A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter

I’m going to say something that would no doubt shock some of my church friends if they heard it, but I feel like Easter is over.

At my house, it was just the two of us this year. We didn’t dye eggs, we didn’t have much candy, we had no ham or lamb leftovers. So at home, we’re done, we’re finished, Easter is over.

But here in church, the season of Easter continues until Pentecost, until the end of May. And just in case I forgot about that, I got an email last week from Episcopal Church headquarters with the subject line “Easter joy continues.” Well, I opened it in great anticipation, but it did not turn out to be a spiritual greeting, it was just a reminder that I still have time to contribute to the church’s annual appeal. So we have all kinds of ways of celebrating the things that matter in church—in church, where it is still Easter.

And in fact we’re really just getting started in telling the Easter story. This morning’s Gospel was still about that very first day, the day of the Resurrection. It comes from the last chapter of Luke, Chapter 24, which really focuses on just that one day, as the disciples struggle to understand what is going on here.

Back in the day, a long time ago, I was a journalist and we used the term vignette to mean a small story that illustrates some larger truth. Now Luke is a wonderful storyteller and he gives us a series of vignettes in this chapter to bring the day alive. Luke 24 begins at dawn with the women of Galilee returning to the tomb with spices and ointments. They find the stone rolled away, they see two men in dazzling clothes, and Luke tells us those women were terrified.

Meanwhile, two disciples are on their way to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, when they meet a stranger who walks with them. And they don’t recognize him at first, but when they do realize it’s Jesus, they turn around and hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others what they’ve seen.

And while they’re still talking, Jesus is suddenly there among them. They think it’s a ghost, and again, Luke tells us they’re terrified. But Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” and he shows them his hands and feet, and asks for food, which he eats. He eats the fish they give him to prove that he’s not a ghost or an angel, to help them get past their fears.

So I always do a little reading before I start to write a sermon. And of all the things I looked at as part of my preparation last week, one in particular[i] stood out for me. It was a little different from the others and it struck me as incisively true, even though I have never thought about it this way before.

Esau McCaulley, the author, is a Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, as well as a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times. And he talks about how there are two different ways of looking at the Easter story which compete for our attention in this season. The first way of looking at the story is to see it as a happy, hopeful tale, which works well in springtime, with all the flowers that are in bloom here outside my house. It’s a story that’s all about new beginnings. The second story is the truer story, McCaulley says, and it’s not so bright. He says, “Easter is a frightening prospect. The only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.”

McCaulley says we tend to prefer that first story, that joyful celebration of possibility, but that’s not the story we hear in the Easter Gospels. As in today’s Gospel, we’re told repeatedly that people are afraid, and in fact, they’re terrified. McCaulley points out that those women went to the tomb expecting to grieve, not to rejoice. They had prepared their spices and ointments to tend to the dead body of Jesus. The discovery that the tomb was empty, that Jesus was alive, that was something else again.

And moving on in Chapter 24 in Luke, in today’s vignette, Jesus has to show his hands and feet and demonstrate that he can eat to calm these people. He’s showing them that he has flesh, and bones, and a physical body, to prove he’s not a ghost so they can settle down before he can begin to teach them.

I think we need to hold on to both of those perceptions, to hold them in tension. Because on the one hand, how can we not rejoice in the hope and the comfort that Easter offers. Those two travelers on the road to Emmaus, they actually did not experience fear. They said their hearts were warmed in the presence of Jesus, even when they didn’t recognize him yet.

But if we get too comfortable with that aspect of the story, I think we lose sight of something important, about what it means to believe in the Resurrection. To believe that God is right here with us even now, alive and working in this world. That is a powerful statement, an awe-inspiring statement. And it’s one that has consequences.

I think this is especially important to remember in this time when we’re hoping for an experience of Resurrection of our own, as we begin to emerge from this pandemic. The hope is there, but when we embrace that hope, we have to recognize that it has consequences. I like what James Martin says about the hope of Resurrection. If you don’t know him, he’s a Jesuit priest who has become a TV and social media personality as well as an author. And a lot of people relate to the straightforward way he talks about faith. He says, “In every cross, there is an invitation to new life in some way, and often in a mysterious way.”[ii] And you know what? I’m speaking for myself here, but I think I’m probably not alone when I say that boy, oh boy, am I ever ready for some new life and a new beginning.”

But McCaulley, the writer I mentioned first, counters with a reminder that we are also returning to a world of hate, cruelty, division, and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. He says, “As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster, unless we recognize that we’re going back to a world desperately in need of healing.” And wasn’t Jesus all about healing?

So Easter isn’t over, and the truth is, it doesn’t end on Pentecost either. We are Easter people, living always in the truth of the Resurrection. The truth that Jesus Christ is alive, that God is with us here, even now, as comforting or as terrifying as that might be. Jesus Christ alive and here with us is still a traveler, and he bids us to go with him to places we might not have wanted to go on our own.

Today’s gospel ends with an action statement: “You are witnesses of these things.”

We’re not just hearers of this tale, we need to enact it, we need to bring it alive in our time. How would we live, how should we live if we really believe that Jesus is truly alive and present with us?

If Easter is a new beginning, we have an opportunity, now in this moment, to take our place as witnesses of Christ’s presence in this world. Let us pray always for the grace to do just that.

Amen.


[i] Easau McCaulley, “The Unsettling Power of Easter.” The New York Times, April 2, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html, accessed April 15, 2021.

[ii] James Martin, SJ, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, 2014. 413.

Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA.