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Celebrating Easter in the Shadow of Death

A lantern next to a tombstone

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 20:1-18 and Romans 6:3-5. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Quakers have historically been skeptical of the liturgical calendar. The early Quaker movement made a point of throwing off as many of the dead forms of the liturgical state church as they could.

This made sense at the time. The establishment church used the outward form of godliness to justify violence and economic injustice. It propped up an oppressive monarchy. It stole from the poor via tithes. It oversaw the progressive concentration of land and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

So Quakers ditched the trappings of the Church of England. That included the bread and wine that the priests used to spiritually dominate and materially exploit the people. It included a water baptism that was used as a gate-keeping device – rituals used to threaten dissenters with damnation if they did not obey their earthly masters.

In the context of 1650s England, I think the early Quakers mostly got it right. The mainstream church had abandoned the clear teachings of Jesus. Even worse, they stood at the door, preventing others from entering into the kingdom. They denied the presence and power of the resurrection, pointing people to the dead letter and a landed institution rather than to the living presence and lordship of Jesus.

A lot has changed in the last 370 years. We no longer live under a monarchy. Our nation has no state church, and the power of formal religious hierarchies is at the lowest ebb in all of Western history. There is no tithe that we must pay or face a visit from the police. Every individual is radically free to worship – or not – however they choose.

As individual autonomy has expanded and the power of the institutional church has waned, Quakers have changed dramatically, including in our relationship to the liturgical calendar.

For most of our history, Quakers did not celebrate any holidays at all, including Christmas. Now, practically everyone does. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been developing for generations. For the last one hundred and fifty years or so, those of us in the orthodox Quaker tradition have become increasingly comfortable with many parts of the liturgical church heritage.

Today, Berkeley Friends Church celebrates Easter. We join with the rest of the global Christian family in remembering and celebrating the action that God has taken in Jesus. We testify together, in the words of the apostle Peter, that: “[Jesus was] crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

Jesus is risen from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He reigns forever and ever. He is here with us now, in his resurrection power.

This is the good news of the gospel. It is the good news of the Quaker tradition. This is the reality that men and women have struggled and died to proclaim over the last two thousand years. It is a gospel worth dying for, and a truth worth living into.

This Jesus whom we crucified, God has raised up. And all of us are witnesses. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is literally, immediately, tangibly present with us. He calls us by name.

This is why we celebrate Easter.

But I have to admit, I’m resonating this morning with the traditional Quaker skepticism of set days and times and seasons. Because despite the fact that the day called Easter falls on this date in the year 2020, I’m having a tough time feeling it.

The last forty days (not counting Sundays) has been the season of Lent. Lent is a time of reflection, repentance, fasting, and preparation as we look towards Easter. It’s a time to renounce all the distractions and fixations that have accumulated in our lives, and to return to a simple, sober awareness of God and his love – and the enormous need that the world has for that love.

This has been the darkest season of Lent I’ve ever experienced. A global pandemic is tearing through our human community. A series of primary elections and political battles have left me feeling drained, demoralized, and hopeless. The shattering of our country – politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually – feels almost total.

So this Friday, on the day we remember the death and burial of Jesus, it made sense. Remembering Jesus’ suffering on the cross felt alive and relevant to me. It feels like the whole world is in the shadow of the cross right now.

Easter is harder for me.

Today we celebrate the most essential witness of the Christian faith, the truth that brings us all together and defines our community: Jesus is alive. God has raised him from the dead. In an act of definitive liberation and healing, God has vindicated Jesus and given him a new life, a new body, a new way of being present in the world.

The resurrection is the gospel. It is God’s victory announcement over the powers of this world – over the sin and death that until now seemed inescapable, unconquerable. In Jesus, God has the victory, forever and ever.

But getting to the resurrection is a process. Because death is still a reality. We still live in a fallen world. If we had any doubt about that, Coronavirus, rising authoritarianism, abuses of men, women, and children at our nation’s border, and so many other desolations confirm it: We are not out of the woods yet.

And so simply jumping to Easter – simply saying, “Yay! Jesus is alive! Everything is OK! Hallelujah!” – there’s a falseness in that. A premature jump to Easter can be a form of denial, a form of emotional suppression, pushing down all the blackness and horror, rather than giving ourselves the space to grieve and process. This isn’t just psychologically unhealthy – it’s also not consistent with what we read in the scriptures.

I like the gospel of John, and I think that John’s account is at its best in its telling of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And one of the strengths of John’s account is that he does not rush through the resurrection. He tells the story of disciples working through their devastation, their disappointment, their grief. He tells the very human story of how Jesus’ friends have to engage with Good Friday and Holy Saturday before they can get to Easter Sunday.

