It is such a joyous morning! Everyone is dressed in colorful clothes, the choir and brass are here in full and wonderful sound, the flowers of spring surround us, inside and out. Easter is indeed a joyful day because it is the day we remember that God, in Jesus, conquered death and sin by rising from the grave.
And so we sing. Don’t you think the first disciples at the empty tomb must have sung in joy? It would not be an African spiritual like “My Lord, What a Morning,” or a hymn like “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” but it may have been a Hebrew song, a chant or a psalm.
Yet it is a joy, as is much joy, born out of despair. The joy of what we call Easter came after the despair of the events of Holy Week, and even before. Jesus’ ministry had not been smooth and seamless. We know from the gospels that Jesus had entered Jerusalem a week before in a parade, a seemingly happy event. Soon after, Jesus wept over the corruption of the city of Jerusalem. Then, in one of the few scenes where he was depicted as angry, he overturned the tables of money-changers at the temple. Leaders plotted to kill Jesus, the gospels tell us, along with Judas, one of his own disciples, even as the preparation for the Passover celebration began. Jesus transformed his last supper with the disciples into the rite that is now our communion. Or, in the Gospel of John, he washed his disciples’ feet, even as they protested a leader and teacher doing such a humble act for his followers. We know that Jesus prayed in the garden, with knowledge of the trial lay ahead for him. And it was in that garden that Judas betrayed him, and Jesus was arrested. He was bound and questioned before several authorities. Essentially, he was tried without representation. Then he was cruelly executed, as common criminals were executed in that time.
So these men and women who followed Jesus must have been devastated. Even though he tried to tell them what would happen, they could not fully comprehend, and they were scared. After all, they had left their families, their homes, their livelihoods, to follow this amazing preacher, teacher, and healer. They had put their hopes and dreams in him. And then, right in front of them, he was arrested and executed. They went back to their homes, discouraged and afraid.
All four gospels tell of the wonder of Easter morning, though the details differ in them. Yet in all, it is women who were first at the tomb, because they were going to prepare Jesus’ body for burial; they could not prepare it the night before, on their Sabbath. Upon reaching the tomb, it was obvious that the stone in front of the grave had been rolled away. In John, Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb. She saw the stone rolled away and ran back to two of the disciples to tell them – NOT that Jesus had risen, but that Jesus’ body was missing. Her first reaction was NOT joy, but dismay that someone had stolen the body. Mary and the two men went to the tomb and found it empty. The “other disciple” saw the grave clothes laid in the tomb and believed, the text tells us. Yet he and Simon Peter still did not fully understand what was happening. And they left.
But Mary stayed, not in joy, but crying in sorrow over what she saw as this unexpected theft of Jesus’ body. Two angels appeared to her and asked her why she was crying. Rather than being scared of the angels, she, in her despair, said, “I do not know where they have taken his body.” She still expected him to be dead, not living. Even when the risen Jesus appeared to her, she, in her grief, did not recognize him, and thought he was a gardener, and asked him where Jesus’ body might be. It was not until Jesus spoke her name that she recognized him. She wanted to touch him to see if this was all real. But Jesus told her not to hold on to him. He did not say, “Do not touch me,” but rather, “Do not hold onto me.” The Greek word here, hapto, means “to cling to, “to manage,” “to control.” It can even mean “to co-opt for one’s own ends.” So Jesus was telling her that things had changed, that he was not available in the same way as before, perhaps, that she could not stay by him and wait for him to be the one to act anymore. He told her what she needed to do – to go tell others what she had witnessed, that they too might believe and share and live out the good news.\
As we read this miracle story on this Easter morning, even in the midst of our joy, may we too stop to realize that we cannot make Jesus into what we want him to be, and that our job is the proclaim the good news that he lived out for us, in his words, in his actions, and in his living and dying and rising from the dead for us. The Word of God became flesh, became one of us, so that all might become “children of God” (John 1:12).
In the Church in America today, some are trying very hard to hold on to Jesus, to make him into what they want him to be. Some manage to somehow use the gospel message to judge others as unworthy, to not accept all as children of God. Some even proclaim that political candidates are elected because of God’s intervention, or in some other way misuse the gospel to align with their political messages, all in the name of the Christian Church. And that hurts the credibility of all of us who are truly Christians. There has grown to be too much division between political parties and nations, too much hatred and judgement between races and religions, and way too much unending and unstinting violence against innocent people.
Don’t you suppose that Jesus would say to us all “Do not hold on to me”?!? Don’t you think Jesus would tell us to act and speak in ways that would proclaim his gospel of love?
So think about how Jesus reacted to the turmoil of his time. He called the authorities out on the wrongs they were doing, but Jesus never talked of attacking (“smite” would be the old Bible word) the Romans who oppressed the Jewish people of his time. Jesus always stood up for those on the margins of society. He, like the prophets before him, urged us toward kindness and justice for the “least” among society. He did not argue with the authorities who tried him at the end. He did not even resist what was done to him, perhaps because he knew the rest of the story was necessary in order for humankind to realize that there is an alternative way to conquer that does not use violence, or domination, or lies, or manipulation.
Obviously, we in the church still have not learned how to live the whole truth of Jesus’ story. Yet the gospel message has carried many peoples through many difficult times. The slaves who might sing such a gospel song as “My Lord, what a morning,” were not always hopeful of overcoming their ordeal in their lifetimes. But they knew that the God to whom they could not hold on would conquer even their oppressors, without a raised weapon, some day. They knew, because of the gospel message, that violence cannot defeat love, that hatred and division cannot defeat love, that nothing in all creation can defeat the love of God found in Christ Jesus.
So, for me, and for you, since we are here in a Christian church, the guide to life is to follow this miraculous man/God, Jesus. Following Jesus gives us purpose and direction, and a way to get through the mess of life. We have chosen the Christian path to guide us into meaningful lives. Others may find equally good ways to live good, decent, caring lives. But for me and for you, following Christ is the way that guides us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God, and that is why we are here this morning. The good news directs us toward better living.
Even when life seems so difficult, even when morning after morning we wake up to bad news, either in the media or in our own lives, or both, we know, because of this Easter story, that God prevails over it all. Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop who stood up for racial equality in a divided nation at a time when it was very dangerous to do so, said, “Easter means hope prevails over despair. Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, God’s will for us will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”
So, friends, maybe the kind of joy we feel on Easter morning is not a joy that comes out of nowhere. It is not free floating, delirious, unbounded joy. Rather, it is a joy borne out of despair and oppression, out of utter rejection and even pain. When we sing “O Lord, What a morning,” or “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” we sing because we know, despite all that happens to us and around us, we have been blessed, we have been loved, and we will continue to be loved by the most forgiving and giving God. We sing because, no matter what else goes on in our lives and around us, we know that we are free, that we are forgiven, and that we are loved. And we know that we are called to go out and do the same, every single day of our lives. My Lord, what a morning! Today’s story, the Easter story changes us forever, for the better.
Thanks be to God. Allelujah! Amen!