Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Day: Believe and Understand

April 1, 2018 – Easter Day, Year B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, the phone rang. I didn’t hear it ring. I was seven-years-old and sound asleep in my bed, which was nowhere near the phone. (Sometimes I miss those days.) My mother, who slept by the phone, woke up with a start and answered it. “Hello?” she said, half-wondering who would be calling her so early and half-worried at what that person might want. “Emily, this is Mrs. Malone, your neighbor across the street,” the person on the other end said. “I’m sorry to call you so early, but I just looked outside my window, and I saw a big package sitting on your doorstep. I thought you’d want to go and see what it is.”

I don’t really remember Mrs. Malone. Other than her phone call and the occasional plate of homemade divinity that she would give to me and my brothers, I didn’t have any contact with her. I just knew that she was the very nice, very old lady who lived across the street. I can remember enjoying the treats she that gave us, but I can’t picture her face in my mind. I’m not sure I ever actually saw her—just her house, right across from my parent’s back door.

My mother, still half-asleep, went to the door to find the package that Mrs. Malone had seen. But, when she got to the door, there was no package. She opened it, walked down the steps, and looked around, but there was nothing. Confused, my mother went back to the phone, and even before she had picked it up and held it to her ear, she could hear Mrs. Malone laughing on the other end. “April fool!” she called out. “Thank you,” my mother said—what else could she have said?—and hung up with Mrs. Malone still laughing.

Later that morning at the breakfast table, my mother told us the story of what had happened, and I was as confused as my mother initially had been. “You mean…there was no package?” I asked, disappointedly. My mother shook her head. “Well, then why did she call you?” I asked, growing increasingly upset. My mom tried to explain that it was April Fools’ Day and that this was what people did to unsuspecting friends on that day and that Mrs. Malone had meant it as a silly gesture of affection. I took my mother at her word, believing what she said, but I didn’t really understand what she meant. How could someone wake you up to play a joke on you and do it because she loved you? In fact, every year, Mrs. Malone pulled the same trick, though I think that she only managed to get my mother out of bed once more, and she kept it up until she died.

Today, not because it is April Fools’ Day but because it is Easter, I find myself wondering again how it is that we can believe something without understanding it.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away. Without stopping to look inside, she ran back into the city to find Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple and tell them that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. (Why else would the stone be rolled away?) At once, the two men ran toward the tomb. The Beloved Disciple got there first, and he bent down to look inside and saw that the grave clothes had been left behind. When Peter arrived, he went into the tomb to see for himself, and the Beloved Disciple went in behind him. Then, the gospel tells us that “he saw and believed.” But it doesn’t tell us what he believed.

It’s possible that the Beloved Disciple believed everything that Easter represents: Jesus’ resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the promise of everlasting life, God’s great vindication of Jesus, and God’s rejection of the powers that crucified him. But, if that’s the case, it’s pretty strange that the next sentence in the gospel tells us that “they didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” What does that mean? And, if the Beloved Disciple really believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, it seems pretty strange that he and Peter would shrug their shoulders and go back home without telling anyone else.

It’s also possible that he believed simply what Mary Magdalene had told them: that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. But, again, that seems pretty strange. Why would John, whose whole gospel account revolves around the significance of that word “believe,” bother to tell us that the Beloved Disciple went into the tomb, saw that Jesus’ body wasn’t there, and believed but only mean that he believed the body had been stolen? I think it’s more complicated than that. Just like anything worth believing in, I think it’s more complicated than that.

On Easter Day, when we peer through the eyes of those first disciples, we are invited to see and believe that the Lord is risen and then spend a lifetime pursuing an understanding of what the resurrection means in our lives. The empty tomb means more than a misplaced body. Not long after the disciples had gone away to ponder what it was that they had seen, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. Overcome with grief, she could not even recognize the one standing in front of her. But then he called her name, and she recognized the risen Lord. That is the transformation that we seek. We aren’t just here to see that the stone has been rolled away and that the body is missing. We are here to encounter God’s victory over evil and sin and death, and to hear that victory speak our name and reveal itself to us. We want to experience the power of the resurrection two thousand years later yet feel it as new and fresh as if it were today.

God is breaking through the darkness. God is shattering the chains that imprison God’s people. That is what Easter means for us. Maybe the power of the resurrection is easy to see in your life. Maybe all around you old things are becoming new and things that had been cast down are being raised up. But maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe the empty tomb feels more like a story than a reality. Maybe the light of the resurrection seems to have gone into hiding behind a dark cloud. Maybe this feels more like an April Fools’ Day joke than a story you can bet your life on. If that’s the case, don’t worry. We are not here today to complete the work of the resurrection. We are here to see it get started. We are here to witness God’s victory over everything that stands in the way of the life that our loving God has in store for you, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand it yet. That’s why we follow Jesus—to discover the power of Easter as it unfolds over our lifetime.

So come to the tomb and see for yourself. Bend down. Go inside, and see what God has done. See for yourself that the tomb is empty and believe. Believe that God has done the impossible, that he has won for us a mighty victory. And, then, go forth from the tomb, seeking the fullness of the resurrection’s power in your life. Search for the power of Easter. Pursue its understanding, and trust that it will find you and speak your name.

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