Last year my good friend Mary, who has a four-year old daughter, emailed me about her conversations with Elena as Easter approached in which she struggled to get through to four-year old Elena the meaning of Easter. It went something like this:
"Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?"
I am sure he will bring you jelly beans, Elena. But, remember, Easter isn't about the bunny. It's about Jesus.
"But will they be purple?"
Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn't the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.
"Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?"
Elena, I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?
"Will he bring me tootsie rolls too?"
You see, for a four-year old, Easter bunnies and purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are just way more interesting than JESUS, and they are enough to make Easter fun. And fun is, for a four old, enough! Although Easter hasn't gotten to the point of having as many consumer and cultural distractions as Christmas, sometimes it's the same way for adults; lilies and new clothes and family visits and Easter dinner preparations consume our attention.
Showing up at worship on Easter Sunday for some of us is just part of the gig, and we come expecting little more than candy-coated clichés. But my guess is that, unless you're four, you're looking for something beyond candy-coated clichés added to the assortment of jellybeans we consume. I have to believe that is why so many of us come to worship on this day. We want to know something of what Mary was trying to get through to Elena.
Mary knows that Elena won't always be four, and sooner or later--or should I say sooner AND later--Elena, and all of God's children, indeed, all of us, will encounter the dark night of heart wrenching grief, devastating disappointment or smothering guilt, and when we do, we will need MORE than bunnies and jelly beans.
I wonder when that need for more will hit Elena.
- Will it be when she's bullied at school and feels like there's no one to turn to?
- Will it be when she's betrayed by a so-called "best friend" or has her heart broken by the person around whom she's built her whole life?
- Or perhaps one day she'll look in the mirror and admit to herself that she has been the bully or the betrayer or the heartbreaker and knowing she can never undo the damage she's done will make it hard to keep looking at that face staring back at her.
- Maybe she'll be on a mission trip and meet people who own none of the things that make her happy, yet they possess a joy she has never known, and she will feel the darkness of an empty soul.
- Maybe she will be waiting at the airport to greet a relative's flag-covered coffin as it arrives back in the States, and a frightening anger will blanket her soul in a dangerous kind of darkness.
- Maybe it will be the day she's told by the doctor it's not just a cold after all.
- Maybe she will be spoon-feeding the frail beloved mommy who once fed her and whose strong body once gave her piggyback rides, and a sense of powerlessness will overtake her.
- Or will it be the day when her life's work ends with a memo and a deadline for cleaning out her office?
- Or will it be in the middle of a night of family crisis when she's looking into the desperate eyes of her own child and realizes she doesn't really know him and worse yet--he doesn't want her to?
- Maybe it will be when she encounters some insidious systemic expression of racism or classism or some other ism and the human capacity for cruelty will astonish and paralyze her and she will need more than bunnies and jellybeans.
You and I know, perhaps all too well, those days happen when, as Mary Chapin Carpenter's lyrics describe:
It seems so black outside that you can't remember
Light ever shone on you or the ones you love in this or another lifetime.
And that's when we really need to know what Easter is all about.
That might have been how Mary Magdalene felt that first Easter morning. It was just so dark outside; violence and fear hung like a dark cloud over her once adventurous life of following and learning from this meek but authoritative teacher around whom she had reoriented all of her days. The light that had once shone on her had been extinguished on a Roman cross. Not only was it dark in the world that morning, but it was dark in her soul. Where there had once been a glimmer of hope, there was only despair now. And while it was dark, she came to the tomb. There in the darkness of her life, she was surprised by the Light of Easter and her story has become the Christian story. It is THE STORY WE remember and CELEBRATE TOGETHER IN WORSHIP TODAY. It is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT reason we EVER GET TOGETHER any Sunday of the year or any day of the week. It is the heartbeat of Christian community. It is the HOPE to which we cling and the PROMISE upon which we stand. It is the very essence of Christian faith. It is more than cliché.
SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
In the final analysis, IT'S ABOUT LIFE!
Did you know that scientists have studied the mineral and chemical composition of the human body?
That's right. The U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils calculated the chemical and mineral composition of the human body, which breaks down as follows:
Less than 1 % of Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, Magnesium, Iron, and Iodine
Oh, and the trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum, and arsenic.
If we took all those parts and sold them on the common market, it would be worth less than $1. Now our skin is our most valuable physical asset; it's worth about $3.50, I'm told. So, added all up, you're worth less than $5!
But take a moment now to place your hand on your wrist or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe; go ahead. Let's all be quiet and still together for a moment.
What do you feel?
You FEEL YOUR PULSE. You FEEL the mystery of BIOLOGICAL LIFE beating through your $5 worth of chemicals and minerals.
Do you understand how that works? Do you understand how $5 worth of chemicals and minerals adds up to YOU? Or the person sitting next to you?
EASTER IS ABOUT THE POWER OF LIFE! THE POWER that makes $5 worth of elements PRICELESS.
