Please…Don’t Go to Church on Easter Sunday Morning!
John 20: 1-18 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ April 12, 2020
I am recording this service in advance of Easter Sunday and I sincerely ask you: ‘please…don’t go to church on Easter morning!’ This might seem like an odd request coming from a pastor, and you can let me know if I am off base because presumably you have ‘gone’ to church in this virtual way as we gather online. So, for those tuning in, I guess it’s too late. But it still needs to be said. Don’t go to church on Easter morning! Why? Well…I advise against your attendance on Easter for a few reasons. Partly because amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, we are closed. For the first time in my life I will be at home with my children, rather than at church which starts with a sunrise service, well before the Easter bunny’s arrival. So, I’ll be at home hunting for eggs and worshipping online. My kids tell me, even at age 16 and 20, they are still up for an egg hunt. When they were younger, an email request was made to the Easter Bunny for a special Saturday visit because Dad worked on Sunday, and the agreeable bunny always obliged. But there is an additional reason that I offer this request for your absence. If you come to the Easter service, you will not leave as you arrived. You will be forever changed.
Perhaps the draw to Easter is inescapable? The great Swiss Theologian from the 20th century, Karl Barth, inquired as to what draws people to gather. He posited that we come with a profound, and unspoken question clinging to our hearts and minds: Is it true? Is it true that God lives and gives us life? Is it true that God only established routines and laws of nature? Or is it true that God also stepped outside of these established routines and laws, and also brings life after death? And if you come on Easter Sunday, you will be changed in ways that you can’t imagine! In some ways, it is odd that people flock to church on Easter ~ Easter of all days ~ which is the hardest to explain, the hardest to understand, the hardest to take in. Are we driven by the opportunity to wear our Easter bonnets and Sunday best? Or are we driven by the guilt of consuming too much Easter chocolate and other indulgences? Or is something else drawing us to church?
Perhaps there is something about this Easter story that will draw people in, irregardless of the warnings offered. The text that Deborah just read for us reveals the draw of the first witnesses. They could not escape the first Easter. The gory crucifixion had occurred on Friday, yet they were drawn to come. The Sabbath had occurred as Jesus’ corpse lay in a sealed tomb, yet they were drawn to come. And come they did! In fact, they didn’t just wander to the tomb…they RAN! If you are a runner, this text is for you, because scholars tell us that there is more running in this passage than any of the other gospels combined. Mary runs to tell the disciples. Simon Peter runs to the tomb. And the other (nameless) disciple runs even faster than both of them. And they all arrive and see what occurred as they attended the first Easter. They couldn’t avoid it either; they had to go to the first Easter…and they RAN there!
And when they arrived, the captivating mystery of the first Easter began. And Easter has been attracting people ever since. And what we discover in the Easter story is a truly captivating mystery. The three witnesses do not arrive to answers: they arrive to an empty tomb; they arrive to an unrecognizable saviour; they arrive to a saviour who will not even let them touch him. What an odd Easter! I wonder what these three parts of Easter mean to you?
The empty tomb is as challenging as it is hope-filled. The first witnesses saw the empty tomb and they were afraid. They wondered what the empty tomb meant: the work of grave robbers? Thieves? Who would do such a thing? It is interesting to consider what we might have seen if we were there. A child comes across an empty box and they see a fort, or a spaceship, or a myriad of other possibilities. When Mary first saw the empty tomb, she didn’t know what to make of it, nor did Simon Peter or the other disciple. It gripped them with fear, not with possibilities. I wonder on Easter Sunday, if we see the limitless possibilities that are found in an empty tomb. Or if we are gripped by fear and concern? I wonder if we ponder it to be the work of thieves or the liberating work of God’s power? As you peer inside the empty tomb, can you see new life, can you see the limitless possibility God is bringing?…with the stone rolled away?…and with death transformed?
The story gets worse. Beyond the empty tomb, it continues with the first witnesses being met by one who they think is a stranger. The one who they later realize is Jesus. Who could blame them? In their disorientation, in their confusion over an empty tomb, in grips of their fears who could blame them for not recognizing Jesus? I worry what toll this disorienting time of Covid-19 quarantine and social-distancing is having on each of us? When one day blurs into the next; when routines are lost; when many are beginning to go a little ‘stir crazy’ themselves, when we worry about our health. How do we keep grounded? How do we keep the faith? How do we recognize Jesus in our midst? Do you see Jesus in the world? Is Jesus’ generosity present? Is Jesus’ light shared? Is Jesus’ grace found and offered? Or is Jesus a stranger these days?
But the hardest part of this cruel Easter story is that, if the shock of the empty tomb was not enough; if their inability to recognize Jesus didn’t indicate how lost they were; there was one thing that made it worse. Jesus refused their request to touch him. Remember, Jesus was the teacher who let the little children sit upon his knee; he was the one who touched lepers and made them clean; he was the one who just touching the hem of his robe offered healing. And this Jesus now engaged in the first ever social-distancing practice! Here at Northwood, we had the pick-up for our Easter chocolate fundraiser just last Sunday in the parking lot. I would describe it as ‘bittersweet’. (excuse the chocolate-related pun) Certainly it was wonderful to gather, yet, the pain that everyone felt was palpable. In not being able to embrace one another as we normally did…we hurt! We gathered with gloves and masks; we stayed 2 meters apart; chocolates were placed in trunks and people just …drove away. No hugs, no handshakes…no kisses…we were all separate from one another.
As I think on this text in 2020, amidst the pandemic, the deepest hope is found in Jesus almost saying: “not yet”. “not yet”. Jesus is about to establish an eternal connection for us through God. But don’t hold onto me yet; don’t hold onto me in this ‘in between time’…let me go. Let me go and do the work that must be done. Let me complete God’s work of allowing ‘New Life’ to come to the world. This is the faith and the discipline that we, too, must have. Don’t hold onto one another, just yet. Care for one another in these new ways; allow for new life to come ~ in these new ways; allow the possibility of the tomorrows to arrive…in due time.
So perhaps you can see now why I began as I did. By asking you not to come Easter morning. I have shared my hope of what you don’t do, so I guess it’s only fair to share my hope of what you will do. My hope is that instead of going to church that we will be the church. More than ever before, our world is going to need Jesus’ living body to be found in the world in the days ahead. More than ever before the world is going to need you to see the possibilities that are found in the days to come; more than ever before the world is going to need you to help Jesus’ love, his light and his care be found in what you do; more than ever before, the world is going to need you to be the church in a hurting broken world that cries over the shock of an empty tomb, who cannot recognize Jesus in this disorientating time. More than ever before, we need to be the church!
The Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, writing from the later part of the 16th Century, put it this way: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” Friends, the world has enough spectators, PLEASE don’t go to church. Let us be the church now!