L. Gregory Jones: Living Easter Hope

In a scene of Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, the Queen and Alice have an exchange:

“I don’t care for jam,” said Alice.

“But, it’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

Alice responds, “Well, I don’t want any today, at any rate.”

“Oh,” said the Queen, “You couldn’t have it if you did want it. The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.”

Alice objected, “It must come sometimes to ‘jam today.’”

“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”

[Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1871).]

Too often, we treat the Resurrection the way the Queen treats jam: there is Jesus’ resurrection in the past, yesterday, and there is the promise of the general resurrection of the dead in the future, tomorrow, but never resurrection today.

Yet if Easter means anything, it empowers us to embody the hope and power of the Resurrection today. The Easter story calls us to new life and to embody hope in how we live now.

That is especially urgent for us these days, when so much of our daily experience seems to suggest we live in a Good Friday world - a world with much pain and suffering, a nightmare of absurd unmeaning. After all, we are enduring not just one but multiple pandemics: in addition to COVID-19, there’s heightened attention to racial injustice, crisis of mental health, economic disruptions, the fracturing of our society. Too often we find ourselves wondering in the present if all of our dreams have been misplaced.

We fear that, even if there might have been a resurrection yesterday, or there might be a resurrection tomorrow, there certainly isn’t much hope for us today. We find ourselves very much like Mary Magdalene on Saturday and early Sunday morning.

In our passage from the Gospel of John, Mary is disconsolate - she fears that Jesus’ death, what we now call Good Friday, is the end of the story. She is weeping outside the tomb, and, when asked by two angels why she is weeping, she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around and sees Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him.

Jesus asks her why she is weeping, and she again responds with a request to find Jesus’ body. Only when Jesus calls her by name does she recognize him - she calls him Rabbouni (which means teacher). Jesus cautions her that she can’t hold on to him and cling to the past… he calls her to go and tell the disciples the news of his resurrection.

Jesus recognizes that even when we have a transformative encounter, our longing might be to go back to what is familiar, to what we know - to want to cling to the past. Jesus’ message to Mary is to focus her on the future, on the new life that is the gift that God offers through the Resurrection.

And so, Mary follows Jesus’ instruction and goes and tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” She discovers the power of Easter hope as she is known and called by name by the risen Christ. And in accepting Jesus’ commission to go and tell the disciples, she is commissioned as a minister of the Good News. She discovers the power of the Resurrection in her life, and her renewed vocation creates innovative possibilities for the future.

The power of the Resurrection set Mary and the other disciples in motion - and it creates world-changing impact. In his book Christianity’s Surprise, Kavin Rowe points to the pivotal significance of the Resurrection in explaining how Christianity went from 5,000 followers in the year 50 CE to 5 million followers two centuries later, long before Constantine made Christianity the officially sanctioned religion. The Resurrection, Row notes, is the pivot for the history of the world. Easter reveals Christ as the true human and the One who embodies the fullness of the Reign of God. [See C. Kavin Rowe, Christianity’s Surprise (Abingdon Press, 2020).]

And so, the early Christians, inspired by the power of Easter Hope - and, 50 days later, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a sign of Pentecostal power - were set in motion. They bore witness to God’s promise of new life in extraordinary ways - new friendships, new communities of welcome, new possibilities for their vocational lives, and new institutions. Indeed, the first hospitals in the history of the world were founded by Christians who were inspired by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to find new ways to care for those who were sick and suffering.

Christianity was surprising in the Greco-Roman world because they were doing new things as a way of bearing witness to the power of the Resurrection. They saw the significance of the Resurrection today - each day. And the movement spread as people were drawn to the faith, hope, and love embodied by the Christian witness.

Eventually the 4th century Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate got so frustrated by the spread of the Christian movement, in attending to the needs of society and offering hope to those in need, that he noted: “These nasty Galileans” (what he called Christians) are making us look bad. Julian called on the Romans to imitate the Christians with their innovative institutions and their transformational commitment to love and care for those in need. But for Julian and the Romans, these were pale imitations and techniques of the Christian commitment that was inspired and empowered by the work of God in the world.

Christianity was surprising because those early Christians were bearing witness to what God intends for all of us: new life enabled by the forgiveness of sins, which gives us the hope and courage to live the life that God intends for all of us.

What would it take for us, living in 2022, to rediscover Christianity’s surprise? What would it take for us in our own lives, and in our engagement with neighbors near and far, to feel a renewed sense that the world has meaning and that the future is bright?

