A Sermon for Easter

John 20:1-30

This is a full season for my husband and me for many reasons, namely the awaited arrival of our first baby in September. As parents-in-waiting we are preparing for much, and learning to be at peace with the limits of such preparation. Holidays, like the one we celebrate today, are a feature of our conversations, exploring how we desire to raise our daughter, which aspects of holidays we want to retain and which we would prefer to discard. As many have rightfully mourned the commercialization of sacred days, there also has been a movement among churches to ensure that we not skip too quickly past good Friday and Holy Saturday, that we not jump feet first into the joyous morning of Easter without first letting our toes sink into the earth stained by the blood and sweat and tears of Christ. This is an important corrective, I think, as it calls us to linger for just a bit in the sheer horror and brutality of crucifixion, of death, before moving to celebrate the beauty of new life in the resurrection. But even here, even on Easter morning, I still don’t feel fully ready to pull myself away from the darkness of death and mourning.

Now you should know that if you came today expecting a light and airy sermon, something akin perhaps to the pastel-colored Peeps marshmallows that are ubiquitous on store shelves this time of year, then you may be disappointed. Understand that at times I also want a sweet taste on my mouth, a bite of something light and delicious, but I also know that slightly nauseous feeling I get in my stomach after tasting such sweetness, as my body knows that what is cheap and artificial can never satisfy its longings. On this Easter morning, I struggle to talk about resurrection, about new life. My conscience and theological sensibilities will not allow me to move too quickly to Sunday. How can I when the smoke is still rising into the air from an airport and subway station in Brussels? How can I speak of life when a beloved mentor of mine still mourns the recent death of his son? What does it mean to celebrate life on the very morning that so many will wake to find their loved ones lost to acts of terror and brutality? At times it feels naive at best and heartless at worst to joyfully speak of resurrection when death still seems to rule the day. It’s not that I fail to believe in the power of Jesus’ victory over the grave, it’s just that like Mary Magdelene, full of tears and leaning in to see the tomb, sometimes I wonder, “Where is Jesus? Where have they taken his body?”

Anyone who has known trauma knows that in the aftermath, death still lingers. A minister living and serving in the heart of New Orleans understood this well. Several years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, despite the public’s urging for the people of the city to move on, he remarked that, “The storm is gone, but the ‘after the storm’ is always here.”[1] His comment speaks to the intrusive nature of death and devastation, how it still rears it head even after the worst of the storm has passed. I’ve spent the last year of my life listening to the stories of women who have survived sexual abuse, conducting research on the ways their trauma experiences have interfaced with their faith and spirituality. Each of these women spoke of bold and beautiful encounters of healing and resurrection from the wounds inflicted by the hands of others, ways they have nurtured new life and meaning. And while I continually am moved by the resilience of these women, amazed at how the Spirit of the risen Christ within them has rendered new life in the shell of the old, I also recall the ways these women spoke of the death that still remains, the trauma that never really goes away, the intrusion of Friday’s horror into the joy of Sunday.

No matter the source of our wounds, each of us has lived long enough to know that even today as we rightfully celebrate life, all around us lingers the stench of death. It is in our world, in our lives, in our own hearts. I imagine this was true also of Jesus’ earliest followers. Even after finding an empty tomb, after encountering the risen Christ or sharing conversation with him in a locked room, the sadness and pain lingered. These men and women had lost their friend, their teacher. Mary still mourned the death of her son. Jesus’ friends recalled the sheer horror of his torture and crucifixion. They shuddered in fear for how the powers and principalities might see to their meeting a similar end. In the same breath, in the same moment, they rejoiced at Jesus’ triumph over the grave while still seeing all of the places where the burial cloths had not yet been stripped away, seeing those who still faced oppression in the midst of empire, watching as the darkness still seemed to cast a shadow in mid day. And yet, despite this tension, I sense that Jesus’ followers felt something akin to the sentiments Peter expressed some time earlier in the face of difficult and troubling words from Jesus: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus, we do not understand what it means to celebrate your resurrection when so much death and destruction and chaos persist around us. We don’t know fully how to rejoice when circumstances still lead us to tears. Yet even so, you have the words of eternal life. Your kingdom beckons us. Where else can we go?

Despite the tension we face as death and life exist in unbounded, non-linear categories, there is something still compelling about the resurrection of Christ because it speaks a better word, a word that does not erase our stories but speaks to them. The truth of resurrection is not that we have ceased to know death; it is that in the midst of this death we are joined by the very God who entered into our sorrow and suffering, who enters there still, and who beckons us to live into the new and even more true reality of life in the kingdom of God.

As we’ve watched yet again while communities struck by terror seek to grapple with destruction and death, I’ve noticed a beautiful and compelling response among these survivors, those in Brussels and Pakistan and Kenya and beyond. In word and in deed, one of their first acts of defiance in the face of death is to demonstrate their resilience, their choice to live and rebuild, their refusal to allow terror to defeat them. I am moved again and again by such courage, and I am struck by how deeply it resonates with the truths of resurrection we are celebrating this morning. This week I listened to a story about West African musicians forming a new band called the Bassam Collective, named for the site of a recent attack by Al Qaeda on the famed beaches of the Ivory Coast. Only 2 weeks after gunmen mowed down 19 civilians, these musicians gathered on the same spot to sing and dance and record a song. The song's title is French phrase which means “We’re Not a Bit Afraid.” These men and women sought out the very site of horror and bloodshed, and in that place made beautiful music that celebrates every good thing in life. I wept as I listened to this song two days ago. I wept because there was something in the music, in humanity’s resilience, in the power of courage to affirm the most fundamental realities of resurrection. No one can deny that weeks before the shoreline was host to lifeless bodies, murdered by men bent on terror. Neither do we deny that the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion are real and echo the all-too-familiar oppression and violence that so many still face. But in the very midst of this death, the God of creation enters in and reminds us that new life is here and is yet coming. We do not yet know it in its fullness, though we ache for it. We have not yet glimpsed the whole story of resurrection, though we celebrate it. But we are a people who know that no matter the death that still lingers, Jesus proclaims life. We, like Thomas, are invited to press our hands into the wounds of Christ, to feel and sense and remember that he is one well acquainted with suffering and death. And in the face of such death, we are ones who have been caught up into life. We cannot guarantee that death will not find us. Like Jesus’ followers, we will want to hide behind locked doors for fear of the powers which we do not control. But let us hear the song of the West African musicians, people touched deeply by death but moved deeper still by another force. That force, that power is life. It is love. It is God. It brought Jesus out of the grave and calls us forward from the ones we find all around us. He is risen; let us rise up with him.

[1] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, 2.