My Easter memories as a kid involves Easter Sunrise services. We would meet at the park across the VA hospital in Miles City, usually in snow. The pastor had a portable microphone system, though we were small enough group to not need it. We’d be freezing as we shared the cup and bread. Then we’d trot off to the church with the high school students to make a big Easter pancake breakfast.
That’s when people would really start showing up. By the time we were done with breakfast we would go upstairs to the sanctuary in what was the largest church service of the year, save Christmas eve. We’d have the organ going as we sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today, and we’d proclaim Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed.
Those memories have always served as the backdrop to Easter for me. And the contrast between that experience of Easter and Easter today is stark. As we watch the computer screens to participate in worship in our homes, as we practice social distancing, as we have the backdrop and the news of coronavirus flooding our consciousness, it’s hard to get into the Easter spirit. Even the poor Easter candies at the stores remain relatively untouched.
But when we consider the scriptures read today, when we remember how the first Easter was celebrated almost 2000 years ago, we also see a distance from how Easter is normally celebrated and what the disciples first experienced as the very first Easter. We may even find a kind of common experience with the Disciples as they too were held up in their homes, afraid, not knowing when the disaster would end, looking for signs of hope of new life.
I wanted to consider that first Easter, the central story of the Gospels, and look for themes that make that story true back then and makes it true for us today
- Death is real. We know this to be true, but in the first century it was a pervasive feature of existence. Rome’s execution of Jesus is notable not because it was an extraordinary event. It’s notable because of how common, how mundane it was. Life in the Empire was expendable, if you were the common people, if you were among the occupied, as Judea and Galilee were.
The Gospels were written during and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. And much of the words of the Gospels give testimony to this fact. They never flinch from the reality of death, the story of the cross, is proof of that.
But America has usually worked as a nation, we’ve been shielded from oceans, we’re a wealthy nation and we have the best doctors and hospitals in the world, so it can be hard to think of death as a present reality. Coronavirus, though, has taken so many lives and the scenes from the news bring that home every night. And as we learn that people of color, the poor, the uninsured, we realize America has not worked for all of us.
And here at Bethlehem, we too been touched too many times by the reality of death, in that we know the Gospels to be true in affirming this reality.
- But God doesn’t like death. God doesn’t like tombs. Holy week started with the story of Lazarus, a friend dear to Jesus. His death is recorded in the shortest line of scripture “and Jesus wept”. And when we weep for death in our lives, we model Jesus.
Then he called Lazarus out of his tomb. Upon doing so, he told his friends to unwrap Lazarus, to help him as he stepped into new life.
Jesus’s resurrection is culmination of the same story and thread. Jesus was not meant for the tomb, neither are any of us. And like Lazarus, Jesus has friends to share this new life with, in his disciples and ultimately through them, all of us.
Rome considered death as the ultimate repudiation of a person. In the story of Jesus, God repudiates Rome and by raising Jesus, endorses his life and teachings. And through this act, God claims us too for life, not for death. God is the God of the living, not the dead. And we cannot be repudiated, only claimed and loved by the God of life.
Our worship being seen on video is an expression of that ultimate faith. We do not gather in person and this an expression of love. We worship in our homes to ensure our neighbors are not harmed or endangered. The empty churches throughout this country is testimony to the God of life, who would have us have life abundant for ourselves and for our neighbors. And it’s working as states are bending the curve and potential death rates are dropping significantly.
- The Christian Faith knows no way around death to new life. It only knows how to go through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing death does not have the final say. The story of the cross and the resurrection are ultimately one. And we know this to be true for us today as well. I want to fast forward to 2021, maybe the coronavirus won’t be so deadly, maybe life will return to normal, maybe there will be a vaccine, maybe we can worship together in person. And we will get there. The virus, like death will not have the final say.
But to get there takes the hard work we’re doing know, that medical professionals, public health officials, all of us doing out part to bend the curve. It will take science to discover better treatments, it will have us as a society to shoulder the costs so that no person should be devastated, economically and otherwise from this virus.
We have learned now more than ever that we are wholly connected to one another, as a congregation, as a country, as a world. And so, no one can be left behind, not service workers, not prisoners, not refugees and immigrants, not the elderly, not children, not our health care workers, not this region of the country or world or that region. This virus cannot be defeated unless everyone is protected, receives the vaccines, the health care, the support needed.
- A good doctrine tells us how the world works and therefore how God works. Through this we learn that salvation life belongs to us all. If death, as Paul says, is truly defeated in the resurrection, then like the virus, death’s death will only happen if it is defeated for all, if all are claimed by God and God’s good intention for life.
And when we act in ways to build a shared life and world, even in our own small corner of the world, we build those conditions of life and through this we encounter the living Christ. Christ did not just die and rise 2000 years ago. The resurrection means Christ is with us now. In the breaking of bread, when we share a common life together, virtually and god willing in person.
Then we become as Martin Luther says, little Christs to one another. This Easter we are reminded more than ever that need for us to be Christ to one another, to be a basis for hope and new life. Easter is the story of how God did that for us 2000 years ago and how God in us is doing this today.
I’d like to close in prayer
“God you are the impetus in making whole whatever is bruised or broken, whatever is fearful, wherever death lurks. In you we grow to know the truth that sets all creation free. Because of your son’s resurrection, we embrace the promise that life has the final say in this world, now and forever.”-
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings