Contrary to the impression you’d get from every shop, Easter is not only a day for chocolate. It is not simply a way of knowing when school holidays take place. It is not even about worshipping the magic of the Easter Bunny.
Easter is the main festival in the Christian calendar and it marks the central event in the Christian story – the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth three days after his death by crucifixion.
Easter is a day of joy and celebration. Today, we celebrate rebirth – just as tender new shoots emerge from soil that had mere days ago seemed completely lifeless. It is a celebration of new life from brown December husks. Today is the day when, after the heartbreak and despair of Good Friday, hope is born again.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
The Gospel of Mark ends with these words - leaving us at the entrance to a cold empty tomb with no further explanation. The great stone that had sealed it was rolled away. A young man declares that the body of Jesus is no longer here. He tells us that Jesus has been raised. Other New Testament writers later expanded on the story of the resurrection. They and ensuing centuries of church teaching turned it into Christianity’s main reason for being – the promise of salvation for all who believe.
What does the story of Jesus’ execution and resurrection mean to us here today? Well, of course, this is a question with no single answer. Especially for Unitarians – who are free to understand this story – as we do other religious stories – in many different ways.
Among you, I know, there is a wide range of diverse beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth and the story of his death and resurrection. You may well accept a traditional Christian view that sees Jesus as divine – the son of God – whose ignominious end was a sacrifice that cleansed humankind of the stain of original sin. Or you may see Jesus as fully human – a great teacher or prophet. Perhaps as a man who – through his words and his example – taught us what it is to be profoundly attuned to the sacredness of life. You may believe the resurrection to be literally true – that Jesus died and was restored to bodily life. Or you may understand resurrection in a metaphorical way – holding that Jesus the man was gone but that something intangible lived on – perhaps this something was his teaching or his influence, or perhaps it was something more mystical.
We might be motivated to ask what the New Testament actually says about this, but even if you believe the bible literally, you may find that it is not a great help with such questions. Despite centuries of editing and the political wrangling that determined what texts would be included in the Christian canon and which ones would be branded heretical, the New Testament remains filled with contradictory stories. We can find support in its pages for many different views of the nature of Jesus and the story of his death and resurrection. As a Unitarian, I have to say that I just love this ambiguity! In our non-creedal faith, it is up to us to wrestle with these and other religious texts and traditions. It is our responsibility to find what we need at this particular moment in our lives to be nurtured, comforted, or perhaps prodded along our own unique path of spiritual growth.
And so, today we approach the Easter story with an openness of mind and heart and we ask what this story may have to say to each of us today – at this point in the ever-changing journeys of our lives.
Today, I want to draw your attention to just a few of the many threads of meaning to be found in the rich fabric of the Easter story.
Whatever we may believe about Jesus – God or man or somewhere in between… Whatever we may believe about his death and whatever we may believe about the story of the resurrection, we can not help but know that something extraordinary happened after his death.
Those who loved and followed Jesus of Nazareth were not expecting his story to end as it seemed to be ending on Good Friday. Jesus’ disciples were true believers. They had given up nearly everything they had – family, possessions, income, status – to follow the man they accepted as their Messiah – their King, their liberator. Only days earlier, Jesus had entered the holy city of Jerusalem in the manner the ancient Israelite prophets had predicted for the true Messiah. He was greeted by crowds who threw palm branches and cloaks in his path and cried out “Hosanna! Hosanna” – they looked to Jesus for deliverance from the hated oppression of the Roman Empire.
But what a terrible turn events had taken. Jesus was captured, condemned and executed in the manner of a common criminal. We can only begin to imagine the despair into which the disciples were plunged. They had lost their beloved teacher, and their liberator. Their greatest hopes and dreams lay shattered before them.
And then – in the midst of overwhelming despair – something changed. In the Gospel account of Luke, Jesus appears to two of the disciples as they are walking along a road. They don’t recognize him, but they begin to walk with this apparent stranger and tell him about their sadness. They tell him how Jesus, who they had hoped would liberate Israel, had been condemned and crucified. They tell him about the empty tomb. As it is getting late, they invite the stranger to stay with them and dine with them and finally, after he breaks the bread and blessed it, they at last recognize him as Jesus. After Jesus suddenly vanishes, leaving the disciples alone in their wonder – their mourning now lightened with a growing sense of hope – and they say to one another “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…?”
Did the disciples really see a resurrected Jesus? If so, why could they not recognize him? Was Jesus truly with them in body and in spirit or were Jesus and his teachings perhaps embodied by the burning in their hearts – a physically present feeling of his love and his teaching?
We will never know the truth of the resurrection story – certainly not here today. What we can be sure of is that, in their despair, something changed and something very powerful began to happen for the followers of Jesus. In the midst of their distress, they once again began to feel a sense of life and purpose.
