Believe (Easter 2013)

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve are the two best attended worship services of the year. Some people attend church only on Christmas and Easter. Many people come for the very first time or for the first time in a long time on Christmas or Easter.  At the Christmas Eve service we tell the story of Jesus’ birth. We sing beautiful songs about the baby Jesus, his mother Mary and angels and shepherds. We remember that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a barn surrounded by animals. During the Christmas Eve service, we can almost smell the hay and feel the breath of the animals as they gathered around the holy family that first Christmas night. At the end of the service, we light candles, sing Silent Night and go home feeling quite nostalgic. If someone were coming to church for the first time, Christmas Eve would be a good service to attend.

But if I had my druthers, Easter would NOT be the service people attended for the very first time. The theology of Easter is advanced. It is the equivalent to the senior seminar theology class. It is best understood by those who have already had Christianity 101”The life of Jesus” and Christianity 201 “The Teachings of Jesus.” I would like it if everyone who attends Easter services would also have had the higher level courses of parables, miracles and the letters from the Apostle Paul.

It would be nice if people had at least a basic understanding of Jesus as a man before trying to understand Jesus as God and the Resurrection. —

Welcome to Providence Christian Church –Happy Easter! – It’s your first time? Super – today we celebrate when Christ rose from the grave – yep, that is right – he was dead – three days and then he got up and walked around, talked with the women, ate with the disciples and then ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God!” Be sure to come back in a few weeks when we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit who was sent from the ascended Christ in the form of tongues of fire to the church. It’s called Pentecost!” —“Wait, where are you going? Did I say something wrong? Happy Easter!”—

We Christians really do love Easter – getting all dressed up, eating chocolate, blooming flowers, eating chocolate, sharing a big meal with our families, eating chocolate & children searching for hidden eggs, and then eating their chocolate –  but we don’t really like to talk about Easter to people outside the church. Easter is more of an insider holiday.

Several years ago, a UK graduate student from India who became a dear, dear friend came to church with us on Easter and then had dinner with us. She was especially fond of all the Easter desserts and the chocolate. But later as we sat recovering from all those sweets, she asked me to explain Easter and also Christianity in general. That is a lot to try to cover in one sitting but I did my best to tell her all about Jesus! “He was a teacher and a healer and a prophet. He was fully human and fully divine –the Son of God. He taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves and redefined our neighbors to even include our enemies! He told us to pray for those who persecute us. He was friends with everyone: the rich, the poor, the religious leaders and the outcasts of society. He loved the unlovable. He ate with his friends and with the despised of the community. He loved the children and invited them to come and sit with him when society demanded that children be out of sight – not seen or heard. He valued women when they were only one step up from property. Jesus modeled for us how to live and how to love. But he was a great threat to the Roman government and to the religious leaders and so they killed him, which we remember on Good Friday. They nailed Jesus to a cross and crucified him between two criminals.”— Then a nice man asked for Jesus’ body and put it in a tomb and after 3 days a woman named Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty, someone spoke her name, she turned around and – it was Jesus  risen from the grave and that is why we celebrate Easter!” — I am pretty thirsty, would you like a cup of tea? J —

We live in a science-based culture where we know that things happen according to the laws of nature and science. We use logic and reason to make decisions and come to conclusions. We know for a fact that things die – plants, animals and people. Like the song in The Lion King says, “it is the circle of life,” but they do not come back to life, especially after 3 days. We have never seen it happen and it goes against everything we know and understand. All of us reasonable, logical Christians stick to the things we CAN talk about, like the fact that Jesus was a teacher and prophet and healer. We save our discussions about Easter for safe places and times like Sunday school.  But here we are on Easter Sunday! And I happen to be the preacher and you probably expect me to talk about resurrection.

Everything we know about Jesus comes from the New Testament, specifically the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of them cover his life from their own perspective and they highlight different things. For instance, only Matthew and Luke tell about Jesus’ birth. But all four gospels tell of his death and resurrection. And while I am a big fan of Luke because he is lifts up Jesus relationship with marginalized people, including women, John’s description of the first Easter is my favorite.

