Easter Day (April 16, 2017)

April 11, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 10:34-43 Psalm 118:1-12 & 14-24 Colossians 3:1-4 John 20:1-18 & Matthew 28:1-10

I must confess that I am not a big fan of the marriage of consumerism with religious holidays. But, at times, we need to observe the “servants of mammon” and learn from their sales pitches. A big box retailer’s commercials highlight children playing exuberantly in bright new clothes, running, jumping, cycling, and swimming, rejoicing in the Easter holiday. (After all, in many places Easter heralds a week off from school and that may eclipse the resurrection among celebrative kids!) The commercial concludes with the caption “Easter like you really mean it!” Frankly, I’m not sure that most churches’ spirit will top that on Easter morning.

Easter like you really mean it! Let your alleluias burst forth. Don’t hold back – celebrate for Christ is Risen. Not just yesterday, but today!

On Easter Sunday, I try to have two or three scriptures read during worship, and I am delighted that the lectionary readings generously highlight both John and Matthew. To the discerning listener on Easter Sunday, the two scriptures will tell very different stories, and that may be both confusing and enlightening.

John begins in an understated way; Mary Magdalene, Peter, and another disciple discover that the tomb is empty. After the disciples leave the tomb, Mary encounters the Risen Lord, who calls her name and awakens her to resurrection living.

Matthew’s gospel has an earthquake, angelic visitation, terrified guards, and the first version of the Great Commission, given to the women at the tomb. Whether meditative or bombastic, resurrection – and our accounts of it – turns our world upside down. God comes to us in the form of friend in the garden and in technicolor explorations and shake, rattle, and roll! Moreover, resurrection can never be encompassed by just one account – it is far more than we can imagine or expect, and appears to Jesus’ followers in the way they – and we – need to experience it!

The Easter preacher, and I will be preaching on Easter, must thread the needle between several unhelpful, but popular homiletic options for his or her sermon. First, the preacher must avoid supernatural or literalistic explanations. Yes, Easter defies our medical, scientific, and rational models of reality. Brain death is exactly that, and after three days, nobody – Lazarus or Jesus – can come back as a whole human being. We cannot preach a supernatural Easter if this means perpetuating the theologically, spiritually, and politically dangerous “war on science.” In an era in which churches have drawn lines in the sand in relationship to scientific issues such as global climate change, evolution, and human reproduction, preachers do not need to encourage further schisms, which at the end of the day only hurt Christ’s message. We don’t need to perpetuate “false news” when we have “good news.”

Second, we need to equally avoid the rationalistic perspective that consigns resurrection to legend and fairy tale – to a made up story by the disciples or to a skeleton picked apart by ravenous dogs. There is more to reality than we can imagine and we should never limit reality to what we currently know, scientifically or intellectually. There are times when we need to rely on the miraculous, not as a chaotic disruption of dependable cause and effect relationships, but as the injection of new and creative energies that transform cells and souls. We cannot rule out resurrections, especially in the context of spiritual or theistic naturalism. Further, we can never domesticate or try to fully understand the first followers of Jesus experience or the resurrection itself, whether through biblical literalism or academic rationalism. Resurrection, like incarnation, is always “more” even if we can’t fully describe this unexpected injection of joy to our world. Something amazing happened on Easter – something really happened that cannot be denied – and it gave life to dead spirits and empowered the faint of heart to go into the whole world to share the message of good news.

What can progressive process theologians say about Easter? How do we affirm resurrection without supernaturalism, without over-rationalizing the event that created a movement? How do we leave room for mystery and accept the incredible as possible, even when it goes beyond everyday naturalism? Can we affirm miraculous bursts of quantum energy that bring life to the dead and that are nevertheless part of the regular cause and effect structure of the world? Can God who is always seeking the best for that impasse reveal Godself in dramatic, yet naturalistic ways, to transform our lives and the planet?

Easter morning literary or textual analyses of the scripture will not save either preacher or congregant. What is needed is the open door to wonder and possibility at the heart of the texts. As important as Acts and Colossians texts are, I will disregard them Easter morning as just “too much information,” and savor the Psalmist’s affirmation “This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” This is the day of new life and resurrection. Now is the day of salvation. Christ is rising in this holy here and now.

Mystery and wonder abound on Easter morning. Mary is transformed when Jesus calls her name. The ground shakes and the women, along with the soldiers, are astounded and filled with fear and trembling. Peter wonders what happened, and lives with amazement, not yet ready to share good news.

Easter hope is needed today. We see the powers of death, hell-bent on destroying the environment, turning back the clock on human rights, and rallying against science, pluralism, and rational thinking. We see Christians as leading the charge to destroy the Earth, disempower women and marginalized persons, and persecute Muslims. We need a resurrection and an empty tomb. We need horizons of possibility that call us to practice resurrection – to live by amazing and alternative possibilities and bring them to pass in our personal and professional lives. We need to rejoice, despite the deathful actions of our national and world leaders, and we need to live the Easter story like we really mean it!