Somehow, they began to lose their fear and their anguish. It was replaced with a tangible sense of love. The disciples spoke of love as a force strong enough to survive even death. In place of their total despondency, there arose a strong new feeling of hopefulness. Where they had felt certain that Jesus was lost to them forever, the followers of Jesus now experienced a certainty that he was with them and would remain with them forever.
The disciples had been transformed. From the despair of terrible loss, they had been filled with a wondrous sense of hope. Whether or not Jesus was physically restored to life, this is enough of a miracle for me.
In her essay, High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver speaks about the all too common experience of finding ourselves need to start over:
“Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it's impossible to think at first how this all will be possible. Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living… We hold fast to the old passions of endurance that buckle and creak beneath us, dovetailed, tight as a good wooden boat to carry us onward. And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore.”
It is this common everyday miracle of change and rebirth – of resurrection – that we encounter in our own lives. As Kingsolver reminds us though, resurrection is no easy feat – it is not a magic trick that transforms us without effort and struggle. It is exhausting work that doesn’t happen quickly or with a bang. Like a chick emerging from its egg, resurrection is a struggle that may require a hard beak and a lot of patience. And like the seemingly miraculous emergence from the chrysalis of a butterfly, it cannot be rushed. There are no short cuts to rebirth.
Resurrection must be preceded by darkness. There can be no Easter without Good Friday.
Just so, if we are to change and grow, each one who would be transformed must go through the despair of Good Friday and experience the dark, cold, anguish of the tomb. No matter the gain or the promise of the new life, we cannot move on without experiencing the loss of the old and the entrance into shadow.
At this point, we will be passing baskets among you. They are filled with smooth, cold stones. Please take one. Hold it in your hand. Let it be for you the symbol of the dark tomb of loss and sorrow.
The tomb is a terrible place to be. Those of us who have experienced tragedy in our lives know this all too well. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed with the despair of the tomb. My colleague Richard Gilbert writes:
A tomb is no place to stay
Be it a cave in the Judaean hills
Or the dark cavern of the spirit.
A tomb is no place to stay
When fresh grass rolls away the stone of winter cold
And valiant flowers burst their way to warmth and light.
A tomb is no place to stay,
When each morning announces our reprieve,
And we know we are granted yet another day of living.
A tomb is no place to stay
When life laughs a welcome
To hearts that have been away too long.
It is easy to get stuck, hopeless, in the darkness of the tomb – the shadow of despair. Hope is the light that guides us to move forward. The hope that says that tomorrow can be better – the hope that says that resurrection is possible.
We come to church for many reasons, but especially – we come for hope. Today – we come to share the Easter story of hope. A story that speaks of how the most devastating of losses can lead to new life, just as the new life that emerged after Jesus’ death helped to share his message of peace, justice, and love.
The poet Wendell Berry put together two words that I believe belong together. Practice and Resurrection. Practice Resurrection. Resurrection is not something that happens to us – it is something we can do. We practice resurrection when we endure the agony of leaving an old life behind – to have the hope and faith that something will be there waiting to catch us when we take that giant step off into the unknown. We practice resurrection when – despite the fear, despite the pain, despite the loss, we gather up our strength and roll aside the stone to leave the tomb of our surrender.
Author Megan McKenna tells of a class in which she shared her view that we are called to “live passionately and compassionately with others, to defy death, to forgive, and to bring others back into the community, to do something that is life-giving, that fights death and needless suffering.”
She was interrupted then by a sarcastic question: “have you ever brought anyone back to life?”
She replied with these words: “Every time I bring hope into a situation, every time I bring joy that shatters despair, every time I forgive others and give them back dignity and the possibility of a future with me and others in the community, every time I listen to others and affirm them and their life, every time I speak the truth in public, every time I confront injustice — yes — I bring people back from the dead.”
The stone in your hand is no longer cold. You have filled it with the warmth of your life. Each of us has the potential to give of our own life to another – to bring life and joy where there is only sorrow. Would you please stand as you are able. And now, in silence, please give the stone you are holding to someone else. Feel free to move around the room to find someone to give it to. When you have given up your stone and received a new one, please sit down again and contemplate the gift you have just received.
My Friends. Practice resurrection. As simple and flawed as we may be, the power of resurrection rests in our hands. We have the power to haul ourselves and others out of the shadows of the tomb. We have the power to be reborn and to help others to find their own way to a new life. In the words of my colleague David Blanchard:
Rise to hope,
Rise to love,
Rise to heal,
Rise to forgive,
Rise to courage,
Rise to foolishness,
Rise to wisdom,
Rise, even to die.
But most essentially, rise to life.
So may it be with you.