Months ago when we noticed that Easter this year was on April first, I promised my husband Ellis two things. I would tell this joke on Easter, and that I would give him credit as the author of the joke. Here it goes: You thought Jesus was dead? April Fools!
Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this morning, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because you heard we’re doing the Hallelujah chorus, with brass, good for you. Sing out. Some of you are here because it is Easter, and you are supposed to go to church on Easter, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. If you need help navigating this ancient liturgy, someone nearby can help. Whatever brought you here today, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Happy Easter.
I apologize for the joke earlier, not for telling one, just for how bad it was. It turns out though, the first half of the joke is pretty good theology. “You thought Jesus was dead?” Mark’s Gospel, the oldest scriptural account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, leaves us with a bit of a question. Those brave women come to the tomb a little flustered. They are concerned less about their safety than about that heavy stone. But when they reach the tomb, more questions arise. The stone is already rolled away? The tomb is empty? Who is this young man? Why are the disciples to head back to Galilee?
Mark’s Gospel, the oldest version of this story, leaves us with a question, with an empty tomb, and with a little fear. What does all of this mean? Other Gospels fill in some of the details, I’ll say something about them in a moment, but I don’t want to give up Mark’s sense of open questions quite yet. I often wonder whether Resurrection is a truth too big for the mind to handle all at once. Easter is full of contradictions.
The story of Jesus’ death is a story of pain, of suffering, of betrayal, denial, and violence. Jesus dies at the hands of a cruel state, he is executed by empire. Easter comes as a shock. Good Friday, in the wisdom of the world, should have been the end of the story. The might of the Roman Army, the power of the government, popular opinion, all aligned against Jesus at the end of his ministry. Jesus turned over the tables of the temple. Jesus upset the status quo. The authorities charged, tried, and convicted him. Jesus was the victim of Imperial violence. The cross was an instrument of execution designed to silence dissent.
The cross, the symbol of torture becomes for Jesus’ movement a symbol of resistance,
of life, in what is still in so many ways a Good Friday world. Too many people still suffer like Jesus. Too many die at the hands of the State. Too many suffer. Too many hate. Too many kill. We still live in a Good Friday world. And Easter comes as a strange contradiction. The might of empire, violence, oppression, the cold of winter, despite present appearances, will not have the last word. For the members of Jesus’ movement, that is the strange contradiction of Easter: Death does not have the last word. To quote the preacher William Sloane Coffin: “Easter is the triumph of seemingly powerless love over loveless power.”
Easter is a contradiction, a fitting one for April first. Yes, Jesus was killed by hate. Jesus died. Yes, but. The Resurrection is a truth encountered. In the first written report of a resurrection encounter, fear, confusion, and amazement are the resulting emotions. The women run from the empty tomb. You thought Jesus was dead?
“Resurrection” is more than just a name for what happened to Jesus after his death. In Christian teaching resurrection is about more than Jesus. Jesus is the “firstborn of the resurrection.” As our preacher at last night’s vigil, The Rev. Beth Scriven told us, “Resurrection is harder than we expected: harder than we wish it were.” The Resurrection is a promise. Resurrection also makes demands.
The young man, dressed in a white robe says to the women. “He has been raised; he is not here…go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.” He is not here. Go to Galilee.
Our Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry says that Galilee “is a way of talking about the world.” Go to Galilee.
“Galilee, in the streets of the city. Galilee, in our rural communities. Galilee in our hospitals. Galilee in our office places. Galilee where God’s children live and dwell. There in Galilee you will meet the living Christ for he has already gone ahead of you.”
The Resurrection is a demand. Go. Go out to where Jesus has gone ahead of you. Jesus is not here. He is not in the tomb. He is not stopped, petrified. Jesus’ movement goes on. God is already living and active, and moving. Go get out there and follow after Jesus.
In another of the Easter Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first to see the Risen Lord. She tries to embrace him, and Jesus says to her, “Let go.” He can’t be contained. Just a few hours ago Jesus laid in the tomb, another victim of loveless power, another dissident silenced, another man of color sentenced to death. Just a few hours ago Jesus was just another human being who spoke up for justice and lost his life, one of so many. And this morning we encounter something amazing, something terrifying, and something world-changing. Jesus is not in the tomb. Jesus has already gone ahead of you. His mission continues. Life is stronger than death.
And immediately, Mark’s favorite two words. And immediately Jesus calls for his disciples to go. Get out there, join me in this work. The Resurrection means that followers of Jesus have Good News to proclaim, not only with our lips but in our lives. Jesus promises to go ahead of us, to send his Spirit to empower us in the continuing work to overcome hate with love, to overcome injustice with justice, to overcome death with life. Go disciples, go out to Galilee.
Now, the other Gospels do fill in the story a bit. As I said above, John talks about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus. When she does, at first she thinks he is the gardener. Many of the Resurrection stories have this element to them: It takes a little work to recognize Jesus. We’ll hear the story next Sunday of doubting Thomas. That story tells us, there is room for doubt, even among Jesus’ followers. Even in Thomas’ doubt, even with Mary’s blindness, even with Peter’s denial on his conscience, the stories of encountering Jesus after his resurrection all involve lives and paths being changed. We often can’t reason our way to new life, but we can have an encounter, an encounter that changes our direction in an instant.
This question of recognizing Jesus continues for us today.
Where do we see God at work? Where do we see Jesus? In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers that he will meet them “in the least of these,” in the hungry, in the naked, in the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus tells his disciples to welcome strangers, to receive little children. The sixth century Christian monk St. Benedict said, “All are to be greeted as Christ.” Where do we see Jesus? Where do we recognize him? Alive, living, out ahead of us?
Spencer Reece is an Episcopal priest and a celebrated poet. In his work “The Road to Emmaus” Reece writes at length about his relationship with his first sponsor from Alcoholics Anonymous, AA, the man Reece calls “Durell.”
As he describes the sponsor, two consistent themes develop. Durell’s life has become painfully small. Durell is near the end of his life when he becomes Spencer’s sponsor. He lives in a tiny studio apartment. He has few friends and little economic security. Most of his social interaction centers around his weekly AA meeting. As the poem goes on we learn that Durell’s hope of an army career was dashed when he was very young, probably by some revelation of his sexuality. He was estranged from his siblings. Durell tells the young man “I’ve whittled my life down to no one Spencer, with the possible exception of you.”
The other theme that develops in the poem is Durell’s patience and availability to Spencer as he is starting his journey of sobriety. They spoke often, and Durell mostly listened, patiently, calmly, reassuringly. Durell’s patience helped Spencer continue the road of recovery. Durell’s listening helped the young man to make his steps, to make amends, and to stay sober. But the listening also helped the sponsor. Durell gave his attention as an offering, as a way of redeeming himself. Listening to the men he sponsored gave meaning and purpose to an otherwise small life. Durell saw the people he sponsored, and he served them.
The poet reflects in one stanza:
“There are many causes for attention, one of them redemption.”
How often do we really pay attention? How often do we take our selves out of the center, to focus on the needs and hurts of our siblings, our co-workers, our neighbors? If we were to pay that kind of attention, I wonder whether we might catch glimpses of the Risen Christ already ahead of us, already out there in Galilee, inviting us to join in the work, to heal and be healed, to proclaim God’s life-giving news. Seemingly powerless love can overcome loveless power. Life is stronger than death.
Where is your Galilee? Where does the Risen Christ invite you to go, to look, to listen, and to recognize him at work, already ahead of you? You thought Jesus was dead? The stone has been rolled away. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here. He has been raised.” Go to Galilee.
Alleluia Christ is Risen.