There’s nothing quite like an Easter morning. The air is filled with the sounds of trumpets and tympani and with the aroma of Easter lilies. Flowers are everywhere.
Clergy love this day. Just look at all of you, here in your finest, and today at least you’re not at home reading the Times or Post, or headed out to the golf course or the grocery store. You’re here in church where you belong. Probably the only people happier today are the florists. I hear they call this “the Big One.”
In this service this morning we’re trying to capture some of what e.e. cummings must have felt when he wrote his ecstatic poem that begins,
i thank you God for this most amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Everything this morning says Yes. Yes to the tulips and azaleas bursting in crimson and fuchsia, Yes to the love and joy that are woven into our lives, Yes to God.
But for some of us it is just this exuberant Yes here on Easter that rings a little hollow. Many of us consider ourselves Christians, but a lot of us have cut some deals with the faith in order to be here—I can believe this and this, but not that.
And when it comes to the resurrection I know some just aren’t so sure. It isn’t that they write it off, it’s just that they don’t really know what to make of it. Not long ago I talked to a newspaper reporter doing an article on what people actually believe about Easter, and he said his sense is that for many, including many Christians, Easter seems more like a fairy tale or wishful thinking. A wise theologian once said to me that he believed that many people in church would actually be more comfortable with Holy Saturday than Easter Sunday. They can believe in a good man now lying in a tomb, but they can’t really trust that a dead man is now alive and making a difference in the world around them.
After all, life doesn’t really look like an exuberant Yes a lot of the time. Love often withers, wrinkles deepen, we’re saying good-bye all our years. People we care for get sick and die. Children struggle, marriages come apart. We are locked inside material lives that will all eventually run down.
And we only have to gaze at the morning papers to wonder if Yes is the right word for us—at the heartbreaking events in Iraq, or the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing for the lives in Sudan, or the victims of a hurricane on the Gulf Coast or an earthquake in Kashmir still trying to put their lives together. In many places today seems more like Good Friday than Easter. If Easter is real, we need to be able to proclaim its Yes even in the midst of a fractured world.
With all the trumpets of Easter morning it’s easy to forget that the first Easter didn’t begin with a resounding Yes. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John give different accounts of what happened, but they all capture a sense of darkness, confusion, and uncertainty on Easter morning, and even when it dawns on the disciples that their Lord may be alive again, we don’t hear great cheers of joy, but rather fear and disorientation. Everything is happening in half-light, and the disciples have no better mental categories to put resurrection into than we do with our scientific, materialistic mindset.
In the version we just heard from John’s gospel, Jesus’ close friend Mary Magdalene is making her way to the tomb to say good-bye to her leader one more time. He had been crucified on Friday, and now it was before dawn on Sunday morning as she came for her final farewells.
But then to her shock she discovered that the stone covering the opening had been rolled away. And she just ran back to tell the others that someone had stolen their Lord’s body. The notion of resurrection never occurred to her. Then Peter and John came running next. They stepped into the tomb and looked, but saw no body. Still, something dawned on John. “He saw and believed,” the gospel says.
Meanwhile Mary had come back to the empty tomb, and things started shifting fast. Two men, angels John calls them, ask her why she’s weeping, and then another man shows up, and she looks right at him and concludes that he’s the gardener and asks him what he’s done with the body. And then the man says her name, “Mary,” and with that she knows. She recognizes the Risen Lord. “Rabbouni!” she cries. “Teacher!” It’s a riveting moment of recognition and reunion, filled with dawning awareness, and incomprehension, and stunned joy.
What exactly the disciples saw, we don’t know, but we do know that people who had seen the worst that life could bring were utterly convinced that God was doing something new, that death was no longer the finale to their story, that new, unimaginable life still lay before them—for Jesus himself and for them too. They were as confused by these encounters at first as many of us still are. But slowly they began to trust that the One who had sent Jesus to show them what life can be had raised him. And that changed them—from frightened, timid followers into bold, risk-taking witnesses to what life can be.
We should be clear as we hear this story what this resurrection event is not. Some would say that it simply means that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare, or that the spirit of Jesus is undying and that he lives among us the way Socrates does or Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Some say it means the cause of Jesus goes on in spite of his death. Some enjoy it as the rebirth of spring, with the return of robins and daffodils and with all those fertility symbols such as eggs and quick-breeding rabbits.
