Texts: Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12
Yesterday, I dashed into Steinmart after having made a quick trip to Cokesbury, and there before my wondering eyes was the most gorgeous array of women’s hats that I have seen for some time. The hats brought to mind Ted and Bill serenading Mary Steele each Easter Sunday morning about her Easter bonnet with the song and lyrics by that great Jewish song writer, Irving Berlin:
In your easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the easter parade.
I’ve always loved hats, and for a brief silly moment, I imagined myself standing in pulpit with robe and stole and a wonderful Easter bonnet. One of these years, I might do it.
In some ways, it would have been an appropriate metaphor in liturgical clothing for the raucous, joyful, hilarity that Easter represents: God’s joke on Death, the presumed final arbiter and end of life.
Except…Easter isn’t about colored eggs, chocolate, plastic grass in plastic baskets, little girls’ frilly dresses and boys dressed up in new formal clothes, or even a new suit for us more mature individuals, or a spectacular Easter bonnet—also useful here in Kentucky for Derby Day– arrayed with ribbons and flowers.
Easter is about hope, and almost more hope than we dare to think possible.
That first day of the new week after Jesus was crucified wasn’t exactly an Easter parade of jollity for the grieving and devastated women who went to the grave to embalm the battered body of their beloved teacher, a teacher who had elevated them, and never demeaned or belittled them, but who had allowed them to be part of his retinue of followers on the way. Luke tells us that when they got to the tomb, went in, and found the body missing there was no great joy, no gasps of awe, just perplexity, confusion. Clearly, the women…and the men to whom they reported their experience, were not expecting resurrection. It did not occur to them that Jesus would have risen from death, despite his repeated statements about what was to happen, his impending arrest and execution, and subsequent rising. It dawned on them, and slowly, as it does for most of us.
The women had not gone to the graveyard looking for answers; death had been the answer, and they were well acquainted with its grief. They had gone to the tomb to find a dead body, only to find the stone rolled away, and no body in the tomb. Luke tells us they were met by two men in dazzling clothes. In Mark’s Gospel there is only one; Matthew’s Gospel, written later, makes him an angel. Perhaps Luke means us to understand the two men in their sparkling array as symbols of the incredible beauty and multiplicity of LIFE itself. The women had not been afraid of death, but before this display of shimmering life, they are petrified and fall with their faces to the ground.
A question addresses them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? he is not here, but has risen. REMEMBER how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they REMEMBERED his words…”
It took the community to REMEMBER. Together, they remembered the love that would not let them go, together they reminded the apostles of what their Lord had predicted and said. Yet still the men resisted, thinking it just gossip and an idle tale. Peter, tantalized by the memory, the remembering, runs to the tomb, finds the report of the women accurate, and then…of all things, he goes home, amazed. He wasn’t joyful. Peter was stunned, surprised, puzzled, full of wonder.
It was the women who were the first to proclaim the Gospel: the simplest, the most disenfranchised, the least respected went to tell the hierarchy, the clergy, the facts of LIFE, because, in community, they were able to remember. And so, too, it was to be among the apostles. For the risen Lord came to them, not one by one, but as they were gathered, in the breaking of bread, in the simple acts of fishing, and having breakfast on the sea shore. Only Paul met Jesus alone on that road to Damascus, and he had to be taken to a community of remembrance to understand what had happened to him.
You and I need communities of remembering, for we tend to get distracted, to disbelieve alone, to wander away once whatever powerful charismatic person who had made sense of all this life to us has passed from our midst, and we lose our grasp on what we were taught and what truths spoke to the heart of the human condition, our condition.
That, at the minimum, is what the church is: a community of remembering. And the remembering leads us, as it led the women, and later the more distrusting men, deeper into an experience of more trust, which is the essence of faith, that there is a hope beyond our wildest expectations: that a God beyond our understanding has demonstrated in the life of the Son of Man, as the two strangers at the tomb called him—Humanity itself—that death will not have the final word about life, and that, as Peter says in the oldest Easter sermon in our New Testament, that in him, our sins are forgiven and the past is over, and new life has been given to us. New creation is not just a dream, it is real, here and now.
That’s why Easter begins in remembering but moves everyone who even takes a glimpse at it into the future: for, as Catholic theologian Hans Kung has said, “Memory is the springboard for hope; memory enables us to leap forward into the unknown future.”
We do not know what happened to Jesus body. Luke’s two men who appear at the tomb keep asking us the question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” So resurrection is not about the past, it is not the past Jesus come to physical being again as a resuscitated body. Easter is NOT about just our individual hopes for life after death. Whatever that will be, I believe we must leave to a God who demonstrates that our powers of rational comprehension are too limited to grasp. Resurrection is about life NOW. Resurrection is a call to the table, to community where reconciliation and healing are the new vocations of every single person who remembers Christ. Easter is a commissioning—as we shall hear again at the end of the season of Eastertide when we meet Jesus on the mountaintop in Galilee—to carry hope and good news to all people. Easter is a call, a vocation laid upon us, to be ourselves resurrection people, people who stand up for the least of our brothers and sisters, people who work for the health of individuals and communities, people who welcome the lepers, the tax collectors, the rich and poor who live on margins, and those deemed outcast by the larger world. Easter is re-membering, making incarnate again in our flesh and blood, the body of the Christ, broken so that we might have life and have eternal life now and in whatever may come.
So the church, frail and flawed though it may be, offers each week a way to experience that holiness—through sacrament, silence, word, beauty, community—encounter with God, with the holy essence that is our life, who comes to us across the abyss of death to raise us to fullness of life once more.
Whatever happened on that first Easter Sunday—and you and I, having only the testimony of the eyewitnesses several times removed to rely upon, will never know more than what the gospel writers tell us—whatever happened did not deny the reality of death. In fact, it is an affirmation that this world matters; the bodies of our being, our physical selves, matter.
Easter is a summons to return, to re-member to the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels, and by joining Jesus in resisting all those forms of death and violence that saturate our culture.
Easter declares that the tomb cannot hold God’s love in person on earth. The tomb is too small to focus even on what resurrection really is. His work was among the living, to whom he appeared not once but four more times in the Gospel of John. Every time he came to his friends they became stronger and wiser, kinder and more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.
It is those appearances, those experiences in the lives of people like you and me, that clinch the Resurrection for me. Easter morning doesn’t happen in a flash. It begins with the darkness of Calvary, in the darkness of our lives, in communities where we are willing to share our hopes and dreams. In dawning times, there comes a meeting, sometimes with a stranger whom we may think is someone quite different, and slowly, as the community of remembrance is met by one who already knows us very well. The light begins to emerge. We remember. We believe with our hearts, and we become in our very selves, God’s new creation. So may Christ’s resurrection break open our sometimes stony hearts and often shuttered minds to see in wonder what God has done for all creation. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Amen.