In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Last Easter Sunday, we could hardly believe that we couldn’t celebrate Easter together. I encouraged you to lean into the Easter experience, hard, to get through the unknown number of weeks that the pandemic would go on. I imagined with you that our first fully regathered service together might be as far off as fall of 2020, but that that would be an Easter service beginning with “Alleluia, Christ is Risen.” And you would respond, “The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia.” It was a good plan.
So it is with mixed feeling that a year later, on another Easter Sunday, we seemingly find ourselves here again. But it is not the same. We are not the same. I’m proud of us. Who knew as we leaned into the Easter message last year that it could carry us this far for so long? When there have been otherwise so many defeats and losses, we are so much better at so many things a year later. Please don’t compare this service with last year’s (you can because everything exists forever on the internet), but we are better at embracing contemporary technologies than we ever were our would have been. We didn’t have the Thursday night service of Holy Week last year because we didn’t know how it was even possible to do not in person. And this year with imagination and ingenuity we did it and it was powerful and restorative. If you weren’t there, you can find it online (because everything exists on the internet). And last night’s in-person service in giant parking lot with bells and fire and shouts of alleluias was not something we had ever thought of to do on Easter weekend. My mixed feeling comes from this two steps forward one step back quality of experience. Setbacks and progress.
When we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, we aren’t simply proclaiming that he was dead and came back to life again miraculously and lived a long life before he died again. That wouldn’t be a resurrection as we mean the term. It would be more a resuscitation, the way through miraculous medical interventions today, our great doctors out able to bring some people back just in time who would otherwise not be with us any longer. Resurrection is not that. Resurrection is the inauguration of something entirely new. Jesus was raised to die no more. Jesus was raised not as a restoration of the old order, but the beginning of something new and better, the sum of all our hopes.
As we look and hope this Easter, our hopes cannot be only for the restoration of what we had before, either at All Saints’ or in our personal lives. History does not work that way. The past never comes back. And our faith, our Christian hope, tells us to expect something new where we are changed.
I arrived at All Saints’ now over a year ago and we formed a very solid plan that was a very good plan. I’d call it plan A. We, for all the reasons you know, then had to move to plan B. Then C. Re-celebrating Easter together last fall may have been plan E. And so on until we ran out of letters. I’m reminded of the Scripture that says, “People make their plans, but the Lord directs their steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
This two steps forward and one step back thing we are experiencing is not just about the global pandemic. It is a quality of all human history. Building alternates with destruction, where unimaginable calamities are only superseded by an even more astonishing series of events where things which were cast down are raised up, and things which had grown old are made new. This Easter, and every Easter, we Christians pause and celebrate how new life came out of the experience of Jesus’ death, how Jesus’ blood was shed for us yet death was not the last word and life emerged from death by the power of the resurrection, and it remains with us as a persistent hope. This Easter truth is more ancient and more resilient than any of our buildings or achievements or plans.
Sometimes we talk about having plan A or plan B for our individual lives. I’m not sure I have ever met a person living plan A, that is, the plan that was first imagined with doll houses and sports balls. No, life’s unpredictability intervenes and never corresponds to what we expected. And who we are today has more to do with what we have done with these intrusions of loss than with any unbroken record of success. If you are not living “plan A” don’t beat yourself up over it! Welcome to the human race. Often the most remarkable human stories are those about what a person did next after the unimaginable happened, after the fire, or the fall, or the failure, or the pandemic. Even on an otherwise happy Easter morning, who among us can’t tap into our own personal struggle with the two steps forward, one step back, push and pull of life?
If that is your life, the Easter story of Jesus is a story for you. The Easter message is not one of everything always being fine “if only” we have the right attitude, “if only” we do the right things, “if only” we know all the right things. No, every year we rehearse how things go wrong, despite our best intentions, Jesus dies, and along with the crowds in Jerusalem, we are not sure how it happened and how things could have gone so wrong, so fast. No matter what we do, every year Jesus ends up on the hard wood of the cross and in a tomb. The Christian message is not about how we could have gotten it right, how we could have saved Jesus if only we knew what we know now, or only did the right thing.
No, the Christian message is about redemption after the fact, about how new life emerges out of the old (like Easter lilies emerging from soil composed of dead plants). It is not about the hard road of “if only” I had done this or that, but the gospel of what new life there is to be had for all of us “from now on.” It is less interested in diagnosing exactly what put Jesus on the cross than in making the experience of resurrection life available to each and every one of us “from now on.” We are the ones who get caught in “if only this” or “that” as in some spider web of death, but God scrutinizes our past motivations less than we may think. Easter is always about today. This is a lesson that every one of Jesus’ followers had to learn on the first Easter Day, and each of us learns, and relearns again and again.
Jesus championed a heroic love for all and insisted that it was that kind of God-given love that was the fulfillment of every law and the best way to understand how God is present in the world. When he was suddenly arrested, tortured, and executed, what was at stake for him was the ongoing place of that love in the world. This is why he loved his torturers even as they beat him and prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners even as he was dying on the cross. The night of his arrest, he explained to his closest friends that the lamb that was to be sacrificed for the sins of all that Passover was not one that had white fur and walked on four legs. No, it was him, and he would absorb everything awful the world could unleash on him. His body and blood would be given and shed instead of theirs so that through that sacrifice of love they could begin anew and live “from now on” lives of forgiveness and love.
We will continue to make our plans. Some of them will actually happen. Others won’t. And that is ok. Because the core Christian truth of Christ’s Easter resurrection is that death’s victories are temporary and that Life ultimately is the greater power. But the key thing about this new life is that it is always experienced by us as forgiveness–forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness of our loved ones, forgiveness of our enemies, and even forgiveness of God for not conforming to our expectations and fantasies, or for not ensuring that plan A actually came to pass. Forgiveness, new life, and freedom are so inseparable in the accumulated centuries of Christian wisdom, that as we long to be freed from the burden of pain, as we wish to see the stone rolled away from our own tomb, we can be confident that our first sensation of being newly alive will be an unexpected experience of radical forgiveness of all.
This morning, let this Easter faith live in you. Be persuaded by Easter. Let it lift the weight not only of the events this past year, but all your grief, loss, and fear because you can be confident that those things about you are known by God, and that God has given you the acknowledgement you seek, and has invited you to enter your future knowing that “from now on” you can have the confidence that God’s inexhaustible resources are yours in Christ. Let that experience change you and open you up to a life is more than just what you miss from the past. Let it awaken in you your own capacity to love and to forgive. Let it connect you to others here at All Saints’ so that you can freely join and accept the embrace of a community of the forgiven, a community living God’s “from now on,” even when we don’t know what comes next.
No matter what may burn, fall, or fail, let the power of Jesus’s love live in you. Let it prove you wrong when you have abandoned hope. Let Jesus surprise you with Good news! May that good news strengthen us when everything just hurts too much. Let the unexpected new life of the resurrection, spill back into our whole conflicted history, heal our hearts, open unimagined possibilities for the present, and give us hope for the future. And may the Father who spoke the word and there was light, and who raised Christ from the dead, also enliven our souls and bodies with the power of the resurrection. Happy Easter! Amen
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet