Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In my family, growing up, you simply couldn't have Easter without chocolate bunnies. Every Palm Sunday after church we'd all go to this wonderful old-fashioned candy store in town and choose the little critters that would appear the following week in our baskets. Occasionally my sister and I would break with tradition and choose a chicken or a duck instead of a rabbit; sometimes I got really radical and went with a white chocolate rather than a milk chocolate bunny. But it was one of those things you could always count on, year after year. A deliciously consistent tradition. And to this day, whenever I smell Easter chocolates, I'm transported in my mind decades back to those Palm Sunday visits to the Kandy Kraft store in Albany, NY and the sense of excitement and anticipation that built in my young heart as we drew closer and closer to Easter Sunday.
The smell of lilies does it too. Though I've worshipped on Easter with any number of congregations since, whenever I walk into a sanctuary and am greeted by the scent of spring flowers, it triggers more of those early memories, in this case of the church I grew up in -- crisp cotton dresses, short-sleeves and white shoes, signs of springtime hidden under our warm wool coats; snuggling in next to my parents in our usual pew; special choir pieces, favorite congregational hymns, and, of course, the flowers. What would Easter be without flowers? And believe me - in upstate NY in March or April, unless there happened to be one or two brave crocuses pushing their way heavenward, the lilies decorating the front of that sanctuary were often the first flowers we'd seen in a long, long time.
Bunnies and chicks and lilies. Signs of springtime. They're all, in my mind and perhaps in yours, closely tied to memories of Easter Sundays past, and have worked their way into my ideas about what Easters present and future ought to look and smell and taste like. They're all appropriate accessories on this day insofar as they help us to rejoice in the beauty of life and to give thanks for God's good creation. Easter is about life, after all, and it's time to celebrate.
Yet while springtime seems an appropriate time to do Easter, the Easter story told in the gospels isn't about the natural rhythm of the seasons or the regular cycle of life. Easter isn't about the expected regeneration of the earth at all, but about the totally unexpected resurrection of a person. For Christians, it isn't so much life before death, but life beyond death that's the theme for the day. That's an entirely different thing, and it means that we have to take death seriously as an integral component of our Easter celebration.
Not that we need reminders to take death seriously. There it is, every time we scan through an online news source or flip through the morning paper. There it is, staring us down, as we stand nervously beside the bedside of someone we love, or linger at their grave. It's just that it would be so much nicer now that we've finally made it through the solemnity of Good Friday if we could put all that behind us, and focus on the softness of bunnies and the brightness of flowers and colored eggs. We want to think about life and hope today, for heaven's sake, not death.
But for better or for worse, death is a big part of what it's all about this morning. The gospels are united in their clarity on the point: Jesus of Nazareth really died. The Apostle's Creed affirms it in three different ways, so there will be no confusion: Jesus was crucified. He died. He was buried. In the verses immediately preceding our gospel reading for today, Luke has gone into a fair bit of detail explaining when and how Jesus' body was removed from the cross, and where it was placed. "Luke wants to make sure, because of what is coming, that we know there really is a burial; that it is in a legitimate rock-hewn tomb; that a man as real and respectable as Joseph [of Arimathea] is in charge; that there are friends watching . . . [and] that there is no question about which tomb or where it is."
Jesus really died. And so as one preacher puts it: "resurrection [isn’t] surprising in the way that green leaves are surprising after a long winter -- for though the first green catches us off guard while we are blinking, we expected it to happen. Jesus [wasn’t] a daffodil sleeping underground until the warmth of [spring] brought new life. Jesus was the child of Mary, born as any child is born. And when Jesus died in the darkness of midday, his mother wept as every mother weeps at the inconsolable death of a child. She [didn’t] expect him to appear come spring or any other season."
Nor, apparently, did those other women who came to the tomb following the Sabbath. They were just doing what you do, when someone has died. Every culture in the world has its rituals associated with death. When the unimaginable has happened and the earth is shaking all around us, when someone we love more than life itself has finally slipped away, or been torn from us without warning, we know this much, at least: that we should call the funeral home, make arrangements with the church, prepare some food, write the obituary. And so the women went with their spices to Jesus' tomb, preparing themselves for what they needed to do, knowing what they would find there.
The surprise of Easter Sunday, of course, is that the women and the other disciples were completely unprepared. They found nothing even close to what they had expected. They were in totally uncharted territory. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" the men in dazzling clothes ask Joanna, the two Marys, and their friends. "What do you mean, 'living'?" "He is not here, but has risen." "What do you mean, 'risen'?" And the course of history was forever changed.
As Barbara Lundblad puts it, "there may be experiences which are [a little] like resurrection, but resurrection is not like any of them." So it takes some imagination to live in a world like ours and to believe the staggering claim that death has actually been defeated.
Now by imagination I do not mean to imply that the gospel accounts are fictional, that the story of the resurrection is a work of someone's imagination. Only that attending to the story of Christ's resurrection requires us to stretch our minds beyond the bounds of what is apparently reasonable and rational. To allow the possibility that there are truths beyond those we can objectively prove. To imagine that with God, things happen that otherwise never could. And the miracle of Easter Sunday is not only that Christ himself rose from the dead, but that we have been promised a share in the resurrected life as well. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares to Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25-26) Even after we die, we will live again, a new life in which we will never die? How wild is that?! We're way beyond newborn chicks and fragrant white lilies here. We're talking about promises that make a difference in our whole approach to life, and even to death.
These promises may not be easy for us to believe. Even those first disciples, who'd heard from Jesus' own mouth that he would rise again, had trouble imagining the reality of the resurrection at first. Luke says that to the disciples, the women's report about the empty tomb "seemed . . .an idle tale, and they did not believe them."(24:11) "What a burden the resurrection of the dead places on faith, even among those close to Jesus." But as one commentator suggests, if we even consider the possibility that Jesus truly rose from the dead, if we even let the door open a crack, we can never entirely put aside the thought again. And so we believe. . .or try to.
Believing anything about God requires a bit of imagination. God is so far beyond our experience of reality that we can never fully comprehend God, and certainly can't rationally explain God's ways in the world. Any of us who've ever tried to explain the resurrection to someone know how difficult it is to get across its power, to instill its hope in someone who insists on rational explanations, who thinks the world should always make sense in predictable ways. But “you only get anywhere near the truth when all the sensible things to say about God are overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus just stepped up out of the grave.” Anyway, it isn't up to us to prove the truth of the Easter story to anyone, even to ourselves, only to open the door a crack. . .
In life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God. That's what resurrection hope is all about. The miracle of Easter isn't the natural regeneration of the earth, and it isn't resuscitation, a second chance in a lifetime that will still ultimately end in death. No, the miracle of Easter is Christ's bodily resurrection in the past, Christ's living presence in our midst, and the promise of our own resurrection in the future, to a completely new life in which we will never die.
“The statistics [may] say, ‘Death wins. Every single time.’ [But] the Resurrection says, ‘Hold on. Not so fast…’” For Jesus has triumphed over the grave. Death is swallowed up in victory. We have cause for celebration. We have reason to hope.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! May signs of resurrection hope abound!
 Bruce van Blair, The Believer's Road: A Journey Through Luke, 261.
 Barbara Lundblad, "Preaching Easter," Journal for Preachers (Easter 1996), 11.
 Lundblad, 11.
 Fred Craddock, Luke, 283.
 Lundblad, 9.
 Matt Fitzgerald, “Thunderous Yes,” Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 10.
 Brian K. Blount, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection, p. 41.