Hear this prayer, for us all (with thanks to Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie)
O God, we stretch out our hands to you on this Easter morning.
We need you to pull us up and set us on our feet again. . .
Blessed are we who stretch our our hands to you
in doubt and grief,
in sickness of body and mind and spirit,
Our prayers not fully realized,
rejoicing. . . anyway.
For that is what makes us Easter people:
carrying forth the realized hope of the Resurrected One,
singing our alleluias great and small,
while it’s still dark. Amen.1
What a gift to be with you here, to take in the grace and love of this moment and this place. For we are all living in an Everything, Everywhere, All at Once2 world, and it’s a lot to hold. (I was cheering for that movie to win Best Picture, sight unseen, based on the title alone, because it sums up what life feels like for so many people these days.)
I pray that you receive here the hope God longs to give, so that you may live with joy and purpose, grace and generosity of spirit in your everything, everywhere, all at once life. I’m so glad that you’re here.
Let me begin by placing what we have gathered to celebrate within a larger frame of spiritual quest and practice, the rhythms and rituals that can help us find meaning and connection to the mystery we call God.
On the big canvas of life and society, all religious traditions, including Christianity, establish ways of marking time according to a calendar of seasons and celebrations that are linked to the earth’s travels around the sun, and highlight events from a given religious narrative. The narrative is rooted in historical memory yet it holds spiritual significance transcending time and space. Thus religious celebrations like this one are never only about remembering the past, for they invite us, through the lens of past events, to look within and around for authentic spiritual encounter in the present, and they point us toward a future beyond the horizons of our sight. Most of the time, in the frenzy of everything, everywhere, all at once, we are, to our detriment, oblivious to this deeper rhythm. But it’s there for us whenever we stop long enough to look and listen for it, and to drink from deeper wells.
That there is considerable overlap across religious traditions, such that people of different faiths have similar celebrations at the same time, shouldn’t surprise us. The synchronicities validate that we’re all onto something real. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr makes the case that Christ is universal.3 It’s not that everyone is Christian, but the truth of Christ, the life force we find in Christ, isn’t only available for those who follow Jesus. If that life force finds expression in other traditions, praise the God who loves diversity and show no partiality. For all our differences, we are one human race. This fragile earth is the island home for us all.
In every spiritual practice, there is, nonetheless, what’s known as “the scandal of particularity.” Which is to say that if you want a spiritual life of any depth at all, you need to claim your particular path or, perhaps better said, acknowledge the path that has claimed you, and walk it. Otherwise you risk being enslaved by superficiality and all manner of distraction that will keep you running on other people’s hamster wheels for the rest of your life, without adequate inner strength to stop, get off, and find your true self and deeper call.
Speaking particularly then, Christians circle the sun each year commemorating the big events in the life of one man–Jesus of Nazareth–and reflecting upon His teachings. The bulk of each year is spent on the latter, in long seasons that our Roman Catholic friends call Ordinary Time. We gather in church on Sundays, or in small groups, or take time in private devotion, to slowly make our way through the repository of Jesus’ teachings found in the Bible. There is a lot of repetition and rehearsing of familiar tales and His great one-liners, because Jesus’ teachings aren’t the kind to consider once and be done with. They’re meant to take up residence inside us and become the worldview and the lens through which we attempt to live Jesus-inspired lives.
We proclaim the Scriptures are inspired by God not because they lack factual error or contraction, but because they tell of our spiritual forebears’ encounters with God, across millenia, they attempted to describe with words, metaphor, and poetic imagery. Sometimes, as we read, we, too, feel the power of divine encounter. The words seem to leap off the page and into our hearts. We hear an invitation through them to live and to love as Jesus loves, and claim his values as our own: compassion, forgiveness, solidarity in suffering, respecting the worth and dignity of every human being, pursuing justice through nonviolent means and sacrificial love. The point isn’t to learn more about Jesus, but to become more like Him, as we, over time and struggle, learn to place our trust in His forgiveness and love, and draw courage from His Spirit.
There is no shortcut on the spiritual path. It is the journey of a lifetime.
The commemorative celebrations of the Christian year, like today, are like bells tolling to get our attention, encouraging us to stop and consider one BIG spiritual truth encapsulated in a key event in Jesus’ life that, if we choose, can become part of ours.
Two celebrations stand out in significance. We celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, as the coming of God into our world as it is, and to us as we are.
This week we have commemorated the events culminating in Jesus’ death. We need several days to do this, beginning on the Thursday of Holy Week, when we place ourselves at the table where He shares a last meal with His friends, washing their feet and saying to them, and us: “I have given you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Then comes the long night He spends in prayer, and we do our best to stay awake, as He asks God to spare Him the inevitable suffering that is to come. On Friday, we linger over the worst day of all, when all His male disciples desert, deny, or betray Him, and the women stand helplessly by, as He is beaten and put to death, even though His crucifiers know that He is an innocent man. There’s nothing good about what happens to Jesus on so-called Good Friday, but it’s impossible not to be in awe of Him as we remember that day. “Father, forgive them,” He prays, “for they do not know what they are doing.” Until His last breath, Jesus chooses the path of love. Until His last breath.
Then there’s a day of nothing at all, which is a good thing, because grief is exhausting.
