do with the weather.  Indeed, they have accompanied God’s people in their approach to every Easter dawn, including the first.

Let us not forget that when Christ’s disciples rested on the Sabbath the day after Jesus was crucified, their lives, too, were overwhelmed by shadows.  They were consumed by grief that their Lord and teacher was dead, by guilt that they had stood by helplessly at his arrest and trial, by fear that their own lives might now be on the line, by bitterness that things had worked out so terribly… even by doubt that wondered if they had wasted years pursuing a great charade.  They were stunned… like team members sitting in gathering depression after a heart-breaking loss… like the young couple holding a still-born child after nine months of laughter, hope, and expectation… like a family trying to figure out how to fill the gaping hole left in their broken hearts.

Luke says that “on the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment,” but surely it could only have been a restless rest at best, and probably no rest at all there in the lingering shadows of the cross.

Then, in what seems to be a mere transitional phrase, Luke notes that the women went with spices to visit the tomb “on the first day of the week, at early dawn.” At early dawn.  Truth is, the Greek text is even more expressive than that.  It says the visit occurred orthrou batheos… “in the deep dawn…” or “in the depths of dawn.”  In the depths… where vision is murky at best.[2] We pass by that expression so fast on our way to the empty tomb of Easter that we may miss its expressiveness.  In fact, we may have constructed such a composite memory of the Easter story that we miss some of the subtle nuances of Luke’s way of telling it.

I have come over time to believe that, of all the gospel accounts of Easter, Luke’s story may be the one to read if one is experiencing the shadow side of life, for Luke seems to understand that Easter happens not all at once in a flash, but that it dawns on the disciples gradually.  My pastor friend Rick Spalding observes,

“So slowly do the disciples come to see that God’s plan [has not been] derailed.”[3]  … Luke wants to put each piece in place one piece at a time: one teaching that you’ll hear, then forget, then be stirred to remember later… one thing that somebody said would happen that, it turns out, does happen… one [laugh] of disbelief that [changes] into a question and then into a glimmer of insight wrapped in a memory, and then into mission, and lo, will [turn] out in the end to have changed the course of your history, and of history itself.[4]

This morning we only read the first twelve verses of Luke’s Easter account. That text reveals some astonishing news, but also no small amount of confusion. As the women tell what they have seen and heard, Peter wonders what it all means, and the other disciples think it is “an idle tale.”  If that were all we had, the church might never have moved out of the depths of that Easter dawn.  But, in fact, Luke wrote 41 more verses in this Gospel and 28 chapters in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, and all through those chapters he gives an account of the gradual dawning of light and understanding of the empowering life of the risen Christ.  He tells, for example, of two disciples walking to a nearby town that very Easter afternoon, who are joined by a stranger.  They talk about the crucifixion and the perplexing stories the women have told about that morning.  They talk about the scriptures as well. All the while the stranger jogs their memory… and later they realize that the stranger is Jesus himself.  In the experiences of that afternoon and early evening the truth begins to creep into consciousness; the darkness gradually gives way to light.[5]

All through the book of Acts, time and again, we find Christians gathering for study, for worship, for sharing the bread and the cup; remembering, retelling, rehearsing, and amazingly, as they do so, they discover that he is present with them.  There we read also of Christians sharing their material possessions, or overcoming the prejudices they have nursed against Gentiles, or reaching out to include those who have previously been excluded…. In every case when Christians remember what they learned from Jesus about love or compassion or forgiveness or hospitality, and begin to put those teachings into practice, they discover his risen presence in a powerful way. The late pastor K. C. Ptomey noted once, “Luke’s point is subtle; it is not early on Easter morning that [the disciples] know the risen Christ.  Early on Easter morning they are confused… Only later, as they struggle in very practical ways to be faithful disciples, does his risen presence begin to become a reality.”[6]

Light dawns, but gradually.  Some people, I know, find faith and faithfulness in a flash of insight and unmistakable calling.  For others, as Luke’s Gospel makes clear, the path is much more gradual.  They move toward the light only in small, incremental steps.  Yet, indeed, that is the way the dawn always comes … gradually … morning by morning… repeatedly.  As Rick Spalding says,

Dawn doesn’t break in a bolt; it doesn’t break at all, really.  [The Book of] Genesis… tells us that God parted the light from the darkness, and gave them names to separate and clearly distinguish them from each other; we treasure this [account] for its clarity and order.  But you watch the sky… and there is no comforting boundary to plot at all between light and dark. It isn’t as though the light pushes back the dark at some line of scrimmage; it’s [rather] as though the night infinitesimally turns itself, revealing some startling new side of its nature, one atom at a time….

