The first Easter began with Jesus’ few remaining disciples hiding behind locked doors.
They were separated from their families, they didn’t know how long they would have to hide, and they weren’t sure whether or not they would be targeted by the Romans.
They were terrified that any footsteps might be the nail-sole boots of soldiers
coming to take them to their death.
Being faithful Jews, they were likely praying Psalm 13
Psalm 13:1-2 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
That might be our prayer, too, because this Easter finds us behind locked doors.
This Easter we are especially aware of the reality of both the bad news of death and the good news of the Resurrection.
In recent weeks, some of us have developed a morning routine of opening our newsfeed to check on the overnight work of death.
How many have died?
Anyone personal to us?
According to John 20, that’s what Mary did.
Under the cover of morning darkness, she snuck to the tomb where she expected to find more death – a personal death, a man she loved and called Lord.
Who could imagine anything worse than what she had witnessed last Friday: the bone-breaking torture and crucifixion of Jesus?
But the news just kept getting worse as now it appeared that someone had stolen his body – a crime common enough that Caesar had taken note and ruled it a capital offense.
Mary then rushed to tell the others:
John 20:2 … “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Now listen, because now a rather strange thing happens:
John 2:3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.
It’s no surprise that “other disciple whom Jesus loved” would be there and might even take the risk of going to the tomb.
This man had even risked it all by staying near the cross while Jesus was dying.
Remember Peter just a couple of days before had betrayed them all by denying even knowing Jesus.
John’s inclusion of Peter scene in his narrative underscores both Peter’s future reinstatement to the community, and Jesus’ gracious forgiveness of him.
In Jesus’ community, there is room for both faithful and failing disciples because of His forgiveness and love.
After all, if relationships can’t be resurrected along with bodies, what’s the point?
The men soon fled, leaving Mary at the tomb where she choked-up with tears – that’s when the angels appeared and asked why she was crying.
Sometimes we hear their question in kind of a mocking tone, as if taunting her for not having enough faith to believe that Jesus had risen.
But actually, they were just asking after her.
Look, if you showed up one morning at Forest Lawn to place flowers on a loved one’s grave and found it freshly opened, the last thought you would have is that they were resurrected.
The dead have a way of staying dead.
In the gospel, the next voice we hear is Jesus, although through her tears Mary didn’t recognize him at first … as I said, we expect the dead to stay dead.
He had come up from behind her … and, you know, Jesus has a way of sneaking-up on us when we least expect it.
When we are with our dead, when our life is in shambles, when all our options seem to lead to dead ends – that’s when Jesus clears his throat
and offers to be with us.
Then Jesus asks her essentially the same question he’d asked his first disciples at the beginning of John’s gospel, Who – or what – are you looking for?
Living in quarantine has changed our focus on what we really are looking for – for what is really important.
During our Fellowship Hour the other day, Pam asked us to share what we are grateful for.
The weeks of isolation and forced simplicity have shifted most of our focus to the basics.
People shared that they were happy not to be sick, to have this church that is so caring, and to have a warm home.
The expensive car in the driveway now matters less than having enough food in the refrigerator, and having a Rolex means nothing compared to having a warm and dry place of shelter.
And yet, we’ve worked ourselves to exhaustion and burned relationships acquiring those cars and clothes and watches.
What are you looking for? Jesus asks.
That’s the Easter question for me this year because life after this pandemic will be different, and I want to be sure that – if given the chance – I will stay close to Jesus and invest my time in what actually matters – things I may have glossed over a month ago.
Of course, after the Resurrection everything was different, for the disciples.
Jesus told Mary that she could not cling to him.
That made no sense … she must have wanted to hug him and dance around him, but he said he had to ascend to the Father, and he had a mission for her here and now.
That may have not made sense in the moment, but Mary obeyed Jesus’ command, ran to tell the disciples the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead, and so she became the first evangelist – this brave woman gave the first Christian message:
John 20:18 I have seen the Lord!
The Easter Resurrection means that Jesus is more than another teacher of morality or spiritual guru.
There have been countless teachers and spiritual leaders.
It’s the post-Resurrection Spirit that makes it possible for us to live as Jesus taught.
The living spirit of Christ that joins us after the Resurrection of Jesus is with us in big ways and small ways.
COVID-19 is focusing me on the small things right now – small, but the most real and most critical.
How do I live with grace, forgiveness and compassion with housemates that I’m rubbing shoulders with all day long?
How do I initiate a comforting, healing conversation with an anxious friend whom I cannot physically touch?
How do I stay centered in the assurance of Christ when a simple trip to Smart and Final might expose me to a deadly pathogen?
Well, we are learning to depend on the Resurrected Christ in more real and tangible ways than ever before.
The Apostle Paul lived close to Jesus’ spirit through shipwrecks, deprivation, jailing and more.
Philippians 4:12-13 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Jesus conquered death so that we need not fear death.
I have to say that is a comfort for me a 73-year-old facing real risks in this pandemic.
That’s a gift of peace offered by our Risen Lord.
Craig Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who tells about counseling a young woman named Jeanne who was losing her battle with cancer.
Her chemotherapy was not having much effect and the doctors were giving her little encouragement.
She told Craig that she had done everything the doctors had asked to fight for her life, but now it seemed to be reduced to the prevention of death.
She said, “That’s not the same thing as living.”
And so, she asked what Jesus would tell her to do.
What would you tell Jeanne?
Most of us would cheer her on to fight the good fight, maybe remind her about all the things she has to live for.
Out of our own sense of discomfort we would tell her to never give up.
But the post-Easter answer to Jeanne and to all of us is different.
Craig sat with her question for a long silence, and then he quietly said that he thought Jesus would tell her to go ahead and die tonight.
“Get it over with.
“Die to your right to live.
“Die to your need to live.
“Give it all back to God … it belongs to Him anyway.”
He said, “By all means continue with your chemotherapy, but cheat death by refusing to be afraid of it.”
That’s good counsel for all of us that’s possible because of Easter:
Start your everlasting life today.
Stay home, wear a face mask, wipe down all incoming packages with a sanitizing cloth.
But do not give-in to fear or depression.
The pandemic is a daily reminder that the mortality rate for Christians is 100%, and the only way you’ll be able to enjoy life on this earth – whether you live for another day or for fifty more years is to stop clinging to what you have, to let it go and live without anxiety or complaint.
That’s a lot to ask, but this pandemic has reminded us that we all lose everything – even life itself.
Because we are having to face that reality, we can choose to reduce our lives to clinging to what we had or what we think life owes us.
That only guarantees that our constant companions will be anxiety and complaint as we watch things slip away one by one.
That’s living like victims rather than recipients of God’s grace.
Instead, we can give all these blessings back to God, and then our constant companions will be peace and thanksgiving for what we do have.
I’m going to close with a scripture that has come to life for me over the past couple of days.
Maybe on this Easter Sunday, you will hear it with fresh ears:
Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Christ has risen.
He has risen, indeed.