Sunday, April 04, 2021

Easter Sunday

 John 20

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 

Welcome to the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, that is the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox, which signifies the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere.

When it comes to calculating the date of Easter, the message is don’t try this at home. Your head will hurt, for one, because the description I just shared is only a summary—the actual calculation requires formulas and theologians. And even then, the result will be contentious. Anyone living near the Danforth will tell you that Easter usually comes twice, which is very exciting if you like roast lamb.

So Easter can happen anytime between March 22 and April 25, vexing for anyone who likes to plan ahead. Over the centuries people have argued for a fixed date, even suggesting April 9th (the actual date of the resurrection according to scholars), but Christians are too unruly for anything that obvious. So we opt for the “moveable feast” approach, which takes us to April 4th.

April 4th takes us to another tradition in Christian calendar- making, and that is the idea of “birth into heaven.” From the earliest days of the church, martyrs (and saints) were commemorated on the date of their martyrdom, the day they were translated into glory. And so today we honour Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born into glory on April 4, 1968.

But before I talk about Dr. King, I want to say a word or two about what was really happening on Easter morning, long long ago. This year, and most years, we go with the longer version of that first day, the stone that is rolled away, the running back and forth, the quiet belief of the beloved disciple. We weep with Mary, we quiz the stranger, we hear the tenderness as Jesus calls her by name, and we hear her cry “teacher!” because she has seen the Lord.

Nearby in Mark—the first and most concise telling—we hear something a little different. This time Mary has companions on this journey: Mary the mother of James, and Salome, together bringing spices to anoint his body for burial. At this moment, their biggest concern is who will roll the stone away—as they ponder the destination.

But there, at the tomb, the stone is already rolled away, and within they find a young man who gives them the message they need: “Be not afraid,” he says, “for the one you seek is not here, he is risen!” And these are the very last words of Mark’s Gospel, an ending that has troubled translators since the time it was set down:

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Of course, we know that if there was a ninth verse or a tenth verse to this chapter, Mark would already be contradicting himself, because they did find the courage, and the message was shared, and these women became the founders of an evangelical movement that would transform the world. But Mark did not write that. Somehow we wanted to leave us at verse eight.

I want to share with you part of an article written by Esau McCaulley, and published in Friday’s New York Times. He wrote:

The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope. They were searching for a place to grieve. They wanted to be left alone in despair. The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love.

Fast-forward a few centuries and we get the same hope, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and abundance of love nesting in the African-American church that formed Dr. King. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he reminds his white colleagues that he’s the son, grandson, and great grandson of preachers—yet he would be the first to tell them that Black women were (and are) at the forefront of the fight for civil rights. In other words, the same women, centuries later, leading with hope in the power of God, unending forgiveness, and an abundance of love.

So the road that led to April 4, 1968 was long, but it led to a nation and a church transformed. Inside and outside the US, the life and death of Dr. King galvanized a generation of pastors and theologians to reconsider the relationship between the church and the oppressed. Where we once offered comfort, or benevolent aid, we were challenged to offer solidarity—through analysis, social action, and an abiding sense that God has a unique regard for the poor and oppressed. In other words, God called the church to return to the same world that crucified Jesus and offer the dangerous gift of hope: hope for the future, and hope for a world made new—abounding in love and mercy.

Before I conclude, I want to look at the last pages of Mark once more, and look back to Friday night, under the cover of darkness, when an unlikely friend of Jesus sought his battered body for burial. Joseph of Arimathea is recorded as the one member of the priestly class brave enough to care about dignifying Jesus in this moment, brave enough to approach the centurians to ask for his body. The gift that Mark gives us, however, is the gift of summary, as he introduces him with these words: “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God.”

I would argue that this is the descriptor that we should all strive for, the introduction we should all seek, ‘meet my friend—waiting for the Kingdom of God.’ Waiting for the promise of a new age, when heaven and earth are one again, when God’s desire for us is our desire, and when God’s ways become our ways. When the power of God, and unending forgiveness, and an abundance of love has set everyone free.

I want to give Dr. King the last word, this from his reflections on Good Friday (“every time I look at the cross I am reminded of the greatness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ”) and, of course, his summary of today:

Jesus had given himself to certain eternal truths and eternal principles that nobody could crucify and escape. So all of the nails in the world could never pierce this truth. All of the crosses of the world could never block this love. All of the graves in the world could never bury this goodness.



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