Here we are. It’s the climax of the year for Christians — Easter Sunday. Today we celebrate as fully as we can the crucial point of our existence: death did not have the final say over the life of Jesus and in his resurrection is the promise of ours. While it’s a message that we carry with us every day, it is today especially that we shout it from the rooftop.
But all of this attention on Easter misses the important steps that led to Easter and that make Jesus’ resurrection that much more meaningful. It’s like jumping to the very last Harry Potter book and going, “Cool. Harry and his friends win.” Sure, the victory is there but the depth of its meaning is lessened without all that led up to it.
It’s why I’ve tried to pastor the church in such a way to take this whole journey together. If we jump from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the bigger celebration of Easter, we’ve missed a lot of the gravity that makes these celebrations matter. It’s why the services that we held on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have “the service is concluded and worship continues” in them. (And, to be honest, it doesn’t help that the high holy days of spring break often coincide with the actual High Holy Days of this week. Not that I blame anyone for wanting a spring break from our rainy spring weather!)
But, let me say this, walking these holy days together gives a depth of meaning that is hard to grasp when we don’t walk them step-by-step. These holy days turn our faith from a simple sketch into a three-dimensional view of the world. And they equip us to live now.
For, my dear friends, I’m glad it’s Easter, but we live in a Good Friday world. What do I mean by that? What we celebrate today — Jesus’ resurrection — has happened but the creation is still groaning under the burden of sin until God makes all things new. It’s a Good Friday world. It’s the kind of world that can take the perfect, sinless person, Jesus, and hang him on a cross. It’s the kind of world that prefers power to humility, that values violence over peace, that emphasizes merit over grace.
Our passage from Jeremiah gives a good picture of what it means to have Easter hope in a Good Friday world. Jeremiah writes during a terrible time for the Jewish people. Two hundred years earlier the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, but the southern kingdom of Judah still stood. But Jeremiah is writing while Babylon has stormed Judah and is carrying the people into exile. All that God had promised to Abraham back in Genesis — that his offspring would outnumber the stars, that they would live in this land, and that they would bless all the families of the earth — all of that was evaporating before there eyes. Just like the hopes and dreams of Jesus’ followers were dashed on the rocks of Good Friday at his crucifixion, so the exile was dashing the hopes of the Jews.
Yet, the passage in Jeremiah 31 is brimming with hope, isn’t it? The people who “survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” This people bound for exile are told of a time when they will build and celebrate, when they will plant and eat the harvest. It’s even a picture of the northern and southern kingdoms reunited. They live in a Good Friday world, but they have hope.
We, too, live in a Good Friday world. It’s a world where our hopes and dreams go unrealized. It’s a world where what we thought was good gets trampled by what we know is not good. It’s a world where there is disease, where relationships break down, and where sometimes it’s a struggle to just make it another day. It’s a Good Friday world with contentious school board meetings and devastating, unjust war. It’s a Good Friday world where it appears that wickedness gets rewarded and goodness is viewed as weak and innocence is viewed as naïve.
On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This isn’t theater. Jesus isn’t just saying this because he’s in pain. No, Jesus is experiencing the very absence of God in that moment. It’s a terrible moment. Perhaps it’s the most terrible moment in human history. From the afternoon on that Friday until sunrise on Sunday, it felt as though evil had won. It, too, is part of the journey from Jesus’ arrest to his crucifixion. This is no commercial break on our way to Easter. Jesus’ body lay in the tomb under careful watch. On that day Jesus was utterly vulnerable. In Jesus’ total weakness, he was dead after all, God acted. God raised Jesus from the dead. God took the despair of Good Friday and resurrected it with Easter hope.
In the words of Douglas Hare, “The Easter event is properly seen as God’s comment on Good Friday.” This sentiment is shared by N. T. Wright. “The God who remained apparently silent on Good Friday is having the last word.” It’s hard at times living in between Good Friday and Easter, but take heart. It’s a Good Friday world, but Easter is coming.
And why is it coming? Because God has not once given up on his everlasting love for the creation. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says the Lord in Jeremiah. These are words God says to people whose lives have been turned upside down. They have not been faithful in their love, but God has. And that’s good news for all of us because our hearts are wayward. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has gone our own way, but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, keeps making the way for us to come home.
