The Easter Experience
Some folks say that we shouldn’t even be celebrating Easter this year. That we can’t celebrate Easter, not really, not when we can’t gather together in person, not with all the restrictions created by this pandemic. This is no time for celebration, or so they say. And they’re right that Easter is different this year. Empty church buildings, no choirs, no travel, no family gatherings. But it goes deeper than that. Right now there is fear and uncertainty across the world. We are more aware of our mortality than ever before. Death has gotten closer, even if it hasn’t touched us personally yet. Many are grieving. Many more deal with loneliness, hardship and the loss of daily routines as the need to stay at home lengthens from days to weeks to months. How can we celebrate Easter in times like these?
And yet, more than ever in my lifetime, this Easter actually brings us closer to the lived experience of that first Easter morning. The experience of people like Peter, Mary and the others. Those who found themselves behind locked doors, forced to stay home not because of a virus but because there were soldiers searching for them, ready to arrest them. The disciples mourned the loss of their friend and teacher, but how do you grieve when no funeral is allowed? They were scattered, isolated and afraid. It was a time of festival, the festival of Passover – but how could they celebrate the Passover in times such as these?
Then, to their astonishment, they experienced Easter. And everything changed.
It just might be that we too need to experience Easter, now more than ever. But what exactly is the Easter experience? What is it that we’re celebrating here this morning?
You could say that we’re celebrating the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead, and I don’t suppose that I could disagree with you. But I do find it interesting that the Easter gospel from John that we just heard is not a story about Jesus. Oh sure, he’s there. But today’s gospel is really a story about people like us, people like Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and the one called the beloved disciple. Whatever it is that happened to Jesus, whatever this thing is that we call resurrection, it’s already taken place before today’s story even begins. We don’t get to see it.
What we do get to see, what we do get to hear about in the gospel narratives, is the amazing transformation that takes place in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves when they encounter the risen Jesus in their midst. Somehow a small group of men and women who are sad and frightened following the death of their friend, somehow they’re transformed into a courageous, joyful community of believers and apostles who spread their proclamation throughout the world, and ultimately to the billions of people who celebrate Easter with us on this day.
What is the Easter experience that gives rise to this amazing transformation? Our gospel today tells us the story of one woman, Mary Magdalene. As we pick up the story early in the morning we know that the resurrection of Jesus has already taken place. Mary, however, doesn’t know it yet. She is, as the first words of the story remind us, still in the dark.
Now Mary was one of Jesus’ closest friends. She had been terribly ill when she first met Jesus, but he had healed her, and she in turn had joined his group of followers and had provided for them financially as they traveled from village to village. She had followed him all the way to Jerusalem, she had been present at his execution on the cross and she had watched and wept as his body had been placed in the tomb late on Good Friday. It must have been a crushing blow to one who loved Jesus so much.
And now early on the Sunday morning, at the first possible opportunity, she comes to the tomb. Why did she go to the tomb, risking a possible confrontation with Roman soldiers? We can only speculate. Why do we go to the tombs of our loved ones? To mourn. To pay our respects. To try to get a sense of closure. Perhaps we are trying to hold on to the memory of that which has been lost.
But Mary’s visit on that Easter morning brings her no peace. Instead she is thrown into panic when she sees that the stone has been removed from the tomb. The body is gone. She runs to get help. And she weeps.
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
There’s a lot of weeping going on in the world right now.
I’m weeping because my friend has died.
I’m weeping because I’m all alone.
I’m weeping because my son works in a hospital and he’s overwhelmed.
I’m weeping because I can’t visit my grandmother and she’s scared.
I’m weeping because I just don’t know what’s going to happen.
I’m weeping because “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
For Mary, it’s the last straw. All she had left of him was a body, and now even that’s gone. And overwhelmed by confusion, and sorrow, and despair, Mary weeps.
And again, a man who she takes to be the gardener, asks her “why are you weeping? What are you seeking?”
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
And then, that’s when Easter happens. Jesus says to her “Mary”. He calls her by name. And she turns. In that moment her whole world turns. She’s no longer alone. She’s no longer afraid. She encounters Jesus, alive and present, and her tears turn to joy. She tries to hold on to him, who can blame her, but he propels her forward into a new relationship, a new intimacy, one that doesn’t depend on physical proximity, a relationship that will always be there and death can never erase. My father is now your father, my God is now your God. Do not be afraid, my father and I will make our home with you, now until the end of time. It’s the same promise that Jesus had made at that last supper on Thursday, but then, she didn’t get it. Now, she knows it’s true.
And having called her, Jesus then commissions her. He gives her a job to do. “Go and tell the others what I have said.” And Mary lets go of Jesus, and again she runs, this time however, not out of fear, but bursting with joy, and she proclaims to the others “I have seen the Lord.”
This is the Easter experience. It turns Mary’s world upside down. She is a woman transformed. The one who was sorrowful and afraid is transformed into a joyful, purposeful apostle sent to proclaim the good news: “I have seen the Lord”. It’s a whole new way of seeing and understanding based on a personal encounter with the divine presence in our midst.
What were you seeking when you connected to our livestream this morning? Were you hoping for choirs and celebration? Were you trying to hang onto something familiar?
Or is what you’re seeking this morning an encounter with the risen Christ? Are you hoping to meet the living God, an experience that could change your life as surely as it changed the life of Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning?
I want you to have the same Easter experience today that Mary Magdalene had 2000 years ago. I want you to see the living God in our midst, to hear him call your name, to enter into an intimate relationship with him, and to hear him commission you to your unique purpose and mission in life. Because if this is your experience, your life will be transformed in ways that you can’t possibly imagine. You will be propelled into a life that is full of joy, full of purpose and meaning, a life that receives the gift of love that is offered by God and in turn offers that love to others, transforming their lives in the process.
2020 might not be the Easter that we want – but maybe it’s the Easter that we need. To be reminded that presence and connection go beyond physical proximity. To remember that we can be spiritually close even when we are physically distant. To open ourselves up to dimensions of reality that go beyond the apparent constraints of time and space. To understand that when we call the church one body, that reality remains even when we can’t gather together in a church building. To know that we can encounter the risen Christ anywhere and at any time, even or perhaps especially, when life is hard, and we are sorrowful and afraid. Be not afraid; we are an Easter people, and it is our peculiar vocation to be people who have hope and who give hope, now more than ever.
May each and every one of you be blessed with a joyful and holy Easter. May you encounter the risen Christ in your life and hear him call your name.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Homily. Easter, April 12 2020, St. Albans Church
Readings: Acts 10.34-43; Ps 118; Col 3.1-4; John 20.1-18