Christ is Risen! Happy Easter! Today is the most popular Sunday of the year in church; which in some ways makes no sense, because it’s the hardest story to explain. Life out of death. Jesus is crucified, then Christ is Risen. We have no idea how to understand or explain it—though many have tried—and yet year after year, we come to hear the story.
We’ve spent the season of Lent this year at Knox working through a sermon series about death and life. We’ve talked about death, and about our culture’s tendency to sanitize and gloss over it; we’ve talked about suffering and grief and the many ways in which it appears.
We’ve talked about resurrection and all of the things that word might mean, not just for Jesus, but for all of us.
We’ve talked about the less literal ways death and life surround us: the patterns and practices of our culture that can be life-giving or death-dealing, and how we choose between them every day. And we’ve talked about making choices that give life, even when news of war and suffering show signs of death all around us. I have sought to share with you what wisdom I could, but I certainly have my limits.
There’s nothing like a conversation with a kid to remind you how little you know about the big questions. This past Thursday as we were driving back from Walgreens, my 8 year-old asked me about why we cremate people, and why we bury people, and what happens to them. I think I started with the Roman Empire and bumbled around with metaphors about plants and seasons and compost, and finally landed on the Bible’s words about ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and about that time realized I was probably making things less clear. This is what you get when you’re a pastor’s kid!
Children ask the best questions, but they aren’t the only ones looking for answers. I talk with adults about tough questions all the time: Why does our eternal salvation mean the death of Jesus? Is eternal life really something we want? How much doctrine you have to believe in order to hedge your bets that it will work out for you? The vocabulary evolves, but the questions aren’t all that different than the ones of an 8 year-old: “Dad, why do we bury people? What will happen to them?”
All of it can seem so complicated. As my mentor John Buchanan has said, “[If you take Easter seriously] it is profoundly unsettling, it’s a little like staring directly at the sun.” (Buchanan, Let Us Walk Through the Door, April 24, 2011) So, many times we try to look away. We look for an analogy or metaphor that makes sense to us, that makes resurrection seem less mysterious than it really is. We prepare for Easter surrounded by brightly colored neckties and dresses, eggs and bunnies and plastic grass… All of these are grounded in an attempt to say something about new life; we’ve discovered it’s easier to have an egg hunt than to struggle with what you really think about resurrection.
The great American novelist John Updike challenges our thinking about Easter. Even though it makes me uncomfortable, I love his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” I love its convicting tone: “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience, our own sense of
beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle and crushed by remonstrance.
Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door.” (Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter, 1960) Let us walk through the door. None of us know all the answers, including those of us who stand up here and preach. But if we can’t have answers, I wonder if the next best thing is to have enough curiosity to walk through the door of trying to believe. To love the mystery of the unknown. The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the sum of the Gospel is really found in Matthew 18:3. That’s where Jesus says: “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (See Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Chapter 14) I guess what some of us need most is to let go of our skepticism and our need to explain it all, and to regain some of the frank curiosity of an 8 year-old riding home from Walgreens. Why do we keep coming to hear the story every year? I believe we are curious. And for curious people, it’s a great story, and full of mystery:
You remember the story; it began last week with the mysteries of Palm Sunday. “Go into the town of Bethany,” Jesus told his disciples. “And there you will find a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it to me.” Later he told them this mystery: “When you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters…” We will share the Passover meal there.” With these cryptic instructions, there is a sense that Jesus is preparing his disciples for a greater mystery, that he is inviting them into the unknown, to trust and to follow.
In the days and hours that lead up to his death, the mysteries continue; we hear them in the questions that are asked of Jesus in his trial:
What crime has this man committed? Are you a king? What is truth? Jesus’ challenging answers demand that his accusers struggle with the questions themselves. He is not in the business of resolving mysteries. He is creating them.
And then on Easter morning comes the greatest mystery of all: Mary Magdalene walks toward the tomb when the sky is still dark. As the sun breaks and the burial place finally comes into view, there it is: the stone has been rolled away. Taken completely by surprise and probably quite afraid, Mary runs for her friends, Simon Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved. They come to the tomb and look inside: the linen wrappings are there and the cloth that had been on Jesus head, rolled up in a place by itself, and we are told quite clearly in verse 9 that it was a mystery; they saw it and “did not understand.”
The disciples go home and Mary herself sits outside the tomb, tearful in her confusion and grief. When she finally looks inside, there are angels, which I’ve always thought would be rather startling, and certainly mysterious. And Jesus is waiting there behind Mary when she comes back out from the tomb, but we are told quite clearly that at first she does not recognize him.
Again and again, the story tells of the mystery and wonder of God. But Mary is not repelled by that which she cannot explain; instead she is drawn into the mystery. Mary is curious about what she might discover if only she can trust and follow; she wants to believe that the story ends not with death, but with life. That is why she runs from the Tomb to find her friends and tells them what she has seen.
I wonder if the same curiosity lives within us? I wonder if some of the desire, the longing to be drawn into a mystery and told a story of hope…I wonder if that is what draws us back every year on Easter Sunday, to hear this story we don’t really understand.
I wonder if, like those disciples of so long ago, we too need a story where death doesn’t win? I wonder if the hardships we experience or read about every day: depression, addiction, Sudan, Ukraine, gun violence, food deserts, sickness and grief… I wonder if one of our greatest longings in life is to simply be told and to believe that it will not end this way, that God has a recovery plan in mind. To know that there is such a story of hope, is not just to see Jesus rise from the dead, but to rise up ourselves at the start of each new day, and to live with joy.
Christians do not accept death as the answer to their questions. We are called to be people of life. We come in those doors on Sundays and bring everything of ourselves, our questions and doubts and the death dealing threats that haunt us; but when we rise and go back into the world, the Good News we receive here is that life and love wins, for Christ is Risen. And we are called to go and tell our friends what we have seen. It is a mystery; we cannot understand or explain it. But let’s be curious enough not to try to explain it away. Let’s be bold enough to believe. Let us walk through the door. Amen.