I have to confess to you, I have been dreading preaching this Easter. My dread has not been because I do not think we need some joy. Lord knows, we could use all the joy we can get! But there is something that feels off or forced about saying, “The Lord is risen indeed!” or singing “The strife is oe’r” or even, “Jesus Christ is risen today!” because, well, the strife is not over. Death rates are on the rise, cases of Coronavirus are expected to surge here soon, our overburdened medical professionals and essential works are already strained with anxiety, and we have at least two more months to go in our stay-at-home order in the Commonwealth. This strife is far from over.
Knowing how hard this day would be, and longing to be authentic about where we are, I went back to where we always go – back to the text – back to Holy Scripture. Songs and Prayer Book aside, John’s gospel has been especially comforting to me this year. The comfort from John has not been because John’s gospel demonstrates a people ready to celebrate today. Quite the opposite, three of Jesus’ closest disciples – Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the beloved disciple – have encounters with the risen Lord that are almost comically human. On the promise of good news, Peter and the beloved disciples race, one beating the other but not going fully in the empty tomb; the other going in but not saying anything; neither understanding what is going on; and both just leaving – just going home without a word to one another or to Mary Magdalene. Then there is Mary Magdalene, who in shock, runs to the disciples; when left alone a second time, she weeps; angels try to comfort her; Jesus himself speaks to her and she does not immediately recognize him; when she does finally recognize her beloved teacher, she is not allowed to touch him; and finally, finally, she shares her testimony – not what it all means (because I am not sure she knows) – but what she saw. Nowhere in John’s gospel does Jesus say, “The strife is over” or “Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed!” Instead, Jesus seems to be saying, “Hey…calm down…relax…I know you – you are mine. This is a good thing. I cannot comfort you in the way you want, because I am not done yet, and some even more amazing things are coming.”
Today’s message from Jesus is certainly good news – but mostly Jesus is promising good news still coming – the promise of eternal life once Christ ascends to the Father in fifty days from now. Somehow, all of that “stuff” today in our gospel lesson has been oddly comforting. Disciples running around, not understanding what is happening, going back home without a word, desperate attempts to control the situation, and soothing, knowing words from Jesus despite our lack of understanding has been supremely comforting to me today. John’s gospel today is not a fait accompli. John’s gospel is a promise: a promise of hope that everything will be okay. And like every promise in a crisis – whether a crisis of health or a crisis of faith – the promise is not the announcement of something being done or accomplished, but a gift of hope that goodness is coming.
And for me, that is what I need today. Not a worship service that declaratively says, “The strife is oe’r,” but one that gently and comfortingly says, “The strife will be oe’r.” Not a worship service that says, “The Lord is risen indeed,” but “The Lord’s rising today is a promise for you going forward.” Our service today is not a service trying to force you to put on fancy clothes (because I imagine some of you are still in pajamas watching from home) or trying to force you into some false happiness. Our service today is about hope, a quiet confidence, a gentle reminder as Christ calls you by name, that death does not have the final say; that Christ is walking with us through this pandemic, and will be with us to restore us when we emerge on the other end. We do not know what that other end looks like; but we hear today that Jesus is with us in the midst of this, calling us by name, giving us hope for tomorrow. The return of our alleluias today is not a naïve proclamation that everything will be okay. The return of our alleluias today is an invitation to reclaim the hope that can only come from the risen Lord, that can sustain us in our grief, hold us in our confusion and doubt, and embolden us to honestly witness even in our uncertainty. The church says with us or for us today, “The Lord is risen indeed,” until we can believe those words with conviction for ourselves. Thanks be to God.