What would our Easter worship look like if we designed it according to the gospel story? Because we don’t really do it that way, do we? I am pretty sure that wouldn’t fly in most churches, and I’ve tried some different stuff around here, but I don’t know if I’ll try to mess with Easter. We pastors are in on the secret. We know it’s not Easter unless the congregation gets to sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” (Don’t worry. It’s coming up next.) We know that a sermon is appreciated, but a short sermon is appreciated even more. (I promise, I’m trying to do my best on this point.) It doesn’t hurt our feelings, because we love the same things. We love the strains of “Alleluia!” and the huge organ sound when Jody steps on those bass pedals and the room seems to shake. We love the full sound of the whole congregation singing familiar hymns of praise and the choir proclaiming strong “The Tomb Stands Open!” We love the exuberant joy of Easter, too!
But this year, as I read the familiar story over and over again, as I let my mind soak in the experience of the first Easter morning from scripture, I was struck by how different that first observance was from our own celebration today. I’m not saying ours is wrong, because as they say “If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” but it’s different. It’s different from what Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were doing as they went to the tomb early at dawn. It’s different from what the apostles were feeling, huddled away, uncertain and devastated. It’s different even from how Peter felt when he heard the idle tale, but still ran to the tomb to see for himself. Our celebration is worshipful, but, well, it’s different.
The women were heading to the tomb at the first possible minute according to their Jewish custom. Jesus had died late on a Friday afternoon. The new day, the Sabbath day, started just a couple of hours later at sundown, so Joseph of Arimathea, who had permission from Pilate to care for Jesus’s body, had simply wrapped it in linen and laid it in the tomb. It was against spiritual law to leave a body unburied or touch death if at all possible, on the Sabbath so it was the only choice. The women never had the time to properly prepare Jesus before their faithful observance of the Sabbath began. They went at the first chance they had, though, out of duty, out of honor, out of respect, out of love, to treat Jesus the way he was meant to be treated, in the first light of the new day that had begun in dark hours before.
What would our Easter worship look like if we designed it to mirror their experience? Even their experience after arriving? Luke says they were perplexed. That would certainly be the mild way of putting MY feelings if I arrived at a tomb expecting to find a tomb just about ready for the refreshing smell of spices and fragrant oils and instead finding nothing. Jaw-droppingly confused and worried and maybe even angry would have been even more accurate. What would THAT Easter song sound like? Jody, what stop would you pull for THAT hymn? They have a hard time remembering, let alone believing, this wonderful news we sing about, that Jesus Christ is risen today.
When they make it back to the apostles, spices still in hand unused, the perfect picture of faith that we tend to imagine isn’t much more perfect. The men dismiss their account as an idle tale. Such mild words in English. You wouldn’t want me to say what it REALLY says in the Greek. Garbage is too mild for what it says in the Greek. If you’re really curious, I’ll whisper it to you some other time, when children aren’t around to hear me. But for now, junk - - THAT’S what the apostles think of what Mary, Mary, and Joanna have to tell them. THAT’s what they think they are hearing. The closest thing to strong faith or belief that we have in Luke’s gospel is Peter’s amazement when he runs to the tomb to see with his own eyes. But amazement doesn’t necessarily mean worshipful trust. I’ve been amazed at a lot of things and a lot of people without feeling reverent or comforted or saved by what I have seen. No, a worship service based on all this would look a lot different from our songs of “Alleluia!” and bold statements of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Yet somehow I imagine that even in the midst of our own congregation gathered here today, there are some of us who come with these biblical, if not lyrical, feelings. We come out of honor or duty, because it is our custom. We come out of respect for someone we love, someone for whom this is the most special of days. We come perplexed at this outlandish story that we have gathered together to hear again. Or perplexed at how it could be true if there’s still death and sickness and sin in the world. We come terrified that we’re missing some essential piece of faith that makes it all make sense, terrified because someone we trusted somewhere sometime told us that if we don’t believe with every ounce of our belief that we will perish for eternity. We come trying to remember everything he said, everything we have heard that will bring us comfort and understanding. We come not believing because this thing she’s saying and the words we’re singing just don’t match up with reality, how life and death and joy really work. We even come amazed because we have heard this story and we have witnessed its believers and we want to believe the way they believe, and amazement is that overwhelming feeling we muster.
Somehow I imagine that in the midst of this gathered body, the body of Christ, there are some of us, many of us, maybe even most of us, who come with these biblical feelings, and I am here to say it out loud, especially to those who are feeling uncomfortable or hypocritical or like you are pulling off some big farce with your presence - -you are in the right place! You have shown up to the exact right place on Easter Sunday morning to bring your perplexity and terror and faded memories and disbelief and amazement. You have shown up to the exact right place to wonder and question and doubt what this resurrection talk is all about, because this is what resurrection community is all about.
It’s about being together while some weep with joy over the good news of the gospel and others weep to empty themselves of sadness. It’s about being together while some remember the joy of faith the comforts while others try to forget spiritual abuse. It’s about being together for mom or dad, or grandma or grandpa because this MATTERS to them, even if it feels like an idle tale to us. Resurrection community, REAL resurrection community is OK with all of that because God is OK with all of that.
God didn’t wait until Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary understood what was happening before Jesus was raised from the dead. Angels didn’t meet them at a sealed tomb and say, “When you understand what God’s about to do, THEN God will do it.” God didn’t wait for the eleven to leap for joy and make bold declarations of “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” before God gave Jesus new life, before God gave US new life. Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus overcame the worst this world had to offer, Jesus breathed and walked and ate again, we will hear in the coming weeks, before any of his closest followers believed it because the resurrection has no strings attached. The resurrection doesn’t depend on our understanding or our cooperation. The resurrection isn’t something we do or figure out or make possible.
The resurrection is a free and glorious and gracious gift from God, and it won’t be taken away. It doesn’t have to be earned by our trust. It can’t be bought with our money or time or even our trust. The resurrection is free. The resurrection is priceless. The resurrection is Christ’s promise to never leave us and forsake us come true. The resurrection is God’s promise to be with us always upheld. The resurrection is the sign whether we can feel it right this minute or not, that this life is not broken beyond repair; it’s just bent. We’re not irredeemable and lost for eternity; life and peace and grace are what God intends.
So, it’s a little late in the service to be welcoming you to worship, but welcome! You are welcome here. You are welcome to this resurrection community with your profound inexplicable faith in miracles, your skeptical doubt at the veracity of any of it. You are welcome with your nostalgia over familiar hymns and simpler days. You are welcome with sense of duty. You are welcome with your confusion. You are welcome to this resurrection community where God acts first, where Jesus rises before we understand, where there are no strings attached to grace. The resurrection to new life is for you.
With joy and confusion, with wonder and with faith, please rise in body or spirit as we sing together, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”