Date: May 1, 2022
Scripture Lessons: John 20:19-21:19
Sermon: Making Peace with Easter
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
On Palm Sunday I overheard a conversation after church about Easter. One person was saying, See you next week. The other person was saying, Uh, it’s Easter, I don’t think so. I felt a lot of sympathy for the person with hesitancy about Easter. I, too, have issues with Easter.
Here are my three main problems with Easter:
The idea that Jesus’ literal crucified body came back to life. The literal body reappearing. The culture at the time, first century Palestine, had categories for such situations. Jesus was by no means the first or the only person who was considered to have come back to life from the dead. Other important figures were thought to have come back from the dead, too. Like Caesar. An important, influential figure coming back to life after dying was part of the cultural backdrop.
I understand that. But today, the idea of the literal body coming back to life is a contradiction of science and rationality to me. And in my world view, science and rationality are of God. So, I simply cannot believe that the literal body of the crucified Jesus came back to life.
I realize this is controversial within the Christian family; that believing the unbelievable is considered a sign of faith. I was at a UCC clergy meeting some years ago and it was just after Easter and we got to discussing Easter. Several others expressed views similar to mine. Finally, one of the colleagues in the group could take it no longer. He stopped the conversation and had us go around the table and say yes, we believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus or no, we did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The group was split about fifty-fifty. The one who called for the tally was aghast. To those who did not ‘believe,’ he told us that we had no business being ordained clergy if we did not believe the one most important truth about Christianity. Jesus Christ came back to life from the dead. Well, I stand by my position then and now. To say I believe something I don’t would be lying and deceitful. And there are problems with that, too.
Here is my second problem with Easter:
The idea that Jesus is the first born of the dead and that we are all going to enjoy eternal life after we die. Or at least those of us who are deemed worthy. In the first century and before, there was a small sect within Judaism that believed in life after death. But it was not the generally held view among Jews.
I can see how this idea of life after death, heaven, was of great comfort to the Jesus followers who were being persecuted and killed in the centuries after his death. They had left family and home to become Christians and then they were killed for it. I can see how it would have provided enormous comfort to believe that there was a beautiful life with God in heaven after being killed as a martyr. But in today’s world, with our knowledge, all I can say about life after death is, ‘I don’t know.’ I can’t say that there is nothing after we die. That there is no ‘heaven.’ And I can’t say that there is. I think each of us comes to our own conclusions and they may change over time. As a pastor, my job is to help people mobilize their spiritual resources especially in time of grief, so if you believe in heaven, life after death in some way, I can support you in that. And if you don’t believe there is anything after this life, I can go with that. So, the idea of some kind of heaven, eternal life with God after death, is another problem I have with Easter.
Now, the third problem I have with Easter:
The Happy Ending. Most Christians in the US go to church on Palm Sunday and wave their palms and sing Hosanna! And then the next week, they go to church for Easter, with all the flowers and alleluias and resurrection. Very few also go to the Maundy Thursday service or the Good Friday observance. So, they go from one festive Sunday to the next. And Easter becomes the happy ending. Which we Americans particularly like. Our movies and books and other entertainments pretty much serve the happy ending paradigm. This goes with our American optimism. We like a happy ending. And so we impose our proclivity for a happy ending on Easter. Other cultures and expressions of Christianity put far more emphasis on Good Friday than we do. Sure, we want the day off from school or work. To go to the beach or the mall. Not to go to church. I can testify to that.
In other places, the whole town turns out as someone cast as Jesus heaves the heavy cross through the streets. Not so much here. That is not for we ‘happy ending’ Americans.
I bought a book of Italian folk tales at a used book stall a couple of years ago. My father’s family was from Italy. I read the first story. And laughed. Because it didn’t have a happy ending. A plucky young man lasts through an awful night in a haunted palace and comes out of it alive with three pots of gold to boot. And this is how the story ends: “Then one day what should he do but look behind him and see his shadow: he was so frightened he died.” [Italian Folktales selected and retold by Italo Calvino, p. 4.] The story is definitely not American. In America we like our happy endings. And that is what we see in Easter. A happy ending. Everything turns out ok. All wrapped up. We don’t focus on the emergence of a whole new reality and the transformation that is involved. Easter is about a transformation of reality where the dominant forces are love, compassion, and justice, not self-interest and greed, which are also very American. Easter is not just: They killed him. He came back. And he’s taking me with him. ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian.’ It’s not just about a happy ending.
So, given these problems that I have with the Easter story, I imagine being in a situation where I have to explain my religion to someone with no concept of Christianity: We follow Jesus who was killed and rose from the dead and gives to everyone who believes in him eternal life. Ah, no. That is not what I would say.
So how do I resolve my problems with Easter? First I remember that Jesus was pointing people to God, not to him. For Jesus it was about God. People subsequently made it about him. Easter reminds me that the God of our faith is a God that loves us into life and beyond death. Our faith is grounded in love that is the most powerful force imaginable. More powerful even than death. You can’t squelch Divine Love. Love cannot be put out; extinguished. That is what we see in the life and ministry of Jesus. And that message lives in the Easter story.
The Easter story also reminds me that we live each and every day with the existential reality of death. And we have to decide what we are going to do with that. Are we going to be anxious and fearful? Are we going to try to make a big mark in this life so that we are remembered after we die? Are we going to accept death as part of the cycle of life? Does believing in some kind of eternal life after we die give comfort? If it does, then take it. Hold on to that. Each one of us has to reckon with the power of death. And it is up to us to decide how we do that in a way that is life-affirming. That is another message that lives in the Easter story.
The Easter story also reminds me not about happy endings, but about the triumph of good over evil. While we humans often do our best to further evil, good prevails. Even in the worst circumstance, good can come from our terrible actions and decisions and beliefs. Our worst can never snuff out the possibility for good to come out of a heinous situation. It is not necessarily what we might call a happy ending, but in some way, eventually, good prevails. That is another message that lives in the Easter story for me.
Yes, Easter involves a reality-bending story, but it has to. Because the point is to free our imaginations to embrace the endless power and possibility of love. To talk about that takes a mind-bending tale. Because of Easter, I can believe that some day all people will be treated equally in these United States of America and that freedom will ring. Because of Easter, I can believe that someday the people of Ukraine and Russia will live as friendly neighbors. Because of Easter, I can believe that the divisions in America can be healed. Because of Easter, I can believe that poverty can be exterminated. Because of Easter, I can believe that climate change is real and that life will persist and triumph. Because of Easter, I can believe that estranged family members can be reconciled. Eventually. Because of Easter I can believe that a murderer can be forgiven. Because of Easter.
Easter opens us to unforeseen possibilities. We are no longer limited or constrained by the past. A new future is possible. Because of Easter, our imaginations are freed to embrace the endless power and possibility of love. So, yes, I have problems with the Easter story, but those problems lead me to a greater appreciation of the festival of Easter so that I can rejoice in the power of unrestrained love and hope that cannot be contained and is seeking to burst forth into our lives and our world. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.