I suspect that most people approach Easter through something like “deep dawn” –  that time when you can’t be absolutely sure what you’re seeing… that season of the day when things that seemed to have opposed one another hint at a unity we can scarcely imagine while plunged into unequivocal night or day.  I have a feeling that, for some of us at least some of the time, Easter steals upon us [gradually,] atom by atom — not as a burst of celestial trumpets, but an infinitesimal turning of our nature toward its wholeness, a secret enacted over our heads and within our very tissues every day.  Paul is right: “We shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”  But, sometimes, we need to approach that change like Luke’s disciples: gradually, ineffably, turning one memory at a time so as to reveal the startling newness of our nature in Christ.  In deep dawn.[7]

Hear this good news: Easter life and Easter hope will overcome the shadows of death, of grief and fear and guilt and doubt.  That is the promise of the empty tomb.  There is finally nothing that can separate us from God’s love and mercy. The principalities and powers will do their worst, yet in the end Christ will prevail.  In the end, as in the beginning, God! But that news and Easter itself may dawn gradually for us, may come to us only as we apply ourselves to the tasks of faithful discipleship.  We can sometimes believe our way into new ways of behaving… but more often, I think, we behave our way into new ways of believing.  Such may be the case with the Easter good news.  Its steady refrains may only make sense as we attach them to the life we live in between their repetition.  So, at first, we may well be hesitant, tentative.  A herald may shout, “Christ is risen!” and the best we may manage is only a whisper shaped by memory, “He is risen indeed.”  In the shadows, in the depths of dawn, the confidence in what we are seeing grows gradually, if at all.

But then, for some, the dark shadows will start to give way to subtle forms and shapes, and they begin to see where they are, where they are headed. The repeated refrain begins to make some sense.  The herald shouts again, “Christ is risen!”  And this time they may actually say aloud, “He is risen indeed.”

Slowly, gradually, ineffably the sun rises for some of us and its light begins to fill the morning sky, and Easter dawns upon us and within us, so that we are no longer confined by the shadows, but are bathed in streams of light.  And those of us who can bear to look find ourselves surrounded by something like warmth, and hope, and promise, and life itself.  And then we begin to find our voices, as the refrain begins to shape our lives.  We begin to sing and move and live with confidence.  And this time, when the herald says, “Christ is risen!” we come to see that Christ is risen in our lives, that not only is He alive, but we are alive, too… more fully alive than before.  And we can no longer contain the joy and the power of this Easter good news.  Someone says, “Christ is risen!” And we feel compelled to shout, “He is risen indeed!” So wherever you are, with a whisper or a shout, say it if you have a voice –

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!

Hold fast to that good news, to that great light, even if it dawns but gradually!  Whatever shadow casts you into darkness – be it grief, or fear, or guilt, or bitterness, or doubt, or any other shadow – hold fast to the good news of Easter!  Remember it this day.  Remember it in the watches of the night.  Remember it even at deep dawn.  Let its repeated refrain be the greeting that welcomes the dawn of each new day… the greeting that welcomes this new day.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!


[1] Emil Rose Proctor, “Too Soon,” 2017, as posted on Facebook, with thanks to Elizabeth Michael for sharing the poem.

[2] K.C. Ptomey, in a paper presented to the 2004 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[3] The quote comes from Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Baker Books, 1996, 1882, as cited by Rick Spalding in a paper on Luke’s Easter narrative presented to the 1998 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Memphis, Tennessee.

[4] Spalding.

[5] I owe much of this paragraph to Ptomey’s paper.

[6] Ptomey.

[7] Spalding.

Bob Dunham , Pastor


Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 111


Bob is grateful for the privilege of serving as pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is particularly thankful for the colleagues, officers and members who have served the church with great love and care during the last quarter century. Bob is a Florida native and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School. He began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired English professor, and they have two grown children and a wonderful granddaughter: son Aaron, his wife Natalie, and their daughter Catherine live in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah and her husband Prentice live in the Asheville area. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading and music of all kinds, and he finds relaxation on long walks in the woods (whether on hiking trails or near fairways, while chasing golf balls).