Easter Sunday sermons can be a challenge for ministers

So there’s this band of scruffy guys who fall in with this other guy who comes out of nowhere and claims to be God, talking all crazy and insulting ministers and getting in trouble with all the politicians. Then one of his own guys sells him out to the crooked politicians, and the guy ends up being tortured and executed in the goriest way ever.

And here’s the kicker: Before the weekend’s even over, he rises from the dead!

As story pitches go, it’s not bad. In fact, have the guy come back as a zombie and you have basic cable’s next big hit.

But that story is, of course, the broad outline of the story of Jesus, whose resurrection is, for Christians, the key theme of both Christianity and Easter. When most Christians gather for Easter worship today (Eastern Orthodox Christians won’t celebrate Easter until May 5), they’ll once again hear a story that they’ve heard dozens, even hundreds, of times before.

And, for ministers, it’s just that been-there/heard-that familiarity worshippers bring to Easter services that can make Easter sermons particularly challenging to preach.

“From the pastor’s perspective — from the preacher’s perspective — it certainly is a challenge because you want to do something new, something fresh,” explains the Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, assistant professor of pastoral ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

However, adds Fredrickson, who previously served as senior pastor of a Simi Valley, Calif., church, “if they really can catch hold of the amazingness of this message — and they do — it’s very, very compelling.”

Of course, Christian ministers preach a message of resurrection and new life every Sunday in one form or another. But, they say, there’s something about Easter that underscores the need to tell the centuries-old story in a particularly compelling way.

Easter is “the day when Christians say, ‘OK, we’re going to talk about this absolutely central, life-transforming event and we’re going to put our best clothes on, and we’re gathering together and there are certain songs we’re going to sing,’ ” Fredrickson says.

“Then the pastor gets to thinking: ‘Right. This is big. And here we go ...’ ”

The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, rector of Christ Church Episcopal, says Christmas and Easter are “the most difficult occasions to preach on.”

“But I think Easter is the most difficult. You can get people to connect with Christmas, because everybody has seen a newborn baby. Easter is more difficult.”

Also, says the Rev. Dennis Hutson, pastor of Advent United Methodist Church, Christians today may be more apt to take Easter’s story of Resurrection and new life for granted because “our society has moved away from faith in God and more to faith in self.”

The Rev. Ralph E. Williamson, senior pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, says many of us have “become so complacent with our religion, especially in the context of our social environment. Because we have heard (the story) for so long, it does not seem to resonate with individuals who do not have commitment.”

But, he says, “when you understand the power and the awesomeness of God, it just continues to sustain and give you the hope you need.”

Another Easter preaching challenge “is that you get so many people on Easter who don’t go to church at any other time but Christmas,” notes Bishop Dan Edwards of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada. “So the challenge is, how do you deliver this message to those folks? And sometimes, that’s hard.”

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is “an ancient truth,” Vaughn says, “but you have to find a new way of saying it sometimes that makes them sit up and take notice.”

One tack Vaughn has taken is to “preach, in a sense, against the text and play devil’s advocate.” For example, Vaughn notes that one Gospel account records that the apostles were frightened after Jesus’ resurrection.

“I once took that and said, ‘What was it that they were afraid of?’ It could be that they were afraid that Jesus had really risen, and if he had, that meant he’d go on upsetting them, challenging them, challenging the status quo, and that’s something we don’t always feel comfortable with.”

Edwards has found compelling Easter sermons in helping congregants to place the Resurrection in the context of what comes before.

“My experience is that, for many people, their religion can get stuck on Good Friday. It can get stuck in the sense of loss and guilt and shame that people often live in,” he says. “(It’s) to actually invite people to move past Good Friday, that it’s not the same-old, same-old. It’s getting people to move more into the profundity and joy of Easter morning.

“Sometimes, people have it that Jesus died and that’s very sad, but then Jesus was alive again and that’s very good. It’s as if Easter had just undone what happened on Good Friday, and that’s not it at all. It’s a story about the conquest of death.”

That, Edwards adds, is “a huge point that’s so big and so profound that you can never plumb the depths of it. You never can get it fully expressed. So it’s not that you had made the point 20 times before, it’s that you can never make the point. It’s too big.”

Fredrickson, who works with active pastors who wish to refine their ministerial skills, often suggests that they move beyond the basic nuts-and-bolts details of the Easter message and explore “the transformative sense of how the world really has become a different place because of that first Resurrection Sunday, that it changes the world and changes people’s lives.

“If we can move from the ‘Yadda, yadda, this is just history’ to ‘How do we appreciate the Easter story; how does the Easter story affect us?’ that’s where it becomes gripping and challenging.”

Ministers also can help those in the pews gain a more vibrant, renewed appreciation for Easter by considering the story of the Resurrection metaphorically, as well as literally.

“The resurrection of Jesus is a unique and unrepeatable event, but I honestly think that people experience resurrections all the time,” Vaughn explains.

“Resurrection is not just life after death, it’s new life that comes after all kinds of death that we experience, because we are always experiencing the death of relationships, the death of our jobs, the death of hopes and dreams, and I think we also are resurrected.

“All of these things are little resurrections, or echoes of the Resurrection, and I think God always brings us back to life,” Vaughn says.

The still-powerful, still-resonant center of the Easter message is that “life comes from death (and) that there is hope after the very darkest moment,” Fredrickson says.

If a minister can find a way to make that message compelling and new, the effects of an Easter Sunday sermon will last long after the Easter service ends. Then, Fredrickson says, the power and meaning of the Easter story will be reflected “in the way we live our lives.”

“And if a preacher can get to that point and get everyone to that point,” he adds, “well, that’s a good Sunday morning.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.