Is It Still Easter?

April 30, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

1 Corinthians 2:7-10; 4:1-2; 13:12
John 21:1-14

Easter fades quickly. The lilies are gone from the sanctuary. No trumpets or timpani in our worship today. No grand finale Hallelujah Chorus.

It’s not like Christmas. Post-Christmas sales remind us of the Holy Day just past, but there’s no secular propping up of the Day of Resurrection. No “Twelve days of Easter.” I can tell you from having a professional chocolatier in the family, once Easter is over, things rapidly return to normal. By the world’s reckoning, it comes and it goes.

Is it still Easter?

Christmas feels like a beginning – the start of something new. We can identify with the birth of a baby. Easter, on the other hand, feels more like a conclusion. The story’s over, and we’re left with something of which we have no experience, and cannot ever truly comprehend: resurrection.

In the 8th century, the Syrian monk John of Damascus – St. John Chrysostum –  employed the imagery of Nature to sing of Easter:

“‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst his prison,

And from three days sleep of death as a sun has risen.

All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying

From the Light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.”

(Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain, vs. 2)

Preaching Jesus, the babe born of Mary, the healer and teacher and leader who threatens those in power and is crucified for it, is one thing; preaching the resurrection is quite another. The Apostle Paul sees the problem. Even back then, only a handful of years after Jesus lived and died, he sees that communicating the meaning of the empty tomb will not be easy. In fact, Paul spoke of it as a mystery, and seemed content to leave it at that.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” he says, “But then we will see face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

The mystery of what happens at death will never be fully unveiled. Those who’ve been with a person at the moment of death will never forget the experience. I’ve been there many times and it is always stunning to experience. One moment the person is there with you, perhaps unresponsive, but there, nonetheless. Alive. And then they’re gone. Lost into whatever comes next, about which we can never know for certain.

Google resurrection and you get “Resurrection” it says, “Is the act of rising from the dead.” Not much help there.

Easter speaks to the enigma of eternity. It does not solve it, but it does propose the claim upon which our 2,000 year-old faith is built: that God’s love wondrously and mysteriously overcomes the death that awaits us all. The very love that Paul is convinced cannot be overcome “by anything else in all Creation,” as he says, welcomes us into a realm about which we know nothing – a realm we call eternal life.

For some in today’s information-based world, that’s not enough. Paul, however, invites us to embrace the mystery and live with it; like John of Damascus, to use our imagination about what he calls “the depths of God.” The Apostle feels we should view faith like the writer of Hebrews who defines it as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”

We are left with the Easter mystery. The Apostle wants us to think of ourselves as stewards of it, as if each of us were charged with caring for the very mystery of God, nurturing it, and passing it on to the next generation.

Typically we use the word stewardship when we speak of tangible things…financial assets…real estate…natural resources. Paul suggests we think of ourselves as stewards of the intangibles of life, as well…like the mystery of parental love…the imponderable beauty of music…the unfathomable oneness of all creation…and, yes, the impenetrability of resurrection.

Is it still Easter? It is if we recognize our role as stewards of the mystery of God. Let’s not move on from the empty tomb too quickly, leaving Easter behind simply because of its incomprehensibility. Life beyond this life is surely the biggest mystery of all – what Paul calls “secret and hidden.” But that is precisely the point: like love itself, resurrection cannot be reduced to mundane explanation.

“Now I know only in part,” Paul says. “Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

Two weeks after Easter can we still say “Christ is risen” and expect the hearty response, “He is risen indeed?”

Here’s John of Damascus once more, again – listen carefully – allowing for mystery:

“Neither could the gates of death,

nor the tomb’s dark portal,

Nor the watchers, nor the seal hold you as a mortal:

But today, among your own, you appear, bestowing

Your deep peace, which evermore passes human knowing.”

(Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain, vs. 4)

Of course it is still Easter.

In the liturgical, technical sense Easter is not merely a day, it’s a season: Eastertide, and “Every Sunday is Easter,” we like to say. That’s true, theologically. The reason we worship on Sunday – the Lord’s Day – and not Saturday like the Adventists or Friday like the Jews is that this is the third day, the Day of Resurrection. We may call it the Sabbath, but it’s not akin to the Jewish Shabbat. This is not simply a day of rest; it’s also a day of celebration and renewal, for Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

But if it’s still Easter, how would anyone around us know? How does Easter affect our daily lives, our perspective on the world? Does it change us, does it make us more hopeful, does it bring a “peace that passes all understanding?”

From what we can tell, the first Easter didn’t have much impact on the disciples. Mere days after the resurrection had been proclaimed by the women, the disciples make it back home. They’ve trudged through Galilee back to Cana and Capernaum and Magdala and Tiberias and the other villages clustered along the Sea they knew so well. And then they go back to work.

We tend to think of the disciples as having left everything behind when they are called by Jesus and gone off for three years with him – in effect, abandoning their families and jobs and homes. It’s always a bit troubling to think of them leaving like that. But most of the ministry of Jesus takes place right in their neighborhood. They may have left their nets that first day when he called them, but it’s likely they returned often to keep fishing and feeding their families. And now that‘s what they go back to doing, as if nothing had changed and Christ had not risen.

Maybe they were embarrassed by having invested so much into his story and into his life and his story, or ashamed, or afraid to speak of their faith in him…like many of us.

Is it still Easter? It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to tell if we don’t permit ourselves to speak of resurrection.

