Preacher: Jeff Davidson Scripture: John 20:1-18
Easter is a time of incredible joy. Just in the secular world, it’s a joyful time. I mean, there’s the Easter Bunny and little baby chickens and dioramas in the Washington Post made out of marshmallow Peeps. There’s springtime and bright flowers and blue, sunny skies – at least, they’re bright and sunny in our minds. There’s kids playing and Easter Egg rolls at the White House and lots of chocolate and so many other fun things. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries or cultures, but here in the US Easter is definitely a time of joy.
All of that joy is even before we get to Easter from a Christian perspective as a Christian holiday. Just a few nights ago Jesus was betrayed and arrested. Not long after he was tortured and crucified. Now he is risen! How much more joyful can you get than that?
I decided to think of three Easter songs – just the first three that came to mind, no picking and choosing – to see if the music is all joyful too. The first song I thought of was from when I was in high school. It’s a contemporary Christian song, or at least it was contemporary back then, by a trio called Second Chapter of Acts. It’s called “The Easter Song.” It starts out, “Hear the bells ringing/they’re singing/that you can be born again…” The next two songs I thought of were hymns – one is coming up, “Christ the Lord is risen today, alleluia”, and the other is “Low in the grave he lay”, which has that great chorus that builds in celebration – “Up from the grave he arose! With a mighty triumph o’er his foes”. Whether it’s secular or sacred, joy is the theme of the day.
I’ve had a plan for this morning’s sermon for a few weeks now, even before I knew for sure I was preaching today. I was going to talk about my love of mystery stories, and especially my favorite fictional detective, Nero Wolfe – a creation of the author Rex Stout. I was going to talk about a particular Wolfe novel, “In the Best Families” and some of the parallels between that novel and Easter – and although it’s a secular story, there are definitely parallels. I can’t honestly say that Nero Wolfe stories are particularly joyful, and like a lot of things written from the 1930s into the 1970s when Stout died there are some cultural and language choices that were acceptable then but are problematic or offensive now, but I think it might have made a good framework for a sermon.
That changed for me Friday when I learned of the deaths of the Capitol Police Officer Billy Evans and of Noah Green, the man who killed him who may have been mentally ill.
I thought things were starting to get back to normal a little bit. That day was the first day back at work in person for many Congressional employees. Streets around the Capitol had reopened, and the outer perimeter of fencing had come down. That made life much, much easier for people trying to drive or bicycle or even just walk on the Hill. I thought we were done with Line of Duty deaths for the Capitol Police, at least for a little while.
Most of us pay attention to things that happen on Capitol Hill, since our physical church building is there and because so many of our members or friends work there. Most of us pay attention to the issues that mentally ill people face because most of us have friends who are dealing with many of those same struggles. The Capitol Police have certainly been in the news and been through a lot lately, and I paid attention to them even before January because I have friends and parishioners who’ve worked there, and because I pay attention to law enforcement generally.
So in some ways it’s hard for me to feel joyful, and it’s hard for me to think about organizing a sermon around a fictional detective, and it seems like at least to me the moment calls for something else.
Mary Magdalene had some plans on what turned out to be that first Easter morning. She was going to visit the burial place of her friend and teacher Jesus. She wasn’t filled with joy, she wasn’t filled with happiness, she probably wasn’t planning to sing any glad songs. She was sad. She was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and she went to mourn Jesus.
Then Mary saw that the stone had been rolled away from the front of the tomb. She still wasn’t joyful. She still wasn’t happy. It doesn’t say specifically what her emotions were, but from her reactions we can be sure she was surprised and maybe frightened. She ran to tell Peter and another disciple, maybe John, and they come and investigate, and sure enough – the tomb is empty. The burial cloths and linens are all there, but the body isn’t. Peter and the other disciple don’t really know what to make of this, so they leave, presumably to share the news with the other disciples – the news that the body was gone, not that Jesus was risen. The Bible says they didn’t realize that yet.
Mary still isn’t joyful. She was sad before, now she’s distraught. Not only is Jesus dead, but his body is gone and she doesn’t know why or how. Angels speak to her, but that doesn’t help, and then Jesus himself speaks to her. Mary, though, is so upset that she doesn’t even recognize Jesus. She thinks he’s the gardener, and asks where Jesus’ body has gone. Then Jesus says her name, and she recognizes him.
There still isn’t any obvious joy for Mary, though. Maybe she feels it, but the Bible doesn’t say and we don’t know for sure. All we know is that Mary recognizes him, says “Teacher”, and that Jesus tells her to go and tell his brothers (presumably the disciples, since that’s who Mary later tells) that he will be ascending to his Father. Wonder? Amazement? Maybe. Probably. Joy? Perhaps, but she has to work through the wonder and the amazement to get there, so maybe not.
Mary goes and tells the disciples what Jesus said. Can we have a little joy now? I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say what their reaction was. We don’t even know if they believed her, because verse 19, right after this, is about Jesus appearing to the disciples himself the next night.
All the way through the Easter story in the gospel of John, there is no definite sign of joy. There are some hints that Mary might be joyful, but only maybe. What we do know about is sadness, fear, surprise, disbelief, and it’s opposite, belief – belief that the body was gone on the part of Peter and John, and belief in the resurrection on the part of Mary. All of that, but no joy.
Joy is a gift that is given to us because we come later. We read the Gospels knowing about the resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and all the rest of it. Joy is a gift of our faith in the risen Christ, nurtured by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Joy is a gift that with the possible exception of Mary Magdalene, none of the people in our reading from John feel.
No, they are all feeling the way that I did on Friday when I heard about Noah Green and Billy Evans. They are still caught in the emotions of their own Friday, a day that we now refer to as Good Friday.
For them, joy is coming up. For us, joy is here. For them joy requires knowledge that they do not have. For us, we can be joyful because of what we know. For them, joy is something they may doubt they will ever feel. For us, joy is something we can live with and share every day. For them, Jesus’ life seemed to have been in vain, and death had won the day. For us, we know that Jesus wins over death in the end.
Wherever you are in your life, whatever happened yesterday or the day before, whatever you’re worried about coming up, you can be joyful.
You can celebrate. Joy is not a one-day-a-year, only on Easter celebration, For those of us who know the joy of this day, it is something that we can claim and live out of and share every day. Indeed, it’s not just something we can share and live out of every day; it’s something we’re commanded to share and live out of every day.
Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia. Amen.