More Surprises

Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Day) C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

“Making Jesus a scapegoat, we heaped on him every torture and pain we could, blaming him for everything wrong in the world. We were going to break God. We were going to be right. We stumbled our way through a trial, we put him up on a cross, and we watched him die. We watched the life bleed out of him until his eyes glassed over and his breathing stopped. Seven times he could have said no, he could have stopped it. But in the end, we did it—we proved how far we could push, how far God was willing to go. We forced God’s hand.

“And only then, at the end, did we realize what we’d done.”

With these words, I ended my sermon on Good Friday, leaving us to ponder what it is we had done. In our efforts to prove ourselves right, to make God conform to our own ideas, and to prove God would rather back down than go the distance for us, we did the unthinkable. We were sure that God would capitulate before the end, would give up on us, and thereby prove we were right about God. We put God to death.

Boy, were we in for a surprise.

The past few days, the celebration of the Triduum, have been full of surprises. On Maundy Thursday, Judas surprised the disciples be leaving to betray Jesus. Jesus surprised his disciples by stripping off his clothes and washing their feet. He surprised his accusers by standing up them, but by doing so in a way that still let them falsely convict him.

On Good Friday, Jesus surprised Pilate by refusing to plead for his innocence. Pilate surprised the crowd by his reluctance to put someone to death, an activity for which he’d shown great enthusiasm in the past. The crowd surprised Pilate with their vehement opposition to setting Jesus free, a man that earlier in the week they’d cheered and screamed for like wild fans.

On Holy Saturday, Jesus surprised everyone by being dead. That may sound odd, that they were surprised, but think of it this way. We’ve all had people in our lives who have died—some of whom were very, very close to us. Did you ever wake up the next morning and find that the reality of their death hadn’t quite hit you yet? I imagine it was very much the same for those who had spent the last three years or so of Jesus’s life walking and talking with him, devoting their lives to him. Especially his mother; as I’ve never been a mother who lost her son, I can’t begin to begin to describe the shock she must’ve been in.

Which brings us to today, the morning of the resurrection. We already celebrated it last night at the conclusion of the Vigil of Easter, but this morning we hear again the story of the first visit to the empty tomb, a story of surprise after surprise.

It seems the shock of Jesus’s death hadn’t even begun to wear off when the women, the most faithful of Jesus’s disciples during his ministry, arrived at the tomb to continue the Judean burial customs that had been interrupted by the sunset on Friday, which marked the beginning of the sabbath.

Because of the culture we live in, I’m sorta surprised by this act of devotion. Judean burial custom was elaborate, and to this day in Judaism bodies are prepared and buried after specific rituals have been observed. Because these preparations had been interrupted, the women go at the earliest opportunity when they can see what they’re doing—the crack of dawn on Sunday. In a culture that often doesn’t recognize the importance of funerals and burial customs, that the women went at dawn to finish surprises me.

Do you know what else surprises me? None of the men who were Jesus’s disciples went to the tomb that morning. Not a single one. Not Peter, not James, not John. All of them stayed at home. It was the women, the most devoted of Jesus’s disciples, who went to the tomb that morning. You would think that with everything they’d been through, everything they’d seen and heard, those men wouldd be there to take care of Jesus’s body when he died.

But it’s not so surprising when you consider the events of the past few days. When Jesus is arrested, none of the disciples except Peter follow—they run. Peter, the only one who follows, denies even knowing Jesus. At the cross, none of the people who followed him were nearby—his “acquaintances” and the women stood at a distance. And when Joseph of Arimathea, who was not one of Jesus’s disciples, buries his body, none of Jesus’s disciples even watch that happen. Just the women.

As we move into the dawn of that morning, the surprises just keep coming. The women are surprised to find the tomb empty. The men in white clothing surprise the women further with their appearance. The women surprise the male disciples with their tale of the risen Lord. And to no one’s surprise, the disciples don’t get it.

Time after time in the story of the last three days and today, people are surprised. It’s as if God specifically delights in surprising people by overturning their expectations, by taking everything they know and reversing it, changing it, molding it into something new.

