April 15, 2018: "Missing Easter"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
with notes from The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 15, 2018
Festival days can be miserable days. Periods of celebration for some people are almost always times of sadness or depression for other people. A friend or family member dies on Thanksgiving or Christmas; there is a terrible car accident on the day of graduation; one family rejoices at the cries of a healthy life while a family in the next room mourns over the life that could have been. The more some folks laugh, the louder others weep. This a deep complexity in our human existence, and it touches every aspect of human life and it touches even our celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
The biblical narratives about the resurrection of Jesus contain a mixture of ecstasy and misery, an intermingling of delight and discouragement. The news of Christ’s resurrection caused an explosion of joy among some believers, while other believers watched their hope wash away in tears. Luke tells us that on the very day of the resurrection, as word of Christ’s presence swept through Jerusalem, two downcast disciples walked the seven miles between Jerusalem and Emmaus to forget the whole matter. Easter came and it was missing for some folks in Jerusalem. Whether they were in Christ’s inner circle or not, at the tomb or not, ready to receive the good news or not, not all of Christ’s followers realized his presence. Some people, including these two on the way to Emmaus, always miss Easter.
What about you? For whatever reason, did you miss Easter this year? Please don’t misunderstand my question—I’m not asking if you were present in or absent from a service of worship on Easter Sunday. My concern is with an experience of the resurrection. We do not have to be “out of church” on Easter Sunday to miss Easer just as people did not have to be out of Jerusalem to miss the risen Christ. Maybe you were in worship and you saw the joy around you—you heard the music, you saw a beautiful baptism, you prayed the prayers—but did not sense any joy within. Perhaps you heard hallelujahs resound in the sanctuary but realized they found no resonance in your heart. Maybe you listened to the reading of the resurrection story and it fell severely short of offering any meaning for your life.
Maybe that is where you were this year, missing Easter; it came and went and you don’t feel any different than before. Maybe Easter had a significant impact on you and you have been filled with hallelujahs since the announcement that, “He is risen!” Either way, the gospel lesson today has two pieces of tremendously good news for all of us gathered here today.
First, Christ understands. If you missed Easter, Christ understands. The gospels of the New Testament do not demand that we understand Christ. Rather, they offer the burden-lifting insight that Christ understands us. We do not have to understand Easter to experience Easter. Christ’s capacity for understanding defies our comprehension. This one who inspires magnificent visions also ministers amid shattered dreams. This one known as the Prince of Peace does not shy away from chaos and conflict. This one who taught us to pray accepts us, we who are so troubled sometimes that we don’t know how, can’t, pray. This one who offers salvation identifies with people confounded by feelings of lostness. This one who offers unmatched encouragement knows better than any other the depths of discouragement.
If you did not sense the joy of Easter morning, if you have not felt Christ rise, if you cannot shout hallelujah, that does not mean you must drop your head and take off toward Emmaus. It does not mean that you have to give up. Christ understands. He understands me and he understands you. Because of this understanding, Christ appears. What we learn from the two disciples walking to Emmaus is that Christ’s presence among us does not depend on how well we understand him or his mission or even what the Scriptures say about him; after all, the two disciples need a crash-course lesson in the Bible before they got to the dinner table with Jesus. No, Christ appears and is real in the lives of his people because of who he is, and even sometimes when we aren’t expecting him.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—Jesus appeared to these women when they arrived at the tomb on Easter to anoint his broken body. They did not have the slightest suspicion that Jesus might be alive. In another Easter story, Mary Magdalene was so terrified by the empty tomb that she sat in the garden outside the tomb and wept. When a man came and asked her who she was looking for, Mary thought the man was a gardener and pleaded with him, desperately, to tell her where Jesus’ body had been taken. With a simple speaking of her name, Mary realized that the ‘gardener’ was Jesus—right in front of her, at her lowest moment, when she least expected him to show up. The two defeated travelers on their way to Emmaus, worn out by grief—they were not looking for Jesus, only trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered faith. These two were so unaware of the possibilities of God that Jesus came and walked with them, and they did not know who he was.
None of the resurrection appearances of Jesus were marked by high-end settings or dramatic greetings. Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. He showed up on a dusty road. He walked along a shoreline, watching his disciples fish. He ate a meal with them that he cooked over a campfire. Christ comes to us and to our world at meals times, in fun times, when we are working, and in the face of our greatest fears and worries. Jesus comes to people of faith like Mary Magdalene and Salome, and Jesus comes to people plagued by doubts like Peter and Thomas. He comes to us in hospital rooms, offices, bedrooms, clinics, and even church sanctuaries. If you missed Easter this year, if you are missing Easter at this very moment, the good news of God is that Christ understands and he will still appear to you and for you.
