A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All rights reserved
Easter Sunday/A • April 12, 2020
Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 28:1-10
What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at what worked before, ask someone what worked for them. This is why this is such a difficult time: we don’t have a recipe for a pandemic. We’re trying to do the same thing but under different conditions. I understand the pastors of churches in other areas who insist on having in person services today. They’re wrong, they’re listening to the past instead of what Jesus is saying today, but I understand it. Every pastor looks forward to Easter, prepares for Easter; we all do. What do you do when something prevents you doing what you have always done? You try to do it anyway. You go back to your recipes.
No Handbook for Easter
But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “Thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. It’s a horrible, tortuous death. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.
Can you see them on the way to the tomb? They’ve come to properly bury Jesus. They wonder about the difficulty; they’ve brought the things they’ll need. Ancient Palestinian tombs were cave like places where families gathered for picnics, where they went to remember and they are going to get everything ready. They are following a map from the past, as we do. We look at its ways, we check off its steps. They are not prepared for Jesus’ death; nothing prepares us for death. But they are prepared for him to be dead. They know what to do: they do what they did last time. Matthew tells the story with care. Everything is just as expected. It’s early, just after dawn; the soldiers are guarding the tomb, the world is quiet, Jesus is dead and buried. They are doing what they did last time.
On the Way
Then everything changes. Matthew says there is an earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to right now. Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus, and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet a strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: don’t be afraid, go tell what you’ve seen, meet me in Galilee, back home. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.
New things scare us. Think of the first day in a new school, first day on new job—all the firsts of life. These women were prepared to bury Jesus, they’re not prepared to have a conversation with him. Yes, they are scared and notice how the first thing he does is care for them. There is a great lesson for us in these words. Because we are scared. We’ve encountered something new and we don’t know how to control it. When we lose control, it’s frightening so first like those women we need to hear from Jesus these words this Easter: “Don’t be afraid!” There’s a summons to faith. They ask: can you believe even in this time of quarantines and lockdowns and people sickening and dying that our lives are in the hands of God? Can we believe that God’s care really is beyond life and death and anything else in all creation? If we do and we believe God is in charge, then we really can leave our fear behind even in the face of this new challenge.
Making Sense of Go in Lockdown
When their fear is calmed, Jesus tells the women to, “Go tell my disciples to go to Galilee…” What is Christian life? Is it sitting in a pew? All the gospels speak of a Jesus who is constantly on the move, from Galilee to Samaria, from Samaria to Jerusalem, from one healing to another, from one moment to another. So following him means moving with him. Now the question is: how do we make sense of “Go” when we’re in lockdown?
The answer is to stop letting it be someone else’s job and make it yours. We all have many ways to go to others: we have telephones, we have email, we have a call across the street to a neighbor. One of problems of these days without the usual structure of work is how to make an agenda. Our family is doing that with a set of questions for each day. One of them is, “Who am I checking in with today?” Who are you calling today who needs to know through you that they are a beloved child of God? That’s how you go, that’s how you tell someone Jesus is alive.
The last thing he says to the women is that he’ll meet them in Galilee, back home. This may be the strangest thing of all. Jesus isn’t done with them. They came to a tomb. They came to bury him. They are already grieving for him because they thought he was in the past. But he isn’t; he’s out there, already on the way and hoping they will follow him. And he’s hoping the same thing about us.
This living Jesus in the world always surprises us. Think of Peter, perhaps a few years later, speaking to the same sort of Roman official who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, saying this amazing thing: that God doesn’t show any partiality. God doesn’t love Americans better than anyone else, God doesn’t love the rich better than anyone else, God doesn’t love you any better than anyone else.
This is a new time. I don’t mean the pandemic, I don’t mean a virus, I mean Easter. This may be the truest Easter of all. We’re used to cooking up Easter from a set of recipes. What does Easter mean? Does it mean Easter baskets full of candy, colored eggs, special music in church and a great service of celebration? Does it mean lilies and a full church and an egg hunt? We can all cook from this recipe and we don’t like changing it. That’s why I understand, as I said at the outset, those who want to follow the recipe as much as they can.
But Easter doesn’t mean going to brunch and decorating eggs: it means going to the tomb. It means being so scared because things have changed that even the Lord has to tell you, only the Lord can tell you, “Do not be afraid”. It means recognizing that this is a new time and there is no going back, that the old recipes won’t work anymore and we have to find new ways. Those recipes are for how to get along in the world as it was. But the world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory.
And this is what he says to us: don’t be afraid, get moving. If he could escape the tomb so can you; if he can live again, so can you, you don’t have to fear death. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go find him.
Jesus is not done with us; Jesus is not done with you. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. He’s not in the past; he’s not only in the future. Resurrection is not about the past or the future it is about the present. Resurrection is now. We should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow today, where he is going today. In a way, the pandemic has done us an accidental favor. It’s stripped away all the Easter decorations so we can see the real Easter. The real Easter is embracing the new reality that Jesus is risen and setting out to find him.
We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us more important than our own customs. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind.
Then, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him. All the decorations, all the baskets and other customs won’t matter. For we will be busy following him, and just like the women at the tomb on that first Easter, worshipping him.