EASTER IS THE POWER THAT GAVE YOU THAT PULSE, calling you by name and promising you THAT LONG AFTER YOUR PULSE STOPS beating THAT POWER WILL GO ON. It's called ETERNAL LIFE, but it doesn't start AFTER YOUR PULSE STOPS. EASTER assures us that ETERNAL, ABUNDANT LIFE--what the Bible calls ZOE--not only goes on forever, but that it is available to us HERE AND NOW. And that is what the resurrection is all about, because we all know that having a pulse does not guarantee a FULL LIFE. One can have BIOS, or biological life, and not ZOE, the energy of God. One can have a heartbeat but no HEART for LIVING, an existence but no energy.
You see, we all know that we are worth more than $5. We know we are worth far more than the sum of our biological parts, and THAT "MORE" is what Easter is all about.
Easter addresses that UNIVERSAL human longing to tap into that MORE. You might call it meaning, you might call it peace, you might call it purpose. Augustine called it the longing for GOD, the restlessness that only finds rest in God. Paul Tillich called it the ground or the power of being itself. Kierkegaard called it the leap of faith that quells anxiety.
And all of us are seeking it in one way or another. We want to KNOW the more. We want to KNOW GOD. EASTER IS THE CHRISTIAN answer to that longing. It is knowing that death is not the END and a pulse alone is not LIVING. But if you are not sure exactly what that means, if you feel in the dark about that, you are in good company.
You see, Mary came to the tomb thinking that DEATH was the end for Jesus. She goes in the dark, presumably to prepare Jesus' $5 worth of minerals and chemicals for burial. She is resigned to the finality of death. She is grieving. At first she does not even recognize NEW LIFE right when it is in front of her. But when the Risen Christ speaks her name, she knows.
Maybe you can relate to Mary? Maybe on this Easter 2011 you are resigned to the futility of life and the awful pain of death, the finality of death, perhaps death of a beloved friend or family member, perhaps the death that pervades our culture, tragic deaths that come as a result of war and terrorism or random violence, perhaps the death of a life-sustaining relationship or business. Maybe even one or more of these things has convinced you that not much makes sense in this life and although you are breathing, your heart is beating, but it is also breaking. There's been so much loss and sorrow in your life that you showed up here today not looking for life but expecting to find more of the same...Easter bunnies and jelly beans...some candy-coated clichés that do not touch the real questions of your life or bring comfort to your deep grief.
Perhaps on this Easter 2011 you can relate to the men who came to the tomb after Mary's announcement that the tomb was empty. You have followed others to church and looked into this whole Christian thing, and you just don't understand. You just don't see the proof for such claims.
Here's the great thing about the Gospel story. The ones who come to the tomb don't see Jesus; they don't get any PROOF. They just go back home and continue to hang out together until one day Jesus appears in the midst of their dark night. When Jesus appears to the disciples, what he does first is SHOW THEM HIS SCARS--touch my wounds, he says--see here the evidence of the LOWEST POINT OF MY HUMAN LIFE, the time in my life when I was defeated and overcome and when I had been beaten down and I was myself questioning WHY WOULD GOD FORSAKE ME. This is what his scars point to, not his triumph but his tragedy, not his victory but a time when he was vilified, a time of pain and struggle.
Think about how else this story could have gone. He could have said, "LOOK, FRIENDS, IT IS I--completely healed. Nothing they did to me has any lasting effect. I am PERFECT again." But he says, "Hey I am scarred and wounded, but these wounds WILL NOT KEEP THE ENERGY AND LIFE OF GOD FROM FLOWING through me to you! And GUESS WHAT! Just as God has sent me into the world, so I send you, not to cover up your scars, not to deny your wounds, but to show people that the same power that raised me from the dead is alive in you."
EASTER is not a promise that your business or your family or the church or the world will be "like it used to be" or even that your pulse will go on beating forever. It is a promise that the POWER THAT gave you that pulse will never ever abandon you. The power that raised Jesus from the dead can raise you from despair, and that same power is calling you by name and is STILL at work DOING A NEW THING in you and in the church and in the world! Easter is the promise that NOTHING IN YOUR PAST, PRESENT OR FUTURE has the ultimate power to define you. YOU ARE DEFINED by the ZOE, the energy, the light of God that flows through you and that flows through all creation MAKING ALL THINGS NEW!
And it is this power that gives LIFE, and this is the main thing that John wants us to know. He tells us all this so that we might HAVE LIFE, and this is where we find the meaning of Easter, the MORE OF LIFE, the LIGHT TO SHINE IN OUR DARKNESS, not in the tomb of "proof" but in GOD'S ZOE, present in history AND in the here and now, because proof won't satisfy your longing for LIFE anyway. Think about it. So-called "proofs" amount to little more than a hill of jellybeans.
You don't prove love; you embrace it.
You don't prove power; you experience it.
You don't prove LIFE; YOU LIVE IT!
You don't prove NEW LIFE; you RECEIVE IT!
The WAY OF LIFE IS CALLING US--the WAY OF RESURRECTION.
Put your hand again on your pulse.
Just as surely as blood is pulsing through your veins right now, the ZOE of Christ--the LIFE that cannot DIE--is pulsing through creation making all things NEW! We are called by name to receive that NEW LIFE and share it with the WORLD!
And that, my friends, is better news than bunnies and jellybeans. It is the reason for all our alleluias!
Let us pray. Life-giving God, may the power that raised Jesus from the dead fill your people anew this Resurrection Sunday, that we might boldly embody your love in all corners of this world that you so love! Amen. So be it. Amen.