The second piece of good news from the Gospel today is you and I can play a significant role in how and where Christ appears to those who have missed Easter. You see, Jesus commissions into ministry every person to whom he has appeared as the risen Christ. Communion with Christ and a calling from Christ are inseparable.
In the sequence of Luke’s resurrection narrative, at the time the Emmaus travelers recognize Jesus, there are only four other disciples who know that Jesus has risen—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James’ mother, and Peter. Peter is the only disciple of the original twelve who knows for sure that the tomb is empty. When the Emmaus travelers settle into dinner at Emmaus and Jesus becomes clear to them, they say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning with us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Immediately, the travelers get up from the table at Emmaus and run the seven miles back to Jerusalem; it had to have been close to the middle of the night. When they get to Jerusalem, they exclaim to the fearful and defeated disciples that Christ has risen! They ran back because the news of Christ’s appearance was so good they had to tell the other disciples. They knew, once Christ was revealed to them in broken bread, that they had to share their experience with the others who had missed Easter. They knew that when you meet Christ, you are then sent, commissioned, called to care for Christ’s people.
Sharing the gospel and caring for people are non-negotiable terms for people who have found, or who have been found by, the Easter experience. When we are faithful to this commission, those of us who have experienced Easter, we discover the real fullness of communion with Christ. When we see Jesus for who he really is—broken, scarred, beautiful—we then start to see him in the homeless, the bereaved, the suffering, the abused, and the hungry and thirsty, the sad and lonely sitting in the pews with us, those people who are just as broken and scarred and beautiful as our risen Lord. Christ finds us when and where are most unlovable, most un-beautiful, most unworthy. Our commission is to share him with the unlovable, the un-beautiful, the unworthy. We are sent into the world as resurrection people to break the bread and share the cup with all, unconditionally, so that Christ can be made fully known.
It is a very sacred and very intimidating call we have as Christian people, to share the resurrected Jesus with the world. God doesn’t need our help—the Scriptures testify to the truth that God will do whatever wills to do, whether we are in on it or not. But the God who created the heavens and the earth, who spoke through prophets, priests, and kings, who took on flesh and lived among us in Jesus, asks us to saddle up and get on board with what God is doing. God is asking us on this side of the empty tomb to go, as the Emmaus travelers did, and share the Easter news with anyone and everyone who may have missed it. We asked the question last week in our mediation on Thomas, “How do we know that Christ is risen?”—we will know that Christ is risen as we encounter him in the most down and out folks we encounter We will know that Christ is risen as we reach out in love to even our enemies. We will know that Christ is risen as we stand up against the evil and darkness that tries to keep us in a perpetual Good Friday. We will know that Christ is risen when we break the bread, and share that bread as liberally and generously as Christ did.
As is our custom in this congregation, in a few moments I will invite you to to Christ’s table. I will tell you that you can come to this table whether you are a member of this church or not, baptized or not, believing or not. This isn’t my table, so it is not walled by my prejudices; this is not a Presbyterian table, so you don’t have to recite orthodox doctrine in order to get in. It is Christ’s table, and our ability to come depends not on us, but on him. And he welcomes all of you to his table. All of you. All of you who missed Easter and all of you who experienced it in its fullness. All of you who are entirely sure of everything and all of you who have more than a few doubts. All of you who have heard from God recently and all of you who are still waiting for a reply. All of you who regularly shout ‘hallelujah’ and all of you who can’t even say ‘yay’ right now. All of you who love your neighbors fully and all of you who can’t stand them; all of you who have been totally faithful in your call as a follower of Jesus Christ and all of you who need to do a little work. At this table, Christ appears, and we see him for who he is: the resurrected Lord of life who claims us and loves us as God’s very good creations.
This is the good news of the gospel today: Christ understands and in his understanding of us, he sends us out to be heralds of his resurrection. If you missed Easter this year, rest in the compassionate arms of God today; Christ will appear to you and you will be lifted from your despair. If Easter broke upon you like the dawning of that first day, if you heart is still ringing with the angelic message, then go—go and tell every Peter and every Thomas and every person you meet that Christ is risen. Amen.