by Daniel Harrell
Rising from the dead may be no laughing matter, but today is also April Fools. The last time Easter fell on April 1 was 1956. It won’t happen again until 2029, so I should probably tell a joke. Then again, it was 11 degrees with snow on the ground when Jesus rose at our Sunrise Service this morning, so I’d say the joke’s already on us. Had it been this cold that first Easter morning, the Lord likely would have stayed in his tomb. Six more weeks of Lent. Ha ha.
Duke University Divinity Professor and author Kate Bowler took up cursing for Lent. Rather than giving up indulgences or vices and try to be a better Christian, she decided to swear. She’d read an article about how people in grief cuss because they feel the English language has its limits in times of inarticulate sorrow. “Or at least that is what I tell people when I am casually dropping f-bombs over lunch.” It started on Ash Wednesday as she waited for the latest results from another set of scans. Kate has stage 4 colon cancer, and her waiting needed a grace only accessible through sorrow and ashes.
She sought out a Catholic Ash Wednesday service, because, she writes, “of all God’s children, Catholics are wonderful at being sad.” The priest dipped his thumb in the black ash and marked her forehead with the sign of the cross. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Looking up she saw a crucifix on the wall, a cross with a bloody Jesus still hanging on it. “We have fallen in love with a God who abandons His child to die,” she writes, “a son who begs for His own life but, seeing it cannot be helped, gives Himself over to His murderers. He seemed like He would save them all, but on this day He just hung there off the wood He was nailed to.”
It is such a sad set up. Bereft women stumble to the graveyard in their grief to embalm Jesus’ body. The empty tomb meant the joke was on them. Two dazzling angels pop in with the punch line: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” But the women don’t quite get it. Luke reports first bewilderment and then terror, they bowed their faces down to the ground. Rising from the dead was no laughing matter—except that when they dashed to tell the disciples what they saw, the disciples laughed the women right out of the room. We read their report sounded like nonsense. The first stage of grief is denial.
“Everything happens for a reason,” people say, trying to make sense of your grief, thinking it will help you feel better. If somebody ever says this to you, Kate Bowler with cancer suggests you “make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering your own reasons. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.” Actually, she says, there is something worse: “I became certain that when I died some beautiful moron would tell my husband that ‘God needed an angel,’ because, yeah, God is sadistic like that.”
I paid a pastoral visit to a church member with cancer on Tuesday. While I’ve been at this 30 years, I can be such a beautiful moron of a minister. As he sat in his chair wrapped in blankets and weary, I led with “how’s it going?” as if I couldn’t tell. Kate with cancer writes, “Picture the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Got it? Now try to put it in a sentence. Now say it aloud fifty times a day. Does your head hurt? Do you feel sad? Me too.” I had meant to bring communion as this friend, whose faith is so strong, had not been able to be in worship for months. We ministers are taught in seminary to pack communion when we visit the dying and sick; the sacraments are potent emblems that connect us to God. But being the bad pastor I am, I forgot to bring bread and wine, so I had to scramble and then settle for Ritz crackers and water. The only other option would have been Diet Coke. Sugar free Jesus shed for you. The family was generous in their gratitude, and posted a picture of me doing my best. I’m just glad I didn’t mention angels and reasons.
The Easter story, however, offers both. Luke has two angels and a good reason: “Remember how Jesus told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” The women remembered, but not the disciples. Maybe they didn’t want to remember. Peter, the second worst disciple after Judas, at least ran to the graveyard to check. Luke writes Peter stooped down, looked in and then went home, wondering what had happened. Easter can be like that: Come in, sit down, look up and then go home for brunch, wondering what the preacher was talking about.
If rising from the dead is no laughing matter, getting killed on a cross was a cruel joke. If you were here for Good Friday, you saw clips from Mel Gibson’s gruesome and gratuitous take on Christ’s passion. I hate that movie. That Jesus was forced to carry his own cross and hang on it was public shame and condemnation of the worst kind in his culture—Jews considered it being cursed. And yet when designing our worship spaces, we Christians almost always affix big crosses to the walls. What’s wrong with us? Since at least the second century onward, the church has focused its devotion not on Jesus’ birth nor his earthly work, not on his amazing teaching nor his miracles or acts of humble service, not even on his resurrection nor his heavenly reign or the gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Christians decided early on that the sign of their faith would be Christ’s death.
I was over at Friendship Village this past Maundy Thursday leading communion for the residents there. Thankfully they provided the proper communion bread and Welch’s wine. Greeting the residents afterward, I asked one dear soul, her oxygen tank in tow, “how’s it going?” (Why do I keep asking that?) She replied with a wink, “I’d normally say ‘hanging in there,’ but with this being Holy Week…”
To suffer and die—whether at the end of long life or too terribly soon—is the one way we will all be like Jesus without even trying. The apostle Paul goes so far as to say we’ve been crucified already, that as far as God goes we’re as good as dead now. St. Paul also insists we’re raised now too—buried in baptism and raised by faith. By faith in Christ our seat in glory is saved. More than that, at least as far as God is concerned, we’re sitting in it now! For Christians, our future is so certain it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven already.
