An Easter to Remember

A Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020.  Text: John 20:1-23

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Happy Easter! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the refrain of congregations around the world today. This is the refrain of all of heaven and earth today. We don’t need to hear or sing or say anything else, really. This is the proclamation that makes Easter, Easter.

Still….it sure doesn’t feel like Easter, does it? It’s certainly an Easter unlike any Easter any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Years from now, I imagine we’ll remember this day as the Easter “without.” The Easter without the baptisms, without the choir, without the packed sanctuary singing along to every hymn and anthem. The Easter without new dresses, egg hunts, or anticipated large family gatherings around long tables filled with sumptuous food. The Easter without quite as much shared laughter, quite as many shared smiles. All those things make Easter, Easter, for us, too, by convention and expectation. I’m missing all those things this morning, as I’m sure you are. And those absences will leave an impression in our memories, no doubt. But I also hope that at least for today, at least for our time together this morning, we’ll recognise that this Easter is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get in our lifetimes to understanding what that first Easter was like.

There was no choir warming up, no lavish meal in production; no new dress laid out on that first Easter. No celebrations of any kind in the works. The disciples awoke on that first Easter morning much as they had the previous morning – to a void, to a palpable absence. Jesus – the one they had thought to be the Messiah, the anointed Saviour of Israel, the one some of them had left everything (family, possessions, livelihood) to follow – Jesus was dead. And not just dead, executed. He had been betrayed by one of their own, arrested by the religious authorities, and crucified by the Romans like a rebellious slave. And throughout the ordeal, the mighty prophet and healer had appeared helpless.

Think about all they had seen and experienced with Jesus. He had cast out all manner of unclean spirits, including a legion of them in the land of the Gerasenes. He had healed the sick in droves, restored sight to the blind, and fed 5,000 hungry people with five loaves and a couple of fish. He brought Lazarus back to life, and even calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. Yet, when the soldiers came for Him, He could do nothing to stop or resist them. At least, He didn’t do anything to stop or resist them. In a matter of hours, everything they had hoped, everything they had dreamed, everything they had invested and sacrificed was over. Done. Gone.

That’s how deep the void that greeted the disciples on that first Easter morn was – a morning that found many of them in isolation, too – not for fear of a virus but of the soldiers who might still be looking for them as Jesus’ followers. And even though Mary Magdalene had ventured to the tomb before dawn and found it empty, things don’t instantly get better.

When Mary finds the grave open and Jesus’ body missing, she runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who return to the tomb with her. They find it as she had described: the stone rolled away and Jesus’ burial cloths lying inside; but Jesus is nowhere to be found. What did it mean? John says, “they did not yet understand the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). After entering the tomb, John says the beloved disciple believes, despite the fact he doesn’t understand the Scriptures; but then he and Peter go home. We’re not told that they say anything to anyone else.

Mary lingers at the Tomb, weeping. Only then does she encounter Jesus. At first she thinks He’s the gardener and implores Him to tell her what has happened to the Lord’s body. She recognises Him by voice, not by sight, when He calls her by name. The risen Christ then asks her to go and tell His “brothers” (not disciples, not servants – brothers) that He is “ascending to My Father and your Father.” True to these instructions, Mary Magdalene returns to the disciples a second time, saying she has seen the Lord. She has seen Jesus: not dead, but alive; not missing, but very much present.

The good news of Easter thus gradual dawns in John, rather than flooding in. And we’re still not done. For the rest of that day, many of the disciples were left to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus alive? Or had His body been stolen? In John’s telling of the Easter story, it won’t be until later that evening that anyone other than Mary Magdalene sees Jesus.

When the Risen Christ does break into the disciples’ sequestered lives, He leaves no doubt. He speaks a blessing upon them: “Peace be with you.” He shows them His hands and His side, where the implements of death found and left their mark – but ultimately lost. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and commissions them, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Until that time, however, uncertainty remains. And even then, Jesus’ appearance doesn’t magically or instantly change the disciples’ circumstance. As we will see, they continue to meet behind closed doors. Some of them, including Peter, even go back to doing what they had been doing before they met Jesus. They’re lying low, seeking out something familiar, perhaps something reliable. Much remains unclear to them.

Which is, of course, how things will continue for us, too. When our time of lingering at the tomb with Mary Magdalene’s is over this morning, we’ll return to the same restrictions and limitations to which we awoke. My hope and my prayer, though, is that we’ll return knowing that what may seem like a void really isn’t. Because Christ is risen! Christ is risen and He is radically free and present with us. His abundant, irrepressible Life now fills the chasm that death had hollowed out; and His enduring Presence continues to subvert the machinations of the powers of this world.

