If there is a day for pure exuberance, this is it. This is a day when those of us who belong to rather dignified brands of Christianity, sometimes referred to as God’s frozen chosen, actually cut loose and have a good time in church. With all the flowers, anthems, great hymns, with all of you looking so good in your Easter finery, this is one time when we can actually have some fun, even smile in church.
One of the nice things about the days leading up to Easter is that people will express concern for the clergy. “How are you doing?” they ask, with a slightly worried look on their faces. They know Holy Week is a busy time, and they also know that we preachers have our work cut out for us on this day. It’s the Big One. The biggest day in the Christian year. “Are you ready for the huge crowds?” someone said to me. And what she implied was, “You know you only have one shot at a lot of those people, so it better be good!”
A priest friend of mine told me of a little boy riding home from Easter services saying to his mother, “You know, Mom, I learned a new song in church today.” “Oh?” she said, “What is it?” “It’s ‘Jesus Christ Has Rhythm Today.’” Well, you can almost sense a fresh, surging rhythm about our faith today.
But for all the grandeur of the day, it’s hard to know just what to make of Easter. Every year, after the big Easter celebration, questions come up in classes and conversations. ‘What do you really think happened?’ ‘How can we really know?’ ‘Isn’t it just too good to be true, that a dead man came back?’
The nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach claimed that all religion is wish projection, what writer and preacher William Willimon calls the “Tinker Bell Theory” of religion. In the stage version of Peter Pan, you may remember, Tinker Bell fades away and can only be brought back by everyone in the theater closing their eyes and believing very hard in fairies.
“Do you believe in fairies, boys and girls? Say you do,” pleads Peter Pan. “Believe in fairies and they will be true.”
‘You poor Christians,’ some have said, ‘who just can’t get it through your heads that you are going to die. So you close our eyes, pull out your trumpets, and sing about the resurrection.’
But collective wish projection is the furthest thing from what is going on in the four gospel accounts of Easter. They tell four different stories, with different players and a different series of events. There is a huge amount of confusion, of running back and forth, coming and going, weeping and shouting. There is no spot in any of this that would call for a triumphant chorus of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”
In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for the truthfulness of these resurrection stories is that they don’t seem written up to impress, and you can’t combine them into one coherent account. Something mysterious and disorienting was happening to those disciples on that early Sunday morning. About the only consistent parts were the sense of befuddlement and surprise, and how slow everyone was to believe what was happening.
In the account from John’s gospel we heard today, Jesus had been dead and in a tomb since Friday afternoon, put to death as a threat to the authority of the Roman empire. Now at sunrise on Sunday, the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and to her shock discovered that the large stone covering the opening has been rolled away. No triumphant cries of resurrection, no Easter hymns. The thought that he could be alive never occurred to her.
She ran back to tell her friends who were still in hiding that someone had stolen his body. Then Peter and John ran to check it out themselves, saw the stone rolled back, and went in and had a look. There was no body anywhere, so they returned to their homes.
Meanwhile, Mary went back to the tomb again, devastated because not only was her master dead, but his body was stolen. But then everything broke loose. Two men, John called them angels, or messengers, asked why she was weeping. Then another man showed up. She turned around and looked at him and thought he must be the gardener. And then the man said her name, “Mary.” And then she recognized him. “Rabbouni,” she cried. “Teacher.”
Still no trumpets, no choruses, just a confused, halting realization that from the other side of death has come unimagined life. Then she rushed back at last to announce, “I have seen the Lord.”
Easter begins dimly, with confusion, uncertainty in all the gospel stories. Seeing the Lord comes slowly. It’s not what anyone expects. Mark’s gospel says the women ran away in fear. They were experiencing the throwing over of a whole way of looking at the world. No wish projection here, no hallucination. If Jesus was back from the dead, if the world’s tombs were not permanently sealed, if evil couldn’t have the last word, then anything was possible.
Most of our world often seems to have bought into a spiritual version of the second law of thermodynamics, the notion that entropy rules the universe. This is a closed world, it says, in which everything is slowly running down. So you better grab what you can.
Listening to people talk about what is happening in the economy sounds like that. How many times have we heard that two emotions drive the stock market – greed and fear? Scarcity is now the name of the game: scarcity of liquidity, of capital, of jobs, of retirement income, of endowments for non-profits. The world at large is anxious, fearful, tense.
