John 20:1-18 (Easter)
April 8, 2012
I’m auditing a class right now on “Preaching and the Short Story.” Partly, it’s an excuse to read some good short stories, and there’s one on the list I’ve been eying since the we first got our syllabus. It has the word “Easter” in the title, and even though it’s not assigned reading until after Easter, I thought I should read it before Easter on the off chance that I might be able to use it in my sermon this morning.
So this story title, “Small Easter,” has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks. I’ve got to read “Small Easter,” I would tell myself. Maybe tonight I’ll have time to read Updike’s “Small Easter,” I would think. Small Easter, Small Easter, Small Easter.
And finally, yesterday, I got it pulled up on my computer. And it’s not “Small Easter” at all. It’s “Short Easter.” “Small” and “short” might be interchangeable when describing, say, me. But in terms of describing Easter, they mean quite different things. Updike’s story is about an Easter that is also the day that everyone set their clocks ahead an hour–thus it is a short Easter. Lovely story, but not really helpful for my sermon.
But “Small Easter.” “Small Easter”–the title I apparently just made up–that’s what I feel like I’m having this year. A small Easter. And I feel like I’m not supposed to have a small Easter. Ever. Because Easter is big. Theologically speaking, probably the biggest day of the Christian year. We have an extra worship service, a brunch, flowers and communion and a room full of people worshiping. Easter is big! Huge!
Except when it’s small. A small Easter.
Many of you are aware that our dear friend Lola had a big Good Friday. She broke her leg Thursday night, then Friday morning as they were getting her ready for surgery the lab results showed that her cancer, her myeloma, had returned. Quickly. Mightily. It’s likely that the cancer had eaten holes in her leg bone, which caused the break in the first place. Along with the cancer–as a special bonus with myeloma–they found that her kidneys were not functioning well at all.
It was a big Good Friday. Family and friends gathered in the hospital room. There were tears. There were prayers. Many words of love. Many balled up Kleenex. The promise of death hung heavy in the air.
It was a big Good Friday. Bigger than I would have liked.
If I am honest, what I prefer is a small Good Friday. A short time of remembering the suffering and death of Christ. I even sort of relish gloomy cloudy weather. I don’t want to ignore Good Friday. But I prefer it to be small.
A small Good Friday and a big Easter. That’s what I want. That’s what most of us get in church. That’s the way we orchestrate it.
But life doesn’t mirror the emphases of church. At least not this year. Not for me. Not for Ken and Lola. Not for many of you.
For so many people, for so many reasons, Good Friday still looms large even as we sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”.
It was a big Good Friday. And it is a small Easter.
Which seems wrong. But it is what it is.
And in hearing and reading this story again from scripture, I realize that many, many people have had small Easters–even on that first miraculous, world-changing Sunday morning.
Mary’s Easter began as just an agonizing extension of Good Friday. Her weeping continues there by the tomb in the darkness. Then she notices, the stone is rolled away. The body of her beloved teacher must be gone, stolen, desecrated. Running–and still weeping–she takes the news to the disciples.
It seems like the day is getting bigger–maybe not better, but bigger–as Peter and the “other disciple” literally race to the tomb, the other disciple getting there first, Peter being the first to go in. They see that Jesus’ body is indeed gone. They see that the grave clothes are in a pile, with the head covering rolled up, set aside. A lot of care taken by a simple grave robber. Something big is going on here.
The other disciple sees and believes. That’s what John says, anyway. It’s a rather odd statement. We know what the disciple sees: the grave clothes. But we don’t know what he believes. And I really wonder what it is those grave clothes lead him to believe, because the next line is: “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
Whatever he believes, it doesn’t lead to any big, dramatic scene. The disciple and Peter simply go home. Rather anti-climactic. Not the actions of men who have grasped the full meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not the actions of men who are experiencing a big Easter.
Even though they go running when they hear Mary’s report of the moved stone; even though they see the empty tomb, the discarded grave clothes, with their own eyes, it still seems to be, for Peter and the other disciple, a fairly small Easter. They just go home.
