“Do We Need Easter?”
Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden
>>Open our eyes that we might see the wondrous things of Easter all around us, Amen.<<
The title of today’s sermon Do we need Easter? is inspired by a story in Peter Rollins’ book The Orthodox Heretic about a group of disciples who knew of the cross, but hadn’t heard about the empty tomb. They knew nothing of Easter. Here’s how Rollins tells it: “A group of unknown disciples packed their few belongings and left for a distant shore, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been crucified. … [T]hey traveled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home … , [and] finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them. The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years, spending their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. … But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection … , for they left Jerusalem before [Christ’s] return from the dead on the third day. Without hesitation, the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the … crucifixion of their Lord. That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping. ‘Why are you in such sorrow?’ asked the missionary in amazement. ‘Today is a time for great celebration.’ ‘It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,’ replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. ‘Since the founding of this community,’” he continued “‘we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We have pursued his ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated him … .’ The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes. ‘Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because [they will only see] his sacrifice [as a way to] ensure their personal salvation [and not as a way of life].’”
…When I first read that story by Peter Rollins, it raised the question for me that is the title of today’s sermon: Do we need Easter? If a community, like the one Rollins imagines, can live Easter “in the texture of their lives” without hearing of an empty tomb – if they can love and share and sacrifice for each other, if their lives look different because of Jesus’ life and death, do they need to know about his resurrection? Perhaps this isn’t the question you expected to hear in church today – this Easter Sunday. Easter is the loftiest and holiest of days on the liturgical calendar, a day of light and color, marking – even in wintry Ithaca – the dawning of spring, the arrival of sun and warmth. Easter closes our 40 day journey through the season of Lent – the season of shadows, of introspection and self-examination, beginning on Ash Wednesday and climaxing with Good Friday’s cross and burial, and Saturday’s waiting…..waiting for Sunday’s announcement that the tomb is empty. Given its placement at the end of the season of Lent – a season of shadows – and at the end of Holy Week – a week of crosses and tears – Easter’s light is always a bit jarring, a bit out of place, almost…..inappropriate. And perhaps this year, more so than others, since Easter falls on April Fool’s Day – a coincidence that several people on Twitter couldn’t resist noting. One person pointed out that Passover, Holy Week, and April Fool’s Day were all being celebrated together this year, Tweeting with puns, “[I’m] so excited for these Easter/April Fool’s jokes to cross and then passover.”
Yes, Easter seems a bit out of place, a bit jarring, a bit inappropriate relative to the gravity of the cross and shadows that precede it. And its otherness is reflected in today’s scripture readings. Today’s Hebrew Bible reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. It’s an Old Testament text, written long before the empty tomb, but we listen to it on Easter because of the hope it proclaims – the dream it proclaims, God’s dream, as in the story I read to the children a moment ago. God’s dream, according to the prophet, that all people will feast together in peace, sharing a common table. A dream that the heavy veil of conflict and fighting, the tears and the death in human experience, will be yanked away and replaced with rejoicing and gladness. Speaking through the prophet – singing through the prophet (Isaiah may have sung many of his prophecies) – the divine voice sings about, to borrow words from Desmond Tutu, people sharing and caring, reaching out to hold one another’s hands, laughing together, viewing each other as a single family, and making God smile like a rainbow. It’s a jarring prophecy plopped into the middle of a crisis. The ancient Israelites are war-weary at this point in their history, their land carved up by surrounding empires. There are “crosses,” so to speak, all around them. And into this shadowy tunnel, Isaiah’s song shines an otherworldly, divine light – a guide, a hope for the people in crisis to cling to, a pathway, an Easter-like beacon for them to follow.
Today’s gospel reading from Mark shines this hope-filled light into the tomb itself. Just eight verses long, Mark’s Easter story is the shortest of the New Testament gospels – a compact ending that tells of three women carrying spices to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, and arriving to discover the stone rolled away and an angel inside, who tells them to share the good news that Jesus had been raised. Mark’s story then comes to an abrupt end with the cliffhanger comment, “[the women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” leaving the reader of Mark’s ending to wonder, if the women didn’t say anything about the empty tomb, how did anyone find out about it? This question has perplexed scribes and scholars throughout Christian history. Copyists of Mark’s gospel over the centuries attempted to bring the story in for a smoother landing by adding several different endings (you can read a few of those endings in the pew Bible). The other New Testament gospel writers – Matthew, Luke, and John – added to Mark’s terse Easter story some stories of their own of a resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples, stories elongated over several chapters about the raised Christ teaching and eating with the disciples before ascending into heaven. But Mark ends bluntly; eight verses about frightened women rendered mute by what they saw – eight, short verses that seem out-of-step with the rest of the gospel, which dedicates two full chapters to the story of Christ’s cross, a total of 119 verses; and dedicates 13 more chapters to setting the stage for the cross. Fifteen chapters in Mark about Christ’s life and death; just eight verses about the empty tomb, which makes me wonder: did Mark even need Easter?