In short, it would require us to believe that the resurrection is real today. That means a conviction that the living God continues to act in the world here and now, and for us to live in the expectation that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and who has promised to raise all of us in the fullness of the Kingdom wants to raise us, you and me, from our own tombs - our own despair, fear, suffering - for the power of new life now, today.

That may sound obvious, especially on Easter, but it isn’t. Do you really believe that God is active in the world and is likely to surprise us through the Holy Spirit, conforming us to Christ? That God continues to call us to love our enemies, to take the log out of our own eyes before looking at the speck in our brother’s or sister’s eye, to accept forgiveness for our own sins and to offer forgiveness to others?

The philosopher Charles Taylor notes in his book A Secular Age that one of the features of our time, the end of modernity, is that it is too easy to assume that “this world” is all there is. All too often, even those of us who are Christians live and act as if there is no God - we live as “practical atheists.”

That is certainly true of secular folks who have rejected the Gospel. But it is equally true of us religious folks who turn Easter into a symbol of something else: of love in general, or of Spring, or of butterflies and new life in a generic sense. For then we settle for life in this world without any real hope that God is active in this world or that God will bring this world to full redemption in the New Creation.

The Catholic leader Dorothy Day was fond of saying that she “wanted to live her life in a way that wouldn’t make sense if God doesn’t exist.” And by that she meant that God both exists and is active in the world. Her comment haunts me… because if I am honest, too often my life makes way too much sense regardless of whether God exists and is actively at work for good in the world.

Do I expect the risen Christ to surprise me in the way that he did with Mary? Do I really want to be called into a renewed vocation of witness to the surprising good news of God’s love for me and for all people? Do I want, like the early Christians, to be challenged to cultivate new and renewed institutions that are deep and fully Christian in all they do and are?

I was talking with a friend who lives in sub-Sharan Africa a few years ago. He was rebuilding a hospital in the middle of a war zone in eastern Congo. When I asked him why he was rebuilding a hospital that had been destroyed in the midst of the war, he told me, “Because we need to show that the power of God is stronger than the powers of evil forces.” I was struck by the strength of his faith in God and the ways in which he bears witness to Easter Hope.

And I was also humbled by the realization that I rarely think about my own life, my own vocation, with such explicit focus on what God is doing in the world. To be sure, as a Christian and as a pastor, I have described my life as a calling, and I have sought to be inspired by Jesus and the message of Scripture. But do I really live my life each day in a way that expects to be surprised by the Risen Christ?

Such surprise should also challenge those among us who have no problem with seeing God at work everywhere and use that as an excuse for their own prejudices and inaction. Such people tend to see God at work in ways that reinforce what they want and keeps them at the center of the world. And too often they see God at work returning things to a past that they wish wouldn’t change (and maybe never was).

The surprising work of Christ suggests that it is not just about what “I” want, nor does it allow me to remain in control, nor does it replicate the past - it is about living into a new future that we can’t predict or control - a future in which the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the one in control.

So, God can surprise us with new possibilities found in scientific discoveries, in vaccines and other technologies related to public health, in the life and witness of people with whom we disagree. To live in the power of Easter hope is disorienting and life-giving.

Mary’s witness is unsettling because she is so centered in Christ, especially the risen Christ. The more centered we are in Christ, the less we will be focused on ourselves - and our wishes and desires, our definitions of enemies and friends, our hopes and fears. Mary goes forth, and in her words and in her life, she says, “I have seen the Lord.” She is a changed person.

What would it mean for you to live Easter hope and Pentecostal power in a Good Friday world? How might you be an agent of hope to those around you? How might you support and foster institutions to be agents of hope?

There is a song written several decades ago by Avery and Marsh that my mom used to sing - it is called “Every Morning is Easter Morning.” The refrain says it all. “Every morning is Easter morning, from now on. Every day is resurrection day, the past is over and gone.”

Let’s commit here and now. Every morning is Easter morning from now on. We are not going to live as practical atheists; we are not going to imagine that Easter is just a symbol. We are not going to settle just for resurrection yesterday and resurrection tomorrow. From now on we will live Resurrection today. Hallelujah! Amen.

Let us pray.

Dear God, we give you thanks for the glorious good news of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We pray that you would calm our doubts and our fears and open our eyes as with Mary to see the risen Christ calling us forth to new life. We pray, O God, that as you did with Mary, you would inspire and empower us to go forth from this play this day and say, “I have seen the Lord!” Strengthen us, empower us, inspire us as we give thanks for the good news of Easter today. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.