Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What Easter Means to Us

The tomb is empty, and Jesus Christ is risen. Today, we celebrate how 2,000 years ago, after tremendous suffering and a horrible death, a man rose from the dead and made it possible for all of us to go with Him. You all know the story. We’ve probably all heard it so many times that it may not have the effect it ought to on us anymore. Most of us have been hearing the story of Jesus’ Resurrection since before we were old enough to remember. Some of us may have heard it only a few times, but the fact is that it is the center of our faith and so, in a way, we think of it all throughout the year. Dare I say, we take it for granted all throughout the year.

But this is the story – the historical, real as World War II or the American Revolution or Columbus’ landing in America story – of a man dying one of the most thorough deaths a person can, being taken down from a cross, lifted all about, wrapped up, carried to a tomb, being put inside, and then three days later rising to be no less alive than any one of us is here today. This is something we should be amazed by, not something we should hear passively as though it were an old war story we’re hearing grandpa tell for the hundredth time or that little book we’ve been made to read to our children at bedtime for so many times we’ve lost count.

Unfortunately, that’s how we react. We don’t mean to. I think I could fairly vouch for everyone here that we all wish we didn’t react this way. We wish the story could astound us, confuse us, and shock us like it did those first disciples long ago. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on Easter morning, she was shocked to find Jesus’ body gone. What does she say? Does she assume Christ had risen from the dead? No, even after His having spoken of it so many times, the disciples still didn’t get it. Mary’s first thought was that the body had been taken. Moved. Perhaps stolen. Thomas, upon seeing Christ standing in front of him, still couldn’t believe it. This event was so shocking that many of the Jews of the time simply refused to believe it – they couldn’t bring themselves to – and never joined the Christian Church. Saul of Tarsus refused to believe until he was spoken to by Christ in a mystical vision.

If we want to be like these first Christians, we need to follow Christ’s words and be like children. “Unless… you become like children,” He said, “you shall never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” To children, the story of Christ is not new. To children, the story of Christ is as vibrant and real in their minds as the visit to the grocery store to buy things for Easter dinner. To children, the Resurrection of Christ is filled with wonder and awe.

But those of us who are grown have an advantage – and it is an advantage though it doesn’t seem to be. Our advantage is that we understand that people don’t rise from the dead. We understand, now more than ever in this culture of death, war, and violence, that death is final. We know that when our friends, children, and siblings go to Iraq, they might die – and we know what that means. We have been through the suffering of losing a parent or a loved one, and we know the finality of that. We see in the paper each and every day the death that fills the world – and we know that it is something that one does not return from.

But Christ did. He rose from the dead. The finality of death meant nothing to Him. This is what we celebrate today – a man rising from the dead. This is what our faith is about. This event, an event so real it could have been on the front page of the Jerusalem Times if such a thing existed in His day. Christ was like every other poor soul who got themselves in perhaps over their head and ended up dead for it – except He rose. So how can we become like children? How can we become like those first disciples? Well, for one thing we can think of the pains in our own lives. We can imagine the time when a loved on passed on – go ahead, do it - or when a friend was killed. Remember the finality of it - and then imagine they rose from the grave. Imagine they came back. This was the experience that the disciples had. Their friend – their teacher – risen again, come back from the tomb, from the end.

And so I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about what Easter means to us now, here, today. What else can we learn from the first disciples about us today? What does the Resurrection of Christ mean for us? It means death has no hold over us. It means we can escape our sins and go to Heaven – we know that. It’s another thing we take terribly for granted. But that’s the end of the journey. What about right now, in the midst of the journey itself? What does it mean for us as we prepare for that end, realizing that it could come at any moment?

