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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=85

Easter Day, April 5, 2015                                                  St James', Peace River

 

The two great moments of the Christian year, Christmas and Easter, are both celebrations. They each celebrate new beginnings, and life, new life. But they're not the same. The good news of Christmas is unalloyed good news, and its image is a healthy baby boy, squalling in a manger, crying out to announce the birth of a completely new and unforeseeable way in which God loves us and all humanity and this world we live in.

 

Easter, though, is a different kind of good news. It's good news after bad. It's the new life of spring coming after a long winter, which some of us didn't make it through. It's life after death, joy after suffering, celebration after grief. Each of the readings we just heard brings that home in a different way. Isaiah looks toward a time, this Easter time, when God will wipe away tears; a time after a long time of waiting when we will be able to say God has saved us. The psalmist speaks of victory snatched from th jaws of defeat, and a stone that was rejected becoming the cornerstone. And Peter, sharing the good news about Jesus' resurrection with new believers in the book of Acts, reminds them how it came only after the authorities “put him to death by hanging him on a tree”, and even hints at how the experience of entering into Jesus' new life isn't just about going from one good thing to another, but about putting the old life of sin behind you.

 

The first Christians embodied that bittersweet message about Easter in the word they chose to describe its message. In English we say it's the “gospel”, the good news. We know the Greek word in English too - “evangel”, as in evangelist and evangelism, the good news we proclaim. But that word started life with a non-religious meaning. It meant the message of victory sent home by the general who won the war. So the evangel, the good news, was only ever heard by people in a state of anxiety and usually loss, thinking about the cost of battle and worrying whether their freedom or even their lives would survive it. The message of victory was good news coming after bad.

 

So the good news of Easter has a different quality about it. It's not less good, it's not a toned-down celebration, not at all. No one can celebrate quite like people who've felt that there might not be a celebration ever again. Isaiah tries to tell us – it's a feast of good wine and rich food, made all the more appetizing by the assurance that life and peace have finally won out. But it's a celebration which, for one reason or another, we may actually find it harder to enter into. There are a number of things which can potentially hold us back. We may be so used to life with its bumps and bruises – we call that realism – that our imagination just won't let go and realize what's really happening.


I remember hitting that wall once, in a very small way, one spring when I was a student in England. It was mid-March, and the daffodils and tulips were all blooming, the leaves were budding on the trees, and I was miserable. I couldn't understand why I felt so awful, in such a beautiful season, but then I figured it out: there had been no snow, so I just didn't think we deserved it yet! Neither my brain nor my body could process the good news that the spring was offering. In more powerful ways, I've also heard and seen stories of people with desperate needs for basic necessities like food and shelter, who have trouble adjusting to life when those needs are being met, because they just can't convince themselves that things are now OK.

 

I think the story of Mary Magdalene in the Easter garden, which I just read, encapsulates the challenge of entering into the Easter celebration. It struck me how Mary goes through stages in coming to terms with Jesus' risen presence, stages which are more familiar to us as the stages of grief. First, denial. It's not possible, and therefore it isn't happening. Then anger and bargaining, as she first confronts the person in front of her and demands to know what is going on, then pleads with him, saying she'll do whatever it takes to get back to the way events were supposed to be unfolding, to a predictable path where she knows what her responsibilities are and where she has the chance to carry them out. There is even a counterpart to depression, which Jesus hints at when he tells Mary not to hold on to him – she is stuck there for a moment, unable to imagine what to do, unable to move one way or the other. And finally, acceptance: “I have seen the Lord”, she announces to the other disciples.

 

Isn't it odd that the journey to accepting good news should so closely resemble the journey to accepting bad news? But maybe it's not so strange. To accept good news, to enter into the celebration, we have to give up being where we are, sitting in the ashes of our troubles. And there is always something comfortable about being where we are, even if it's just the comfort of habit or the darker comfort of pessimism. Plus, let's face it, good news is just as hard to believe as bad news is. We don't want to be taken in – taking people in is, after all, a multi-billion dollar industry. We want to be hard-headed about it, check things out, make sure it all rings true. And we want to stay in touch with reality.

 

So, it's certainly not an easy transition to make, when the gospel arrives, the good news coming after the bad. I don't blame you if you harbour a lurking sense that something about this is too good to be true; or a sense that this is a wonderful story, happily ever after and all, but sooner or later it's back to real life. What I hope you can see, though, is why that is exactly how it should feel, even if the story is true, because the problem isn't with the story, it's with us – we are overwhelmed, our senses aren't enough to take it all in all at once, maybe not even enough to take it all in in anything short of a lifetime.

 

The resurrection episodes in the Bible are full of illustrations of how that was true even for the first disciples. The women running away from the tomb in fear. The apostles locking themselves into an upper room. Thomas openly questioning whether anything had happened at all. Peter deciding it had all been a nice dream, but it's time to go back to fishing. Jesus having to ask for something to eat, in order to persuade his friends that he wasn't a ghost. It takes most of the book of Acts for the disciples to come to grips with the reality of what has happened, what it means for them, and how it literally changes everything.

 

But they do. And so do we. The habits of pessimism and doubt and limitation still linger with us, but they begin to drop away as we admit the possibility that God has done what God claims to have done, and as we start to act on that possibility. From where we stand today, we can look back on Good Friday and see it in a completely different light: not just as the worst thing human beings like us are capable of, but also as God's complete and utter disarming of us, and the way into the new life of Easter morning. And we can look back on our own personal Good Fridays in just the same way – whether it was a time that you betrayed or were betrayed, you can see that God is able to roll away the stone of whatever it is you've done or that has been done to you. You can walk out of the tomb with Jesus, and greet not just a new day but a new kind of life, a whole new dimension of living that you never realized was there. You can forgive and be forgiven. You can live, and share life. You can be healed and you can offer healing. You can, yourself, be the good news you are still receiving.

 

That's what we celebrate. That's why this celebration is greater than any other. And if it's also the reason why we don't totally get it yet, it's only because we are still waking up, into a world that is more real than the one we think we're being realistic about. Meeting Jesus today and every day, Jesus who died and is risen – that is the new normal. Let our hearts follow our voices, as we shout it out:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!