This morning we had an Easter Sunrise Service. I knew I had to be at church very early so before bed I had cup of herbal tea and took a bath. Easter is a big Sunday so I wanted to get good sleep. But instead of going right to sleep as I had planned, I watched the clock until after midnight. Anyone who has lost a close family member knows what it is like to get little if any sleep after a loved one has passed. We know that when we keep busy the pain lessens and so before the sun is even up, we are working on the funeral or memorial arrangements. We make to-do lists while drinking a cup of coffee, we go through photos of our loved one, we write the obituary, listen to songs to see if they might be fitting for the service, pick out the outfit in which our loved one will be buried, we make phone call after phone call, we meet with the funeral home and the church — we keep moving because we must not let our minds rest or the pain might be too much.

In our Scripture, Mary Magdalene obviously has not been sleeping well and does not wait for the other disciples to go visit the tomb, she has to keep moving. She goes early – maybe to have some time to herself to grieve or maybe to begin the preparations for burial alone. She and Jesus were good friends – some fictional books and movies allude to more, but Scripture only tells us that they were friends – she was a disciple, a follower.  But as she arrived at the tomb, she is shaken out of her exhaustion and grief. The stone has been removed and the body of Jesus is gone. Her heart begins to beat fast and hard in her chest and she turns and runs as fast as she can to Peter and another disciple who is not named.

Peter and the other disciple began running also to see for themselves. They saw that the stone had been removed and they went inside the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings that had been wrapped around Jesus lying there and one that had been around Jesus’ head was rolled up in a place by itself. Jesus had not exited the tomb like Lazarus wrapped like a mummy. We have many questions: Did Jesus take off the wrappings or did he have help? And who moved the stone? After Peter and the other disciple saw the tomb was empty they returned to tell the other disciples but Mary stayed. —

At some point, her curiosity got the better of her and she also bent to look inside the tomb. But instead of just seeing the burial clothes like Peter and the other disciple, she also saw two angels! The angels wanted to know why Mary was crying. Seeing two angels was crazy enough, but having them talk to her was too much. Then Mary turned around and came face to face with Jesus, but she does not recognize him until he called her by name. It took not only seeing him and hearing his voice but hearing him say her name before she believed it was him. I don’t know about you all, but I am like Mary. I see the evidence, I hear the story every year but it does not make sense, I don’t understand. Easter requires more. Believing in the resurrection requires a lot of us. Easter requires us to believe before we understand, to have faith before it all makes sense to us.

It is plausible for a baby to be born in a stable surrounded by animals. We have all heard crazy birth stories of babies being born in the craziest of places. We understand Jesus’ call for us to love each other, to love everyone, even the unlovable. It is easier said than done, but we understand. We can even believe many of his miracles. We know of people or have at least heard of people who have had miraculous recoveries from sickness, we have even heard of people who had near death experiences who were brought back to life. But an empty tomb, angels, Jesus, who is supposed to be dead, walking and talking? That is too much to believe. That is beyond our understanding. I am with Mary on this, I need some evidence, some explanation, some tangible proof.

But when we really think about it aren’t there things we believe in without understanding? The high and low tides in the ocean for instance, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, the changing colors of the leaves in the fall, chromosomes and DNA, brain development, feelings and so much more. Everyone who gets married does so without fully understanding, but you believed in the person and you believed in love. Many of us start a new job or a new career without understanding what that will mean. And there is love, the love we have for our mothers, the love we have for our children, for our spouses, for even our pets – who understands that?

The Gospel of John tells us that the other disciple looked into the tomb and saw the linen wrappings and he believed. He believed that what Jesus had said before he died was true. He believed that God had triumphed over death somehow. He believed that the goodness of God won over evil; and light is more powerful than darkness. He believed in God and in Christ. He did not understand but he believed.

Maybe Easter Sunday is the perfect Sunday to come to church for the first time in a long time or the first time ever. We believe in things every day that we do not understand. All Easter is, is the power of love.

During this spring season, may we be reminded when we see a baby bird learn to fly, when we see a seedling burst forth from the soil, when we see lightening and hear thunder, when we see a newborn baby… that we believe in things we do not understand.  Even in our scientific, reason filled logical world it is okay to be like the other disciple and believe in Easter — to believe in undeserving forgiveness – to believe in unconditional and unending love – to believe that all things are possible for those who love and serve God–to believe in resurrection – new life and new chances. — Believe!