Easter changes everything; yet it changes nothing. It doesn’t magically or instantly alter our circumstance. COVID-19 won’t just up and go away later this afternoon because Christ our Lord is risen this morning. But Easter does alter our place in our circumstance because Easter transforms our relationship to God, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. We aren’t just followers of Christ anymore. We aren’t just disciples of Christ anymore. We are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are brothers and sisters with Christ. “Go and tell my brothers…”, the risen Christ said to Mary. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father…”. Jesus, true to His prayer for us in John 17, has made us one – one family with Him and God the Father: heirs to one and the same Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. We are brothers and sisters with Christ. Think about that. Really think about that!

That means COVID-19 will not and cannot have the final word. Economic contraction will not and cannot have the final word. Neither will supply shortages or price increases. None of it can or will have the final word because, while those things may define our circumstance, they do not and cannot define our identity or our reality: who we are and whose we are. That prerogative, that power, belongs to Jesus because today He is risen – and He is very much still moving in our midst.

So while a lot of things may be missing from today, let’s try our best not to let those disappointments become the defining feature of this Easter. Or any Easter. Because Easter is about a new reality, a new relationship between heaven and earth, a new relationship between us and God. And that means that in the midst of these absences, there is something – or, more specifically, Someone – newly present and radically free for us to celebrate. We are His, and He is ours forever more. Jesus saved His most amazing and powerful feat for last.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Alleluia! Alleluia!  Amen.

Join [Church] Meeting

After church on Sunday, the post-worship conversation turned to how we’re all holding up and adapting through the first fortnight of these pandemic days. It was good to check in and be checked in on. One member lamented the disappointment and stress of having to cancel her son’s wedding. I shared the psychological weight I feel with the closing of the U.S / Canadian border, knowing that I could not physically get to my mother or my in-laws should the need arise. We also voiced “silver linings.”  One couple returned from Mexico to two-weeks of mandatory quarantine to find their fridge already stocked by family and friends. Another member commented on the change in the political tone: the usual partisan rancour giving way to a more civil discourse stemming from a growing realisation that, no matter our positions or convictions, we really are all in this together.

It was good conversation, the type of conversation that helps make church church.

We then waved goodbye until next Sunday. But instead of rounding up my kids, collecting my coat, and tracking down my travel mug, I simply clicked “End Meeting” and made my way back upstairs to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup.

Like other pastors across North America and around the world, my staff and I have devoted much of our time and energy in recent days to figuring out how to move Sunday morning from the sanctuary into cyberspace. That will be our exclusive gathering place and worship space for the coming weeks (perhaps months). It’s not a new frontier, exactly, in 2020; but it is uncharted territory nonetheless. For churches like ours who have not webcast their services prior to now, culturally we’re having to make a quantum leap from the late 1980s into the 21st century.

One of the shiniest “silver linings” I see in this forced adaptation is that, as a pastor and a leader, I’ve been thinking more intentionally about connection than about programming or sermon craft. A chunk of that deliberation has come in the form of figuring out online platforms and camera positions and lighting angles; but all of it has been in service of the question: how do we continue to be in fellowship as the body of Christ across the divides of social-distancing and self-isolation? In short, how do we stay connected? This is the fundamental question of this moment in time for the Church.

In truth, questions of connection are foundational for the Church at all times. Connection is what the church’s best, truest self has at its core: a bond, a mission, an identity born from and built upon love of God and love of neighbour. We are a body, after all, Paul declares – Christ’s body, in fact: the gospel incarnate in our particular time and place. We are many members who belong to Christ and thus belong to one another in the name of Christ. If this pandemic helps us to  recover that, it will prove a washed-up treasure that will enrich us and sustain us after the storm passes.

There’s a real irony in all of this, of course. Loneliness has been growing within Western societies to such an extent that the United States and Britain now recognise it as a public health concern. The same economic, political, and technological evolutions that have enabled me to read newspaper articles from New Zealand on my laptop from the comfort of my couch have separated me from the folks who likewise sit on their couches glued to their screens across the street. That social distancing did not begin with the Coronavirus.  Perhaps, however, this pandemic will prove disruptive enough to start bringing us back together. Perhaps it’ll jog our memories: togetherness doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it.

The post worship conversation, the chat box banter during the service – the connection – turned out to be the real gift of our first real online worship experience: to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, human face to human face, human voice to human voice, even if we needed a screen and a mic to facilitate. The content delivered by the lighting angles and the camera positions through the online platform wasn’t bad, either, and will continue to matter as it does on any given Sunday. But in the coming weeks (perhaps months) the connection we help to cultivate with each other, and to God through each other, will be what really helps us to ride out this storm.

So, fellow pastors, as another week begins and we debrief and continue to experiment with camera positions and lighting angles for Sunday worship, let’s devote at least as much time figuring out how to take coffee hours, game nights, and life groups into cyberspace – all the things beyond liturgy and sermons and music that make church church. They’re foundational, and we’re going to need them.

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