To which you say: Finally! Some good news on Easter! This sermon is killing me! (I told you I was a bad pastor.)
So-called Prosperity Preachers say you can have your best life now. You can skip right past Good Friday and declare Easter victory! God might close a door, but he’ll open a window! Just believe and be blessed! Happiness is a choice! “Don’t wait for your pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, have it now with ice cream and a cherry!” Theologians call this “over-realized eschatology,” an exaggerated sense of the kingdom of God on earth. It’s like Easter in Disneyland.
The cross keeps us from getting ahead of ourselves. Try as we might to disengage from suffering and hardship, the cross does not let us off the hook. We may be raised already, but we still have to die. Kate Bowler with cancer writes how it’s not ice cream and cherries she longs for anyway, “but a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings. The world would drip with mercy. Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And then my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done.” Jesus prayed the same thing. He didn’t want to die either.
Yet, “remember how he told you, while still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, must be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” It all had to happen. Jesus often referred to himself by the title, “Son of Man.” On the one hand, son of man means human like us. Jesus was a real flesh and blood person. But on the other hand, Son of Man also hails back to an Old Testament prophecy from Daniel where “a son of man rides in on clouds with glory and authority and sovereign power and he shall reign forever and ever.” Jesus’ followers concentrated mostly on this superman side, which explained why, like prosperity preachers, they so fiercely resisted any mention of his crucifixion and death. Jesus did add “on the third day rise again” but like in the Easter story itself, Jesus’ own words sounded like nonsense. Non-prosperity preachers, also known as poor preachers, say not to worry about it. Resurrection is just a metaphor. Great. You got out of bed in the freezing cold and came to church for a freaking metaphor. April Fools!
St. Paul insisted that if Jesus did not really rise, we Christians are the biggest fools ever—and not in a good way. Paul then assures that in fact Christ has been raised, the so-called “first fruits of them that slept.” Except that in Luke, Jesus is the only fruit who gets raised. What about everybody else in the graveyard that morning? And what about the rest of us since? Where exactly is the salvation? What did Jesus mean he said “the Son of Man must be crucified and on the third day rise again?” What’s “rise again?” (Theologians worry obsessively over these questions.)
As humans, we all come from the dust of the ground—remembering that we are dust and to dust we return. But Scripture describes Christ as coming from God—“No one has yet gone into heaven except the Son of Man who descended from heaven,” Jesus said. The earliest Easter hymn we have in the Bible sings of Jesus, who in the form of God, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [for love’s sake], being born in human likeness, and became humble and obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
We speak of “God with us” most often at Christmas. “God with us” as a precious child in a manger is preferable to “God with us” as a despised man on a cross. But the manger is not the central symbol of our faith. The empty tomb isn’t either. Christians decided early on that the sign of their faith would be a cross.
Ask people to tell their stories, and the stories they tell, the events that shaped their souls most intensely and meaningfully are always the harder tales of the times they suffered. Suffering and hardship press us past the sensibility of individual well-being and utility and tap into a paradoxical, resurrection power that defies common sense. We are changed. Instead of recoiling from the kind of caring for others that almost always involves suffering, we hurl ourselves more deeply into it. Though the outcomes can sometimes be brutal, we endure and double down on vulnerability. We understand that we’re all terminal and needy and selfish and hurtful and hurting and can’t really fix or be fixed in any permanent way in this life; but none of us really want to be fixed as much as we want to cherish and be cherished and fed and embraced and forgiven and heard and included and seen as beautiful and know that we matter.
Kate with cancer writes, “When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved. In those first few days after my diagnosis, when I was in the hospital, I couldn’t see my son, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t say for certain that I would survive the year. But I felt as though I’d uncovered something like a secret about faith. Even in lucid moments, I found my feelings so difficult to explain. I kept saying the same thing: ‘I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go back.’ At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus. When they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.”
Page forward past the empty tomb in the gospels, and a Christ risen again in the flesh shows himself to his disciples. Somehow they still weren’t so sure. Jesus showed them his hands and insisted they poke a finger in the wounds. Risen again in victory, Jesus still bears the telltale scars of his slaughter. He refuses to hide the evidence of his hurt. Heaven doesn’t need to fix everything either. The love of Christ risen and crucified and risen again proves large enough and deep enough to hold everything—our fullest joys and our worst sorrows, “the wonderful and the terrible, the gorgeous and tragic.” We hang on to our crosses, even at Easter, because it is this holy and hard place where “God with us” is most present, profound and so glorious.
Scripture promises we all shall be raised, hallelujah. Just not yet, hallelujah. Life’s short enough and I’m not quite ready to die. But when my time comes, I pray grace enough to step into that glory. “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” I’ve spent a lot of hours and Easters trying to fully understand and make resurrection make sense. But nothing ruins a joke like trying to explain it. So let’s leave it with this: In Christ, God is dying to love us forever. Get it?
Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 2018.