Easter morning is about the end of life as we know it and the beginning of something new and incredible beyond it. But some people steeped in science, reason and logic find Easter to be just wishful thinking. Easter in their minds is just something for gullible people, and there are certainly gullible people.
For example, several years ago The New York Times reported a story about a woman in Florida who sold a grilled cheese sandwich that she had kept for over ten years, because as she began to eat it, she saw among its toasted lines and swirls the face of the Virgin Mary. She sold her sandwich for $28,000 on eBay. It's a true story!
Similar religious images have been observed in many forms. Jesus has been seen in an oyster shell, a dental x-ray, a Chihuahua's ear, a tortilla and a Polish pierogi. The latter was sold at a bargain price on eBay, just $1,775. Someone even offered a reward for the return of a stolen cinnamon bun that resembles Mother Teresa. The phenomenon of seeing God's face is so common that it has a name--pareidolia.
But the discovery that the woman made at the empty tomb on Easter morning is a far cry from pareidolia and finding Jesus imprinted on a pierogi. The latter is laughable, but the former changed the world. We should not confuse odd occurrences with an event that has become the hinge of history.
Matthew tells us that at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to visit the tomb so that they could anoint the body of Jesus with spices and thereby cover over the smell of death. An earthquake occurred. Then an angel appeared and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
Matthew notes that the Jewish authorities were afraid that Jesus' disciples would steal his body and make false claims about him. So Pilate instructed his soldiers to guard the tomb. They fell asleep, and an angel appeared and scared them. Matthew says, "They shook like dead men." Then the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised..." So began the most extraordinary event in history--Easter Day.
To those who have not dedicated time to develop an understanding of God, such religious talk sounds like mythology. But this is not the case. The Easter mystery reveals the deepest insight that we have into God and into ourselves, because it redefines our image of God and our knowledge of ourselves and our final destiny.
The movie actress Deborah Kerr was interviewed many years ago about the making of the movie Quo Vadis. At one point in the movie, Kerr was tied to a stake in the Roman Coliseum and angry lions were unleashed at her. When asked whether she was afraid when the lions plunged toward her, she said, "No, I am one of those actresses who reads all the script. I had read to the end, and I knew that Robert Taylor would come and save me." So it is for those who have read all of the gospel and believe in Jesus' resurrection. We approach death trusting that God will reach out and draw us to heaven.
To grasp the concepts of God, Easter and heaven does not mean that we must master the mystery. Rather the mystery takes hold of us in open and trusting moments of prayer and silence whether we are in church or working in the garden or walking on a beach.
Several years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried the story of a 21-year-old student, who died in a bus crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. When a doctor at the hospital told his father that his son was dead, the father said, "I wanted to break something, but I couldn't move. My body felt frozen. I couldn't say anything. I just needed to see him right away." Taken to his son, the father said, "I touched his face, his body, his arm. It was so painful. There was just such incredible pain." Surely it must have been like that when Mary touched the lifeless, cold body of her son Jesus. Oh the pain!
Sooner or later each one of us will know what it's like to lose someone that we have loved and adored. How will we deal with it? How will we integrate this pain into our life and continue our journey? That's why Easter morning is so vital to Christians, because the Easter event gives us our greatest hope in the face of our greatest fear.
What happened on the first Easter is a sacred mystery. It defies medicine, logic and science; it affects the whole history of the human race in all times and in all places. Easter is the foundation of the Christian faith. No other religion maintains the promise of heaven and the hope of eternal life. As Christians we view life as an infinite horizon.
Many people avoid dealing with the mystery of life after death by filling their lives with constant noise and distractions. We can have all sorts of experiences, but miss the deep meaning of life. We can be entertained, travel the world and purchase many possessions, but fail to examine life's greatest horizon and acquaint ourselves with God. We can avoid people who are dying and claim that religious questions are unanswerable. But in the end, we may discover a profound loneliness when death approaches and come to realize only too late that we have no relationship with God.
I remember visiting a man who never came to church shortly before he died. He sat in his bathrobe on the edge of his bed. He asked if I minded if he smoked a cigarette. "I don't mind," I said. I had come to bring him Communion, and he was dying in his home with hospice care. His voice was raspy. Outside his bedroom his garden was blooming--tulips, daffodils and lavender were coming to life.