Like Peter, it means that we can return God, or even to a friend or to family, no matter how much we’ve hurt them or how harshly we abandoned them. Like it did Peter, Easter gives us the chance to forget the past altogether and to simply turn to God and say, “I’m sorry.” It gives us the chance to tell Him we love Him, and for us to realize that He accepts us back, even if we have abandoned and denied Him at the most crucial hour. And, what’s more, Peter didn’t just do this - no he rushed. When he was told that Christ had risen, he immediately got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself. When Christ appeared to the disciples as they fished in his boat, Peter didn’t take the few minutes it would have to row the boat ashore. He lept from it, into the water, and swam to meet Jesus as fast as he could. He wanted so desperately to return to God, and on Easter he could. We can too, and we shouldn’t take our time any more than Peter did, but jump out of the boat, get ourselves wet, abandon a catch we had been struggling to make all day, and do anything else we need to simply to get to Jesus as fast as we can.

Like Thomas, it means we have the chance to literally touch God and to see His reality, and that He is ours. In this special time of Grace, He is there in a special way for us that we may see Him as we consider His wounds, and we may realize just what it is He means to us. Easter Sunday wasn’t the first time Thomas doubted; it seemed to be a bit of a personality trait of his. With Thomas, we can see all that Jesus has gone through and that now despite our abandoning Him, He wants us to come with Him still, and we can fall on our knees and say, “My Lord and My God.”

With John, we can see the Glory of God in some terrible suffering we have had to see a friend or loved one go through. As John stood helpless at the foot of the cross and watched Christ suffer agony upon agony, we too may be helpless to stop the suffering of someone we care about. As John finally saw the glory of God in that suffering, as he finally saw all that that suffering was for and all that that suffering really meant, we too can, on this Easter, see in Christ’s Resurrection the glory of God in the suffering of someone – or perhaps ourselves – and the ultimate joy that is born of that suffering.

With Mary, we can learn to trust God regardless of what He does, or asks of us, to know that His ways and the difficult times He allows us to go through are for our own good if we will embrace Him. Jesus’ poor mother had to stand by and watch as her son was abused, mocked, tortured, and killed – all for having done nothing wrong. No human being could possibly go through more suffering than this poor Woman. Yet she trusted God, knowing He would deliver her son – and herself – from it all, and on Easter morning, He finally did. With Mary, we can learn to trust God and go through with things His way, rather than our own, surrendering our own understandings and even our own desires and opinions to for the sake of what He asks. We can recognize that even if we think there is a better way, even if perhaps we see what God asks as being a bit unfair or a bit harsh, in the end His way is the way of true compassion. His way is the way of love. His way is the way that leads to the Resurrection, and to the unsurpassed joy of Easter morning. With Mary, we can put aside our own confusions, opinions, and understandings, trust in and follow after God, and wait for that Easter morning in our lives when it all suddenly makes sense.

And finally like Christ Himself, we can recognize that the mockery and hatred, the stripes on our backs, and the spittle in our faces that are given us unjustly by those who do not understand needn’t bother us. Christ did not deserve death. He did not deserve to be beaten. He did not deserve to be spit upon or to be mocked or to be reviled. In fact, He deserved the highest glory and honor a person could receive. But He accepted all these things willingly, lovingly. He didn’t hate those who did Him injustice, but loved and prayed for them. He didn’t let them bother Him, and He didn’t compromise for them. He did what God asked of Him, trusting in Him completely, and caring only what God asked of Him. He turned to God in His difficult times and in His easy times, and He didn’t make exceptions. As the ungodly did Him harm, He never forgot the Godly friends He did have, even when they abandoned Him. He realized that John and His Mother were there with Him even in His own suffering, and in the midst of all the mockery, hatred, and violence, He turned to them to love them. He turned to John as a friend, and to Mary as His Mother.

And in the end, none of that mockery mattered. None of the pain Christ endured mattered. Mary’s confusion was erased, and Easter morning answered any of the questions she may have had about why things were as they were. The suffering John went through didn’t matter either in the end, except perhaps to make the ultimate outcome more joyful. Thomas’ doubts were answered, and he found a faith like he had never had before. And Peter – poor Peter. His sins were forgiven, as terrible as they were, and Christ accepted Him back lovingly. On this day, on Easter Sunday, none of these sins, doubts, fears, confusions or sufferings mattered. All that mattered was Christ, a man, risen from the dead, making it possible for us to rise with Him. Let us see that Christ is risen for us today, and that all of this is a reality for us even now – if we only ask for it. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Truly, He is Risen.