You can listen to my Easter Day sermon here. Or, read on.
A few weeks ago, I met a guy named Sam. Sam is a retired Medical Examiner whose jurisdiction included something like 10 million people and several Midwestern cities. He has, quite understandably, seen it all, but one story stands out among all the rest. One night, Sam received a call at his home at about 2 o’clock in the morning. Outside of town, there was a man who needed to be pronounced dead: he had keeled over after a night of drinking. Sam gathered himself, got dressed, and drove a little ways out into the country where he found a less-than-desirable watering hole full of patrons in the various stages of drunkenness lamenting over the dead man lying cold and motionless on the floor. There were no visible signs of life: no heartbeat or breathing, but my friend began his work by giving him a shot of atropine and adrenaline and doing a few chest compressions. Within seconds, the dead man began breathing. Then, he opened his eyes. The bartender quickly called 911 again, and the once dead man was swept off to the hospital. Before the doors closed on the ambulance, Sam had several drinks waiting for him on the bar. A rousing celebration ensued, until, at about 4:30am, he decided to call his wife for a ride home. Thinking about how Sam’s wife must have felt when she answered the phone at 4:30 in the morning and heard her slightly inebriated miracle worker medical examiner husband on the other end can help us better understand the Easter story.
You see, when we last saw Jesus, he was dead. Really dead. As the sun began to set on Friday, the Sabbath was approaching quickly. Not wanting to risk any uncleanliness, the religious leaders asked the Roman authorities to quickly dispose of the three men who had been hastily crucified on Friday afternoon. Two of them were still clinging to life, so the soldiers broke their legs, making it impossible for them to support themselves to breathe. When the soldiers came to Jesus, having heard him already cry out, “It is finished. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [and] Into your hands I commend my spirit.” it was clear that he was dead. One solider took his spear and pierced his side and an unholy mixture of blood and water poured out from his suffocated lungs. Jesus was taken down from the cross, and after his mother Mary had a moment alone, he was quickly wrapped in linen, covered with spices, and placed in a freshly hewn tomb. The stone was rolled in front, a seal was made, and guards were set to watch 24/7 to make sure nobody stole the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth. Did I mention that Jesus was dead? He was. Very much, dead.
Early Sunday morning, just as the sun came up over the horizon, a small group of women, including: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James gathered to begin preparing the spices and ointments that would be used to properly embalm Jesus. As they began their solemn procession to the grave where they had all seen their friend and Rabbi laid to rest, there was absolutely no thought in their minds that Jesus wouldn’t be there. Certainly, no one was wondering if maybe he had come back to life. I mean, I guess Jesus had said on at least three occasions that he would be handed over, crucified, and on the third day rise from death, but nobody had heard him. They were always too busy thinking of other things: arguing over who was the greatest, seeking power and prestige, or in the case of Peter, flat out telling Jesus he was wrong. No, there is no hope of resurrection that first Easter morning. It is merely a group of mourning women who set off to ritually clean their dead friend that we first encounter.
As they arrive at the place where Jesus is supposed to be, things aren’t right. The stone, heavy, sealed, and secure, has been rolled away from the tomb. A bit confused, they enter anyway, perhaps grateful that somebody had done that hard work for them, but their Lord, their Rabbi, their friend, Jesus is nowhere to be found, and they were perplexed, baffled, thrown, bewildered, confused. Still, there seems to be no inkling that Jesus has risen from the dead.
It isn’t until two angels, dressed in dazzling clothes, come and stand next to them, that any realization of what is happening occurs. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, in fact, he is risen! Remember? Remember that three times he told y’all that this was going to happen? Remember he said he’d rise again on the third day?” The women do remember, albeit vaguely, and so they rush to return to the disciples and tell them everything that had happened. Jesus was dead, but is now alive!
The disciples aren’t convinced. Jesus was dead. They saw it with their own eyes. He wasn’t coming back, no matter what promises the women remembered him making. He was gone and their hopes and dreams of a restored Jerusalem had left with him. This resurrection story was nonsense, foolishness, garbage, hooey, an idle tale, or in the words of my TV mentor Colonel Potter of the 4077th MASH, “horse hockey.” It was unbelievable. Too good to be true. Wild speculation. Bull-oney.
Then there was Peter. Peter hadn’t seen Jesus die. He’d been too busy denying he knew Jesus. He’d been hiding for fear of his own life. Something stirred in Peter. Maybe he remembered that time he’d rebuked Jesus about the whole dying thing. Perhaps those strong words rang through Peter’s mind, “Get behind me Satan. You have set your mind on human things rather than the things of God.” The forgotten pieces of the last three years with Jesus started to fall into place, and so Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He looked in, saw the burial clothes laying there by themselves, and returned home, amazed: marveling and wondering about what had happened.
Sam’s wife probably felt these and a whole lot more when her husband called, a little bit tipsy, at 4:30 in the morning, having raised a man from the dead. Resurrection just doesn’t happen. Not in first century Palestine or 1990s Northern Indiana or, for that matter in Foley, Alabama in 2013. Resurrection should be too much for our minds to handle. It should cause doubts, make us wonder, bring us to pause and think how it could have possibly happened the way we say it did. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth should make us ask questions, but I’m afraid that 2,000 years of tradition have made us think that questions are a bad thing. So instead, we’ve made this day about eggs and bunnies, pretty dresses and seersucker suits, ham dinners and family traditions. It is easier to sweat the silly details rather than ponder on the perplexing and world altering news that Jesus is alive.
In case you’ve forgotten in the last 5 minutes, Jesus was dead. So dead that even his closest friends couldn’t imagine a way in which he could be alive. But now, Jesus is alive, even some two-thousand years later, he is still alive. He is active in our hearts and our minds. He is at work in homes and work. He is calling us to believe that the impossible is possible. #EverythingChanges on Easter Day. That’s the good news: the nonsensical, perplexing, amazing Good News. God took all our suffering in upon himself and died. Really died. And on the third day, he did the impossible and came back to life. Not so that we could be slaves to some holy rule book, not so we would blindly believe without question or reservation, not that we might create some holy huddle of perfectly hypocritical saints, but simply, so that we might follow his lead: loving God, loving neighbor, and striving to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. So rejoice! Be perplexed! Ask questions! Sit in amazement! Do whatever you need to do this Resurrection Day. But above all, know that God loves you so much that he did the impossible to be in relationship with you. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.