For John, the Easter story begins “while it was still dark.” It begins with the distraught disciple, Mary Magdalene, discovering that the tomb is empty. It begins with two of the men disciples rushing to the grave and finding only burial cloths. It begins with the confusion and tears of Mary, as she waits beside the tomb, even after the other disciples have given up in confusion and gone back home.

This Easter, I’m having an easier time relating to the early morning disciples. The disciples who still didn’t know about the resurrection. The disciples who had lost everything, and couldn’t stop weeping.

I’m feeling close to Mary, who had lost her best friend. All she had left was Jesus’ body, and now even that had been taken from her. There was nothing left but weeping and pleading.

Mary is really the heart of this story. She’s the original apostle, the one who brought the good news to the Twelve. The other disciples ran off, but she stayed. She was present with her anguish. She didn’t try to escape.

And what’s especially interesting to me this morning is that Mary doesn’t immediately recognize the resurrection when she sees it. John says that she bent over into the tomb – she puts herself halfway into the grave – and she sees the angels sitting inside. But she’s so distraught, tears blurring her vision, that she doesn’t realize that the beings inside the tomb are angels.

Then she turns around and Jesus is standing there. But she’s so upset, and Jesus must look different than she expected, so she doesn’t realize who she’s seeing. She thinks he’s the gardener! And she begs him to give her Jesus’ body so that she can take it away.

“Woman, why are you weeping?”

Why are you weeping?

Why am I weeping? What is the body that I am clinging to? What is the corpse that I desperately want possession of? What is the attachment so great that it gets in the way of seeing Jesus in his resurrection?

When Jesus says Mary’s name, she knows instantly who is standing in front of her: Teacher!

And again, Mary wants to take hold of Jesus. But Jesus won’t let her touch him. “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

It seems cruel, doesn’t it? Just moments ago, Mary would have been content just to have Jesus’ dead body, and now the living Jesus won’t even hug her.

“Don’t hold on to me. Go back and preach the message. Because everything has changed. I am ascending to the Father.”

This is not the resurrection of Hallmark cards and opiate religion. This is not a feel-good moment. Even in the joy and glory of the resurrection, there is pain. There is loss. Things have changed. Jesus is alive, but he’s alive in a new way.

I want to be like Mary. I want to be a disciple who stays behind and remains present with the suffering. I want to be someone who doesn’t flee from the pain. I want to be a disciple who waits at the foot of the cross and holds vigil at the tomb. Because that’s what love looks like. And that’s where transformation happens.

But I’m also seeing that even a faithful friend like Mary can be confused. And it makes me wonder what I’m confused about right now. What am I not seeing? Who are the angels that I don’t recognize? Where is Christ in this horrible situation? Will I recognize him when he says my name?

It’s important for me to remember that Easter began while it was still dark. I don’t have to feel good. I don’t have to have worked through my grief. I don’t need to believe that things are going to be OK to wait beside the tomb. To wait on Jesus, even in the darkness. I’m discovering that mourning is a necessary part of Easter.

Because Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me. I haven’t ascended yet.” Jesus tells us that things have fundamentally changed. We can’t go back to the way things were before. And that’s hard. Because part of me wants to go back. To the familiar. To the comfortable. Even if it wasn’t that great.

The new is scary, and that means the resurrection is scary, too.

Paul confirms this in his letter to the Romans. All of us who have immersed into Christ Jesus have been immersed into his death. We have been buried with him by immersion into death, so that just as Jesus is raised by God from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life.

Like Mary, we have to bend down into the tomb if we want to see the angels. We have to wait and weep beside the grave if we want to see Jesus. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

In the words of William Penn: “No cross, no crown.” And as Francis’ favorite book – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – says: “Uh-oh! A cave! A narrow gloomy cave. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it!” We’ve got to go through the darkness before we can see the light. We have to experience the desolation and grief before we can be healed. There’s no shortcut.

So let’s be like Mary. Let’s be fully present with the heartache of our broken world. Because there are angels watching over us in this predawn darkness.

And the dawn is coming. God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father forever and ever. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is doing a new thing. He has become a new thing. And he will make us a new thing. A new creation. A new Jerusalem. An earth restored.

That is the promise. And the angels are already here. We may not recognize them yet, but the first fruits of the kingdom are already present in this dark time. The Comforter has come – the Holy Ghost from heaven, the Father’s promise given. So spread the tidings round, wherever we are found – the Comforter has come!

Jesus Christ is risen indeed!