Sunday, April 9, 2023

Why We Celebrate Easter


John 20:1-18

On Wednesday evening, a few young kids from the congregation and I created a beautiful butterfly collage hanging in the sanctuary for the big celebration. But before we did, we had an important conversation about Easter. 

What is Easter? Why do we celebrate it? I asked. They shrugged at me and one of them said, Hmm. I don’t really know!


In order to understand Easter, I told them, we first have to talk about death

So we buckled in and got down to it.

What dies? I asked. Can you tell me some things that die?

Plants die, one said. 

Dogs die, said another. 

Elephants die when they are poached for their ivory, said the third. 

People die too, one added. 

Then we shared about some people we love who have died.  We talked about how sad and terrible death is, and how we don’t like that things and people die.

Is there anything that doesn’t die? I asked.  There was some debate about some specific unusual creature that I’d never heard of that can regenerate, but we ultimately concluded that eventually even that thing dies. Everything that is alive dies.


What about God? I asked.

God doesn’t die! They answered. God doesn’t have to die.

So, now I am going to tell you why we celebrate Easter, I told them.

God doesn’t have to die, but God chose to die.  When God came to be with us in this life as Jesus, God decided to share everything we go through, to be born and grow up with all the sad and hard things, all the fun and amazing things, whatever it means to be human, Jesus lived that too. And Jesus died.  We talked about Jesus’ death on the cross. But then we talked about what happened when Jesus died. How the sky went dark, and the whole earth shook, and the heavy temple curtain that separated people from God was torn in two from top to bottom because something very huge was happening, and people were afraid and confused because they didn’t understand it. 


Jesus didn’t stay dead.  Jesus came back to life, and God made it so death isn’t the end any more. Death doesn’t get to separate us forever from each other or God. God broke the power of death and made it so life keeps going, even after we die!  This is a something to celebrate! 


Then we thought about our butterfly project.  And we thought how butterflies are not born as butterflies. They start out as caterpillars.  And we imagined if we were caterpillars, and we saw our caterpillar friend make a cocoon and disappear and stop being alive with us and how we would miss them and think that they were gone for good.  And they would never come back as a caterpillar again, so they are gone; their caterpillar life is over.  

But what happens after a caterpillar makes a cocoon?  I asked.

They become a butterfly! They shouted.

And now they are not trapped on the ground like a caterpillar, they are alive and free, and even though their caterpillar friends can’t be with them in the same way, the butterflies can still see their caterpillar friends and they know that one day they too will be transformed into butterflies. 


A butterfly is a symbol for Easter because it’s a picture of transformation.  It reminds us that because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we have new life, and death does not get to be the biggest strongest thing any more.  Love is stronger, and life is stronger. 


Death still happens, I said, and people and dogs and elephants and plants still dieAnd we feel really sad when people we love die, and we really, really miss them. It will be a long, long time before we see them again. But they are not ended; their life keeps going. And one day, after we die, our life will keep going too, in the love of God, in life that doesn’t get sick, or sad or scared; life inside God’s love that lasts forever.


It's so important that we celebrate Easter every year, we decided, because it’s so easy to forget, and we need to remember that God’s love is stronger and death doesn’t get to win, ever again. 


A few minutes ago the kids gave us all some butterfly sun glasses, inviting us to take on this Resurrection perspective, to see this world, each other, and our own lives through the lens of resurrection. Christ has died, Christ has risen. Alleluia!  We can trust God with our lives, and each other and this whole earth. 


But in order to understand Easter, we have to start with death.  Resurrection comes to us in death.  It begins there. It can come no other way. The risen Lord meets us in our places of death. The caterpillar inside the cocoon turns to ugly, decaying mush. Entombed in darkness, it disintegrates. And then it is transformed.  The tomb is the place of transformation.


When Mary comes to the tomb on Easter morning she comes to cry for the person she loves who has died. She is there to be sad about death and to get used to missing Jesus. And what she finds is an empty tomb. And we act like an empty tomb is a great thing, but there is no hope in an empty tomb. The absence of death is not the same as new life. An empty grave is just more loss.


But while Mary is standing there, entombed in the darkness of her own cocoon, turned to mush in her grief, feeling nothing but emptiness and despair, seeing death as the biggest, strongest thing, Jesus comes to Mary, alive. And she doesn’t recognize him.  Trapped inside her dark cocoon, she can’t see a butterfly; she thinks Jesus is the gardener.


Please, Mary begs him; please sir, tell me where his body is.  But then Jesus says her name, Mary.  And  suddenly her cocoon breaks open. When the Risen Jesus calls her name, Mary is resurrected. She’s transformed. Her life begins anew. Now she has life that’s been through death to the other side. 


Mary responds, Teacher! And she tries to grab onto him like he’s still a caterpillar. We try to grab on to Jesus too. But a risen Savior is not like a strongly held belief, a positive example to follow, or a religion to shape your life around. A risen savior can’t be held onto or pinned down.  Jesus is alive, bringing new life in the all the dead places in our world, meeting us when we don’t expect it, and most need it, don’t even know how to look for him. 


When Mary is transformed, she gets her butterfly glasses. To be clear – our faith is not about just seeing the world differently, but once we’ve been met by the risen Christ in our places of death, we will see the world differently. We don’t put our faith in recovery, repair, renovation, recuperation, or even renewal, things that we can do ourselves. Ours is a faith of resurrection, something only God can do. 


Sometimes it feels like the whole world is a decaying cocoon. We assume we’ll see decay; we’re not expecting transformation. And the promise of Easter is not that there are no more cocoons. The promise is that God is particularly at work in cocoons and tombs, Jesus has already been there. When we are in death, and in loss, when all seems over, God promises to be here, bringing transformation. In our impossibility, when we are turning to mush inside our tombs, the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead comes into our deadness, and God brings new life.


So we wait, here, in our tombs of choices that can’t be unmade, words that can’t be unsaid, lives that can’t be brought back, conflicts that can’t be solved, loved ones we can’t rescue, and all the hopeless, helpless places of horror, loss and tragedy in our world and in ourselves.


And then, when we are decomposing in deep darkness, suddenly a light shines. An unexpected person stands with you, supporting you in your upheaval or sorrow. Forgiveness takes hold and releases you from your prison of resentment. Your despair gives way to healing, different than you ever could have imagined. When you’re feeling lost and alone, another person sees you, and you realize you are loved and known. When who you thought you were is gone, you discover that who you are is just waking up.  This is the sound of the Risen One calling your name. This is the feel of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work. This is what it looks like when the God of resurrection brings life that’s been through death to the other side.


This whole world, and everyone who has gone before us, and you and I too, are held in the love of God, who is bringing new life into our tombs and cocoons, and Jesus is alive, meeting us when we don’t expect it, and most need it.  This is why we celebrate Easter. Today we put on our butterfly glasses, so that when we look at death we know what God will do there. 


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