Great Expectations

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Easter 3

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

So, what now? This is the Third Sunday of Easter—day 15 of a 50-day season–and this is the question that should confront us. How are we different from who we were before the lights came on at the Easter Vigil, before the Alleluias returned from their Lenten exile, before we had digested that yummy Easter brunch?

We are people of the Resurrection, Alleluia Alleluia!

What does that mean?

The first people to encounter the Risen Christ changed the world. They did it because they themselves were deeply affected by the Resurrection, and they shared that experience by creating a magnetic community and by showing others that the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—was the way of abundant life, healing and reconciliation. The Good News of Jesus Christ turned the known world on its head.

What does that mean now?

How are we changed by Easter today? Because of course we should be changed. The Good News that God has done a new thing in the Resurrection, that death does not have the last word, should transform how we see God, one another and the world around us. And yet Easter Sunday doesn’t seem to have changed us at all—we just—move on. Is it that we expect too much of Easter? As my spirit animal Anne Lamott says, expectations are resentments under construction. And certainly this year, as we awakened on Easter morning to news of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka; as we heard last week of a new synagogue shooting and of the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes when we had hoped that our society was moving beyond that; as we hear this week of still another shooting at still another university, all of this collides with what we expect to be Easter joy—it seems to give the lie to the resounding affirmation of the triumph of love over death and evil. We look for signs of Easter, and it seems all too elusive. If Easter has changed us and the world, we want evidence. And not seeing it, we let the lilies wilt, the Lenten discipline lapse forgotten, and we get back to the routine of coping from day to day.  We move on. Like Peter, we go back to work. We go fishing.

So the safer alternative to high Easter expectation is to expect nothing. But if we expect to remain unchanged by the empty tomb, that is an expectation that will probably be met.

Do we expect too much of Easter? Or too little?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what we expect of Easter we should be asking what Easter expects of us.

Perhaps, when we’ve been thinking of Easter joy, we’ve really deep-down been thinking of Easter happiness—that gorgeous chill-bumpy feeling that comes with the scent of the lilies and the resounding organ—so lovely to sing the well-loved hymns, surrounded by family and community. But as we often hear, happiness is not the same as joy. Joy is more mysterious–deeper than happiness–it gracefully accompanies real-world suffering and difficulty. We find joy when we know that we are upheld in prayer when we grieve. We find joy when we are loved and supported when we meet a tough challenge. We find joy when we find perspective—when we can hold our successes and our failures equally lightly because we know that we are loved for who we are, not for what we do or what we have or how we look.

The difference between Easter happiness and Easter joy?

Easter joy hasn’t forgotten the Cross.

Consider Saul and Peter. Their two stories, each rich with nuance in its own right, actually converse with one another. They offer us a compelling invitation as People of the Resurrection—an invitation to see this season in a potentially more fruitful and life-giving light.

So we see Saul, who breathed threats and murder against the disciples of God; Saul who held the coats of the people who stoned the deacon and first martyr Stephen to death. This same Saul will become a tireless, if irascible, proclaimer of the Good News throughout the Mediterranean world. And Peter, devoted but impetuous follower of Jesus who denied his Lord three times—Peter will become the first bishop of the Church. We see two men, one a respected Jewish official of the tribe of Benjamin and Roman citizen, and the other the son of a Galilean fisherman. The two could not have been from more divergent backgrounds and life experiences. Yet between the two of them, and the communities they gathered around them, they profoundly and irrevocably transformed the Jewish and Gentile religious landscape within a few decades of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension.

Why? Because of Easter.  But not on Easter morning. On Easter morning Peter was in hiding until the women brought him the news of the Resurrection. On Easter morning Saul was just waking up from his regular weekly Sabbath observance, oblivious to the turn his life was about to take. The lives of Saul and Peter converged, not on Easter morning, but later, in their encounters with the Risen Christ.

We’ve heard the stories: Saul, plunged into blindness on the Damascus Road—brought face to face with Christ and with his own violent past. Peter, plunged into the water of the Sea of Galilee at the sight of his teacher, and suddenly confronted by the shame of his earlier threefold denial: “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you?”

Saul, blinded. Peter, blindsided. Face to face with guilt and shame. An encounter with the Risen Christ is not always a journey to the Comfort Zone. And yet.

Saul, raised up, led by the hand into the care of community. Forgiven, healed, renewed. A new life, a new name, a new mission.  Peter, fed, forgiven, and given charge of a flock: “Feed my sheep.”

Grace upon grace offered to two flawed men who would turn the world upside down. Grace upon grace received by them, now knowing that they were truly known; nothing left to hide. There is a freedom in that; a freedom to embark on a new path, equipped with humility, purpose, and the unconquerable love of an Easter Christ.

What does that mean, now?

The stories of Paul and Peter offer us an invitation to see Easter in a new light; not as a single bright moment in time, but as an ongoing process that transcends time and history and that encompasses both light and shadow. It’s important to know that the Risen Christ came to Saul and Peter—and confronted them—in the days and months after the Resurrection. In other words, Easter is never really over. It continually challenges us to see the world through Easter eyes that see life-giving potential in even the most barren and difficult places. Especially in those places. Paul and Peter had to confront the barren places in their own lives before moving forward—before accepting the challenges that Jesus presented. They had to understand that to be a person of the Resurrection is to carry a small part of the Cross within you—to be able to see the world and all of its pain with at least a measure of the compassion and forgiveness with which God sees us. And when we can do that , we, like Paul and Peter, are freed to offer ourselves to God knowing that we are fully known.  But also like Paul and Peter, we are not promised a smooth path. We are equipped, though, with courage to live hopefully, creatively, compassionately, and, yes, joyfully for the healing of the world.

So, what now? The tomb is long empty, the lilies are fading, and the jellybeans are getting a little stale. But our Easter life as People of the Resurrection is just getting started—Alleluia!

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