Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I have a confession to make. The first time I mentioned it a month or so ago – a heads up that we might not be able to gather in person for Easter this year – I didn’t really believe it. Surely the pandemic would turn around and the worst would be well behind us by now. Surely we’d be back in our usual spots in the sanctuary, able to enjoy our Easter breakfast, the happy chaos of an egg hunt for the kids, the joyful buzz of a packed sanctuary, all those voices joining together on our favorite Easter hymns, all those hands waving their colorful Alleluia wands.
To be prevented from gathering in person, today of all days, on Easter, and not even to know for sure how soon we’ll be back together again at church? There’s no point pretending it’s not a huge blow.
Easter is the highest of holy days in the church year. We’re celebrating Jesus marching out of his own grave! Christ’s victory over death! The good news of the gospel doesn’t get any better than that! It’s no wonder we pull out all the stops on Easter Sunday each year, not only in our own congregation but as a worldwide Church. Bells and brass. Packed sanctuaries everywhere you look. Choral anthems specially chosen, long-practiced, to bring down the house this morning. Kids and adults alike decked out in their Sunday best – dressed up here in Seattle, even, where we’re known for keeping things casual. Easter’s a big deal. A really big deal. How dare a tiny little virus take that away from us this year?
So we may be grieving a bit today. Even as we sing our favorite Easter hymns, we may be feeling a little disappointed or disoriented. All of this is perfectly understandable. God knows what we’re weathering right now. God knows the state of our city, of our world. God knows the toll this pandemic has already taken and will apparently continue to take. God knows all of this. Easter 2020 is a memorable one in entirely different ways than our typical Easter.
But here’s the thing. When we return to the gospels and read again the stories that set two millennia of Easter celebrations in motion, we find that very first day of resurrection was a far cry from the triumphant Easter celebrations we’ve normally known.
In Mark we find the first witnesses to Jesus’ empty tomb alarmed, terrified, scrambling to figure out how to proceed. (Mark 16:8)
In Matthew, as we heard, reassurances both from the angels and from Jesus himself not to be afraid (Matthew 28: 8,10) aren’t sufficient to allay the fears of the women who come early in the morning to Jesus’ tomb. And when the eleven disciples later see Jesus for themselves, the text says “they worshipped and they doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)
In Luke again we’re told those first on the scene at the empty tomb are terrified (Luke 24:5), and when they overcome their fear long enough to tell the other disciples Jesus is risen, no one believes them (Luke 24:11). Luke also tells of two disciples walking quietly along the road to Emmaus, trying to make sense of what had happened; Jesus appears to them in such a way they can’t even tell it’s him at first.
And in John we find Jesus first appearing quietly to Mary alone as she weeps in the garden (John 20:15) and then to the rest of the disciples as they’re hidden away, frightened, in a locked room. (John 20:19-20)
Any other year far more imagination would be required to get ourselves back to the atmosphere of that first Easter. Surrounded as we normally are by so much festivity, we’d have to mentally set all of that aside to even come close to appreciating how scary it must have been for the women who came early to the tomb, or for the other disciples of Jesus as they first heard the news. It seems to me we’ve been given a unique opportunity this year to put ourselves in their sandals and consider how they may have really felt.
Easter 1.0, 48 hours after Jesus’ death on the cross, must have been a little surreal. A little unnerving. Some of those closest to Jesus hid themselves away behind closed doors, anxious and afraid. Some looked around for something, anything to do to keep them occupied. A brave few went back to Jesus’ tomb to pay their respects. Others went for a long walk. Still others – essential workers, you might call them, since they were fishermen, charged with feeding their neighbors – tried climbing back into their boats as if life was normal, when they knew it was anything but.
But it was there – exactly there; purposely, intentionally there – in those places of anxiety and fear, in those places of feeling trapped and stir crazy, it was there among those trying to carve out a degree of normalcy in a world that had entirely upended itself, that the risen Christ chose to appear.
And when he appeared to those he loved, here’s what he had to say: “Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 28:10) “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36 and John 20:21). “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
That’s the story of the first Easter. No brass or bells, no colored eggs or Hallelujah choruses required.
Just the very best news of all for those who needed it most. Good defeats evil. Life conquers death. Love wins. God wins.
And into a world where our own fear and anxiety can get the better of us, into a world in which death too often seems to gain the upper hand, the risen Christ comes, again and again.I’m here, says Jesus. Remember? They tried to defeat me, and it didn’t work. They tried to kill me, and it didn’t take. I’m back and I’m alive and well. No locked doors or lockdowns can keep me away from those I love. No social distancing or sheltering in place can keep my followers from celebrating the good news of my resurrection. And nothing – not even a virus wreaking havoc around the globe – can disarm the power of God.
Friends, remember always that we are people of the resurrection! People of hope! Even in this strange season, let’s live as those who know how the story ends, sharing the good news of God’s power and God’s love in every way we possibly can.
On this Easter Sunday that is at once so strange and so fitting a time to remember Jesus’ first appearances after his resurrection, hear him speaking again to you, and to the world he loves so much:
“Fear not.” “Peace be with you.” “Remember, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Amen.