A sermon for Easter Sunday

You might have noticed that I didn’t read from the usual Gospel book this morning. The book I’m holding is called the St. John Bible, and it is a modern Bible that comes in seven volumes. This is the Gospels. It’s entirely done in hand-written calligraphy. This of course is a printed copy. But it’s done in handwritten calligraphy and illuminated with beautiful paintings.

The scene that was chosen to illustrate this entire section of the Gospel of John is a painting of this encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Lord. I think the choice of that scene suggests how important that moment of encounter was. How important Mary Magdalene’s experience on the first Easter morning was.

When she went to her friends and said,  “I have seen the Lord,” it was the first proclamation of the Resurrection. It was a moment of joy after so much sorrow. And it was a clear message of hope and encouragement for all of us, even today.

What she’d been through in the days before Easter was almost unimaginable. She stood at the foot of the cross and she watched her beloved teacher suffer and die. And still mourning, she returned to the tomb on the first day of the week and found it empty.

Loss upon loss. Now even his body was gone.

Fearing for their own lives, fearing that the same thing would happen to them, and grieving the loss of their leader, the disciples must have been close to despair at that point. Their entire world was falling apart.

They still thought of death as something final. They knew it as an end, and not as a beginning.

They thought no one could undo what had happened to Jesus. And then God did.

And everything was changed forever.

“Alleluia. Christ is risen,” we say in our opening acclamation on Easter. “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

And those few words are the essence of our faith. Because Easter is the feast that grounds everything. Without the Resurrection, Jesus would have been a teacher, but not a messiah. He would have been a good person, but not God incarnate.

So Easter isn’t just a day that we celebrate. It’s more than that. It really is our identity in faith.

“We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.”

I’ve heard that phrase and I wasn’t sure exactly what the source was. I thought I’d heard that it was St. Augustine but I wasn’t sure, so I Googled it last week, and it turns out that Augustine did say a lot of things that sound similar but never exactly that, and probably the actual source of the quote is Pope John Paul II.

We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.

And what that means is that we’re a people of hope. Our hope is the beginning and the end of everything that we Christians hold true.

We believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the our own resurrection and the resurrection of our loved ones, on some future joyful day.

But even more than that, we believe that resurrection is happening—all around us—now.

We believe that resurrection is happening now.

So to put it in the words we heard this morning from Isaiah, we believe that our God is creating a new heavens, and a new earth. We believe that resurrection is happening now. And that is the very definition of hope.

And I’ll be honest, though. I’m a preacher, I’m supposed to stand up here and say that. I’m also a person who lives in the same world you live in. I find those words easy to say in the joyful enthusiasm of Easter Sunday. But although they’re easy to say, sometimes they’re very hard to believe.

To say that resurrection is happening now means that even now God is in the process of restoring the world to what it should be. That the Kingdom of God is already here among us. That everything is coming together as God intends.

When it seems more like everything is falling apart.

There’s another good quote that you can find attributed to a couple of different people if you Google it:

“We’re Easter people living in a Good Friday world.”

So I was wondering who said that. Back to Google. Some people think it was Barbara Harris, who was the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and in fact the first woman consecrated a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

And some people think it was said by another Barbara, Barbara Johnson, who wrote a devotional titled Splashes of Joy in the Cesspools of Life. Or maybe it was said by the writer Ann Lamott, a wonderful writer who was quoting Barbara Johnson, the author of that book. At any rate, I think it was Lamott who made it famous.

And here’s the thing I find interesting about this. When you look at the people listed as possible sources for this quote—“We’re an Easter people living in a Good Friday world”—they’re all women. Like Mary Magdalene, who was a person who literally experienced both Good Friday and Easter.

I think we women especially know the Good Friday stuff through and through. We’ve never been afraid to get right down into the messiness of life.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have much choice, we women. We’re caregivers from the beginning of life.  Giving birth is kind of a messy process. Taking care of little babies is a messy process. I’m reminded of that by my new little grandson, who just turned a month old. He’s adorable. And what he does in life is he eats, and he excretes. And he is a mess.

I don’t mean that men don’t care. But as caregivers from that beginning of life, I think women like Mary Magdalene are especially steeped in the messiness.

And when she went to the tomb that morning, she might have been carrying spices to tend to the broken body of her dead friend. To finish the job of preparing his body for burial. Or maybe she just went because she wanted to be close to him again.

But either way, she doesn’t pull back here from facing the messiness of death and grief.

But she gets there and she finds the tomb empty. She goes and tells Peter and the beloved disciple, and they come and they have a look. They see the discarded grave wrappings. And they go home again.

And she’s the one who stays. Weeping. She stays, in grief, and sees Jesus, and she doesn’t know who he is even though they were close friends. How is it that she doesn’t recognize him at that point?

Of course his body was shattered by the crucifixion, that’s one thing, and the risen body she saw had to be something different. But my own experience suggests that it’s often hard to see Jesus in the world, even though I do believe he’s still here present with us.

Maybe we don’t recognize him because we aren’t looking for him. Certainly she wasn’t looking for Jesus that morning when she went to the tomb. She didn’t expect to see him. Maybe she was so overwhelmed by the shock of what she’d lost that she simply couldn’t see what still might be. What good things were to come.

She hadn’t yet come to the place of believing that life could triumph over death.

And it will. And that also is a definition of hope. In the end, life will triumph over death.

So I came across a prayer in one of the devotions I was reading last week:

Give us courage to live in a world we cannot fix …
with hope that it has already been redeemed.[i]

And I liked it because I think it expresses some of the tension of that situation in which we find ourselves, the Good Friday / Easter Sunday tension.

The world might seem beyond fixing, but we believe God is already creating new heavens, and a new earth.

To be an Easter people is to be a people of justice and compassion. We have to be working toward building the Kingdom of God, now. And yet we can’t bring God’s Kingdom into existence by ourselves. Only God can do that.

But neither can we stand aside in a world that needs so much fixing and do nothing. And sometimes the miracle of Christ present in the world is simply the grace shining through one person doing good for another.

Hope is hard. But the world needs this message that we proclaim. This message of hope. The world needs to hear that now. The world needs to see Christ present, through us. The world needs to hear the word that life will triumph over death.

So we are people of faith, and people of hope. We are people who believe in God’s new creation, as Isaiah promised.

People who believe that Jesus has risen and is with us now, and we can see him at work in the world if only we look. Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Preached at the St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol PA.

[i] Common Prayer. Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove. 211.