The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Don't tell me. I think I know why your wore your fancy clothes and your pretty dresses today. It's because you knew what you would find here. Fragrant white lilies. Alleluias! Smiling faces. A burning paschal candle. Joyous Easter hymns. And an empty tomb. Today we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. I can think of no better reason to be fancy.
It is easy to forget then that, once upon a time, there was nothing inevitable about Easter at all. Mary Magdalene ran to the tomb, not in an Easter gown, but in her mourning clothes, carrying a broken heart – expecting to find the sealed tomb of a corpse, of her dearly departed friend. No lilies. No Alleluias. No smiling faces. No joyous hymns. She only expected to see a tomb – a tomb blurred by a flood of her own tears.
Don't get me wrong, Mary did expect the resurrection. But just not now. And not here. She expected what many other Jews of her day expected: that Jesus would be resurrected with everyone else – at the end of days. But for her that weekend, the weekend of his death and burial, effectively marked the end of the Jesus story. All of his promise, the Messianic hopes, those healing hands, and amazing words, died with him, were shut up with him in that tomb. On the very first Easter Sunday morning, the attendance was one and that one was very, very sad.
She was sad because death is serious business – a hard stop. Mary and Jesus' other followers were devastated. Jesus was their friend, their teacher, their Savior. His death: it was brutal, graphic, and too early – too early in what should have been a long life; it was traumatic. Mary Magdalene did not expect to find an empty tomb; she did not expect to encounter Jesus in the garden. She was there to encounter again the stark reality of death.
This story, the story of Jesus' resurrection has been told many, many times, over many, many centuries. The story is almost two-thousand years old. And because it is an old story, and because it has been rehearsed so often, it is easy to think of it as a fairy tale or a fable; it is easy to lose the gravity of the event, the shock that those first witnesses experienced when they found the grave open. Paul Tillich writes, “[I]t has been forgotten that the tomb of Jesus was the end of His life and of His work before it became the place of His final triumph. We have become insensitive to the infinite tension which is implied in the words of the...Creed: 'suffered...was crucified, dead, and buried...rose again from the dead.' We already know, when we hear the first words, what the ending will be: 'rose again;' and for many people it is no more than the inevitable 'happy ending'.”
But that is not it. Easter is not the happy ending tacked onto the end of Holy Week; it is not there to make the reader feel better about the ugliness of the cross. Christianity is not about happy endings. Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “Smiley TV preachers might tell you that following Jesus is about being good so that God will bless you with cash and prizes, but really it's much more gruesome and meaningful. It's about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”
Easter does not happen without Good Friday. Easter morning is not an isolated event; it is God's answer to Good Friday – God's answer to violence; God's answer to desolation; God's answer to our destructive human tendencies; God's answer to death. To the God who created life, death cannot and will not have the final word. Where there is death, God the Creator is planting life.
Now, I am not much of a gardener. I like the idea of gardening. I dabble. But I'm not good at it. And so of course, rather than mounds of beautiful, fresh mulch, my flower beds are carpeted with the last dead leaves that fell right before it started snowing and snowing and snowing this winter. The snow has now melted. And I've watched this spring as the green begins to break through those dead things – often literally break through those dead things. Tulip leaves piercing those desolate layers – new life breaking through death – bursting towards the warm sun, refusing to be denied.
Life is the point – transformed life, resurrection life. Jesus did not die to make you happy; Jesus died to give you new life. Jesus died a death like ours, so that we might also share in a resurrection like his. On the first Easter, God was not writing a happy ending to the story; God was making a new beginning – for Jesus, sure, but also for us, and for the whole world.
We celebrate Easter not as a commemoration of a past event. We celebrate Easter because it is still happening. We celebrate today because Christ is still risen. Christ is still alive. Christ is still moving about in the world. Rowan Williams says, “[T]o believe in the risen Jesus is to trust that the generative power of God is active in the human world; that it can be experienced as transformation and re-creation and empowerment in the present; and that its availability and relevance extends to every human situation.” Which is to say: the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you. We celebrate Easter because it is still happening – in us and through us.
We are Easter people. Williams again says, “What the believer says is, 'I live because of Jesus, in Jesus.' The person I am cannot be understood apart from Jesus. I am baptized: I received my name, my identity, in the process of immersion in the Easter event.” Resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus two-thousand years ago; it happens still – in our hearts, our lives, our world. We are Easter people and Easter is our message.
This week, while I was writing sermons, my 2 ½ year-old son, Oscar, approached me with an important message. He said, “Daddy, I'm here to teach you how to write your Easter sermons.” When his mother asked him to tell me what I should write, he replied, “No stopping my plan.” And Oscar is right; and so here it is. Whatever happened in that dark tomb, on that first Easter morning, it set the plan in motion – God's plan for this world. Jesus was raised; we are raised. Out of death, God is bringing new life. God is making all things new. It was the plan all along. And there is no stopping that plan.
The Easter story is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. It is where the story of Jesus becomes our story – our story to carry in our hearts and our lives. And I think that is why you are really here today – because you knew what you would find here: more than just an empty tomb, the Risen Christ. Today we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord. We celebrate that we have encountered Jesus; we celebrate that we have experienced the power of his resurrection in our lives. And then we go, with Alleluias dripping from our lips, to tell our story. Christ is Risen and that still matters.