Impossible Things ~ Easter 04/16/17

Impossible Things
Text: John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017 ~ Easter Sunday
Sermon by Rev. Heather M. Hinton

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Which is to say, Easter is the day we declare: We believe in impossible things.

In his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris describes an adult education class that he took with other foreign nationals living in Paris. They were learning the language of the major holidays in order to increase their vocabulary and strengthen their grammar. He writes:

We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds. “And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?” The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”

Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus and…oh, [goodness].” She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid. “He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two…morsels…of lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. “He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father.” “He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.” “He nice, the Jesus[!]” “He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated phrases as “To give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One, too, may eat of the chocolate.”…

Foreign nationals aren’t the only ones who struggle to find the language to talk about Easter – this strange and inexplicable event that stands at the center of the Christian faith. How do we explain the otherwise unheard-of coming-back-to-life of a man so brutally murdered, so thoroughly and undeniably dead?

“Excuse me, but what is an Easter?” Easter is, after all, an impossibility. And on this day we declare, perhaps clumsily, maybe falteringly, that we believe in impossible things.

Yes, we talk about the new life that comes every year with the spring, and we have symbols to help us remember all of the abundant new life around us: eggs and marshmallow chicks and chocolate bunnies. So we can at least grasp that part of Easter: new life! Spring comes after winter! New generations are born! New life is as abundant as bunnies! And most of all: chocolate!

Of course, all of those symbols are really about new life; there is nothing of resurrection in them.

We may get a little closer to the idea of resurrection when we talk water-bugs metamorphosing into dragonflies or butterflies emerging from their seemingly lifeless cocoons. We display tulips and lilies to remind us that new life can burst forth from seemingly dead bulbs. But is that really resurrection? It’s close, but it still isn’t quite there.

With those kinds of metamorphoses, life has never actually ceased. The caterpillar, while changing, is still alive in the cocoon. The tulip bulb, while looking lifeless, is actually just lying dormant, waiting for warmer air and sunshine. There is no death here; just the appearance of it.

And resurrection requires actual death.

Jesus didn’t just seem to be dead. He was dead.

When Mary and Peter and the unnamed disciple showed up at the tomb, they weren’t expecting resurrection any more than we do when we visit the graves of our loved ones. They had seen many dead people and gone to many tombs in their lifetimes; never once did anyone inexplicably turn up alive. They had seen the birth of countless baby animals and the seasonal rebirth of perennials, but they never saw life come from absolute, utter, unmistakable death. There was nothing in their experience nor in their religion that would suggest even the possibility of such a thing. They were as shocked as we would be. They were as disbelieving as many of us are, even today.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark – maybe her grief wouldn’t let her sleep, maybe she just wanted to be as close to her teacher and friend as she could possibly be. And in those dark, pre-dawn moments, Mary discovered that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. She didn’t need to look closely; she knew that the tomb was empty.

But, as unfamiliar with resurrection as we are, she didn’t suppose that Jesus was alive; he was just gone. She ran back to Simon Peter and the unnamed disciple and declared that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. The two men raced to the tomb. They looked inside and saw the burial cloths lying there; Simon Peter entered to look more carefully, and discovered that the soudarion, the head cloth, was lying by itself. Then the other disciple went in, saw what Peter saw and, we are told, believed.

But what did he believe? We don’t know, for the text doesn’t say.

What the text does say is that both of the men returned to their homes. There is no indication whatsoever that they planned to tell anyone anything. And what we learn is that before long, the disciples will be hiding, locked away in an upper room, and they will be shocked to see a risen Jesus among them. There is no hint that any of them, even these two who ran to the tomb, thought that Jesus was alive.

And yet, they also must have believed something weird was going on. After all, there is no record that they tried to track down Jesus’ body or the ones who ostensibly stole it. If they really thought it had been stolen, it seems likely that they would have made some kind of effort to find his body.

