Easter Sunday: How to Find Easter Joy

This was well-received.  I really did not want to guilt those who attend rarely, so I emphasized that Easter grace is open for all.  But I also wanted to let them know that they might indeed be searching for greater participation.    

John 20:1-18 ; 1 Cor 15:19-26

I have one simple goal today: I want all of us to share together in the same Easter joy. Old folks and children, those struggling to get by and those who are comfortable, soldiers and peace activists, blue-collar and white-collar folk, farmers and professors, whatever your race or ethnicity. On other days we will each have our distinctive responsibilities, and our distinctive blessings. But this is a day for us all to share in the same joy, and to share in it deeply.

Because Easter Sunday is a unique day. It is the font and foundation of the Christian faith. Can you imagine how different the world would be if nothing had happened on that original Sunday morning? If Mary had just slowly found her way home through her tears, and the disciples gradually went back to their fishing and tax collecting? But joy and the power of joy took over their lives.

It is a joy that affirms that God is not dead. Indeed, God is victorious in Christ even after everyone else has failed.   Resurrection is here! Hope is unbounded! God’s goodness and power, first seen in creation, is reaffirmed by the empty tomb: God has reclaimed this world as God’s own, and we can now recognize, today, all that is right with the world. That’s a pleasant change from our Lenten worship, when we drew our attention to all that is wrong with the world. (I bet you are ready to move on.) Now, on this day of triumph, it is good and right to feel deeply at home in the earth; to rejoice in signs of spring; to see God’s blessing over all life and creation.

So sure, bring in all the pagan stuff: the eggs, the rabbits, the chicks, the lambs. Hooray indeed for new life, for fertility! We don’t have to be miserly about Easter. This is a day where God’s grace and love has exceeded all expected limits. Even as God’s enemies have shown their hand at the cross, and even as God’s friends have failed in its shadow, God has triumphed. The power of forgiveness and love received its decisive Amen. Life is indeed good, because God has declared it to be so, whatever evidence the world marshals to the contrary.

God declares all this today, but not just for today alone. Our joy is not fleeting or temporary. What God does, God does throughout all eternity. The Yes and Amen resounds from the empty tomb indefinitely, echoing through all time. “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” The power of this one day, grounded in an assurance that fundamentally all is right with the world, stays with us our whole lives, and from generation to generation.

Nor need we be anxious, on this eternal day, what tomorrow will bring. Or what we must do. Christ has died for all and Christ is raised for all. All humanity has been once and for all redeemed in him. There’s nothing more you or I can do or not do to change that. Today we simply acknowledge and celebrate, and lose our cares, lose our very selves, in the eternal wonder of God’s love for creation. //

But is something preventing you from sharing in that joy? Oh, most of us take easily enough to the music, the festivity, the egg hunts, the flowers. But is the joy sinking in deeply? I want to do whatever I can to help the joy sink into your care-worn bones.

Perhaps you are embarrassed to say out loud that you are not sure exactly what happened on that original Easter Day. Perhaps you find yourself pausing on Mary’s question, and adding: Yes, where did they take away Jesus, and where did they lay him? Was this some kind of cover-up? There are valid reasons to be skeptical about the resurrection. And I don’t think it would add to anyone’s joy if I tried to make some elaborate arguments in favor of the bodily resurrection here today.

Instead, let me say something more to the point. Your skepticism is welcome here. We are not going to deny you any Easter joy because you are skeptical or doubting. That is something about this church that I am very proud of, even if I rarely say so: we welcome difference of opinion, whether your views are more traditional or less so.

I’ll say it again: I want you all here today to share in the same Easter joy and share in it deeply, regardless of whatever questions or alternative views you carry about the resurrection or about who Jesus was. How can even a skeptic share in the Easter joy? you might ask. It’s simple, really. Jesus’ whole spirit, everything he stood for, was not killed by the Romans who crucified him. Instead, the name and image of Jesus continued to live among his followers as a vibrant source of truth and hope; and indeed, everything he stood for was now liberated beyond the narrow confines of Palestine circa the year 33. Jesus’ living spirit now takes on new meaning wherever the church gathers in his name. And so we rightly emphasize here today that Jesus stood for a religion that is never self-righteous, that seeks forgiveness and reconciliation, that never places religious propriety above the value of real human beings, that transcends all boundaries of race, ethnicity, sexual and gender identity, welcoming all the nations; that above all places love as the highest virtue. Aren’t you joyful that this spirit of Jesus and the religion it birthed was not crushed but lives on today? There is much more that could be said, but for today, that’s enough to be joyful, and pretty deeply joyful.

Perhaps, though, it is not skepticism that holds you back from sharing in the Easter joy. Perhaps you are going through a difficult, trying, or sad moment in your life. I know for a fact that some of you are. I can assure you of two things: if we are rightly being the church of the new life found in the risen Christ, then we will not let you go through your troubles alone. If we fail in that, and I know it can happen, then trust that God is on your side, not on ours. And the other thing I can assure you of is this: Easter joy can feel less happy when our life is mired in trouble and sadness. But that does not mean that you are not in fact sharing in that joy more deeply for all your sorrows. To catch hold of something in Jesus that transcends death and all limitation is only more profoundly experienced by those in the midst of trouble and pain. We are told, “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”   She bent over that deep, dark cave of a tomb, peering through her tears. And she’s the one that Jesus chose to appear to first. Yes, her tears partially blocked her vision, and slowed her faith, but Jesus appeared first to her, not the jaunty, quick-on-their feet disciples. Jesus comes first to the mourners, not the sprinters.