Perhaps Mark wasn’t sure what to do with Easter. Perhaps he, like the concerned elder in that story told by Peter Rollins, worried that an empty tomb might invalidate Christ’s sacrificial life and death, and so Mark kept the Easter story short leaving it to others to make meaning out of the resurrection. Others like the Apostle Peter in today’s reading from Acts, who interprets Easter as a sign that all people are welcomed and embraced by God – words updated by Martin Luther King Jr., who once wrote that “every [person has] … dignity and worth,” because “every [person]” is loved by God. Perhaps Mark left it to others like the Apostle Paul to make meaning out of Easter – Paul, who wrote that Easter is God’s promise that the whole of creation will eventually be raised like Christ and freed from decay. Perhaps Mark left it to St. John to interpret Easter – John who, in his New Testament letters, boiled Easter down to one word “love”: Christ loved our world, entered our world, died for our world, and was raised to embrace the world, and so we should, writes John, “love one another.” Perhaps Mark was content to leave interpretations of Easter to philosophers like Slavoj Žižek, who sees the spirit of resurrection in the fellowship of human communities.
Or, maybe the whole point of Mark’s short Easter story is not to add meanings, at all, but to leave us hanging, so we – the readers – will take the next step; we will write endings to the story by living, as Peter Rollins writes of that community he describes, “the reality of the Resurrection” in the “very texture of our lives”; living into those great promises from Isaiah about people sharing and caring, reaching out to hold one another’s hands, laughing together, viewing each other as a single family, and making God smile like a rainbow.
“The Resurrection,” writes Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “has made Christians act over twenty centuries in the most heroic, joyful, [and even] beautiful … ways.” And so, I don’t think our charge this Easter Sunday, as progressive Christians, is figure out the empty tomb. It’s to live empty tomb lives – to cull the most useful interpretations of Easter from our great tradition so we can live as resurrected people – people who, as poet Christian Wiman writes, “troubl[e] the tyranny of the ordinary,” by reaching for the extraordinary. Living into the Apostle Peter’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s interpretations of Easter: that all people are welcomed and embraced by God, regardless of race or creed, gender identity or sexual orientation. Living into the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of Easter that Christ enters our world enfleshed, and leaves the tomb embodied, and thus sanctifies the entire creation, energizing us to stem the tide of climate change, because the earth matters to God. Living into St. John’s interpretation of Easter that Christ became like us, died for us, and was raised for us, out of divine love for us to inspire us to love one another. Living into Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of Easter that Christ’s resurrected spirit forms communities that live in resurrected ways – ways that bring healing to the broken in our world.
There are good, theological reasons to be both “progressive” and “Christian” – to see the world through Easter eyes. To see the power of Easter, sometimes in unexpected places: like in the mobilization of a nation by a group of teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who have turned tragedy and death into action and new life. To see the power of Easter in Sacramento, where the death of Stephon Clark is forcing us as a nation to turn the cross of racism into the empty tomb of justice. To see the power of Easter in the honor paid in France to Colonel Arnaud Beltrame , who laid aside his weapon and took the place of a woman held hostage by a man wielding a handgun and a knife. Beltrame sacrificed his life in this exchange – an act that, according to one report, “prompted an outpouring of support and a sense of community from people of different faiths and backgrounds. A Mass held [in his honor] … drew not only Christians but also Jews and Muslims … . ‘The light that Colonel Beltrame lit will not die with him,’” said French President Emmanuel Macron.
And we see the power of Easter in the experience of Margaret Renkl, who wrote an op-ed in last week’s New York Times about how the story of the empty tomb keeps drawing her back to church. “During college and graduate school,” Renkl writes, “I tried to talk myself out of believing in God. The reasons not to believe were multifarious and convincing. The reasons to believe came down to only one: I couldn’t not believe. I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. … [I’ve spent a year away from church, and] the year away … hasn’t made me miss the place itself. I don’t miss the stained glass. I don’t miss the gleaming chalice or the glowing candles or the sweeping vestments. But I do miss being part of a congregation. I miss standing side by side with other people, our eyes gazing in the same direction, our voices murmuring the same prayers in a fallen world. I miss the wiggling babies grinning at me over their parents’ shoulders. I miss reaching for a stranger to offer the handshake of peace. I miss the singing. So I will be at [church] again [this] Easter,” she writes, “I will wear white and remember the ones I loved who sat beside me in the pew and whose participation in the eternal has found another form, whatever it turns out to be. I will lift my voice in song and give thanks for my life. I will pray for my church and my country, especially the people my church and my country are failing. And then I will walk into the world and do my best to practice resurrection.”
…So, do we need Easter? Well, what do you think? Amen.
1 Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2015 ), 67-70.
3 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin, 2009), 94.
4 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 78.