I was once trapped in a hospital waiting room with a woman who insisted on telling me about all of her negative experiences with other pastors. The latest and gravest insult was the ending of a tradition she loved. The choir in her church had always sung Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus on Easter morning, but the church’s young new whippersnapper of a pastor had decreed that this year they would do something different.
To her, Easter was just not Easter without the “Hallelujah” chorus. It was as if Jesus could not get out of his tomb until he heard it. Presumably he remained tomb-bound until the following Easter, when tradition would surely re-assert itself and the choir again would sing Handel’s “Hallelujah.”
On this Easter morning, which is so unlike previous Easter mornings that we have shared, I want to ask you two questions.
First, what makes Easter Easter? Is there a tradition that makes or breaks Easter for you? Is there something you must do to properly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus?
Second, what do you do to keep Jesus stuck in his tomb? What do you do to keep the joy of resurrection life bottled up where it can’t affect the rest of your life?
Think of the many traditions we often observe at Easter. Which of these are necessary for you?
How about meeting face to face, in person, physically present to each other? I know that’s a big one, but if it’s necessary, then obviously what we’re doing right now is not acceptable. Online worship is just not the same thing as being together in the same space. But in these perilous times, it is for the best that we are not together physically.
What about a sanctuary made festive with white banners and Easter lilies? Not this year.
You can forget about a sunrise service, too.
What about singing some good ol’ Easter hymns? Sorry, only one hymn today. And when we’re not singing as a group, singing is an entirely different experience, isn’t it? Many of us rightfully cringe at hearing ourselves sing – especially if we’re wearing a face mask.
A stirring choral anthem? Only on our YouTube playlist.
The children’s Easter egg hunt with chocolate bunnies and candy eggs? Only if you hold it in your own backyard, for a limited number of kids.
A family feast featuring ham and all the popular side dishes? Maybe a feast, if you can afford one this year, but probably with fewer family members than usual, so probably not so festive.
Pastors and worship leaders also are fond of the Easter afternoon nap because it’s the first time in weeks that they can really relax. Anyone can participate; you don’t have to work in the church to get involved. It’s pleasant down time, but it’s hardly necessary.
We do a lot of things to celebrate the day, but none of these things make Easter Easter. Only one thing makes Easter Easter, and that is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If that didn’t happen, none of our traditions makes a bit of sense and some of them – like the Easter bunny – seem even more ridiculous than usual. And if it did happen, then none of our traditions come close to celebrating it properly.
If Jesus really was dead on Friday night and alive on Sunday morning, nothing before or after compares in significance to what happened in that tomb. It changes everything. And if it doesn’t, something is wrong.
Mark’s gospel gives the most spare account of the event, and the most mysterious, because it seemingly cuts off in the middle of the story. Having found the tomb empty and encountered a man in white – surely an angel – the women run from the tomb in terror and dread. They’re so frightened that they don’t tell anybody what they saw.
Well, obviously they do tell somebody, eventually, or we wouldn’t be here today. They return to the place where the other disciples of Jesus are hiding, and by that time their minds have cleared sufficiently that they can tell their story. And the male disciples don’t believe a word they say.
Even after a couple of the men run out to the tomb and see for themselves that it’s empty, nobody is quite sure what to make of it. It’s only when the risen Jesus starts appearing to people, very much alive, that realization starts to set in. It really has happened. Christ is risen!
That’s what makes Easter Easter. That’s the part we must never lose sight of. Jesus is risen. Nothing we do can add to the magnificence of this event. But a lot we do can detract from it.
If we fail to live out the resurrection in our own lives, it might for us never have happened. If it’s not a life-changing event, if we aren’t visibly different after we have patterned our lives around it, then it is like that proverbial tree that falls in the forest and no one hears. An earth-shattering event has occurred, and we have missed it.
Notice that I said we have to pattern our lives around this event. Normally, we think of incorporating an event into our lives. But that’s impossible here. The idea of a person coming back from the dead is so far out of our range of experience that it cannot be incorporated into our worldview. Our worldview has to change. We have to change. We have to adopt an entirely new way of thinking. We have to literally change the pattern that our lives are built around.
Tom Wright, the British theologian, says we have to learn to “think resurrectionally.” That’s a little awkward to say, but maybe it’s even more awkward to do.
If Jesus has been raised from the dead, you can be, too. That’s part of the personal payoff here. Many people call it heaven, though it’s actually more than that. It’s resurrection life, life to the fullest degree in all dimensions of time and space.
But enough about after you die. What about now? Can’t you experience resurrection life today? You’d better believe it! The Apostle Paul says that becoming a follower of Jesus is like dying and rising with him. (Romans 6.3-5, Colossians 2.12) Something happens, and we’re changed by that experience. We’re different people now. We’ve not reached a state where we love others perfectly, as God loves us. But maybe we’re getting closer day by day.
And maybe we feel the presence of Jesus with us, day by day. Jesus is not just some figure of ancient history. As the hymn says, he’s not bound to distant years in Palestine. He’s alive! He is with us right here and now. He is with us today as surely as he was with his disciples those many years ago. He is a living presence in us, and throughout the world.
Sadly, sometimes we who say we believe that fail utterly to behave as if we believed it. It’s all about loving. Jesus gives us precious few commands to live by. They coalesce around one command: Love one another.
If our actions fail to show love, Jesus has never risen for us. When our actions fail to show love, we shove Jesus back in his tomb and cement the door shut. There’s only one way to let him out of his tomb, and that’s to start loving the way he told us to and shows us how to do.
What does the love of Jesus demand of us? What’s the loving thing to do? Those are the key questions of our lives. Maybe they especially apply today, when we are in the grip of a global catastrophe. Some people want to use it to enrich themselves, either financially or politically. Some people want to find a way to help others. When you look at it that way, it’s not hard to tell the difference between those who think conventionally and those who “think resurrectionally.”
Two thousand years ago, God did a thing beyond our imagination. God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is alive today, and he does not observe any six-foot distancing rule. He’s close by each and every one of us. He’s able and eager to resurrect us, too. And he will, if we let him. If we let him out of the tomb we have built for him, he’ll let us out of the tomb we have built for ourselves.
This is a crisis moment. Thousands of people are dying of this virus every day. Even with all our prayers, Jesus is not going to swoop down and make it all go away. Jesus is looking at our response to the virus as well as our response to him.
I imagine him saying: Listen to the experts. Don’t be foolhardy and meet together right now. Don’t be spiritually haughty. Don’t test God. Only trust God. For certain, he says this: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have conquered the world!” (John 16.:33)
No pandemic can stop the flow of God’s grace to us. Nothing can keep Jesus in that tomb. Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death! On this Easter Sunday, we declare: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Glory, hallelujah! Amen!
This message was delivered online on Easter, April 12, 2020, for Edgerton United Methodist Church. To find a video version, search Facebook for YouTube for the church’s channel.