Easter Day: The Sunday of the Resurrection
April 4, 2021
When I was a boy, I was a notoriously picky eater. No vegetables. No fruit. I must have lived off peanut butter and honey sandwiches for about a third of my life. My family joked that the only green things I ate was the parsley on garlic bread. It’s normal for kids to be picky eaters.
But we need to have an honest conversation about “normal.” All throughout this pandemic I’ve heard about us “getting back to normal.” I get it – this chapter of our lives is so weird with masks and distancing and protocols. I hear that earnest desire to reclaim what we were accustomed to; what was “normal.”
But the question we have yet to ask is this – was “normal” good? Certainly, there was much about it that was good. We cannot forget the jobs that disappeared. We cannot diminish the hardships and stress from this time. We cannot forget the lives that were lost. And yet we must also ask – what could be better? In what ways was “normal” unhealthy, exhausting, and sinful? Why are we so eager to return to something that we complained about all the time? Sure, my strict diet of peanut butter and honey sandwiches back then was normal, but I had to grow up.
This is the question posed to Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning. In a way, she plays out the whole drama we have lived through over the last year. First, she is overcome with grief at the death of her Lord and her friend. Then, she is angry and heartbroken because his body has been taken away. Later, she’s confused by this man who appears to be the gardener. And then finally, once the risen Jesus is revealed to her, Mary Magdalene clings on to him. She holds on, desperate to put things back together again; to go back to normal. Perhaps, she thinks, he will go back to his ministry. Perhaps Jesus will return to Galilee and even more people will be healed, liberated, saved. Perhaps he will break more bread, multiply the fish again. Mary Magdalene clings on to Jesus, wishing for everything to just go back to the way it was. Now that we have vaccines and treatments, perhaps everything will go back to the way it was. But then comes the dose of reality. Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). All Mary wants is to hold on to Jesus, to cling to her dear friend, and to make everything back to normal. But Jesus says that there is more to come.
This is one of the foundational theological truths of the Christian faith. God is always moving forward. God is always moving ahead. The Lord God leads the people of Israel through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus). The Lord God promises to rebuild Jerusalem even after it’s been destroyed (Isaiah & Jeremiah). Saint John the Divine has a vision for the end in which the holy city descends out of heaven and comes to the earth (Revelation 21). God has a destination in mind and it is always ahead, never behind.
Yes, the “normal” of Jesus’ ministry was good. The hungry were fed. The possessed were released. The sick were healed. The dead were raised. But what was to come is even better. By moving ahead in the power of the Spirit the Church has taken Jesus’ ministry and multiplied it. Churches like ours help to feed the hungry every day. Through disciples of Jesus who are doctors and nurses and scientists, even more are healed of disease and sickness. Through disciples of Jesus who advocate for the common good, even more of the poor have good news brought to them and the lonely find companionship. The Spirit of the risen Jesus is always pushing us ahead. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
On that first Easter morning, if everything had gone back to “normal” Jesus would not have ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit would not have come upon the disciples at Pentecost. Consider what that means. You and I would not be here. The Church would not be here. If Mary and the disciples had clung to what they knew, if they had stuck to their comfort food, we would have no future. Thanks be to God that things didn’t go back to normal.
I am not trying to spin things just to get a positive sermon for Easter morning. I’m not really a glass half filled kind of guy. But I am a Christian. And I believe that in the power of the risen Jesus a Christian hopes for what is to come.
So in a way, you are standing there with Mary Magdalene. The question is posed to each of you. You all have questions about what comes next. You have choices to make about your future. You’re thinking about what comes next for your aging parents. You’re thinking about what comes next for your kids. You’re thinking about your job, your work, your career. You’re thinking about when to retire or when to start a family. Hear those words from Jesus – “Do not hold on to me.” Do not go back to that same old peanut butter and honey sandwich. Try the new thing, trust that God is leading you into the future as God has always done. Give up the steady diet of spiritual milk and feast on the Easter life (I Corinthians 3:2). God has prepared a rich banquet of love, of grace, of mercy. It’s all on the table for you if only you would actually try it and taste it. If all you want is normal, then go ahead and keep on doing what you’ve always done. But if you want something better, something good, taste and see this Easter hope. All you have to do is let go.
And with that comes a divine imperative. “Go.” “Go to my brothers and say to them” (John 20:17). Mary Magdalene is the first preacher of the resurrection. She is the first one to tell anyone that Jesus is risen from the dead. Most importantly, she lets go of Jesus and she goes to preach the first Easter sermon, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
My friends, my brothers and sisters, let go and go. Let go of what is holding you back and make that next decision in your life as if you were in the garden on that Easter morning. Sure, this Easter life will taste new and different. It may not seem normal to you. But it will be good. I mean, dead people don’t normally get up from the grave, and yet here we are. Not because it is normal, but because it is good. Easter is this gift from God, this glimpse into our glorious future. So let go of your fears and follow the Spirit. Go and imagine ways that the world could be better and healthier and more joyful. Go and bravely take hold of what the Spirit is calling you to do. Go and dream of the Kingdom of God on earth. Let go, and go say that you have seen the Lord.