Our focus in this story, of course, tends to be on Mary. The one who actually speaks to Jesus, the one who surely has a big Easter. In the end. Once Jesus says “Mary,” and she finally recognizes him. Then it is a big Easter! The kind of Easter we think we should always have.
But what about all of those people that we practically never talk about on Easter morning. Those people we don’t talk about because they’re not in the story. Not in the story, but surely part of the story:
- Judas [Matthew relates suicide]
- the other nine disciples
- Jesus’ mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Clopas
- Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea
- the crowds of hopeful Jewish people
Many of these people had very small Easters indeed. Nobody logged onto Facebook to see Mary Magdalene’s status update: Talked to the Risen Lord this morning by his tomb! There were no Twitter feeds. Not even a good old fashioned phone tree. Many of the people who had grieved so deeply on Friday do not hear the news of the resurrection on Sunday. Or Monday. Or Tuesday. For many of them it was likely weeks, maybe months before the trickles of rumors hit them. “They say that Jesus rose from the dead.” “I heard the disciples took his body.” “I heard it was the guards.”
Many people barely hear about the resurrection. Certainly not right away. And those who do hear soon after the event? Well, Peter and the other disciple go home. At least one disciple believes, but still they do not understand. I can’t imagine the ones who simply hear the report are able to comprehend what has happened. Even those who know something is going on don’t really know what is going on.
Pastor Craig Barnes says that Easter is about “more hope than we can handle.” The friends, the family, the followers of Jesus don’t know what to make of this news on the first Easter morning. They have no point of reference to help them understand resurrection. No way to process or handle the hope inherent in the news they are hearing.
Eventually, people come to hear the full story. To make some sense of it–at least as much sense as can be made of it. Eventually, a new, redeemed, community forms among those who believe in the Risen Christ. Truth is proclaimed. Social boundaries are broken down. The fear of death is swallowed up in the knowledge of God’s vast and all-consuming love for us.
But not that morning.
That morning, it is a small Easter. Maybe not for Jesus. Maybe not for Mary. But for most people.
Easter starts small, because Good Friday is so big. When we know of the evils people can do to each other; when we read of the violence running rampant in the world; when fear of death, of loss, of a shattered life grips at our gut and twists and twists; when we witness the ravages of disease on the body of a dearly beloved, or feel the disease within our own flesh–for those of us with our eyes open to what is going on around us–Good Friday is big. Death’s shadow is ever present, and at times overwhelming.
It seems like Easter should be big. One big slam bang wham of resurrection life! Which happens, once in awhile.
But more often, and certainly for many of those who loved Jesus during his time on earth, Easter seems to be dwarfed by the magnitude of Good Friday.
A Good Friday that brings us to tears. That knock us to our knees.
And sometimes we rise only slowly; listening, looking through our tears. Sometimes Good Friday is so big that Easter has to start small.
It has to start small even when we hear the Good News from trusted friends. Christ is Risen!
Even when we see the Good News with our own eyes. Christ is Risen Ideed!
Even when we believe. Christ is Risen!
It still takes awhile for Easter to sink in. Christ is Risen Indeed!
It may take awhile for that small Easter to sink deep, deep into the fertile, broken up soil of our hearts.
It may take awhile to see the resurrection promise begin to grow, and bud, and bloom.
It may take awhile for us, as it did for Jesus’ first disciples, to dry our tears and open our eyes to the truth that this resurrection promise is not about a life of worldly success or military victory. Not about an end to all of the things we don’t like about life on this earth. Not a return to a better, happier time when we were in perfect health, when our children behaved, when our loved one was still alive.
The resurrection promise is not about things being the way we want them to be. That would make for a very small Easter indeed.
The resurrection promise is about the deep reality of holy life, even in the midst of violence, sickness, and death. The resurrection promise is about God’s reckless love for us, and our ability, by God’s grace, to live out that reckless love towards other people. The resurrection promise is an admonishment to not hold onto Jesus–to the life we think we want, the way we think we want things to be–but to move forward, proclaiming Good News, trusting God for the fullness of life that awaits us in this world and the next.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [Christ is Risen Indeed!]