They must have believed something strange was happening, for they took special note of the fact that the tomb wasn’t entirely empty: the grave cloths were still there. Certainly that must have struck them as odd; after all, what grave robber would take the time to undress a corpse, let alone carefully roll up the head covering and place it off by itself?

They must have believed something highly unusual was going on, but resurrection doesn’t seem to be on their minds. After all, the story says that the beloved disciple, although he “saw and believed,” still did “not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Resurrection was not on their list of possible explanations; they did not understand, they only believed that something was happening – something big and important, but something they could not comprehend.

The two men left for home, and Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping. She bent down to look inside, and the grave cloths were gone; now there were 2 angels where the cloths had been. Why didn’t she freak out at this point? She’d been standing there all this time, there was no other way to get into the tomb except through the entrance where she stood, and no one had gone past her. Who were these two men – if they even were men? Where did they come from?

Maybe she simply didn’t have time to freak out. As soon as she saw them, they asked her why she was weeping. She still was not thinking of resurrection; why would she? There had never been any such thing! Convinced that her understanding of what had happened was the only explanation that could possibly be true, she asked the two figures where they’d put Jesus’ body. They didn’t answer – they didn’t have to, because as she spoke, she turned. And a man was standing there – another man where moments ago there had been no one.

Of course she didn’t imagine it’s Jesus. Why would it be? Throughout the centuries, much has been made of the fact that she didn’t recognize Jesus on sight; we could have long discussions about the changed appearance of a resurrected body, but the truth is, we don’t know why she didn’t recognize him. We know only that she didn’t. She believed what any reasonable person would believe: this man was the gardener.

But then Jesus spoke. And the sheep recognized the shepherd when he spoke her name: “Mary.” And thus it was that Mary became the first apostle, the first to declare the good news: “I have seen the Lord!” Mary Magdalene, the woman who had been tortured by demons for what must have seemed like seemed lifetimes, was the one to deliver the first Christian sermon: “Christ is risen!”

“Excuse me, but what is an Easter?” Easter is an impossibility. And we believe in impossible things.

UCC minister Martin Copenhaver says that sometimes he is

tempted to conclude that Easter is not a day for beginners. Rather, it can seem as if Easter is the advanced course for Christians, to be undertaken only after completing the introductory courses that deal with Jesus’ life and teachings. Begin with the Sermon on the Mount. Marvel at Jesus’ wisdom. Learn from him. Become fascinated by his life, fixed on his person. If one begins there, perhaps then one will be better prepared to hear this mysterious tale about Jesus rising from the dead.

(Copenhaver, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, p. 372)

But it is Jesus’ very rising from the dead which allows us to hear those stories at all, which makes it possible for us to become “fascinated by his life and fixed on his person.” Had he not been raised, if he had just died and stayed dead, you and I never would have heard of him. There would have been nothing to tell. In fact, many have pointed out that even Jesus’ teachings were not especially unique; neither were his healings. His teachings were consistent with Judaism, and we have records of many faith healers who wandered the countryside at that time. His teachings and actions only became truly important in light of the resurrection – an event which revealed who Jesus was – who Jesus is: the living God.

Like Simon Peter and the beloved disciples, I believe, but I do not yet understand. And I think that maybe that’s ok. Easter is an impossibility. And we believe impossible things. Somehow, although we can’t explain it, Jesus Christ is risen.

The Easter miracle is that God did not die that day on Calvary. The Easter miracle is that God is still alive. The Easter miracle is that we continue to encounter the living God, keep being offered love and healing and hope and forgiveness and transformation and life, over and over again. And, as American theologian and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says:

In the end, that is the only evidence we have to offer those who ask us how we can possibly believe. Because we live, that’s why. Because we have found, to our surprise, that we are not alone. Because we never know where he will turn up next. Here is one thing that helps: never get so focused on the empty tomb that you forget to speak to the gardener.

(Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape from the Tomb (Jn. 20:1-18).
Christian Century, 1 April 1998, p. 339.)

So may it be.


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