Because if you miss the significance of the events, actions and teaching of Jesus’ final week, particularly how and why he was arrested and killed, and the way reality was transformed forever on that first Easter morning; then you miss everything.
You may as well be reading a biography or other historical document; a fable perhaps, or a document that might be very interesting, but certainly not life-changing, not mind-altering, not the basis of hope for Jesus’ disciples, for the world, or for you and me today.
The authors of the gospel were not writing biographies, they were describing key events, turning points in their own lives. Their stories bear witness to personal experiences that altered their lives forever. No biography, inspiring as it may be, has the power to do that- sending ripples into the universe that still inspires and infuses life with meaning for millions of people more than two thousand years later.
Easter is a day of joy for Christians. It seems perfectly fitting that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year. Our world needs more playfulness, foolishness and joy. As Pope John Paul II once said, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.”
But sometimes we forget this, particularly when our world does not reflect or appear to contain much happiness of hope. On Easter morning in 1951 Bishop Fulton Sheen stated that there was not as much joy that day as there ought to have been.
Bishop Sheen said this was because the enemies of God were too optimistic, and the friends of God were too pessimistic, and provided two reasons why he believed this to be true:
1. In 1951, 37% of the world’s people were living under the rule of what he described as an atheistic communist government.
2. The cold war developing between the then Soviet Union and the United States increased the threat of global nuclear war and destruction of the planet as each nation stockpiled increasing numbers of nuclear weapons.
The combined tensions of that era led many people to build bomb shelters in their backyards; schools drilled students with the famous “duck and cover”; air raid sirens were erected and regularly tested in every town and city across the country.
In 1951 it was impossible to believe the Soviet Union would dissolve and communism fall within fifty years, or that people in Russia would once again wait in lines to attend church on Easter morning.
I wonder what those listening to Bishop Sheen that day, if they were transported to this Easter would think or about our current world situation- surely they would celebrate many things, but once again Britain, the United States and twenty N.A.T.O. nations have together ousted scores of Russian diplomats in response to a blatant attack by Moscow in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England. Now Russia has expelled more than 60 foreign diplomats in retaliation.
So, would people transported here from 1951 find anything much different? Really?
They might find things worse from this temporal perspective, especially looking at the same political corruption, rivalries and anxiety still plaguing the world. As I shared a few weeks ago in worship, building bomb shelters is already popular again, only this time they are designed with more luxuries, like fitness rooms, and long-term potential.
In 1951 no one had ever heard of, or witnessed, or been affected by mass murders at public schools, college campuses, movie theaters and nightclubs, or church meetings.
In 1951 the world had not yet seen or experienced the incomprehensible violence of terrorist groups such as ISIS. Even the concept of a plane “high-jacker” or “suicide bomber” was years away.
I do not know what someone transported here from 1951 would say. They very well may say things look just as bad, or worse.
But on Easter morning in 2018 I believe three things are true:
First, I believe whenever you compare a nation, or a people to the ideals of the Kingdom of God that people will fall short. We all do, and we always will. This is no excuse, but human reality. It is why we need grace. It is why we try to follow Jesus.
Second, in so many ways, and often by seemingly miraculous means, life is better than it was in 1951. Here is one example that may help you think of countless others. Nancy, who participates in our weekly Bible study group is a surgical Pediatric nurse who works in the operating Room at Boston Children’s Hospital. She and the medical team with whom she works help children survive who would otherwise die from congenital abnormalities. For example, some children are born without vertebrae connecting the head and neck. Several delicate surgeries possible today enable these children to live. These are miraculous surgeries not possible in 1951.
A third thing I believe on this Easter is that the challenges we face today as a nation and global community may feel greater to us than those faced by Bishop Sheen and those who listened to his Easter message 67 years ago. But the people listening to that message in 1951 could not imagine the challenges of today, and many could not believe things could ever get better then. But life did get better, and life still does get better in so many significant ways we overlook or do not notice.
Last Sunday I spoke about two parades, two choices, two paths by which we move through life.
