Living This Side of Easter
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
April 28, 2019 (2 Easter)
In the name of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
Is that it? Is that all? If your household is anything like my household, we had a good Easter celebration last Sunday, but now we’ve just got lots of chocolate around the house, which mostly just makes me feel bad because I know I’m eating too much of it. Or more seriously, not only the Sri Lanka blasts, but also now another synagogue shooting. What difference did Easter really make?
We might find ourselves in the company of Thomas this morning. We all know what Thomas is famous for. Thomas, do you think people will remember that you were the first to acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and God, and that you were a faithful disciple? — I doubt it. We know him as Doubting Thomas. But I don’t think Thomas’s sort of doubt is what we usually think of as doubt. Thomas’s doubt is not a fashionable doubt. It isn’t the case that he doubts because he is cultured and proud of his intelligence. Thomas’s doubt is more like Mary Magdalene’s not recognizing Jesus. Because he had seen what had happened to him. That’s why he needed to see the wounds. That was the Jesus he knew, and he saw what had happened to Jesus. Sure, God could raise Jesus from the dead, to new life, but the way he died–how can he come back from that? How can that be redeemed. Thomas needed to see Jesus’s wounds, because what he wanted most was what Mary wanted: he wanted Jesus back. It was a week later, after all, before Thomas finally saw Jesus alive. And things didn’t seem to have changed all that much. And with Thomas, we too might want to ask, Now what? What does it mean to live on this side of Easter?
Even asking the question is a kind of answer. Because implied in the question is the fact that we make pretty radical assertions about Easter: Jesus is not among the dead but among the living. Jesus not only survived death; he destroyed it. These are big, huge things that we say about Jesus’s resurrection. And sooner or later we are bound to wonder, now what? If any of this is remotely true, shouldn’t everything look different? Shouldn’t everything shine, or something? It can’t just be for the Cadbury Eggs, can it?
What does it mean to live this side of Easter? We get a glimpse of this in the readings for today. In the Acts reading, when Peter and his compatriots are caught teaching about Jesus, he tells the temple police: “We must obey God rather than human authority.” This is good, old-fashioned civil disobedience. The earliest witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection were empowered with a vision for God’s kingdom, and they didn’t pay much attention to whether or not they were “allowed” to teach these things. Because the Living One drew them, compelled them, in the work of the Holy Spirit to be about God’s work in the world.
As the reading from Revelation puts it: Christ loves us and freed us to become a kingdom of priests, serving God with our whole selves, our souls and bodies. After Easter, a new way of being human was brought into existence: no longer bound by the logic of dog eat dog, or the agonistic way of opposition. We no longer need to find our higher good in what we are against, but in what we are for: we are for life, for justice, for mercy and compassion—we are for faith, and hope, and above all love.
Easter is disruptive. It disrupts what we expect our lives to be, what we expect our communities and this world to be. It disrupts any narrative of nature that only sees it “red in tooth and claw,” and any view of humanity that sees us only as Hobbes sees us in our natural state: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That’s not to say Hobbes was wrong about us, but it is from all of this that Easter frees us, if we are willing to listen and follow. Easter disrupts our calculus of honor and shame, of naked aggression and self-interest. Easter frees us to forgive.
I hope you noticed that line: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Which presumption comes first? Forgiveness. Forgiveness is the main assumption: because we see that nothing is ours truly, and so everything, absolutely everything in this damaged, brilliant world is a gift, we ought to be ready to forgive. That is what mercy means; it is the willingness to embrace our enemies, to embrace those who enrage us, as we have been embraced by God. And occasionally, in order to actually embrace our enemies, we must hold them to account for the wrongs they have done, just as we are held to account for our wrongs. This is called justice. It is not retribution we seek when we hold others to account, but transformation. It is not their suffering we seek, but a way toward embracing them in forgiveness. Easter frees us from our anger and bitterness, our resentment and fear. Easter frees us to forgive.
That takes some digesting, which is why every Sunday is a little Easter, and why we have a whole fifty-day season of Easter. One day is not enough, neither really is a whole lifetime, to really comprehend the benefits of Easter. But we begin in the shock of knowing that something is still different, still calling to us, still inviting us into the new world being born. And Jesus speaks the same words to us as he spoke to those confused, expectant disciples so long ago: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
If we are asking about the metaphysical effects of Easter, or the transcendental meaning, the undoing of death is still the answer. Jesus rising, trampling down death by death, is still the meaning of Easter. But if we are asking about the practical effects of Easter, or the effective difference Easter makes in the world we see around us, the answer is altogether different. In that case, the meaning of Easter is…us.
The meaning of Easter is the Church, the community of the faithful not the fearful, who carry themselves in the world, not in the old leaven of bitterness or envy, of injustice and pain, but as a kingdom of priests–and what do priests do when they are at their best? They bless. Easter invites us to be a community that blesses life and causes others to bless it, which is, as I have read somewhere, the most important thing (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov). The meaning of Easter is a community that does not define itself by calculation of what is owed to whom, but by what we together owe to God. A community that does not worry about who is in debt to whom, because none of us could be more indebted—and those debts could not be more forgiven—than our free indebtedness to God.
One of the more important lessons from Thomas’s story is this: Easter doesn’t erase the past: it opens up a different tomorrow. That’s why Jesus still bears the wounds. Jesus is known by those wounds, but they no longer define him. Easter disrupts the script of violence and the cycle of death and destruction. Like Jesus, our wounds remain: nothing got magicked away by Easter. But because of the Resurrection we are free to live Easterly, if you will, in the world. Because of Jesus’s Rising from the Dead, our lives together get to be the lives of an Easter people.
Easter is an invitation, and so I invite you to ponder with me what it might look like to live as an Easter people. What might have to change? Who might we find ourselves free to forgive? And what unexpected blessings might we find in the company of the Crucified and Living One?