Scripture: JOHN 20:1-18
Play word association with me. What comes to mind when you think of the word “Easter”? My first thought was of coloring Easter eggs with my mother when I was a boy. And then looking for them. And getting really frustrated when we would come up an egg or two short. Where were they? Were they going to turn up rotten in the middle of July?
Easter. Bunnies, hams, chocolate, baskets, eggs. New dresses and patent leather shoes. And those are just the cultural associations. Then there are the associations with church. Brass and organ. Lilies. Energy and joy. Hope and rebirth.
And finally the more overtly spiritual dimensions. We proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead, that death has been conquered, and that God has given us new life. And that gives us a wondrous reassurance. But it also leads to a whole host of questions: did it really happen the way the Bible says it did? Was there an empty tomb? If so, did someone just take the body out and pretend it was a miracle? Did Jesus really come back to life? Do you have to believe the resurrection stories literally in order to be a “real” Christian? Could they just be a kind of parable or metaphor for new life?
These are the questions that can gnaw at us on this triumphant day. Here’s what I think: I think, in a very real way, Jesus came back to life. I don’t know how and I can’t explain it. But something new and hugely different happened to Jesus. Something fresh was born in a place no one could have predicted it or even imagined it. Joy came to a scene of utter despair. A power stronger than death put death in its place. God made a way out of no way.
And all of this happened to Jesus. Jesus was the one in whom new life bloomed. Jesus was the one in whom death took second place. Jesus was the one in whom some radically new grace flowered. All of this happened to Jesus.
And at the same time, all of this happened to Mary Magdalene, too. When Jesus died, Mary had seen the hope of her life snuffed out. She had seen the excitement and promise embodied in Jesus erased. It was the end. It was so bad she couldn’t stop crying (20:11, 13, 15). She could see nothing good ahead of her. What was she going to do now?
And what she discovers is that there is something still left for her—something colorful to enliven the drabness that had overcome her, something beautiful to negate the ugliness, a future she could never have counted on. Against all odds, new life comes to her and remakes everything. It’s a kind of miracle. The risen Jesus calls her by name and makes of her life something new and wonderful.
It all happened to Jesus. It all happened to Mary Magdalene. And it all happens to us, too: Easter is a gift for all of us. When Jesus is raised from the dead, it’s God’s assurance that no tomb can contain the vitality of God, no stone can block the transforming power of God.
Can we prove this using the laws of physics? No. But is that really the only standard we’ll accept? We like to think we only believe in things we can prove scientifically or demonstrate logically. But that’s not the case. We affirm non-scientific things all the time. We can’t prove there’s such a thing as love, for example, but every day people succumb to the vapors over someone they’ve met. We can’t prove the power of beauty, but every day we’re dazzled, or should be, by lilies or the “Hallelujah” chorus or a new grandchild. There’s no way to rationally explain the power of apology and forgiveness, but every day friendships and family relationships are restored by just such wizardry. We can’t prove the Indians will win the World Series this year—especially after two straight extra-inning losses!—but every spring we give our hearts to just that possibility. Not a shred of evidence for any of it. But it’s just such mysteries that are the most vivid dimensions of our lives. No proof, just conviction and hope.
Easter is a strange day. And at least one of the reasons it’s strange is that the suffering and death that we know only too well on every other day of the year doesn’t vanish with today’s dawn. Whatever disappointments you have at work will likely still be there when you go in tomorrow. Today doesn’t remove the sundowning that steals your father’s memory. It doesn’t erase your daughter’s drug dependency. Easter is as full of agony as any other day.
One of the ways I deal with this is to by thinking of my life as being, in some symbolic sense, lived on Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter. Churches don’t make a big deal of it. Very few have Holy Saturday services. But Holy Saturday is where we live our lives, between cross and resurrection, between the death and loss of everyday existence and the promise of new life, between despair and hope.
You know what I’m talking about. There are times in most of our lives when nothing seems to go right. You can’t buy a good day. Your mood is sour, your luck terrible. You get one piece of bad news after another. Maybe you’re having a day like that today. The calendar may say Easter, but in your soul it’s Good Friday in spades.