And then suddenly he appears. He’s on the shore. The fishermen see him from their boats, with their empty nets. They don’t recognize him, but he looks familiar to them. Then he shouts to them to cast them into the sea again, and – just as when he had first called to them three years ago – the nets overflow with fish…153 of them to be exact!

On the beach he has a fire going and they have a fish fry-breakfast. One of the best scenes in the gospel story. They know who he is, at least they think they do. They want to ask his name, the gospel tells us, but they don’t because they’re supposed to know it. But still, the hesitancy is there, the ambiguity is there, the puzzle is there; that which passes human knowing, in the words of John of Damascus, is there. It’s there in all the gospel accounts of Easter: doubt, disbelief, non-recognition, lack of understanding. In other words, from that first Easter forward, resurrection has always been steeped in mystery.

That doesn’t mean we stop talking about it. That doesn’t mean we cease holding fast to it. It is still Easter.

A pastor friend told me recently of a memorial service she was asked to do for a person whom she did not know. Every clergy person has been there. As a good pastor she met with the family and spoke to a few old friends, yet still she was concerned about doing well with the sermon at the service. I have no doubt that she did a fine job, especially since she said, “I’ll be sure to preach resurrection.”

We can’t go wrong with that when death happens. Resurrection is the response to death for followers of the risen Jesus. We return to Easter every time we face the finality of the end of life on this earth.

When I meet with families who’ve lost a loved one to plan a memorial service – as I will do tomorrow – I tell them we want to do three things in the service. We want to face the loss and name our sorrow; this is hard and we don’t want to deny that, no matter the circumstances or age or situation, this is real. We want to remember and give thanks to God for the person we loved, to recall what the person meant to us and how we loved them. We want to proclaim the heart of our faith, that God’s love defeats even death itself. That’s a Christian approach to death: honest grief, grateful memory, resurrection hope.

A wonderful Presbyterian pastor named Jeff Krehbiel died this past week at age 57. He was diagnosed with cancer only five weeks ago and is now gone, leaving a wife and two daughters. Across the church, among those who knew and loved Jeff – and there are many – a blanket of sorrow has been laid.

He was a classmate of ours in Chicago at McCormick Seminary 30 years ago and became an outstanding leader in the church, serving many years in an innovative Washington, D. C. congregation. He was a tireless advocate for justice, with an irrepressible faith. If you ever went to a march about something in Washington, there was Jeff with members of his congregation.

He was a friend of ours who walked the Camino in Spain two years after we did. We give thanks to God for his life and ministry.

Another friend of Jeff’s wrote this to his family: “We continue to trust in that beatific vision where our questions dissolve and our hearts are reunited with each other and our Creator.” That’s as good a description of resurrection as any: where our questions dissolve and our hearts are reunited with our Creator.

The congregation Jeff served in Washington will gather this coming Saturday for a memorial service. We will gather in this church next Saturday, as well, for a memorial service for Westminster member Elizabeth McCabe who died yesterday. We will gather this afternoon in this church to give thanks for the life of Margo Eckman. And we gathered here yesterday in gratitude for Vince Solum.

Is it still Easter? It was yesterday, and it is today, and it will be next Saturday, here and at the Church of the Pilgrims in Washington.

It is always Easter, always Easter, wherever and whenever the followers of Jesus gather to proclaim their trust in a God whose love knows no bounds.

“Now let the heavens be joyful; let earth its song begin,” wrote John of Damascus 1300 years ago.

“The round world keep high triumph

And all that is therein.

Let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend,

For Christ the Lord has risen,

Our joy that has no end.”

(The Day of Resurrection, vs. 4)

Thanks be to God.


Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Doug Mitchell

Gracious God, we thank you for your love and your grace so abundant, so overflowing, that you receive us in spite of our fear and our timed lives of faith.  As you encouraged the first Christians to witness to their faith and to show love for all people, to be a grateful triumph procession proclaiming Christ risen, so encourage us to follow your call to love rather than to cower before skeptics and unbelievers.  Help us to be bold to witness to the good news, to testify to the gospel message we have experienced, and to invite others to join us in worship, service and seeking justice.  Help us to find Easter in our daily living and to celebrate it for all to see.

Give your people gathered here the grace to love one another, to follow in the way of Jesus’ commandments, and to share his risen life as a part of our current life in community.  O God, form our minds to your will.  God of Glory, fill your church with the power that flows from your Spirit that, in the midst of the sinful world, your church may be a signal of the beginning of a new humanity.  Give your people the courage to live the life to which we are called.  Let no shadow of the grave terrify us, and no fear of darkness turn our hearts from you.

O God, in the midst of violence and exclusion all around us, we celebrate this morning our belief that you made every person in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son.  Look with compassion on the whole human family, take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts, break down the walls that separate us, unite us in bonds of love, and, through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth.  We grieve the ways in which we create division between people whom Christ has created for community  We are people of hope who confess Jesus Christ is Lord over a Realm in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone. All sit together around a shared table, wolves and lambs enjoy each other’s company, and every tear is wiped away from every eye, and we commit ourselves to be co-creators with God in seeking this reality on earth.

Sustain those among us who need your healing touch and tender presence.  Make the sick whole.  Give hope to the dying.  Comfort those who mourn.  Radiate through the lives of all need your comfort with the light of your presence, that renewed health and strength may be theirs.

Hear our prayers, God of grace, and as we pray we remember your great love shown to us in Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together, saying, us, Our Father…

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