First and Foremost
Here we are, at home, instead of at the church on Easter Sunday. There’s no cross on the wall, no cross covered with flowers as is our tradition, no easter lilies laid out in front of the communion table, no communion table. We’re in our homes, and even my best attempt at a kind of altar doesn’t come close to being in the church. This is an Easter like none before in my lifetime, and I’m guessing like no other in yours. Instead it’s an Easter most like the very first.
The first Easter, in Matthew’s Gospel, begins with just two women. Maybe even walking six feet apart, maybe with veils or cloths of some kind covering their faces as they anticipated entering the tomb, to anoint Jesus’s body with oil, or with spices to cover up the smell of death.…..The first Easter begins in grief, as does so much of the world this morning. The first Easter didn’t begin with trumpets and organ, it began quietly as people grieved the loss of life.
For the two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, they grieve the loss of their friend, their teacher, their Lord….the loss of their plans, their dreams and visions that they carried with them for the last 10 or so years. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. And they show up alone while their other friends, the disciples, and so many others either stayed home or went into hiding out of fear. Fear they’d be implicated. Fear of arrest, fear of reputation, ashamed for not sticking by Jesus’s side, but nonetheless, also grieving. Wherever they are, they’re grieving and they’re afraid. There’s no celebrations, no dinner gatherings to go to, no egg hunts, no honey baked ham. This is the first Easter….and it’s unlike any other, but probably more like today’s than any other we’ve had.
The women are met by an angel who appears like lighting, in white, the guards fall flat on their faces in fear, but the women stand strong….and they hear the words of an angel saying….he’s not here. He’s Risen, as he said. Matthew throws in these three small words… as he said, as Jesus said. He has risen just as Jesus told you he would. You can almost hear the angel channeling Jesus saying I told you so. Because he did, by my count, four times in Matthew’s gospel, the first time with the phrase, From that time, indicating that there were probably many more occasions that were never recorded. And each time Jesus lays it out for them, he begins with predicting his own death, and follows that with some version of “then on the third day rise again.”
But his followers didn’t listen, or if they did, they didn’t believe it, or they didn’t want to believe it. Because in order to believe the second part about rising on the third day, would mean they’d also have to believe in the first part, that he would suffer and die. And no one wants to believe that part, not then and not today, not of someone we love and not of ourselves, especially in our culture. There are places all over the globe that celebrate death, not as the end, but as the beginning of something else. But we tend to hush our voices, we use words like pass away to avoid saying he’s dead, which sounds harsh to our ears, we protect our kids from learning about death, I think John and I went through three goldfish before we gave up and finally broke the news to Charlotte her friend, Goldie, the fish had died.
Even now, and for the past month, as my home state of New York suffers, I can barely take in the stories, the emails and the messages. And that’s not because of our culture, that’s because it’s all too much to take in. Because to feel compassion brings us into suffering with, in solidarity with the suffering of others. And the same was true for the Disciples. This is the first Easter, like no other.
Matthew tells us the two women left the tomb with fear and great joy, because fear and joy are not mutually exclusive. Especially now, like the first, joy comes on walks, in the home, in being with my kids, in the eyes of my old dog, in being able to stare at the water, and smell the bay. The angel, like all angels in the Bible, opens with “do not fear,” because fear alone is crippling. But fear that’s named and handed over into the hands of a God who has you, who transforms life from death, transforms our fear into great joy, in appreciation for the life that surrounds us, more precious that gold, sweeter than honey. In meeting death face on, we see our life, for the first time, first and foremost.
The two Mary’s, in their fear and joy, meet Jesus on their way back to the disciples, and throw themselves at his feet, clasping his feet, trying to hold onto him, when Jesus tells them to go tell his brothers he’ll meet them in Galilee.
And that’s where our scripture ends. We aren’t told in our gospel what the women said to the disciples when they got back from seeing Jesus. But we can imagine; I imagine the disciples writing them off as “grief stricken and hysterical, seeing only what they wanted to see.” Or maybe some wanted evidence and asked for more details, maybe some ran back to the tomb to see for themselves, maybe some ran ahead to Galilee wanting to be first in line to meet the risen Christ. We don’t know, but we do know the human condition. We know that when other people witness miraculous moments and tell us about it, we both want to believe and we doubt, we’re inspired in our imagining, and we’re skeptical in the mundane, we’re human, and express every reaction under the sun. The Gospel, that is the good news, encourages us to stay inspired in our imagining and to trust that God is bringing new life out of death.
Trust brings us into imagining another way.
An angel came to us, said Mary, every bit as amazing as the angel who came to Jesus’s mother, Mary and to Joseph, do you remember? And the multitude that came to some of you, when you were just boys in the fields, tending your flocks. And the angel said what they all said, “Do not fear.” But then he added this: he said, “He’s risen- just as he said he would.”
He told us, he promised us. But we didn’t listen then, but now we understand, we see…
He’s risen, he’s living among us and goes before us, to Galilee, the place he was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth, the region so many of us call home, he’s calling us there. Back home. And we’ll regroup there together. And it’s there we’ll receive the great commission, and Jesus will send us out to all nations, to spread the love of God to all people.
Matthew’s Gospel ends there, with Jesus sending his disciples back out to the world, from a mountain in the region they call home. The mountain is the place where the world and the spiritual meet, not unlike our homes, as we meet Christ there this morning.
Because we witness him in everything we do and everyone we touch, and his love and his life and all that he taught and all that he did, belongs to us now, just as he promised.
And maybe Mary and Mary said, and years from now we’ll create ways to remember this day, and we’ll play music and sing and gather together in sanctuaries and out on our finest clothes, and eat and drink wine and dance and honor this moment, this very first Easter.
And every year we’ll remember the fulfillment of his promise, first and foremost….
The promise of life from death. Of joy in grief and fear. Of God’s ability to triumph over the cruelty and the worst of what we do to one another, to our planet and to ourselves. The promise that God’s yes is always greater than the no of humanity. Christ’s sacrificial love does not determine who is in and who is out. It promises life to anyone who loves as God loves, which is to love all of us, as brothers and sisters, part of one humanity.
If this pandemic has revealed anything, it’s revealed the teachings of all the great religions of the world: that we are inextricably bound together by something greater than ourselves, that we need one another, and that we must care for one another as one people.
We will meet again, in the church and in the world, that’s a promise. Into the arms of those we love and miss, in babies that will be born roughly 8 months from now, in memories of those we’ve loved and lost.
Until then, we meet Jesus again for the first time, in the faces of those closest to us, and in the faces of those we don’t know, in the sun that rises, in the courage of those who care for the sick, in the hearts of those who feed the hungry, in the ability to forgive and to be forgiven, in our ability to see all others as ourselves, and first and foremost, because of God’s triumph of love over hatred and life from death.
He told us so…..and continues to.
Christ is Risen, Hallelujah, Amen.