Many people think that Easter is the easiest day of the year for a pastor. The story is always the same, so there can’t be much new to say about it. I’m not going to bring you a surprise new ending. This is the one day when it just might be OK to recycle a sermon from another Easter Sunday. Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Let’s have lunch!
The flaw in that reasoning is that today is far too important to be relegated to recycled sermons. Today is a glorious and wonderful day that must be celebrated as if it is the first time and because it is not. I was talking to some folks earlier in the week about how this is the church’s Super Bowl. Someone joked, “I hope our team wins!” The thing is, our team already won; we know how this game ends, we’re just watching replays.
Yes, we’ve heard this story before – all four versions of it. Yes, we remember what we’ve been taught. But, how do we actually process this idea that Jesus was dead and buried, but now He’s Alive? What do we do with that information? To figure that out we must look at the story again. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all show us a group of women going to the tomb loaded with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. John gives us a slightly different perspective. In those stories where the women plan to enter the tomb to anoint the body there has always been that question: “Who will roll the stone away?” That is not an issue in this story.
John describes a grieving Mary Magdalene, coming to the tomb by herself; she is not carrying a load of spices and oils. We might think of her visit as the same sort of visit many of us have made through the years to visit the final resting places of our own friends and relatives. We come out of love and respect; we seek closure and peace. There is no expectation of access; Mary simply comes to grieve. She comes alone to mourn and perhaps to wonder what might have been. What Mary finds when she gets there is the surprise element of the story that captures our interest. The huge stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away. There are no guards and the tomb is now empty. This is not what Mary expected to find; she doesn’t understand and she is understandably upset. Mary jumps to the conclusion that grave robbers have taken the body away. So she runs back to tell the others what she’s discovered. Peter and John are not satisfied with simply hearing what Mary says she discovered; they must go and see for themselves. The two men run to the tomb – out of fear, or curiosity, or anticipation – we don’t know. The story says that John outran Peter and got there first, but he did not go into the tomb. He may have been afraid; he may simply have decided to defer to Peter as their leader. Peter didn’t hesitate; he got to the tomb and went right inside and saw that it was empty. Peter immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This wasn’t grave robbers; it was something else entirely that none of them really understood. But, somehow they knew that Jesus was alive.
You see, what’s important to us is to realize that we don’t need to understand Easter to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Faith doesn’t require understanding; that’s the point. We should also notice the first clue to the resurrection of Jesus was that the huge stone had been moved. Think what the means for us. On Friday, Jesus was buried and a giant stone was placed between Jesus and the people who loved him. When Mary came to visit, she would not be able to see Jesus because this stone was in the way. She wouldn’t be able to touch him because the stone would keep her out. The stone is a barrier that Mary was not able to move by herself. To get to Jesus, Mary would need someone to move the stone for her…And Somebody did just that.
During the Season of Lent our church has been on a Journey of Stones. Each Sunday morning we carried a stone into worship with us, and that stone became a symbol of the sins that create barriers between us and God. At the end of worship each week, we carried our stone up and laid it at the foot of the cross. The stones might be someone’s pride, or greed, or selfishness, or anger. A stone might stand in for sins of gossip, prejudice, adultery, or hatred. By the end of the season there was a big pile of stones at the foot of the cross. They were our stones, our sins, and we couldn’t take them away by ourselves. Someone had to do it for us…And someone has. You may have noticed that the big pile of stones is gone from our worship space this morning. All those stones have been taken away; all our sins have been taken away and we didn’t carry them out. All that’s left here is the one final stone that made all the difference…the stone that was rolled away. That’s the ultimate Easter message: Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves.
I’m aware that there are people here this morning who may not be regular church-goers. I get that and it’s OK if you haven’t been to church in a while or even if this is your first time ever. I know we have visitors with us who have not been part of our Lenten Journey of Stones and may be wondering what I’m talking about. The thing is – We all have sins, right? Maybe you drink too much, or swear too much, or get angry and holler at people too much. Maybe you’ve even stayed away because you’re ashamed of those things and figured that you didn’t belong in church. Well, guess what – you’re no different than the rest of us! – People who go to church every week are sinners too! That’s what’s so great about Easter. I get to tell you that the stone has been rolled away for all of us…Not just a chosen few. You may think that your sins are so bad they can’t be forgiven – you’d be wrong. You might worry that God won’t take you back – He will!
This morning we are surrounded by the evidence of Easter. Flowers, bright banners, joyous hymns, and our own proclamation that Christ is risen indeed! Easter is obvious this morning. It’s easy to believe in the resurrection today…but, what about tomorrow? What happens next week or later this summer? What do we believe when people let us down, or when loved ones die, or when our own sins overwhelm us again? With Easter as a distant memory, how will we believe then? If we don’t understand it, how will we believe in it when the evidence isn’t so visible and the songs aren’t so joyful?
In 1988, when the Berlin Wall came down, a young woman named Anna in East Germany was asleep when a friend pounded on her door. “Anna, the Wall is down, and we have freedom!” her friend shouted. “You must come and see!” So they ran to the wall that had divided east and west for more than thirty years and they celebrated long into the night. It was a huge victory celebration all over town. The next morning, Anna awoke and thought surely she had dreamed all of this. She dressed quickly and ran back down to the wall and realized that it was all indeed true. The evidence was right there in front of her. But this time, before she went back home, she bent down and picked up a piece of the shattered Berlin Wall and took it home with her as a constant reminder that she was free.
As you leave this morning, you will be offered a reminder that you are free. You are invited to take a small stone with you, but this stone is very different from the rough, dirty stones from our Lenten journey. This stone is smooth and clear to remind you that your sins have been washed away. You are free from the shame of your sins; free from the punishment you deserve. You are free to be alive, now and for all eternity! Because the Son of God has made you free, you are free indeed.
Happy Easter, my friends…
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[Message and series inspired by “Journey of Stones” by Steven Molin. © 2002,
CSS Publishing Company, Lima, OH.]