Look at our expectations for Good Friday. I don’t think we ever expected God to actually follow through with the promises made to us, to love us even to death. We tested that theory to its very limit—would God die for us? Would God love us so much that not even death was out of bounds? Good Friday was a resounding and surprising YES to that challenge. Yes, God said—I will die for you. If that’s what it takes for you to know how serious I am, then yes, I will give you my life.

That in itself is a powerful message. Christ’s death on the cross, a final reminder of God’s unconditional love, would live in the memory of his followers forever as they passed it down from generation to generation. That might have been enough.

But God of course has another surprise in store. Who could have guessed that death was not the end for God? I mean, it sounds silly now when you say it out loud. But who could have guessed that on Sunday morning, Jesus would be alive again?

Yet here we are! Just like the disciples, early in the morning we are hearing the Good News proclaimed: that Christ who once was dead is now alive again!

And how are we supposed to react to this surprise? My first instinct is to say, “Happy! We should be happy that Jesus is alive again!” But should we be? Should the disciples have been happy?

Everyone around Jesus had just abandoned him. They forgot how important he was to them. They forgot how much he loved them. They weren’t there when he died, they weren’t there when he was buried, and they weren’t there when his body was going to be prepared that morning. When Jesus does finally appear to the disciples, they react different than we might expect. They are afraid of him. They are afraid of what he might say or do to them because of their failures.

Is that what Easter is all about? This fear? After everything we did to Jesus and to God, perhaps so. Now we weren’t the ones who lived in the first century C.E. and who screamed for Jesus to be put to death. We weren’t the ones who abandoned him in the garden that night. We didn’t accept money to betray him. We didn’t nail him to that cross.

But Jesus’s crucifixion wasn’t just a single act restricted to a particular moment in time. It was the culmination of humanity’s resistance to God that stretches back to the very beginning. It was the result of our continuing rebellion—yes, our rebellion—and our challenge to God that we could do it better. It was a single moment that encapsulated the collective sin of all humankind and our tendencies to despise God, even ours.

I would NOT be surprised if Jesus had risen again to say, “Is that all you got, punks?” Or if he rose again to exact revenge on the creation that had scorned and murdered God. These are the kinds of reactions we would expect from someone who came back to life after we killed them. It’s probably why everyone was so afraid when they saw Jesus again.

But that’s not the message we get. Jesus is raised again back to life, and his message is this: you did everything you possibly could to kill me. You did everything humanly possible to get rid of God. You were willing to let me die to prove your were right. And when you finally did, when you went through with your threats, you found yourself utterly and truly alone. You found that you lost far more than you thought you’d gain.

And here’s the thing: I’m still here with you. I still love you.

What a strange reaction to being killed by someone: loving them. But that’s exactly the reaction Jesus Christ had for those who murdered him, for those who were complicit, and for those whose words and deeds even today wish that he’d stayed dead and buried.

Much to our great shock and surprise, when Jesus was raised from the dead we found not a hand lashing out to strike us, but a hand open to welcome us. We found a voice not loud and raised to scold us, but a voice soft and tender to comfort us. We found not an angry, vengeful God looking to make us pay for our sin and separation from God, but a loving, mothering God welcoming us foolish children into an embrace that is only truly and intimately shared between mother and child.

I’m just as surprised as you are. This is not what I would have expected from the resurrection. But this is who God has been all along.

Every time God is abandoned, either by creation, or the Chosen People, or we adopted children, God finds us, takes our hand, and brings us home.

Every time we go out of our way to put distance between us and God, God closes that distance.

Every time we vilify and and attempt to destroy God, God responds with love.

Nothing ever sticks—it’s infuriating. God simply won’t be driven away, not by the Judeans, not by the Romans, not by Christ’s disciples, not even by us.  We tried ignoring God. We tried discrediting Jesus. We tried beating him to make him go away. We tried threatening him with death, and when even that didn’t work, we were forced to carry through on our threats and kill him. And nothing stuck. Not one thing.

We asked, “How awful do we have to be, God, to make you go away? What can we possibly do to make you stop loving us?” And the answer, proclaimed loud and clear on Easter morning for all to hear, much to our great shock and surprise, is this: Nothing.

Featured Image: “Easter Lily” by Rick Harris is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.