Throughout my life and ministry, I can remember several unique and memorable Easter celebrations. I remember the first time I served as a lay reader on Easter Sunday. Not only was I to read the lectionary passages for the day, but I was also asked to help serve communion, So, there I was with the assistant pastor, a friend of mine, when someone tried to take the cup and drink out of it. I lost it. It wasn’t how we did things around there, though in other traditions that would have been acceptable.
There have been times, too, as a pastor that have been joyous. My first Easter Sunrise as a pastor I remember smelling the food coming out of the kitchen and getting hungrier and hungrier as I spoke. There was the time at Claylick that people thought I had forgotten the service when I wasn’t there at my usual 30 minutes before the service. And there was a couple years ago at my last appointment when we were planning a 200th anniversary a few weeks after Easter and wondering if we had the strength to do both well.
What I remember, as well, are the moments of tension of wanting everything to glorify God, and, as well, to make people happy. Much of our Easter services are a pageantry of the holy name of God. A show on our biggest day of the year, because we believe the grandeur of the importance of an empty tomb requires all the bells and whistles. Too often, I get lost in those elements, making sure everything is right, to the point that when I get home on Easter Sunday I am not filled with hope, but overwhelmed with exhaustion.
We approach, then, what will certainly be a memorable Easter celebration in our lifetimes. Not since the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 have churches closed their doors in order to provide safety for their people and others during a health crisis. We will continue to be closed until such time that it is safe to be back together. This is a unique time, and perhaps we are wondering if we can really celebrate Easter without the bells and whistles and, truly, without being in the church.
Perhaps, just maybe, the lack of the bells and whistles, the full regalia of the day, will allow us the possibility to hear the story of Christ’s resurrection in a new way. A way that will relaunch us into being Easter people, filled with the hope of the resurrection, and confident in knowing that Christ is alive even in times like today. Perhaps, just maybe, we can give our full attention not to the grandeur, but to the simplicity of the message and the mission that is before.
Because, truly, our situation is not unlike the one the early disciples felt on that first Easter Sunday. Just as we gathered, this morning, away from one another, in isolation, and fearing what may happen next, so, too, did the early disciples. They found themselves locked away in the Upper Room trying to hide from the Roman government and the religious leaders. They were in isolation away from the community, because they believed it was best for their own safety to prevent the government and religious leaders doing to them what they had done to Jesus on Friday.
Among the group, though, were two women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, perhaps as some have argued, Jesus’ own mother. They have left the group to go back to the tomb. While Matthew does not state why they have returned to the place where Joseph of Arimathea had placed him Friday evening, the other gospel writers make clear that it was to continue the burial process of anointing his body. Much like the other disciples, they had heard Jesus speak of resurrection, but their thoughts of resurrection were likely more on what was to come at the end of the age. The promise that God would raise the dead to new life and bring forth a new creation. That is what they presumed Jesus meant, so they went to the tomb expecting to find him there, in the same death clothes from Friday, and to continue the process.
They didn’t expect what was to come. When they arrived at the tomb, they became the first witness to the world-changing historic moment that rang out from the tomb. They witnessed the angel rolling the stone away. They saw the angel sit upon the tomb as if to mock its closure upon death. They saw the guards in fear. They heard the grand announcement, “Do not fear. He is not here. He is alive.”
What they heard was that Christ is alive. He was not dead. He was not defeated. He was not there. He was victorious. He was exalted as the king of kings and lord of lords. He was resurrected. The resurrection has taken place and God’s recreating work wasn’t something happening in the distant future. It was taking place now, in that moment, from that empty tomb outward through the hope of the resurrection.
God was and is doing a new thing in the world through the resurrection of Christ. Without the resurrection, there would be no need to have hope, peace, joy, or, even, love, because all Jesus said and did would have been for naught. The resurrection gives voice and purpose to the mission of Christ and the redeeming work of God.
The empty tomb, then, is the promise that what we see in this world is not able to defeat God. God’s purpose of bringing new life out of brokenness, hope out of despair, grace out of disappointment can never be stopped. From that point forward, God started a new thing – a new creative purpose – of bringing life out of death. Easter is the story of God bringing new life where there seemed to be nothing but death and fear.
The angel, though, didn’t just say Jesus was not here. He gave the women a mission. The angel anointed them with a specific work and purpose. To go forth from the empty tomb and into the places of fear and death and tell people that Christ is alive. They were sent to the place where the disciples were hiding in fear and isolation and tell them that there was hope in this world. Christ is alive. God is there. God is alive. They were to tell the disciples that hope has now replaced fear.
Maybe that is something we need to remember. Fear has no place in the Easter community of faith. The Easter community of faith is filled with people of hope who know that death, illness, brokenness, decay, and anything else are never the final story. God is at work making all things new and doing it through the promise of the empty tomb.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to remember that hope in our world today. Not just because we are living in difficult times, unsure of when we will ever get back together again, but because we have a work to do of sharing hope in the world, of being the witnesses of the resurrection. We have experienced the empty tomb. We have believed with our hearts that Christ is alive. We have been empowered by God’s new creation. Those are never just stories for us. We have a story to share and a witness to give to all people through our words, acts, and deeds.
Just as the women were sent forth to tell others that hope has come, so are we given that same important work today to say that what seems broken will never be the final story in God’s resurrection and new creation. We are sent forth from the Easter proclamation to be witnesses of Jesus’ life and glory. We do it by not being consumed by fear and negativity, by being consumed with the things of this world, but we do it by being the hands and feet of Christ, launched forth into our communities, to bring hope to places of brokenness in response to the resurrection. That is the work before us today.
That is the work that has always been there for us, but, perhaps, forgotten in our propensity to take for granted life, hope, and, even, the church’s mission. That is why I do not long for days to get back to normal. Sure, like you, I am looking forward to the day when we are back together, that I can sit at my favorite seat at Dunkin’ Donuts, and go to the gym. But, I am not looking forward to returning to a normal that has the people of God, Easter people, taking for granted our mission and witness of the resurrection, presuming that someone else will do that work, and that as long as we have an open building that is good enough. I’m not looking forward to a normal that has us singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but living as though the tomb is filled with a body and a broken mission.
Never again can we go back to what was. To presume that all there is to being the church is coming to worship one hour a week, sitting in hard pews, singing a few songs, and falling asleep during the proclamation of God’s word. We cannot return to being Easter people who are filled with fear more so than hope. To go back to that would be to weaken our mission and hasten a slow decline in our witness.
We have a story to tell much like the women who left that tomb and told the disciples that they had seen the Lord. And, friends, people are wanting to know why this life is important. They are wanting to know where there is hope to be found. They are looking for comfort in the midst of job losses. They are looking for grace in times of brokenness. They will look to the world, perhaps like maybe we do from time to time, and not find the hope they are looking for.
We know where hope can be found. It can be found in the empty tomb, in the message of Christ, and in God’s eternal presence that raises new life and hope out of the pit of darkness. That is the work we must be about moving forward and can never look back to what was if we want to love God and share hope with all people.
That message is not dependent upon us gathering in a building for worship. It is dependent upon us going into the places of brokenness and offering hope. It is dependent upon us picking up the phone and calling people who are filled with anxiety and being a listening ear. It is dependent upon us sharing food with those who have nothing. It is dependent upon us living for hope and not for fear. It is dependent upon us being Easter people who raise our voices and acts as a witness of God’s holy love.
God is doing a new thing in this moment of bringing new life to the witness of hope. Let us be about and share the good news of hope and not fear today, tomorrow, and always.