Even if you’re having that kind of day, though, or that kind of year, or that kind of life, there is this relentless God out there, and in here, who won’t let that be the last word. The God who created us and watches over us always is even now doing a new thing in our midst, is even now bringing life out of death. The conviction of Easter is that always and everywhere God is making all things new. God’s Easter confronts every Good Friday.
And my sense is that a good part of the challenge of faith is to develop eyes and hearts that can see that Easter work happening, that can see the resurrection power of God taking shape at an Easter dinner this afternoon, or on an evening walk, or in a challenging work environment. Eyes and hearts to see: that’s our first vocation. Eyes and hearts to perceive what’s going on all the time.
Harry Pritchett tells a story I’d like now to tell you: Once upon a time I had a young friend named Philip. Philip lived in a nearby city, and Philip was born with Down Syndrome. He was a pleasant child—happy, it seemed—but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children.
Philip went to Sunday School. And his teacher, also, was a friend of mine. My Sunday School teacher friend taught the third grade at a Methodist Church. Philip was in his class, as well as 9 other 8-year-old boys and girls.
My Sunday School teacher friend is a very creative teacher. Most of you know 8-year-olds. And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted as a member of this third-grade Sunday School class. But my friend was a good teacher, and he had helped facilitate a good group of 8-year-old children. They learned and they laughed and they played together. And they really cared about each other—even though, as you know, 8-year-olds don’t say that they care about each other out loud very often. But my teacher friend could see it. He knew it. He also knew that Philip was not really a part of that group of children. Philip, of course, did not choose nor did he want to be different. He just was. And that was just the way things were.
My Sunday School teacher friend had a marvelous design for his class on the Sunday after Easter last year. You know those things that panty hose come in—the containers look like great big eggs. My friend had collected ten of these to use on that Sunday. The children loved it when he brought them into the room. Each child was to get a great big egg. It was a beautiful spring day and the assigned task was for each child to go outside on the church grounds and to find a symbol for new life, put it in the egg (the old panty hose containers), and bring it back to the classroom. They would then mix them all up, and then all open and share their new life symbols and surprises together one by one.
Well, they did this, and it was glorious. And it was confusing. And it was wild. They ran all around, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the big eggs on a table, and then my teacher friend began to open them. All the children were standing around the table.
He opened one, and there was a flower, and they oohed and aahed.
He opened another, and there was a little butterfly. “Beautiful,” they said.
He opened another, and there was a rock. And as third graders will, some laughed, and some said, “That’s crazy! How’s a rock supposed to be like new life?” But the smart little boy whose egg they were speaking of spoke up. He said, “That’s mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different. And for me, that’s new life.”
They all laughed. My teacher friend said something to himself about the profundity of 8-year-olds and went on opening the egg surprises.
He opened the next one, and there was nothing there. The other children, as 8-year-olds will, said, “That’s not fair—that’s stupid!—somebody didn’t do it right.”
About that time my teacher friend felt a tug on his shirt, and he looked down and Philip was standing beside him.
“It’s mine,” Philip said. “It’s mine.” And the children said, “You don’t ever do things right, Philip. There’s nothing there!”
“I did so do it,” Philip said. “I did do it.”
“It’s empty—the tomb is empty!”
The class went silent, a very full silence. And for you people who don’t believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that day last spring. From that time on, it was different. Philip suddenly became a part of that group of 8-year-old children. They took him in. He entered. He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.
Philip died last summer. His family had known since the time that he was born that he wouldn’t live out a full life span. Many other things had been wrong with his tiny little body. And so, late last July, with an infection that most children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died. The mystery simply enveloped him completely.
He was buried from that church. And on that day at the funeral nine 8-year-old children marched right up to that altar—not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death. Nine 8-year-olds, with their Sunday School teacher, marched right up to that altar, and lay on it an empty egg—an empty, old discarded holder of panty hose.
Sometimes, on the Holy Saturdays of our lives, we’re consumed by the Good Fridays that pursue us from yesterday. But sometimes, like Mary Magdalene, like those faithful eight-year-olds, we are brought face to face with the Easter Day that summons us forth to tomorrow, the Easter Day that says: No situation is too grim to keep the wonders of God away. No burden is too great to preclude grace from winning the day. Each day is full of wonder. May we sing it and shout it. God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! And the people respond: Christ is risen, indeed!