And perhaps there’s a lesson there for others among us, who are currently being spared the trials of sadness and pain that come with life. Why might we not be experiencing the Easter joy? We might not be troubled by sorrows; we might not be wrestling with skepticism. But Easter can still fall flat for us. Not today, but in the past I have often grown weary of the brass flourishes, the easter egg hunts, the flower-bedecked crosses. The shouts of Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed. To be honest, I’m still a little weary of the song “He Lives;” don’t worry, fans, we’re just taking one year off. / I’ve sometimes found myself more moved by the solemnity of Maundy Thursday or Good Friday than the declarations of joy on Easter Sunday. I wonder if I’m alone in that. And why would that be?

I think I used to worry that Easter had become another occasion for us to paint smiles on our faces. It seems that in our culture, we are expected to be happy campers all the time; if we aren’t, then there’s something wrong with us. We must need meds. (I do understand that depression is a serious, medical issue.) So I most trusted those moments in the church’s life, like Maundy Thursday, when we can honestly recognize our sorrows, and the sorrows that inevitably come with life. Those felt most true to me.

But now I see that there’s nothing about the real Easter that tries to paper over sorrows with superficial happiness. The Jesus who is raised and appears to his disciples shows them his hands and side: that is, his gaping wounds. That is how the disciples recognize him. Easter does leave behind all the pain; Easter lifts it up into the grace and new life of God. Mary’s sorrows are not instantly wiped away. Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you weeping?” but he doesn’t say to her, “Aren’t you happy to see me?” In fact, he says, “Do not hold on to me.” The resurrection is not a tidily wrapped up happy ending, with the screen shrinking to a round window on the final big hug; in fact, it is just as much a new beginning, marking a great change. Notice that Jesus now calls his disciples “my brothers,” and he puts himself on the same level with them with regard to God, when he tells Mary: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The resurrection marks a change in Jesus from death to life, but it is also a change in his disciples. His life, whose very source is God’s maternal or paternal love, is something the disciples will now share in and take over.

So the resurrection is not really about how wonderful everything is all the time, even though we rightly celebrate the eternal Yes of God to all creation and all humanity. I think I used to worry, or worry more, that those critics of Christianity had a point when they said Christianity is just about making yourself feel good. Yay! God loves us. Yay! we get to go to heaven. I rightly countered them by observing that Maundy Thursday or Good Friday do not make you feel good at all—so, hah! critics. But now I see that while the Easter faith that is the very heart of Christianity is, rightly, dominated by joy, the Christian life is not necessarily “happier” than another life. Happiness means much less than we think it does; much of happiness seems to be a matter of how your genes are set. Instead of being happier, the Christian life, done rightly, is more dramatic. Its highs fly higher, its lows run deeper. In part because in the Christian life our highs and lows are shared with God and with each other. That makes happiness and sadness more than just feelings; they are expressions of a life that is tapped into the very destiny of the universe. For someone united to Jesus, whether I’m happy or sad is not just about the kind of day I’m having, it is a participation in God’s mourning and elation which binds together the cosmos.   So let your Easter joy run deep. /

And maybe my Easter joy used to fall flat because I was only seeing Easter as a one-day event. Now that I am a pastor, I no longer have the luxury to make that mistake. I now can properly see Easter as the keystone in the long arch of the Christian year. And I know that many of you who are so active in the church have long seen Easter this way. Easter is no one-off joy fest that Christians use as an “opiate” to feel good about themselves. We’ve just come off of a tough 40 days of Lent. We just spent five weeks taking a hard look at the many ways our world and our culture are dominated by misguided forces: we looked at sexuality, politics, economics, ego, and religion. Instead of an opiate, God’s word has come at us like a sharp sword, revealing just how far from right the world is, and how deep in cahoots we are with these forces of the world. Those of you who have staid with me through this searching 40 days can now really appreciate how much the resurrection means to Paul, in our reading, when he calls it the “first fruits” by which “all will be made alive in Christ.” Like I said, Christ’s resurrection was also a beginning. / You know what Paul means when he looks with hope toward “the end, when [Jesus] hands the kingdom over to the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” We know that the falsehoods of our culture, with which we are all complicit, have no future in God. / And after 40 days of Lent we can now see just how badly the world needs us to offer an alternative, a different way to be a people. The world has plenty of bad power. If we all just mind our own business, if we just retreat into looking out for ourselves, that bad power will merrily chug right along. The world needs us to be, here in this place, a community of good power, of power for the good, power for love and life, for belonging, and for healing, for justice.   Easter reminds us that the world, despite all its flaws, is still loved and blessed by God, and that’s why we need to get to work, to be God’s people. / Our Lenten repentance is over, for now. Now it’s time to live into our new life as individuals and as a community for the good of the world that God so loves.

And if that Easter joy is still falling flat for you, and if all the other remedies I’ve suggested don’t do it, than I can only recommend that you make the effort to discover Easter anew, as that keystone in the long arch of the Christian year, the long road of the Christian life. Make Easter a year-long journey. Learn first-hand how that joy resounds in the work of being God’s people, of living the Kingdom. Learn how that joy mingles with the hurt of the ourselves and our neighbors, of those around the globe, how it mingles with the stress and yes, the conflict we deal with, and yes, the tedium—just as in Jesus all of the reality and fallenness of humanity mingled with God’s own life. Learn the rhythms, the ins and outs of the liturgical year, starting with our outward focus on how the church can act in our world today, to the bright new beginning and return to new hope of Christmas, to our own calling as disciples and our taking on Lenten repentance. Give the year-long cure a try, and I guarantee that you will be ready for that Easter Joy when I see you next year; and you’ll feel it, feel it deep.

 

 

 

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