Preacher: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Response: He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Is he? Are you quite sure of that? Personally, I would find it a great deal more reassuring if the women who were there that morning—there in the cemetery, there at the tomb—had departed with a bounce in their step, and hope in their hearts, and faith on their tongues.
They did not. They did not skip and prance from the tomb bursting with joy. I wish I could report to you that they had. On the contrary, they fled the tomb, seized with terror.
It hardly counts as a shout of victory over death.
And one has to ask: Is that any way to stage a resurrection?
Take a look: Early in the morning, the women make their way to the tomb. Red-eyed and puffy-eyed from sleeplessness and grief they pass quietly through streets and down paths until they reach the place of burial. They bear spices with which to provide final, tender ministrations to the body of the one they had so loved ... whose limbs they have come to caress with ointments, whose dried blood they will wipe away, and whose battered torso they will swathe in fragrant spices.
Instead, they are startled by a young man—an angel—whose first words are predictable enough. Anyone who knows their Bible knows that 99 times out of a 100 when humans encounter angels the first words out of the angel’s mouth are always the same: “Do not be afraid.”
I suppose this could reflect on angels. It could be that they are more frightening than our artists have imagined. More likely, it says something about the state in which angels typically find us: afraid, worried, anxious, fretting.
After all, fear is a nearly constant companion for us: Our ancestors slept fretfully and awoke warily each new day to the terrifying prospect of living amidst dinosaurs. Perpetually in need of food, they hunted equally hungry and desperate creatures ... creatures equipped with fangs and claws, hooves and horns. Our ancestors lived with fear.
All these millennia later, despite the frozen meat section, we still exist in a state of fear. In recent years we have been terrified together as global financial markets collapsed, whole countries teetered on the brink of disaster and giants of industry and finance showed a soft underbelly many had never suspected.
Many among us are terrified by the prospect of empty retirement accounts, by the peril of losing homes, the horrors of climate change, the inability to purchase for children the educations for which we had been saving ...
Before that, we were terrified by terror. Before that there was anthrax, Y2K, the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear holocaust … And, too, there are the timeless worries: of terrifying medical diagnoses, of vicious tornadoes and ferocious hurricanes, fear of losing jobs that provide both security and identity, ... and, not least ... fear of old age and death.
“Don’t be afraid!” say the angels who find us in a more or less constant state of fear. To which we are tempted to retort: “Easy for you to say.”
Therefore, if it had been up to me—if I were God—I would have staged the resurrection quite differently. I would have done everything possible to avoid the women running away in fear.
I would have brought to the resurrection something, in fact, of the stagecraft we have brought to this moment: trumpets, tympani, big hymns, blooming flowers … and a brightly clad host of people, who at the moment of resurrection would have stood wide-eyed, slack jawed and uttered appropriate exclamations: Oo! Aaa! Well, I never! Wow-zer! … Holy Moley! ... Land sakes, and of course, Alleluia!
If I were God I would have timed and staged the resurrection to occur right in front of people whose eye-witness accounts could have thwarted forever all the doubt and uncertainty that has plagued this central tenant of Christianity for these two thousand years.
Instead, because God failed to stage and time the resurrection to its best effect, the women miss the resurrection by minutes, collide with an angel, let fall their precious spices and flee the tomb afraid, seized with terror.
But here’s the thing: they don’t stay afraid. That’s the story I so want you to hear this morning. It did not happen immediately: not that moment. Not even that day. Over time the women, and Peter, and the other disciples shed their fears. Overtime, they grew less and less tentative, and more and more confident of the meaning of this morning, this Easter morning.
Over time they came to experience Jesus, not as a memory of one who had died, but as a presence of one who yet lived. Over time they came to trust that the One whom God sent to challenge the powers and the principalities of this world, lives on.
They came to trust that the One who loved the unlovely, who lifted the oppressed, lives on.
They came to know that the One who overcame divisions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, lives on …
Over time, so real was their experience of the risen Christ that their hearts warmed and thrilled to the assurance that death died ... death died on the cross with Jesus.
The experience of Easter—of resurrection—is not something that can be arrived at in the twinkling of an eye. Not any more than the fears which plague us can be overcome by the words of an angel who proposes to instruct us: “Don’t be afraid.”
Instead, Easter is a dawning thing.
God chooses to relate to us, not as a conjurer, but as a connector … not as a performer, but as a presence ... not as a magician, but as a mother.
The sweet secret of Easter is this: God is more shy than showy. God does not wish to wow you, so much as woo you.
God will not coerce you to faith … not even on Easter.
No, Easter is a dawning thing. Resurrection is a dawning thing. It dawns under the power of relationship with the living Christ whose presence we learn to see, and sense, and trust over the course of a life-time of relationship and discipleship.
Easter is God’s tender, sweet, intimate whisper: “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen, indeed, Alleluia.
If you are not yet able to trust this ... if you cannot yet hear God’s whispered assurance that death is dead: that’s okay. It took Mary and the disciples quite some time. Be patient with yourself and with God ... and keep at it.
Easter is a dawning thing.