"I've haven't been a much of a churchgoer," he confessed. "Not everyone is," I said. "I'm not sure that I believe in heaven," he said. "What's important is that God believes in you," I answered. "Do you think that people like me go to heaven," he asked. "I hope that they do," I replied, adding, "God's grace is greater than we can imagine."
"Friends have been calling and coming from far and wide to visit me," he said. "It's nice that you have this time together and that they can express their love for you," I said. "I have a lot of friends," he said, then coughed, winced and then began to cry. His life was drawing to a close. His lack of faith in the Easter event had left him in despair.
How will it be for you when death approaches? Death teaches us that our own reality is dependent upon God's grace. Without understanding God we cannot fully understand ourselves, why we were put on earth and how God will care for us even when we die.
In 2011 over 180 members of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, and more than 90 friends from beyond our church joined me as we embarked on the challenge of reading the entire Bible in a year. Some took more than a year. Some took even longer. We began to share The Bible Challenge with other churches, and three years later more than 2,500 churches in over 40 countries around the world are participating in The Bible Challenge.
As we read through the entire Bible, we discovered that there is one unifying theme throughout--namely that God is always reaching out. The story of creation in Genesis 1 is a story of God reaching out to create something new, so that God could be in relationship.
The story of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, which the Italian artist Massacio masterfully captured in a fresco in Florence's Brancacci Chapel, is the story of God reaching out to humans and offering us new terms to live on earth after we had defied God. God asks in haunting words, "Adam, where are you?" It is the cry of every worried parent magnified across the centuries. "Where are you?" So God reached out.
When Abraham and Sarah could not conceive a child, God reached out and promised that they would have a son and that their descendants would outnumber the stars. When the Jews were slaves in Egypt, God reached out through Moses and led them into the Promised Land. The Exodus is the fundamental story that reminds both Christians and Jews that God reaches out to us in our hour of deepest need.
In the Book of Deuteronomy God continues to reach out. God instructed Jews to reach out and care for the stranger and for those in need. Jews were not to harvest their entire field, but to leave a portion for poor people to harvest so that they could eat and survive with dignity. God reached out and provided for his people.
Throughout the Bible, God sent prophets to help us lead better lives. The Book of Common Prayer notes, "Again and again you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace." God reached out again and again.
Finally, God sent Jesus to dwell in our sinful flesh and become one of us. Jesus took upon himself the condemnation of humanity, suffered the death that we deserved and was publicly executed in the most degrading way. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, God reached out to bring us back into relationship with him.
That is why Paul writes, "The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised...and we shall be changed... Then shall come to pass the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'" God's power is manifest whenever we reach out. Christianity is not Christianity unless we reach out like God reaches out to us.
Christian ministry usually starts small. But isn't that what Christianity is all about? Christian faith is about little actions, like taking Easter flowers to a shut-in, tutoring inner-city children, visiting someone in the hospital, participating in a prison ministry, teaching Sunday school, going on a mission trip, taking a pilgrimage or feeding the homeless.
Easter faith is about reaching out. None of these small acts will solve the unspeakable problems that besiege our world. But that's not how Christians view it. Every dollar, each kind word, every deed and act of Christian love is part of the great cosmic drama inspired by God's reaching out to us when Jesus rose from the grave. I believe in the resurrection in part because I see Christ alive and at work in each of us. I see the risen Christ working through you--the Body of Christ on earth. God is always present as we reach out and support each other.
Christ is risen. Resurrection power is explosive! It is the power to reach out beyond ourselves and join the risen Jesus in caring for those in need. The power to reach out in the name of God is the door to heaven itself. Christ is risen. Chris is risen indeed! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Let us Pray: Gracious God, there is no smaller package than a human being turned in on him or herself. We share an Easter faith which calls us to reach out to others and turn the focus from ourselves and place it on others where it belongs. You know that we find our deepest joy as we reach out to care for others in need, because we are created in your image and you are constantly reaching out and caring for us. Thank you for giving Jesus to us, thank you for his Passion and death upon the cross and for making the ultimate effort to reach out to us and give us eternal life. May we find the deep gladness of our hearts as we reach out to others in need and bring them the hope of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.