So, we may be happy that it is Easter, but let’s be honest. Not everyone is thrilled with the idea that God would raise Jesus from the dead. Jesus had been talking openly about it, and there were legitimate concerns that things were not settled with Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew’s account of this is vivid. After Jesus’ has died, Pilate gives the body to Joseph of Arimathea. Since the sun will soon go down and the Sabbath will begin, there is only time to wrap Jesus’ body in a linen cloth, lay it in the tomb, and roll the stone in front of it. Matthew reports that two Marys witness this. They see the body secured in the tomb.
The next morning some religious leaders go to the Roman consul, Pontius Pilate, worried that Jesus’ followers will do something to make it look like Jesus got up from the dead. They want Pilate to post guards at the tomb for three days to ensure the disciples don’t steal the body. Both these religious leaders and Pilate are interested in maintaining the status quo, where nothing can disrupt the way things are, particularly not some radical teacher and his followers who think the dead will be raised.
So, Pilate lets them set guards outside of the tomb. “Go,” he says. “Make it as secure as you can.” So, they place guards outside the tomb and seal the stone. Nothing and no one is getting in or out of that tomb. It strikes me that they’re afraid of two possibilities. The first is the simpler one. They are afraid that someone will steal the body and claim that the body’s absence from the tomb is proof that Jesus is alive. But the second fear is that Jesus might actually be raised from the dead, and if that happened, everything changes. People do not die and then stop being dead, as much as we wish that were the case for those we’ve lost.
John Buchanan, the now retired pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, puts this so well, “If Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, God’s anointed, God incarnate, and if somehow in him the power of death was defeated, we are living in a brand-new world. Thousands of preachers…on Easter Sunday act like those…men when they try to explain the resurrection, make it safe, secure. It was Jesus’ teachings that live on, we sometimes say. Or his sweet spirit lived beyond him, or his resurrection really just points to the power of life we see every springtime….None of that is very compelling. None of that is what faith claims this day. Jesus Christ is risen. Death could not hold him. He and what he stood for were not defeated as everybody thought. Death is defeated — and we are living in a new world.”
The two Marys are ready for the new day dawning. They had watched Jesus’ body go into the tomb. On Sunday morning they go again to look at the tomb. While they stand outside of it, just as the sun is creeping over the horizon in the east, a great earthquake strikes. An angel of the Lord arrives, rolls away the stone, shaking all of these macho soldiers to their core. These guards placed there in the hopes of maintaining the status quo and now like dead men themselves, watching God make a way despite human efforts to stop it.
But the angel turns to the women. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says. “You’re looking for Jesus, but he’s not here. He has been raised. Go tell the disciples.” So, the women leave, in Matthew’s words, “quickly with fear and great joy.” How else could we describe the magnificence of that moment? Of course, you’d be afraid! You just encountered and angel who shook the earth, and you’ve been told that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But on their way to the disciples, Jesus meets the women. “Do not be afraid,” he tells them. And I imagine that seeing Jesus alive, in the flesh, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion, has taken away their fear. All that’s left is great joy.
The world thought securing the tomb was the way to keep life the way they thought it should be. But the real security is found only in accepting God’s work through Jesus. That’s what strips away the fear. That’s what gives us hope. That’s what gives us the courage to live in this Good Friday world — because we know that our Easter hope makes this a totally different place.
But we need each other to remind us again and again that God’s everlasting love is present in the ups and downs of life. So, we gather to celebrate the resurrection in ways that remind us that the community matters. We gather in our churches because this truth is so big we need help understanding it. We sing what we are learning to believe. We bring flowers to church as reminders of the fundamental beauty and goodness of the creation. We gather because we know that Easter is God’s last word for this Good Friday world.
I’ll give the final word for today to Frederick Buechner:
The proclamation of Easter Day is that all is well.
And as a Christian, I say this not with the easy optimism
of one who has never known a time when all was not well
but as one who has faced the Cross in all its obscenity as well as in all its glory,
who has known one way or another what it is like to live separated from God.
In the end, his will, not ours, is done. Love is the victor.
Death is not the end. The end is life. His life and our lives, through him, in him.
Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction
than the wildest visionary ever dared to dream.
Christ our Lord is risen.