Easter Morning

April 16, 2017

Bible Text: John 20:1-18 |

There’s such a vast difference between Good Friday and Easter morning.

From a liturgical point of view, Good Friday is dark and stark and barren – the church is emptied of everything except a massive cross. Whereas Easter is light and joyful and filled with flowers.

From a gastronomical perspective, Good Friday is a fast day, so I’m basically cranky the whole day. But today there’s ham and mimosas and a general gorging on food we gave up for Lent.

And in terms of geography, without even thinking about it, I always pictured the place where Jesus was killed and the place where he rose again as vastly separated from each other. He was crucified at Golgotha, which means “Place of the Skull.” It sounds so desolate and pirate-y – like Mordor. Whereas the resurrection was in a garden – so pleasant and butterfly-y.

And so it came as a total surprise to me when I learned that Golgotha and the tomb are actually now enclosed by the same building – the Holy Sepulchre. Granted, it’s a fairly large building. But nonetheless, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and the place of his resurrection are right beside each other – which makes practical sense. But it also makes sense at a deeper, instinctual level.

After all, resurrection can only be resurrection where there has been suffering and dying. New life only comes from an expired life. Easter only comes from Good Friday. Neither makes any sense without the other.

And this we have also found to be true in our lives. The best things, the richest and most satisfying things, are those that we’ve received on the backside of suffering and loss: the baby born healthy after a string of miscarriages; a marriage of mutuality and trust after a painful divorce; how delicious a soda cracker can be after days of being sick and miserable with no appetite; the “all clear” five years after the chemo treatments ended.

This is how it is in this life: the most beautiful gardens grow just beyond the Place of the Skull.

And if this how it is in our everyday experience – that the richest moments of living emerge from desolation – it makes sense to me that a loving God would define the central moment of human history by that same paradox of destruction and resurrection. The creator God wed God’s-self to all humanity in the person of Jesus, then suffered and died with all humanity at Golgotha, and then was resurrected for all humanity in the garden on Easter morning.

And so the Garden of Eden is ours again. Inasmuch as we are all Adam and Eve, choosing sin, knowing death, barred from the garden by an angel with a flaming sword (as the story is told in Genesis), so this morning the angels greet us within our tombs and ask, “Why are you crying?” The need for tears is over. The dark night is passed. The finality of death has been found to be but a passing thing. So turn around and see your Lord waiting for you outside the tomb and calling you by name: Mary!…and Betty and Pamela and Grant and Nick and Marissa and every name under heaven. Our Christ is risen, alleluia. And we are being raised with him.

And if we are raised with Christ, then the risen life of Christ is ours to live. For faith is not merely the subscription to a set of church doctrines that promise life after death. It’s the belief that that eternal life has already begun. Jesus is resurrected, and we with him, today.

And that is the whole point of the spiritual life: to discover what it means to be risen with Christ – to be set free from all the suffocating grave clothes that smother our true self: the selfishness, the fear, the anxiety, the bitterness, the despair. These are all the accoutrements of dying people. But love and mercy, patience and compassion – that’s the good stuff. That’s resurrection! And in calling our names, Jesus is calling us to join him in life!

Faith is not merely what we claim to believe, although that’s part of it.

And faith is not only the thing we do…although that’s a big part as well.

Faith is ultimately about who we are. If faith is going to do its real work, it will transform us from people who like to say things about Christ … into Christlikeness.

I was talking to my brother earlier this week. He’d just returned from a conference that featured three famous Christian speakers. And he said how he intuitively was drawn to two of them. They were wise and gentle and just sat in their chairs, sharing deep, relevant truths. But the third guy was strutting all over the stage, a real showman. And what really annoyed my brother was how he kept interrupting the other two. But this is what struck him most. He said,

I was getting all annoyed by him, and figured that the other two speakers must be getting even more annoyed. But as I watched them I could see in their faces and in their postures, how un-annoyed they were. They were smiling and rubbing their chins attentively as they listened to him. They weren’t annoyed at all. They were just sitting there – appreciating everything he had to contribute.

And he said,

I realized that I want to be like them. I want my character to be formed in such a way that I’m not merely tolerating the people around me, but loving the people around me.

You know, tolerance is a fine first step – and Lord knows we could use more of it in our world today. But if we’re walking in the way of Christ, we want to keep walking towards that truer place where tolerance gives way towards love – a love that is able to discover truth and worthiness in our neighbors that others cannot see, including (perhaps) themselves. It is this kind of seeing by which Christ beholds his whole creation.

And if he beheld us so while we were still in sin – mired in whatever form of brokenness we struggle – how much more so does he see us clearly now as his precious sisters and brothers. For he has risen from the tomb and left behind him all the sin that he carried there. And in the fresh light of Easter morning he calls us by name and says again, Follow me. Don’t go scurrying back to gather up what I’ve discarded. There is only one thing you will need to carry as you walk with me, and that is love.

And that all sounds so nice, but how do we reply?

Thank you, Jesus. I really appreciate it. But I think I’ll just hold to my bitterness for a bit longer. You know, I was really hurt by her.

Shh! says Jesus. No bitterness. Just love. Bitterness is a very heavy load to carry. I know, for I just carried a lot of it away.

Bitterness and self-righteousness and all those other burdens we gather to protect ourselves – it turns out they were actually killing us. And by them Jesus was killed. But he was willing to do so because he knew that the only real thing we need for living is love. When we get right down to it, there is a gorgeous simplicity to the life of faith: love one another. We don’t need to interpret each other. We don’t need to change each other. God is the all-knowing one. God is the healing one. We are simply servants – servants with only one job: to love.

For we are followers of Jesus, who himself was simply obedient to his Father in Heaven, becoming a servant in loving us and this entire world. Whatever else may be true of Good Friday and Easter, beneath it all is love.

Søren Kierkegaard prayed,

O Lord Jesus Christ, thou didst not come to the world to be served, but also surely not to be admired or in that sense to be worshiped. Thou wast the way and the truth – and it was followers only thou didst demand. Arouse us therefore if we have dozed away into this delusion, save us from the error of wishing to admire thee instead of being willing to follow thee and to resemble thee. [1]

More and more I am convinced of this, that to be a Christian is to be a disciple – to be of follower – of Jesus, legitimately seeking to live like he lives. His is an integrated life in which servanthood, compassion and forgiveness are not merely duties to be performed on behalf of God, but the natural way of living because our souls have been shaped by the Spirit of God.

This is a lifelong journey of formation. We can’t make it happen, but we can choose to walk in such a way that it is likely to happen. There is a deliberateness and a costliness to the life of faith. But in the end we shall see that it only cost us those things that were killing us anyway – those things that God in Christ has put away from us.

It’s never too late to follow Jesus. I’m struck afresh how true this is by those choosing to be baptized this Easter. Last night at the Vigil service, Nick and Marissa were baptized –two of our choral scholars who came to St. John’s to sing in our choir as a job and as part of their training as voice majors at PLU. But their singing turned to worship and their worship to a decision to walk in the path of Jesus. And this morning Grant is choosing to be baptized. He’s just eight years old, but the choice is his. And with Grant, Betty and Pamela – mother and daughter (who are well beyond eight!) deciding together, the time has finally come to let the waters of Christ’s baptism pour over our heads and through our souls and into our lives.

And so we are all called to follow Christ out of whatever tombs have held us, and into the garden of God where love flourishes and compassion grows, where the saints of God are seeking the welfare of one another and of God’s whole, beloved world.

Alleluia. Amen.

 

[1] Perry D. LeDebre, from The Prayers of Kierkegaard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1956).

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