Some would say that all this Easter talk is the language of poetry and shouldn’t be taken literally. That’s true of important parts of the Bible, but here we’re dealing with the lynch-pin of the whole story—God’s power over death itself. “If Christ be not raised from the dead,” St. Paul wrote a few years later, “then we are of all people most to be pitied.” Easter demands that we reframe how we see the world. It tells us that the prison-house of our material lives has been blown open, and that God intends to do for the whole world what was done for Jesus that first Easter morning.
Still, a bright, exuberant Yes is maybe too grand an affirmation for a world as ambiguous as ours. It runs the danger of not facing up to the full reality around us. But the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth gave us another way. He said that the Good News of God in Christ has written on every page the word, “Nevertheless.” In a world of human freedom, terrible things can happen. But they are never the last word. There is always God’s “Nevertheless.”
The people of Israel were imprisoned in bondage to the evil Pharaoh. Nevertheless, God brought them out of slavery into freedom. Later Israel was captured and its leaders taken into exile. Nevertheless, God called them again and led them home. A lame man had lain thirty years by the pool of Siloam. Nevertheless, Jesus healed him and gave him new life. Jesus came calling people to trust God and love each other with a welcoming, all-embracing love. And he was executed for threatening the safe systems of political and religious authorities. Nevertheless, God brought new life to him. And Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and all the others were plunged into despair by their leaders’ death. Nevertheless, the Risen Christ appeared to them. And they went on to spread a new faith across the globe and down the centuries.
And haven’t we experienced something of God’s Nevertheless? A priest I know has written of the deep depression he endured some years ago. It was so deep that he even contemplated suicide. He was lost and saw no way out. But he says that a miraculous combination of things—intensive psychotherapy, the gift of a hope-filled community of faith, and loving, patient family and friends—ultimately rolled the stone away from his despair and gave him a new life. Nevertheless, life could begin again. Resurrection.
One of my closest friends from high school fought alcoholism and drug problems for decades. I never thought he would break free of the tomb he was in. But after a lot of tries, and a lot of patience and support, he finally did. He gives the credit to what he calls his Higher Power. We Easter people call that the Risen Christ. Nevertheless.
My guess is that you’ve known God’s Nevertheless. When you were sinking under the weight of worry, or grief, or the struggles of a child; when your own health, or that of someone you loved, was under assault; when you saw that you were losing what you thought you had to have to live; somehow life came again. God wrote Nevertheless across that page of your life, and you began again, limping maybe, but strong and alive.
History is filled with dead-ends, sealed tombs, that miraculously were broken open. Almost no one imagined that the grip Communism had on Eastern Europe would loosen in our lifetimes. But in 1989, thanks to the Christian Polish leaders Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II, it happened. One journalist writing about what happened in that year put it succinctly: “Couldn’t happen. Did.” God’s Nevertheless was written across their lives.
You see, if Christ is raised from the dead then all bets are off. Easter declares that the God who created heaven and earth is capable of a new creation, taking the broken pieces and closed tombs of our world and making of them something new.
And if Christ is raised from the dead, if Nevertheless is God’s answer to all that would defeat and diminish our days, then you and I are called to watch for where the Risen Christ is at work and to join in. There are families to be strengthened, relationships to be healed, children to be tutored; there are AIDS and malaria, killing God’s children by the millions each year, to be fought, there is this city, black and white, rich and poor, to be brought together, there is a fair and hopeful response to the needs of the immigrants in our country to be found.
A fine minister of the past generation, William Sloane Coffin, for many years chaplain at Yale and then at Riverside Church in New York, died this week. He summed up the difference Easter should make this way: “Christ is risen to convert us, not from life to something more than life, but from something less than life to the possibility of full life itself.” “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “[promises] to put love in our hearts, decent thoughts in our heads, and a little more iron in our spines.”
This Easter morning says that Christ is among us, my friends. He’s here feeding us with the bread and wine of his risen life. He will be in our homes this afternoon and our work tomorrow opening doors, inviting us to risk and to love.
Watch, my friends, for the stirring of our Risen Christ Lord, here, and everywhere, writing Nevertheless over every dead-end in our lives and world. You see, he is not dead; he is risen. Alleluia.