John 20:1-18 â€“ Easter Sunday â€“ for April 8, 2012
â€œThe Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tombâ€¦â€ (John 20:3)
Is there anything I could write about Easter to inspire, irk, deflate or deepen your faith? I doubt it.
You probably know what youâ€™d answer if asked about the importance of Easter . . . and youâ€™re the only one whoâ€™d know if what you said aloud is different from what you believed in your heart of hearts.
Easter is fact first, faith second. No, reverse the order.
Itâ€™s about the empty tomb. Or not.
Or this . . . arenâ€™t we glad, when Peter eased into the tomb, that he spotted the â€œlinen wrappingâ€ used for Jesusâ€™ body? But Peterâ€™s discovery only occurred in Johnâ€™s Gospel and therefore the added bonus of forensic evidence seems as flimsy as cheap muslin. How could Johnâ€”the final Gospel written, the Johnny-come-lately account of Jesusâ€™ lifeâ€”have a disciple witness the burial garment and Matthew, Mark and Luke are silent, or â€œblind?â€ Without the fickle fabric, I wonder* if weâ€™d have the centuries-long Shroud of Turin controversy? If John didnâ€™t become part of the New Testament (and most gospels written in the early centuries of Christendom werenâ€™t included), the folks embracing/rejecting claims about Turinâ€™s (in)famous shroud wouldnâ€™t have any Easter â€œmaterialâ€ to stitch together or tear apart.
Or this . . . isnâ€™t it odd the word itselfâ€”Easterâ€”has so little to do with Jesus the Christâ€™s resurrection? Convenient Wikipedia posits about the word’s etymology this way:
The modern English term “Easter” is the direct continuation of Old English Ä’astre, whose role as a goddess is attested solely by Bede in the 8th century. Ä’ostre is the Northumbrian form, while Ä’astre is more common West Saxon.
Huh? As a preacher, shouldnâ€™t I fear a random layperson, some guy or gal whoâ€™s quietly occupied the pew all year long, abruptly rising before the sermon begins and askingâ€”nay, demandingâ€”an explanation for how Christianityâ€™s holiest day got linked to a Northumbrian goddess? Whew! . . . it likely wonâ€™t happen. Most folks are too polite. Thank God.
I imagine many kids continue to associate Easter with hidden eggs. Oh let me be a fly on the wall when parents (attempt to) explain that. Another whew! . . . at least it only happens once a year.
Most congregations Iâ€™ve served included thoughtful adults who sacrificed chocolate for Lent, and then consumed a bowl of M&Mâ€™s on the Day of Resurrection. So . . . isnâ€™t Easter all about what will melt in your mouth and not in your hand?
My local grocery store carts out shrink-wrapped bunnies in the weeks before Easter. I say letâ€™s query a store manager about what a stuffed hare has to do with the Holiest of Holy Days. Of course, one answer will be easy: ka-ching, goes the cash register.
Easterâ€™s ragtag band of Biblical characters and cultural add-ons doesnâ€™t have the same impact as Jesusâ€™ birth story. The exchange of brightly wrapped gifts under a sparkly tree always beats tramping across a wet lawn for painted eggs secreted behind thorny roses. Iâ€™ll take a shepherd wandering the streets of Bethlehem any day over the disciples and women racing away from the tomb. How does Mark, the first Gospel written, put it . . . So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement has seized them. Smart preachers avoid proclaiming Markâ€™s version of the Good News in March.
Or April? Or whenever Easter arrives. This year itâ€™s April 8. I canâ€™t recall last yearâ€™s date. Iâ€™m not sure about next year. Where were you on Christmas in 1997? Or 1979? You might actually remember. Please, then, on this most essential celebration, tell me what you were doing on Easter three years ago . . . or twenty years ago. Like a game of whack-a-mole, Easter pops up in unexpected places on the calendar. There! No, over there!
And so, dear reader, dear pew-sitter and store manager, dear child with dreams of sugarplums and painted eggs, dear adult with chocolaty smears on your finest Sunday garb, dear pastor who preaches a bold tale of resurrection at sunrise service and prays for a few days off after the hooplaâ€™s ended, dear believer of Jesus and doubter of Northumbrian goddesses, what does Easter mean?
In the end, all I can say is what Easter means to me. And what Iâ€™ll say is more humdrum than holy, more a private truth than public proselytizing. The Day of Resurrection is a divine gift of mystery. Easter helps me humbly confess this: I donâ€™t know.
And yet what I believe, because of or in spite of Easter, is that Godâ€™s love never, never, never, never ends. I donâ€™t care for atonement theology. I donâ€™t care if Scripture proves nothing or everything. I donâ€™t care about the promise of heaven or the threat of hell. I hardly have answersâ€”or even halfway decent questionsâ€”for the best or worst of faith. In the same breath I consider myself a heretic, an apostate and yet, Easter-bound and bound for Easter, Iâ€™m a fool for Christâ€™s sake, so in love with Creator and creation that when Iâ€™m most honest about my faith, Iâ€™m stunned and speechless.
Like Peter in Johnâ€™s Gospel, I depart the tomb. Everything has changed, or not. Facts and myths are debated. Interpretations are claimed or rejected. Well-meaning people confuse resurrection with reincarnation. Some take the Bible literally when reading the stoneâ€™s rolled away and others spend one Sunday in Spring rolling their eyes. Everything has changed, or not.
But one thing, I believe, has been revealed and is Easterâ€™s transformational, ongoing gift: the staggering mystery of Godâ€™s eternal love for every single creature. For me. For you.
*I also wonder if weâ€™d ever have our Christmas exchange of gifts if somehow Matthewâ€™s Magiâ€”and they only appear in Matthewâ€”had never become part of the New Testament. Drop Matthew, no gold, frankincense and credit card debt at the end of the year.