Here’s something you may not know: most pastors don’t experience a deep sense of worship very often. That’s the irony of being a pastor: although we go to church every week, although we always try to create a meaningful worship experience for others, but when it comes to the pastor, this is not the place that we’re going to get fed. The wise pastor will seek out other ways to get fed, because it is not likely to happen in this setting.
I bring it up because there is the occasional exception. Every once in a while, we find ourselves surprised by the Spirit, as we are brought into a deeper spiritual place. This happened to me the other day during our Holy Week service.
If you’ve not been, our Holy Week service covers a lot of ground: we try to reenact the major events and messages of the days and hours leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. We start with a meal because—as Scripture teaches—Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before his arrest. We include the Lord’s Supper after that meal because—as Scripture teaches and as we remember here—it was after that meal Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. Often, we will also read the story about Jesus washing his disciples feet because—as Scripture teaches—it was in that same setting that Jesus showed his followers how they ought to love one another. And then, to finish our Holy Week service, we slowly read through chapters eighteen and nineteen of the Gospel of John (right up to, by the way, where this morning’s Scripture lesson begins). And it is in that part of the service that my spirit was transported.
Now, I don’t do all of those readings. I often take one, but there are six other people taking turns with the rest of it; giving me a chance to actually listen to the story. As I listened to that story of Jesus being betrayed, arrested, tried, and crucified, I found myself surprisingly engrossed by it; I wasn’t distracted by what I had to say next or worrying if my mic was working; so I could just listen to what God’s Word was saying.
And in that moment, I was struck by how terribly tragic the story was. Not so much for Jesus; I didn’t forget that his story was leading to the Resurrection; I’ve read this morning’s Scripture lesson before. No, I realized how tragic it also was for everyone else involved. It was as if I was watching some tragic play, like from Shakespeare or something, where the characters make unfortunate decision after unfortunate decision and can’t seem to see the consequences.
We see it, of course. As the audience, we have to fight the urge to yell at the stage, “Don’t do it!” but of course, the characters can’t hear us. They just keep making mistake after mistake.
At one point, as I was listening to this tragedy unfold, Pilate strangely seems to be trying to do the right thing: he seems to be trying to get Jesus released. But the religious leaders respond by saying, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” [19:7]
“We have a law,” they say, and my heart just sank for them. I realized in that moment that they cared more about the law than they did about the possibility that this might actually be the Son of God; that this might actually be the Savior of the world; but no, they have a law.
I heard from God in that moment, in the way that you are supposed to hear a tragedy: as a cautionary tale; don’t make those mistakes; don’t let your version of obedient legalism cut you off from what the Savior of the World is up to. Whether you are watching Hamlet act so crazy that he actually drives his girlfriend crazy; or it is Peter, so fearful that he denies the Master he just swore to stand by no matter what, the lesson is always the same. Don’t be like them; don’t make their mistakes. As the audience, we hear the lesson, but tragically the story still continues to its sad end. Hamlet’s mistakes kill him too. Peter is left with the empty regret of a rooster’s crowing. Jesus dies and the curtain falls.
If the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Gospel of John are written in the genre of “tragedy,” chapter twenty takes an unexpected turn. If you see what comes immediately before as tragedy, then what we read today can only be described as “comedy.”
A Sunday school teacher was asking her six-year-olds about the meaning of Easter. “Children,” she said, “Does anyone know why we celebrate Easter?”
Jenny raised her hand. “Yes Jenny,” said the teacher.”
“Is Easter when we put on costumes and go trick-or-treating?”
“Um no, Jenny. That’s Halloween. Anyone else?”
Jimmy took a stab at it: “Is that when we set off fireworks?”
“No Jimmy, that’s Independence Day. Anybody else?”
A shy little girl in the back said, “Easter is when Jesus died.”
The teacher gave up a relieved sigh. “Yes, that’s right! Then what happened?” she prodded.
“Well, he got buried, and every Easter, we remember that, when he comes out, if he sees his shadow there’s 6 more weeks of winter.”
There’s a danger in letting Easter fall on April Fool’s Day. For people like me, who can too easily make everything into a joke (just ask my wife), it’s tempting to see the Resurrection as merely some cosmic prank; like Jesus is jumping out from the rolled-away stone yelling, “Gotcha!” But Jesus is not fooling around. His victory over death, although joyous, is no laughing matter; what his followers on that morning must have felt was not at all funny.
Which is not to say that the telling of this story isn’t comical. The Gospel of John is telling a different kind of story here; so much so, that his story-telling method has to abruptly change. At the end of chapter nineteen, the curtain falls on a tragedy. But then it rises back up in chapter twenty to a comedy! In a classic sense, this story is suddenly told in classic comedic form: there is confusion and misunderstanding, there is even running on and off stage, there are even jokes that only the audience seem to get.
“Three disciples come to mourn over an empty tomb.” What an oddly unsatisfying joke that is. It gets worse because it feels like an eternity before they get to the punchline. As jokes go, it’s very unsatisfying. It’s a little like planning a children’s sermon for Easter morning: I’ve read a hundred of them and none of them are satisfying. How do you talk to children about an empty tomb in a satisfying way? What object lesson is there where not finding something is the fun part? I’ve tried it. It goes like this: you show the kids a plastic Easter egg, open it up, and it’s empty like the tomb; or worse, it contains a piece of paper with the words “Alleluia” or “He has risen” on it.
You should see their poor little faces. They know what is supposed to be in those eggs: they are supposed to get candy! Sure, an empty tomb is better than candy, but you tell that to a five-year old.
Besides, the empty tomb is not enough. These disciples don’t need anyone, in this moment, making light of their loss; they don’t need joking angels or a vacant tomb; what they need is a living Jesus. Let’s face it, that’s what we all need; that’s what the world needs, today and every day. We need to know, more than anything, that there is proof that Jesus has been raised from the dead; that he has conquered death for us as well.
I can tell you it’s true, but that’s my job; you can’t just blindly trust anyone to tell you something they get paid to tell you. Better yet, we prove it; and by “we,” I mean “you.” What I do is to remind us of what Jesus taught at this Table: that in the giving of his body, we become his body to this world. What this world needs is not the absence of Jesus; a Jesus who has gone back to some lofty, far away place, does them no good. What they need is his presence; a presence we bring with us everywhere we go.
By the end of this story, the only disciple to have actually seen Jesus is Mary Magdalene. She is the first follower ever to proclaim the Truth of Jesus. Notice how she does it, because this part is important. Notice what she doesn’t say: she doesn’t explain it; her proclamation isn’t even “Jesus is risen!” No, it is vastly more personal than that. She says (as our anthem so beautifully also puts it), “I have seen the Risen Lord.”Today we once more celebrate the glorious news that Jesus has conquered death for us. Today we imagine the grief and confusion that those first followers must have felt. Like them, the world today needs more than just an empty tomb; our world needs to see Jesus. This is no laughing matter. May his Spirit abide with us as we strive to meet that need. As we go into this world, may we boldly proclaim through our actions and even our words, that we have indeed seen the Risen Jesus. And may this world see him too in us.