Fulton Sheen described these two in terms of pessimism and optimism; but I believe the essential question is one of belief. Each person lives by a belief system; what we really believe about our life, and its ultimate purpose and meaning. What we believe about our life determines the values by which we live, including how/if we value a spiritual life. Our belief systems necessarily include asking ourselves what we believe about Jesus. This is what each author of a gospel answers for themselves; and this is what Easter forces us to ask ourselves.
In that same Easter sermon Bishop Fulton Sheen asked, “What is all of this false optimism of the enemies of God and unwarranted despair of God’s friends but a repetition of what happened in the last few days of Jesus’ life, when his enemies were confident, and his disciples despairing?”
When Jesus was removed from the cross and Joseph of Arimathea went to ask for the body, the word he used was “soma,” which is a term of respect for a body.
When Pilate replied, the term Pilate used was “ptoma,” a word which means not respect, but cadaver, or rubbish.
In a final show of contempt for the rubbish-body of Jesus, Pilate asserted his power and placed guards at the tomb after it was sealed by rolling a large boulder across the entrance. It was finally over.
Those who had followed Jesus were just as certain of his absolute death and defeat on the cross. This is why they disperse and go home. And when the women go to the grave early that morning with spices they did not go to greet a risen Savior; they went to properly anoint a dead body.
When the women do begin to understand just what may be happening, and run to tell the others, we are told, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (vs.11)
Here is that word again: believe.
Believe is the Easter word: Do you believe in a future that leads you to live in hope for your life, for those you love, for the world God loves?
Without such a faith, Easter means nothing.
Episcopal priest and author Frederick Buechner put it like this: “We can say that the story of the resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say the resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, in the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his example. Or we can say that the language in which the gospels describe the resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. Very often, I think, this is the way the Bible is written . . . but in the case of the resurrection, this simply does not apply because there is really no story about the resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament itself proclaims it. Unless something very real took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no church, no Christianity . . . yet we try to reduce it to . . . the coming of Spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the resurrection is all about, but they are not. . . they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points. . . if I believed that this, or something like this was all the resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to.”
There is that word again: believe.
Why believe? Because if we do, God just may take us at our word, and meet us here, or take us to places we cannot imagine.
God may show us things that will change our lives forever- if we believe.
One of my most gifted colleagues, the late Rev. Laron Hall spoke of the glory of God even as he faced a terminal illness: “Oh, I tell you, my Christian friends, we just have no idea of the glory of our God, how God can take the worst this world has to offer, the most brutal cruelties and most grievous acts of blatant sinfulness, and twist those misshapen deeds into words of wonder and beauty.”
A beautiful statement of belief and faith from a colleague who died from H.I.V. at the age of 41.
From the wretched nightmare of the worst humans can be and do: the holocaust of WWII endured and witnessed by Bishop Sheen and his generation, the systematized persecution of people of faith in the former Soviet Union of which Bishop Sheen spoke, to the terrorism and polarization of people living in our world and nation today, people who follow Jesus still believe, still hope and still live with joy in the promises of God. And we still see the evidence of faith, in operating rooms in places like Boston Children’s Hospital, and countless other places and people- if we pay attention to the daily miracles surrounding us in life.
This is the grace and the glory of Easter: that life in Christ holds us up when life batters and abuses us. There is no better message for Easter or for April Fool’s Day.
Because Jesus walked away from a tomb constructed by human hands, people of faith believe we will walk away from these same constraints- but not only in death- but time after time when we are confronted with the powers of death, and hate, and violence.
It is something like this comment by Richard Rohr:
When you are a ‘holy fool’ you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am . . . and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Whether it be A.D. 51, 1951, or 2018 the essence of Easter remains the same: believe.
Everything else follows, one way or the other, from a basic distinction that began on Palm Sunday and leads us to this morning- it is the question we are faced with every Easter: in what or in whom do we believe? In whose procession do we walk?
John and the other authors of the gospel, declare that the first and last word belong to the God who created, redeems, and sustains us and all that is- the same God who announces:
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!