(sermon note: 04-04 sermon note)
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about three men who all died together and ended up in front of the gates of Heaven at the same time. St. Peter was sitting there and said to the three men, “It is not widely known but in order to get into Heaven, you need to answer a simple question about religion.” So, he turned to the first man and asked, “What is Easter?” The man paused and replied, “Is that the holiday where we gather around the table with our families, and eat turkey and pie, and celebrate the pilgrims arriving in America?” St. Peter scowled, “No, that is Thanksgiving. It isn’t even a religious holiday.” So, he turned to the second man and asked the same question. The second man answered, “I know this. That is the holiday where we cut down a tree and decorate it. We then give gifts to loved ones and we go to church on that day.” St. Peter shook his head, “No, no, no, that is Christmas! It is a religious holiday, but you missed the whole point of that day.” Frustrated, St Peter turned to the last man and asked the same question. The last man paused and sheepishly replied, “Let’s see if I remember this right. Easter is the holiday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion by the Romans.” St. Peter looked impressed. The man continued, “After his death, they took him down from the cross, wrapped him in a shroud, and put him in a cave, then rolled a rock in front of the entrance.” St. Peter turned to the other men and said, “You should have been more like this man while you were alive.” And then the man chimed in, “And if he comes out in 3 days and sees his shadow there’s going to be six more weeks of winter!”
So close and yet…so far away! That poor man let Peter’s pride in him go to his head. He should have just quit while he was ahead! But isn’t that how it is?! Give a person a little positive reinforcement and they just might overstep themselves. Sometimes you gotta be careful who you praise…their ego might get the better of them! Of course, these people are few and far between. Most people can greatly benefit from a little praise and encouragement every now and then so don’t be hesitant to offer it.
But I like that joke because it inadvertently highlights an aspect of our Easter celebration that is somewhat surprisingly common. Sure, ask around for the meaning of Easter and more than likely you’ll get a response having to do with Jesus dying on the cross and coming back to life after three days. People see the image of the cross all around our society and it’s hard not to ask at an early age what the significance of the cross is. Someone invariably tells you that a man named Jesus was killed on a cross. “Ok, so what? Everyone dies, some in a lot stranger ways than on a cross. What’s the big deal?!” “Well, this man Jesus wasn’t like other men. Many believe he was really God hiding out as a man. And because he was God, he shouldn’t have been able to die. God can’t die…God is immortal!” “Okaaay, so maybe they were wrong about him being God after all.” “Well, see, that’s just the beginning of it! As if the idea of God dying wasn’t amazing enough, those same people also believe that he came back to life three days later! Only God could come back to life after being dead for three days!” “Huh, so maybe they were right about him being God after all.” And thus the great mystery of Easter is passed down to another person. Only God can back from death and yet God cannot die…what an absolute paradox!
Well, many people resolve the paradox by simply not believing in either of those statements. Either Jesus, the God-man, didn’t die or he didn’t come back to life and since it’s easier to believe that he died than it is that he came back to life, most people choose not to believe in the resurrection. Everything dies and nothing comes back to life, or so the belief goes. Easier yet to believe is that Jesus wasn’t really God after all so God didn’t really die. God didn’t die AND God didn’t come back to life, plain and simple. Well, faith isn’t built on human reasoning and thank God for that! Faith exists outside of human reasoning…God exists outside of human reasoning. God can exist in paradoxes like the one presented by Jesus. Yes, God did die AND He also came back to life. Both statements can be true statements in relation to God because God exists in paradox, beyond all human reasoning.
Okay, so, many people have a basic understanding of why we as Christians celebrate Easter. It’s not about the Easter bunny or candy or egg hunts. It’s about Christ dying and rising again. And for all intents and purposes, the resurrection is the foundational belief of our religion. You can’t be a Christian without believing in the resurrection even though so many of us struggle to believe in it. Many of us are not unlike the third man in that opening joke. We know and believe in so much about our religion–that Jesus was an amazing healer and teacher and preacher and prophet and fulfilled the prophecies of the prophets of old–but when it comes to the resurrection, we just go off the tracks into disbelief. We just struggle to believe that a) God could die and/or b) God could come back to life. We buy into all the rest of the story but right at the end, right when we get to the part that expects us to really put our faith and trust to the test, we just stumble over ourselves and fall flat on faces in disbelief.
And year after year, I wrestle with that disbelief as we celebrate this most holy day. Why can’t we believe in the resurrection? Why is it so hard to believe that there is life after death? Why is it so hard to believe that someone could die and rise to live again, to new life? Why wouldn’t we want to believe in new life, in new hope? You know, the resurrection is less about Jesus performing one last “magical trick” of dying and coming back to life than it is about showing that there can be life after death. All of Jesus’ miracles and teachings had a very specific purpose: to encourage faith. And Jesus’ death and resurrection had a very specific purpose too: to illustrate there is life after death. It wasn’t a magic trick, smoke and mirrors…it was one final lesson that there can be life after death. Jesus, the great teacher who revealed so much about life and God, taught us that there is life after death and because of this we shouldn’t be so afraid of death. We should find hope in death, hope in the new life that awaits us after death.
We all die many small deaths in life besides our great death at the end of our life. A death of a job, a career, a relationship, a marriage, a home, an idea, a class, a role, a purpose, a pet, a health…life is full of a variety of little deaths along the way. Jesus taught us there is new life after death. He taught us this and he showed us this with his death and resurrection. There is hope in death! And hope is far better to live by than fear. Hope produces so much joy and inspiration and life. Peter writes in his first letter, “blessed the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1:3) The resurrection provides us with a “living hope.” Who wouldn’t want a little more “living hope” in their life? Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17) Jesus created a new creation-a new hope-in his death and resurrection. Who can’t benefit from his new creation?
Friends, God exists in paradox and mystery. The resurrection gives us new life and new hope. We ought to be less concerned with understanding how it occurred and simply revel in the joy and hope that it adds to our lives. There is new life and new hope for the future because of the resurrection! Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Thanks be to God!