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April 12, 2020

Not a normal Easter

Passage: John 20:1-18

This isn’t a normal Easter, whatever “normal” might mean. For me, as a child, Easter wouldn’t be Easter without the egg hunt in my grandparent’s yard. No matter how many years pass with me observing Lent and Holy Week week as a pastor, my mind still drifts back to that grassy lawn, the plastic eggs with candy in them,  and THE golden egg with the $20 bill. After that my memories take me to the festive worship at my home church with the trumpets, tempani, and thunderous hymns… and of course the gluttonous buffet afterwards.

What’s a normal Easter for you? 

For many of us, whatever that looks like is anchored in a physical place. If it’s inside a building, maybe it’s a sanctuary. If it’s outside, maybe it’s a sunrise service in a picturesque location. 

But not this Easter. We’re at home, not at church. We’re alone (or with a few people) not a packed crowd. But maybe, for the first time in a long time, we’re closer to the empty tomb this year… and farther away from the holiday as we’ve come to know it.

You see, this story was born in tragedy and not in triumph. It began outside of buildings, away from the crowds. In a graveyard, in fact. 

After all they have been through, after watching their friend get arrested, convicted in a sham trial, and tortured to death, Jesus’ disciples crawl to the tomb in a haze of exhaustion and grief. What they find there is utterly horrific and decidedly bad news at first: the tomb is empty. It’s bad news because that must mean that looters have been there. “Who was it?” they wonder, “Shameless criminals? Romans soldiers? The Judean authorities?” Either way, the grave is desecrated, heaping humiliation on top of loss. 

John tells us that the other disciple, when he peered inside the tomb, believes. But what does he believe, exactly? That Jesus was risen? Or does he believe what Mary cried, “They’ve taken him!” Either way, Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved run home, leaving Mary there to weep by herself. They keep running away, don’t they, those male disciples?

While Mary is still in shock, barely able to catch her breath from sobbing, two angels appear, sitting where her friend's corpse had been laid to rest. When they ask her why she weeps, she doesn’t hesitate. Enough is enough! Normally, people in biblical stories are frozen in fear during such exchanges, but not Mary. “They’ve taken him! Can’t you see?” 

Then, as if an appearance of angelic beings isn’t mystifying enough, she turns her head and there… This man. “Maybe it’s the night-shift gardener,” she thinks, “If you’re the one who’s taken him, sir, please, just tell me where. I’ll scoop him up in my arms and carry him myself!” Maybe a surge of adrenaline could do it. Maybe desperation. “I just want him back.” 

And then… He says her name. Her name. It takes her a while to recognize him, as it does the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as it does the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. It’s the living, breathing Jesus, their teacher and brother and friend, yes, but transformed

Not normal. Not normally what happens while visiting the grave of a loved one. Not normally what happens after watching someone die horrifically, and death snatches all we care about.

Not normally what happens when a movement is crushed by the might of an empire and violence and oppression do their worst. Not normally what happens when God appears absent, and what feels most present is hatred and evil and doubt and hopelessness and fear and they’re so palpable that it’s almost suffocating. 

And yet, all of that is normal for so many people in the world. Our normal Easter fanfare has a way of blinding us to the reality of others suffering. Our normal Easter fanfare has a way of numbing us to the reality of our own suffering.

But God doesn’t gloss over the bad stuff, and that’s where Easter begins. No, God dives headfirst into it in order to redeem life from the inside out. As it says in Philippians:

"[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross."

God takes ugly, awful brutalities of life and brings out of them something entirely different: resurrection. Not resuscitation — as in resuming the physical life that previously was, exactly as it was — but resurrection: transforming what was beyond the limits of all that we know or imagine or can hope for to its fullness. 

And as with Mary and the other disciples, resurrection happens before we are able to make sense of it. It goes ahead of us; we catch up to it. Jesus lives again, but not in the way his disciples expected or in the way we expect; not flatly in mere metaphor, or fantastically in myth, or rigidly in dogma, but as C.S. Lewis put it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “Aslan is on the move- perhaps has already landed.”

God has always been up to that, come to think of it, pointing people past the horizon of what we believe is possible, subverting and overcoming things as they’ve always been into what they should be: breathing life into dust, leading captives into freedom, bringing exiles home, forgiveness to the sinner, drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry. “For from his fullness,” John wrote, “we have all received, grace upon grace.”

As much as we crave a return to normalcy, we won’t be able to go back to normal as we’ve known it. And maybe we shouldn’t because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that our previous normal wasn’t working. Not really. Not for many people. Not for those sidelined in this economy or without access to basic necessities. Not for those running on the hamster wheels of constant consumption, workaholism, or distraction. Not for the earth itself. Perhaps now, more clearly than ever before, we can see the ruts we’ve been in and the shaky foundations on which much of our lives have stood. Stark moments of crisis like these have  way of revealing what we really need and what (and who) really counts.

It’s true, this isn’t a normal Easter, but maybe that’s the point. Because what the empty tomb promises us —what God offers us on this and every day —is something more meaningful, more hopeful, and more enduring than mere normal. As Jesus said earlier in John’s gospel, 

“I came that they might have life and have it abundantly,” life that isn’t held captive to the “more of the same.” 

This Easter is unlike any other. I’ll leave you with the words of the Rev. Traci Blackmon:

“Jesus has left the building and gone to where the need is. Let’s pray that the church will be wise enough to follow Jesus into the streets… We won’t be in our churches for Easter… but… what a resurrection we can have if we begin to take care of one another… Do what you can, and God will do the rest.”

Hallelujah! Christ is risen indeed!

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