Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
PLEASE READ: Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 24:1-12
Luke writes that on the first Easter morning Peter went home “amazed at what had happened”…When’s the last time you were amazed?
I think of happenings that have left me in awe and wonder: relationally, my sense of call to the ministry while working in Japan; when Kim said yes after I asked her to marry me, and when she actually married me on our wedding day; at the birth of each of our children, or more intellectually, at the discovery of the Higgs-Bosun particle, and just last week the Planck Institute’s recent Easter egg map of the universe. And there have been different concerts and beaches and sunsets and mountaintop experiences over the years that were amazing…
There are varied experiences and phenomenon in life that are good, and when I think of being amazed it is normally in this positive sense. And so it is tempting to rush to the elation and joy of Easter, to interpolate back into Luke’s description of Peter the miraculous and marvelous mirth of the resurrection, the amazement that comes with new life and the surprising wonder at God’s grace intruding into our often death-dealing, dog-eat-dog, quid pro quo world…
But in fact, the word here in the Greek translated as “amazed” is a bit more uncertain. qaumazwn can be translated “to be astonished,” or also “to wonder,” but it depends on the context whether it has a positive or negative connotation… It probably leans more toward the feeling of being in a maze. Life can be amazing in this sense: disorienting, full of ambiguity and perplexity. You wonder if you’ll ever get out of the labyrinth… It’s not exactly a negative feeling, but anxiously ambiguous, and you’re only certain that you’re uncertain about what comes next.
Who would blame Peter for having such mixed emotions after finding the tomb empty that first Easter morning? He was dealing with a lot just then. One of Jesus’ inner circle, it was to Peter Jesus said the keys of the kingdom would be given; it was on the faith of Peter Jesus said he would build his church. But it was Peter who, after saying he would follow Jesus anywhere, betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies. It was Peter who denied Jesus three times... and then Jesus was left to die on a cross… Peter was likely confused about what to think or feel at the empty tomb.
Peter, like the other disciples, was suspicious of the women’s story. Was it just an idle tale? Here is another interesting word Luke uses in the Greek: lhroV, translated as idle tale, can mean “nonsense” or “humbug.” Incredible, impossible, implausible at best. It’s like that particularly poignant French response when I’m trying to make some innocent request: “Impossible!”
And yet…The stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty… The detail that the grave cloths were left indicated it was likely not just a case of grave-robbing. But as the women stared in shock and disbelief, something truly amazing happened. Luke records, "They stood there puzzled about this, when suddenly two men in bright shining clothes stood by them. Full of fear, the women bowed down to the ground, as the men said to them, "Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? He is not here; he has been raised..."
Sometime amazement can feel like shock, disbelief, or fear. The women experienced all three. The outrageous claim that Jesus is alive, the audacious assertion that he has been raised from the dead is the central announcement, the pivotal proclamation of the Christian faith. This is no insignificant or tangential assertion. The validity of Christian theology hinges on this event. But, like for those first disciples, Easter raises a plethora of questions, hopes and fears…
When I am in a room at the hospital after the doctor comes in to say “I am sorry, there is nothing we could do for her…” we don’t need a demythologized Christ at that point… we need a real resurrection. When someone has just found out that the cancer has spread and it’s just a matter of time, we don’t need whistling in the dark about Easter hope. We need a risen Lord. When someone has been betrayed and discarded in a relationship and feels dumped and devalued, we don’t need an idea of new life, we need Easter new life. I for one do not put any stock in dismissing the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a fairy tale, a chapter of the gospel that should be put down in the fiction section. No, there are times in life when we may wonder, when we may doubt, when we may be in shock or fear… but it precisely then when we know we need the Crucified Risen Lord…
I do understand the resurrection is a mystery, that the Easter news is a problem for many of us weaned on scientifically verifiable reality. Flanner O’Conner once wrote, that “mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” But mystery is also crucial to some of the greatest minds!
In 1930, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, a prominent leader in the New York Jewish community, sent a telegram to Albert Einstein: “Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. 50 words.”
Einstein replied, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle…” Although he was not a religious man in the sense the rabbi wanted him to be, Einstein appreciated the importance of mystery… The good news today is that the singularity of the Resurrection event is a profound mystery and the basis for real hope, that justice will prevail over injustice, love will conquer hatred, hope will defeat despair, and life will triumph over death!
A friend shared with me recently the book Heaven is for Real that recounts the near death experience of a young boy who purportedly saw heaven during an operation. He died but then was brought back to life. What he experienced “there” is amazing and comforting if you believe it. But the Good news of Easter is not simply about the hereafter, about what happens after we die. That there is a heaven is good news and a source of great solace, but there is more for us in the here and now in the Easter message: The resurrection is the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth!
