The Glad Surprise of the Resurrection
It is not business as usual right now in the church. Not since last Sunday when Mary and Mary found the empty tomb and the divine messenger said, “He has been raised; he is not here.”
Things are different. Eastertide, the 50 days that sit between the resurrection and Pentecost, is a unique time of celebration that rises out of the empty tomb for those who claim the Christian faith. After we put away the Sunday best of Easter we expect business in the life of the church to get back to normal. We expect things like Sunday school and small groups to resume a normal schedule. We expect that our pastors will be a little less strung out on caffeine. But the resurrection changes things. Living in the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus Christ leaves you with little choice. Life is different now. It is no longer business as usual.
Last Sunday in “The Way” I shared that the Beyonce of the Episcopal Church, Rev. Fleming Rutledge, refers to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a “transhistorical event.” Meaning, that the events of Good Friday and Easter morning span the boundaries we like to place on history. The implications of Good Friday and Easter morning are not reserved for Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Fleming goes on to state that on the cross we see the true nature of Christian love. But to take it another step further, in the empty tomb we see the true nature of the love of God, overcoming the violence and silence of death.
The empty tomb of Easter is God’s vindication of the cross as love. We are two paragraphs into the sermon and we are already hitting some heavy theology. If that does not tell you that Eastertide is not business, as usual, I don’t know what will.
For 50 days, Mount Olivet will be living in the “reality of the resurrection.” This means that we should expect to be shaped by the “expectation-shattering” reality that death has given way to life.
The yielding of death to life, new life rising out of death, is our theme for worship during Eastertide. And life coming from death, a surprise, to say the least, cannot be business as usual.
Our scripture reading this morning begins on the evening of Easter. Hours removed from Mary Magdalene’s proclamation that she had “seen the Lord” the disciples now fear for their lives. They feared retribution from the same authorities that had condemned Jesus’ to death. Jesus’ closest friends, cowering behind a locked door, feared the same fate Jesus experience just three days prior to a tree at Golgotha.
By itself, this reading makes no sense. Jesus has risen. The resurrection, God’s surprising vindication of the cross is complete. But the long shadow Good Friday casts fear, a fear caused by the trauma of what the disciples had seen and they had heard. The fear the disciples are still experiencing three days removed from Good Friday is the same fear that caused them to abandon Jesus, even denying him, in his darkest hour.
The disciples had not yet seen the resurrected Christ but they had seen what happened on Good Friday.
They knew whether Jesus was resurrected or not, it was no longer business as usual for them. Instead of being able to freely move through Jerusalem they were now in hiding.
Fear is a crippling thing. And we all fear different things.
In a week or so some of us will be fearing filing our taxes, because well, we waited until the last minute. Some fear things like spiders and snakes, while others fear possible rejection by family and peers. Fear changes you from within. Whether it is a minor fear or an extreme phobia there is nothing pleasant about the surprise when it comes.
For some of you, when confronted by fear you carpe the you know out of the diem. You conquer that fear each time it rears its head but there are others of us who when confronted by fear freeze, and if possible we shut the door, and if we can we lock the door. Even if there is an option to leave the fear-filled situation, fear cast a shadow and clouds what is right in front of us.
Mary Magdalene told the disciples what had happened but they did not believe her. The disciples did not trust Mary’s account and now are cowering in fear. Fear clouded their ability to hear the Easter proclamation so Jesus goes to them. Jesus offered them the peace of God but it was not until they saw his hands and side, the scars left from the trauma they fled from on Good Friday, that the recognized their teacher and friend. The cloud of fear was not raised until they saw that which they were most afraid of.
After they saw Jesus they went and told the disciple who was missing when Jesus appeared. They tell Thomas what they had seen and heard, echoing the very same message they received from Mary Magdalene and did not believe. Thomas demands a response, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later, a week after Easter, Jesus appears before the disciples again, with the same greeting as before and offers Thomas the proof he demanded.
It took a week for Jesus to appear before Thomas and show him “the mark of the nails,” offering Thomas that which he said he required. A week is a long time to wait for anything, especially if you are waiting in fear. Thomas does not need to put his finger in Jesus’ hand. The peace of Christ was enough.
Thomas gets a bad rap from this encounter. Let’s not forget that the other disciples had a very similar response to Mary but instead of asking for proof they ran and hid.
Prior to receiving the peace of the risen Christ, the disciples did not know what to do. The peace of the Lord extended by Christ to the disciples is different from the half-hearted handshake we offer as we try to figure out how long we have before the next part of the service begins. I say that tongue-in-cheek because there’s an order to our lives that will be interrupted when we receive the peace of Christ, that is the say when Jesus is standing before you, with the scars of Good Friday, business, as usual, is no longer an option. Receiving the presence of Christ is not a movement within the routine of a worship service, it is a life-changing interaction. So when you reach your hand out, offering the peace of the Lord to someone during worship, you are extending an invitation for the business of that person’s life to be turned upside down.
Each Thursday night in a class on the books of Luke and Acts at Wesley Theological Seminary our professor, Dr. Shively Smith, begins our class with a reading from Meditations of the Heart by Rev. Howard Thurman. Rev. Thurman was an author, theologian, pastor, and a civil rights leader. The beginning of class is typically a noisy time. Students are getting settled, half are late due to traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. There is usually the clanging of plates and silverware as someone attempts to quietly eat dinner, and there is always a cell phone that goes off (sometime’s is Dr. Smith’s).
This past Thursday was not business as usual though. Everyone was on time and there wasn’t the usual chaos that typically accompanied the beginning of class. It was odd. Then Dr. Smith began to read from Rev. Thurman’s meditation and for once we were able to listen without distraction:
“There is something compelling and exhilarating about the glad surprise. The emphasis upon glad. There are surprises that are shocking, startling, frightening, and bewildering. But the glad surprise is something different from all of these. It carries with it the element of elation, life, of something over and beyond the surprise itself… There is a deeper meaning in the concept of the glad surprise. This meaning has to do with the very ground and foundation of hope about the nature of life itself… It is as if a man stumbling in the darkness, having lost his way, find that the spot at which he falls is the foot of a stairway that leads from darkness into light. Such is the glad surprise.” - Rev. Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart
Rev. Thurman is describing exactly how the disciples felt when the cloud of fear was lifted by the presence of Christ. After receiving the peace of the Lord, the peace that can only come from the risen Christ, the glad surprise of Easter was able to commence.
It was not until the glad surprise of Easter was recognized that the disciples could proceed, moving from locked rooms to living a life that as Rev. Thurman puts it, “cannot ultimately be conquered by death, that there is no road that is at last swallowed up in an ultimate darkness.”
The fear that clouded Easter for the disciples is lifted by the glad surprise of the resurrection.
It is difficult for us today to realize the glad surprise of the resurrection. It is easier to put our Easter best back into the closet for another year because in the evening of Easter Jesus did not appear to us behind the locked doors of our homes.
For us today we find the glad surprise of the resurrection in the words of those who witnessed the resurrection. Out of the glad surprise of Easter, the witness of the disciples begins the rising. Author Brian McLaren calls it an "uprising." Their witness, rising out of the peace of Christ, changes the way we go about the day-to-day life of not only the church but in their witness the cloud of fear that comes with dying to ourselves is gone and our uprising into a new life that is only in the light of the empty tomb begins.