Then, while grief is still fresh, Easter morning comes. Morning comes while it is still dark. Mary goes to the tomb and is stunned by what she doesn’t see. She runs and gets two of Jesus’ closest disciples to join her, or at least that’s one version of the story. There are several, and they don’t match up well. You put them alongside each other and all they have in common is an overriding sense of chaos and confusion.
Of these varied accounts, Rowan Wiliams writes “We read of fear, grief, doubt…the consistent echo of disorientation and surprise… and the piercing note of shock.”4
Keep in mind that the gospel narratives were written down a generation or more after these things had taken place with the explicit intention of convincing people like you and me that this was the most important thing to know about Jesus. Though Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for what was going to happen, nobody, according to these stories, saw it coming. Those who lived to tell the tale couldn’t bring themselves to tidy up the rawness of their experience, and those who later wrote the stories didn’t even attempt to bring coherence or clarity to what had been handed down to them.5
I don’t know about you, but given the chaos and confusion in my life, I find all this strangely reassuring.
There are two points upon which the confusing, chaotic accounts agree.
1. The tomb was empty.
2. Jesus encountered His disciples in resurrected form.6
I have no idea what a resurrected person looks like, but it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t resuscitated, brought back to live as before. Resurrection is something else entirely, which perhaps explains why no one recognized Him at first. It wasn’t until Jesus called Mary by her name that she knew who He was; it wasn’t until Jesus broke bread with the two disciples on the Road to Emaus that they knew: it wasn’t until Jesus assured Simon Peter three times that he was forgiven for the three time he denied Jesus that he knew; it wasn’t until Thomas, the doubter, a week later touched the wounds in His risen body that he knew.
When do you and I know? Now there’s a mystery.
It’s said that faith is more caught rather than taught, which suggests that it comes to us, as well, in the form of some encounter, generally mediated by another who shares a story of Jesus encountering them and the difference it made. Or we see such faith lived in another, we find ourselves wanting what they have.
I met a man a few weeks ago, and over our dinner conversation he told me that when he converted to Roman Catholicism, a friend gave a book on the lives of the saints. “Welcome to the Church,” his friend said, “The saints are the best part of us.” He didn’t mean one-dimensional people who have no fun at all, but rather earthy people who live gritty lives through which, something of Jesus’ love shines through. And we catch it.7
Sometimes we put ourselves in the place of potential encounter and He comes to us. Or He comes when we’re running in the other direction, or at the bottom of some mess of our own making or of what others have done to us. He comes to us. He calls us by our name.
We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, not apart from His death, but as God’s response to it.
Here’s the big point of Easter: Jesus lives.
If Jesus had come only to take our sins upon Himself and be in solidarity in our suffering, His mission would have ended on the cross. But His mission didn’t end there, because He didn’t come only to die for us. He came to live for us, and to enable us to live fully in this world, and to join Him in healing this world.8
Resurrection is God’s promise to us that death is not the end, because our God is a God of life, and life rising from death.
Resurrection is God’s promise that this life as we know is not the end, that there is another realm. And there’s going to be some sweet sounds coming down on the Night Shift.9 We have another home. And we are not alone.
Resurrection is what makes it possible for Jesus of Nazareth, who lived over 2000 years ago, to be more than an historical figure for us to learn about and admire from a distance. He can be a living presence in our lives, a personal and communal Savior, there for us, who both loves us unconditionally and invites us to walk with Him on the path of sacrificial love for the healing of this world.
We don’t have to ask for Him to love us; that’s a given. We don’t have to accept Him as our Savior for Him to save us; that’s what He does. But Jesus invites us to follow him. We can say yes or no. It’s a free choice, with no threats of eternal punishment for those who choose otherwise. It is an invitation made in love.
Jesus’ resurrection is what we celebrate today, and it’s a big deal–big enough to merit all we can bring to it, all this extravagant splendor. But for those who choose to follow Him, it’s one day alongside every other. So we’ll be here next week, to gather around this table, or one like it somewhere else, and we’ll take up his stories and teachings again, considering our life in light of His, striving to live His Way of Love.
We show up every Sunday, we say our prayers each day, we study his teachings, and we go where He sends us, because we realize how much we need Him. We need his love and forgiveness and grace. And we’ve come to love him in return. We refuse to allow the cynicism and mean-spiritedness and brazen abuse of Him by others to sway us from His true path of love. He is the source of our strength, the strength of our life. He lives. Because he lives, so can we, in this everything, everywhere, all at once world.
So if he’s knocking on the door of your heart today, for the first or the thousandth time, why not let Him in? If he’s inviting you to take one step further on the path of love, why not take it? If you have experienced death, I am sorry. May you hear His assurance that death is not the end, and that new life awaits you. He loves you. He is here for you. He is grateful to you and for you. He’s so glad that you are here. And so am I, because in you and in me, and in all of us together, His love lives on.
1Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, The Lives We Actually Have: 101 Blessings for Imperfect Days (New York: Convergent Books, 2023), 210-11.
2Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture
3Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019).
4Rowan Williams, Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Kindle Edition, Location 1576.
5Williams, Kindle Version.
6David Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 396.
7My dinner companion was Robert Ellberg, and he tells this story as introduction to his book, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019)
8With eternal gratitude to the late Rachel Held Evans for this insight, beautifully expressed in Inspired: Slaying the Giants, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018).
9Music video for the Commodores – Nightshift