I’ve never liked it when preachers begin their Christmas or Easter sermons with the snarky question, “Where have you all been since last year?” But this year, the question can be reversed, “Where has the church been this past 3 years?” Because of COVID, the last time we gathered together to celebrate Easter Sunday here was in 2019. 2019! In both 2020 and 2021, Easter was online, I was preaching to a camera and we couldn’t share communi
So… because we can and because it sounds so good, let’s do it one more time, “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”
It makes me wonder what the faithful followers of Jesus were doing after his death and before they fully embraced his resurrection. How did they cope with the separation, the sorrow, the confusion, anger and grief? What did they do when their world was upended and all their plans put on hold? How did they manage without the structure and support that his life and teaching provided for them? Who were they, when everything that gave meaning, purpose and joy to their life was gone?
Peter had a rough time. Not only was Jesus dead, but he had failed to stand up for him at the final moment. His natural enthusiasm and courage was crushed by his remorse over denying Jesus three times. I imagine him languishing, depleted of energy and unable to muster interest in much of anything. He must have played his failure over and over in his head, getting lost in shame and blame. He had been so sure of himself, so sure of his faith and where he stood as one of the disciples. He knew he was privileged, on the inside, accepted.
Later his privilege got challenged when God gave him a miraculous vision of the full inclusion of Gentiles, non-Jewish folk in full communion with the Jewish people as part of God’s beloved and chosen ones. Something turned him around, from depression and regret to leadership in a radical movement that would re-shape all the ancient world understood about barriers and boundaries.
It all starts for Peter on that Easter morning when he runs, races really to an empty tomb. He alone is brave enough to stoop down and enter in. He finds no body, no aroma of death, only the linen cloths lying there. Amazement and a wild hope take hold of him. God is not finished with him yet. There will be more to learn, more to experience and a deeply moving opportunity for Jesus to forgive him three times for the three denials he made.
Resurrection begins to take hold of Peter and he would never be the same.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women had a very different experience. They spent the day after the death of Jesus in acts of devotion, preparing to anoint and wrap his body properly. They refused to abandon him during the horror of crucifixion. They stayed with him to the end. They accompanied his body to the tomb. They loved him without fail.
Theirs was a pure, deep and overwhelming grief. And they react like many of us. They want to do something, take care of things, make arrangements, insure that all the customs were properly followed and communicate to everyone what was happening. These were no overwrought, emotionally distraught women, out of control with grief. No, these are the women who do not turn away from grievous suffering and death. In the midst of strong feelings and overwhelming sadness, they take care of business and do what is necessary. They are grim and determined. Out of love, they will do all that is required for Jesus.
Until they encounter an empty tomb. It’s perplexing and disturbing. Where can his body be? How can they show proper respect if the corpse has been removed? Their confusion turns to terror at the appearance of two otherworldly beings. But the message is clear. Remember. Remember his words. Remember his power and his love. Re-member his community. Bring the disciples back together. Tell what you have seen and heard. Be the bearers of this wild and wonderful good news. Summon your courage. Overcome sexism and the dismissal of the other disciples. Become the very first apostles.
Resurrection begins to take hold of the women, and they would never be the same.
The one who took it the worst was Judas. He simply couldn’t get over the fact that when he thought he was doing what was right and righteous and necessary, it all went so wrong. His was the despair of the one who had been so sure and clear… until he wasn’t. He ran away. He believed himself beyond redemption, outcast from all those he loved, a pariah, a criminal. He descended into a hell of darkness, guilt, hopelessness and, ultimately death.
And then, the next day, as our tradition has it, Jesus went to find him. We call Holy Saturday, the “Harrowing of Hell.” On this day, the incarnate, crucified God, descends even further into the depths to literally pull those in the pit out of despair and separation from God. On that glorious first Easter morning, the light shines on those who wandered in darkness and the power of forgiveness breaks the chains of those who were bound in sin and sorrow.
Resurrection begins to take hold of Judas and he would no longer be the same.
It seems like we went into Holy Week in March of 2020 and never made it to Easter. We have experienced profound loss and grief and the complete upending of our lives. So many have died, most of them alone without loved ones by their sides. So many have been ill, isolated, quarantined and terrified. People lost or left jobs. Parents and caregivers tried to make up for all the experiences and opportunities that their children have missed during the pandemic and it’s worn them down. Leaders have been vilified. Our sad divisions have increased. We know life will never be the same. We can’t resuscitate the world we knew or the life we led before. It is gone forever.
But here’s the deal. We are people of the resurrection. It doesn’t always feel like it. We don’t always believe it. We can’t prove or quantify it, but resurrection has taken hold of us and we are no longer the same.
So what has the church, the resurrected body of Jesus, you been up to over these past two years? Some of you, like Peter have found courage in the midst of your despair to take the message of hope and God’s love for all into the streets. You’ve protested, stood up for the disadvantaged, and learned more about the historic evil of racism and its effects in your own life and on our nation. You’ve read, voted, given generously and been engaged at a time when it would have been easy to simply turn off or tune out.
Resurrection has a hold on you, and neither you nor this world will ever be the same. You are committed to a new normal, where everyone is loved, valued, included and cared for.
I know for a fact, that many of you, like the women, have shown extraordinary courage and compassion. You’ve sat at the beds of the dying. You’ve delivered meals and supplies to the homebound. You’ve prayed and listened to those in need. You’ve kept essential services going and found incredible ways to adapt. You’ve acted in faith, hope and love even when you didn’t feel faithful, hopeful or loving.
In the face of illness and death, you walked towards the hurting, rather than away. You kept feeding the hungry, providing help to the needy, encouraging the lonely, communicating with family and friends, and all the myriad of simple acts of kindness that make for a caring community.
Resurrection has a hold on you and this world is a better place because of you.
We lost too many to death and despair in these past two years. Those who were at risk and isolated died from the so-called “deaths of despair” at much higher rates. The elderly, who were alone and without adequate care suffered and died earlier than we expected. People of color and other marginalized groups died at much higher rates than the rest of the population. We have not yet been able to calculate our losses or measure our grief. Even this week, dear ones are in hospital and on hospice, adding to the overwhelming sadness and despair of loss.
Even if we weren’t at the empty tomb, even if we didn’t get to see the angels, even if the resurrected Jesus has never appeared to us or shared a meal with us, we too are people of the resurrection. The love that never dies has grabbed hold of us and changed us forever. We have been gifted with God’s spirit of love and freedom. In fact, we have been grabbed, hauled up, rescued from the pit of despair by the life of Christ. We are always being lured and pulled towards the light. God will not ever abandon us, no matter how far we descend or how fast we run away.
Resurrection has a hold on us, and there is no power greater than the love of God. Not even death can separate us from love and light and eternal life.
The world needs the church, even if they don’t ever step into a church building. In fact, the building is nice, but not necessary. We need people who know in their own bodies the power of resurrection. We desperately need communion with one another and with God. Sometimes it really helps to have bread and wine as a sign of that communion, but again, it’s not necessary. We need one another to help live into the vision of beloved community, to reach out in love to those on the margins, to endure pain and suffering and to provide comfort in grief. It helps to have priests and chaplains and prayer teams, but they’re not the only ones who provide this.
You bear in your very being, the risen life of Jesus. Your life shines with the light of Christ. You manifest the love of God in tangible ways. It’s a great blessing to be able to come together with siblings in Christ for prayer and worship, peace and forgiveness and the holiness of the sacrament. We know because we were without it for such a long time. But we were never without the risen One in our midst. Resurrection has begun to take hold in us, and we will never be the same. Amen.