Scripture: Mark 16:1-7; John 20:19-29
It’s customary, in many churches, to read the story of so-called Doubting Thomas the week after Easter, so I suppose I’m skipping ahead a little bit. Maybe it would be right to linger a little more on the surprise of the empty tomb, the good news that comes after so much bad news and turns it all around. But everything is a little different this year, including Easter. Instead of gathering together in a sanctuary filled with lilies, we’re all in our own homes. Instead of dressing up, we’re on the couch in sweatpants and leggings (speaking for some of you, I assume.) Instead of eating an Easter meal with friends and extended family, we’re making do with whatever’s in the cupboard. It’s a kind of un-Eastery Easter.
And maybe it’s not the first time. Maybe you’ve had some un-Eastery Easters before. Maybe you’ve struggled your way through your first holiday after the loss of a loved one or maybe you’ve been away from home and the people and traditions that are meaningful for you. Maybe you’ve had to work, or maybe you couldn’t afford any sort of special celebration. Maybe you’ve been alone. I know on Easter last year I went home after church, had lunch with my mom, and then went to visit my dad in the hospital where it was just beginning to become clear that this was the end of the road for him and his fight against cancer. Everything felt like death; nothing felt like resurrection. Sometimes, for all of us, the hollow ache of Holy Saturday rings truer than the empty tomb. This year, we’re just in that place more or less together (allowing, of course, for differences in our current personal circumstances.)
And there’s something beautiful, I think, about celebrating Easter anyway. There’s something hope-filled about celebrating Easter in a way that doesn’t feel like Easter at all. It’s not necessarily a happy, optimistic kind of hope. It’s more the kind of hope that grits its teeth and refuses to let go. It says we don’t need the lilies and the new clothes and the honey-baked ham or even the triumphant music for the good news of resurrection to be true. We can let it be true right now, just as things are.
At the beginning of the service we heard the account of the resurrection as told by Mark, who says that the women got to the tomb just after sunrise Sunday morning. In John’s Gospel, the account begins “Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” While it was still dark, a couple of women went to the tomb, expecting nothing more than to visit a grave.
Instead what they found was an empty tomb, a risen Christ, and a force of love that could not be held down. In that moment, everything changed.
Or did it?
“It was still the first day of the week,” John tells us, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. This is later that same day. This is still an Easter story. We are now in a post-resurrection world. And the disciples, who don’t know that yet, are huddled together in a locked room. It’s their own self-imposed quarantine lockdown from a world they now have every reason to be afraid of, both because their leader has been arrested and killed and who knows who might be next, and because everything they had come to believe in and everything that had given them hope had suddenly been shattered. It is there, in the midst of their fear, that Jesus appears to them and offers them peace.
Even then not all of them got the memo. Thomas, for reasons that go unexplained, wasn’t there with the disciples when Jesus appeared, and he’s not terribly inclined to believe their secondhand account that their fearless leader has returned from the dead. It must have sounded an awful lot like wishful thinking to him, or maybe some sort of questionable coping mechanism.
It is Easter. The disciples are huddled together in a locked room and Thomas still doubts. Fear and doubt both still exist in this post-resurrection world. An empty tomb hasn’t magically changed all of that.
And, even more so – outside that locked door, the Roman Empire is still in charge. An empty tomb hasn’t toppled an oppressive government, and that was what a bunch of people hoped Jesus would do in the first place. The people of Israel and of many other nations suffer just as much injustice as they always did – even in this post-resurrection world. The first Easter was, in its own way, a rather un-Eastery Easter.
And yet, for each person who hears the good news that Jesus is alive, for each person who gets to touch his wounds with their own hands, something shifts profoundly. Women who came with burial spaces run to tell the others. Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” From their locked room, the disciples spread out to the far reaches of the empire to feed people and heal people and go to prison and risk their own death and tell people the good news.
The whole world was filled with death but now, Jesus lives.
This isn’t all there is. The death, fear, anxiety, stress and isolation of this current moment isn’t all there is. It will give way to life and love and grace. Maybe not soon, and certainly not without suffering along the way. But it is bound to, because Jesus lives. The abundant life God wants for us can’t be held back. Not in the end.
The world doesn’t change just because of an empty tomb. But the people who hear and believe it do. Because if Jesus is alive, then they have new life too.
It’s easy to celebrate Easter when flowers are in bloom and all is right with the world. But that’s not the world we have – and that’s not a world that needs resurrection.
Instead we gather as we can in a world that feels so much more like death than resurrection and we say Christ is risen. And there is something beautiful about this, our small act of resistance. It’s the kind of hope that grits its teeth and refuses to let go.