Jesus has been preaching his whole ministry about it and we pray for it every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” The Kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is all about our world, our lives, here and now. Radical grace, radical welcome. Including the outsiders, loving your enemies, caring for the poor. Whether in Isaiah’s vision, or in Jesus’ inaugural speech, Easter new life is for all people, indeed, all creation. Jesus made his mission clear: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 3:18-19). Isaiah and Jesus emphasize that God’s vision for new life will include the oppressed, lonely, broken and forgotten ones, those who weep and cry out in distress… In a time when we are still stunned by Taliban terror, by Newtown massacres and a Nuclear North Korea, it is amazing but critical for us to keep the vision where the lion and the lamb lay down together in peace…
The amazing good news of Easter means that God can take even us and change the world. Strangely, God chose those who were undervalued and invalidated as the first unlikely witnesses to this great miracle. As they returned to tell the other disciples, the women’s tears of grief turned to tears of joy. So the good news of Easter both transforms who we are, and changes our experience of the hardships, the suffering and defeats of life. Easter faith remembers and retells the story, to ourselves and to others in order to give encouragement and hope even when all hope seems lost. The good news of Easter keeps us hopefully oriented and living not just for our own personal pursuits, but for the kingdom of God.
We must admit today that even those closest to Jesus can deny Easter faith. Like the men in the story, the church can be profoundly agnostic and functionally atheistic. We treat some of the basic truths of the gospel as nonsense. In recent years, the larger church has been known for scandal and betrayal of the very message it was entrusted by Christ to embody and proclaim. Indeed, we can be exclusive and bigoted in shameful ways. I was moved this week by the death of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, the U.S. Chaplain who helped survivors after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. We Christians still bear the guilt of the holocaust. When people ask where was God during such an unspeakable tragedy, I prefer to ask the question, where were the Christians? It is no surprise that many wonder about the church… Can a new thing happen in the church today? Impossible many will say. Perhaps it’s more important what happens after today?
I am encouraged and inspired by Pope Francis I. He is one of a kind to be sure, the first Jesuit, first Latin American, and first majority world leader to serve as the pontiff… I am inspired by his humility and his call for the church to be poor and a church for the poor. I loved that for the first time in history, the pope washed the feet of two women in a prison on Maundy Thursday, one who was a Muslim! And I love his smile! There’s a deep joy in him that I believe paradoxically comes from his understanding that through humble service we meet the Risen Christ.
It was those women who went on to do the simple acts of love who experienced Easter, even when it seemed there was no point of going on, nothing more to hope for, nothing more to be gained! Precisely during the simple act of love they were, as C.S. Lewis put it, “surprised by joy.” It was during an act of faithful service - a mundane and seemingly meaningless act of love… That was when the women were amazed by the joy of the Risen Lord.
Did you see the movie of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables which won a few Academy awards this year? There are a number of resurrection stories in that story... In watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of a more contemporary Easter story. About 52 years ago, Susan Boyle was born to humble parents. Her life began badly. She was deprived of oxygen during birth resulting in a learning disability. Bullied as a child, she was nicknamed "Susie Simple" at school.
With few qualifications, she was employed for the only time in her life as a trainee cook. But she took voice lessons and sang at her local church. She dedicated most of her life to caring for others and still visits people in the hospital. I’m sure many of you have either seen or heard of this Scottish middle-aged, frumpy village spinster who stunned the audience of Britain’s Got Talent show back in 2009 when she sang, “I dreamed a dream of time gone by…” Go home and watch her YouTube video debut. Simon Cowell, the show’s harshest critic, is typically sarcastic, cynical and condescending. He, like the rest of the crowd, mocked Susan Boyle because she looked like a middle-aged, frumpy village spinster! But the look of sheer wonder and awe that transforms his face as he listens to Susan Boyle’s amazing performance tells it all… Everything changed for everyone in that hall as she sang her heart out… The middle-aged, frumpy village spinster’s video was viewed 120 million times, and she’s now making a movie and working on her fifth album!
In the end, Easter is not show biz, but about joyful transformation, even when it comes from the most unlikely of places and people… Most of us will not get to sing in front of a huge crowd, but there will come a time when we will walk forth into the light of Christ’s love and experience God’s overwhelming love that will not let us go. There will be a standing ovation for us one day in the courts of heaven as the Crucified Risen Lord smiles upon us and welcomes us home.
Until that day, we are called to live with Easter hope firmly fixed in our hearts and minds. Even when our dreams have been stripped away or badly trampled, when we experience the death of a loved one, the crippling betrayal of a spouse or friend, the shock of losing a job or the disillusionment that comes when our plans seem to fall apart before our eyes. During those times in life when we feel like les miserables dreaming of a time gone by, we need to consider again the Easter story…
We need to remember that our God is a God who still does amazing things. The God of Jesus Christ holds out a vision for a new heaven and a new earth, a new life and purpose for each one of us and for all of creation. Like Peter, we may go home today wondering and questioning what the next step may be for us, but I encourage you like those women, to turn away from fear, from cynicism and doubt. Turn to the Lord in faith, believing that the God of Jesus Christ has yet to do new things in and through even you. Be a witness to the resurrection through joyful service, loving your neighbor, showing compassion for the poor, forgiving, even loving your enemy.
That’s my prayer for you and me this Easter… That we will be amazed again by the Easter good news, and that we will live into God’s amazing dream for a new heaven and new earth.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… Amen.