I was struck by a column written by Thomas Friedman a few days ago suggesting that the year 2008 will go down in history as the year of “The Great Disruption,” the year that both Mother Nature and Father Greed hit the wall at once. “We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” one expert says in Friedman’s column. The fundamental systems shaping our life—the economy, the way we use the earth—have reached a turning point. It seems like dead ends, and no one is sure where things go from here.
And many are saying the problems aren’t fixable. We will never slow the polluting of the earth in time—just look at China and India, let alone the U.S. We can’t address the problems of lack of health care, of troubled urban schools, of worldwide hunger and disease, because the economic collapse has changed everything. We seem to be facing an array of dead ends.
If our own world seems like a zero-sum game, where nothing new can happen, if Jesus is safely buried in his tomb, then there’s not much reason to hope. We can hold on to what’s left of our income and savings, forget about caring for the people being hit hardest in this recession, keep on buying gas guzzlers as long as we can, ignore the suffering around the world.
But if Christ is raised from the dead, then all bets are off. Easter is not simply a metaphor for new life and new beginnings. It isn’t about the return of robins and daffodils in the spring. Easter declares that the God who created heaven and earth is capable of new creation again and again—taking the broken pieces and closed tombs of our world and our lives and making something new. It is hard for many people to believe this, of course. It turns our way of thinking around. It can take time to trust this, to see the world this way.
When Mary Magdalene heard that strange man call her name, a new world began to open for her. Her Lord was back. He had gone through the tomb and come out the other side. “I have seen the Lord,” she said. She couldn’t prove it. She could only begin a journey of coming to trust this strange encounter and what it might mean.
British satirist Tony Hendra a few years ago wrote a spiritual autobiography, and in it he describes what finally dawned on him about Easter:
What if this singular man in some unprecedented,
unrepeatable way, was in touch with the divine, was divine as claimed.
What if the story of the Resurrection was actually, factually true, not
just an extra crowd-pleasing narrative twist but a
once-in-the-planet’s-lifetime occurrence designed to demonstrate
that there was hope after death. Then the world and the universe would
be totally different places.
No wonder the women at the tomb were either confused or terrified as they ran away. If that kind of power is at work in the universe, everything looks different, and we can’t give up on anything.
If Jesus is raised from the dead then apartheid one day had to fall, and seeds of resurrection were slowly taking shape for the 28 years that Nelson Mandela was behind bars on Robben Island. If Christ is raised, then communism could not keep the tombs of Eastern Europe sealed forever, and thanks largely to Christians it didn’t. If Easter is real then whole nations can learn how to forgive, as South Africa has. If Christ’s Spirit is on the move, then a new spirit of compassion and service will be emerging in our young people as they flock to lives of service, in Africa, in our cities, and elsewhere.
If Christ is raised from the dead, then we can’t stay stuck in our little tombs any more. We can see in this “Great Disruption” in our economy and our environment not simply a dead end, but a moment fraught with the possibility of resurrection—new and better ways of ordering our economic life, new, life-giving ways of caring for this fragile earth.
And if Christ is raised, your own life can never be a closed story. We can’t let hard problems define us: illness, a troubled relationship, the loneliness, the day to day fear that you might not be able to provide for your families. No tombs are sealed. None.
You see there is a rhythm of Jesus Christ Risen Today. It is the rhythm of death and resurrection, of refusing to avoid the dead places in our lives and our world, and instead facing them, going through them, trusting that the One who raised Jesus will raise us too.
If the tomb isn’t the end, if God will stop literally at nothing, even death, to keep working on this frightened, self-absorbed world, then the only choice is to live big, bold, risky lives.
Does that sound like wish fulfillment to you? My guess is that the safe wish, and the one plenty of people have bet on, is that Jesus is safely in the ground, that there really is no reason to hope, so they can get on with their self-absorbed, frightened ways.
What will it be like for you to meet the risen Lord? These early stories don’t spell that out. They just say go back to your lives with your eyes and heart wide open, and you’ll find him, or he’ll find you. You’ll find the courage to make the move you’ve been needing to make, the gumption to speak the truth at home or at work, and a deepening sense that you’re not alone, that Christ is with you.
So let’s relish all the joy of this morning. After all, Jesus Christ has a new rhythm today. And then let’s go out ready to meet him. Because Christ our Lord is risen.