Easter Sunday April 24, 2011
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Matthew: 28: 1-10
Theme: Paschal Joke
I wish to acknowledge my debt for the concept and flow of this sermon to Brother Martin Smith whose writing and theology has enriched my life for years.
Historians of the Church inform us that as late as the 18th Century in Germany, preaching on Easter Day held out a peculiar requirement. Lutheran preachers still felt bound by an ancient custom on this day. Custom prescribed that the sermon should begin with a joke, known as the risus pachalis, “the paschal joke.” It is not hard to imagine the solemn pastor fiddling with his preaching tabs nervously in the pulpit, cracking a rare smile and beginning his Easter homily with “Have you heard the one about…? Or, “A funny thing happened on my way to the pub…”
Botanists have managed to grow plants from seeds found wrapped in mummies of Pharaohs, and perhaps this ancient and forgotten custom of the paschal joke still has some life in it as well. Why a joke on Easter morning? Why an attempt at humor on this joyous festival day? For those who have ears to hear, the joke tells us that what follows – the news of the empty tomb and proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus – is a joke God plays on us. In one way it is impossible to take the resurrection seriously. It really is laughable, isn’t it? Or is it? The question remains, what is the joke and do we get it?
Death is no laughing matter and never has been. When a human dies and goes into the ground that is that. We don’t generally wait around for the person to reappear and take up where we left off – not on this side of the grave anyway. But even so, there is this persistent dream of life beyond the grave. Our forebears who invented agriculture found that the rhythm of their life as farmers brought them to the edge of solemn mysteries. If the dry seed could be buried and then burst forth with tender green life and bear fruit, what about a human being, what about the corpses of men and women buried in the earth? So, they buried their dead with all manner of ceremony and preparations sometimes burying them in boats for the journey through the netherworld or including things they might need on the other side like food, flowers, trinkets of all kinds and weapons. All of this was done with the blind hope that perhaps the dying and rising of the corn or the new grain was a hint, a clue to the mystery of the universe that there was indeed life beyond the grave and what the eye could see.
The symbol of resurrection found expression in myths of gods who died and came to life, myths and rituals the encompassed the cycles of life and death around the harvest, the funeral rites that mourned short human lives and wove around them dreams of paradise beyond. By Jesus’ day the lines were already drawn, much as we find them today, between those who condemn the symbol as illusory and deceptive and those who find it compelling and full of hope. In Jesus’ day it was the Sadducees who were the conservatives about this, expressing their pessimism about it openly and encouraging others to mistrust the whole prospect of life beyond the grave. The Pharisees on the other hand, held out hope for the resurrection of the dead as a remote prospect happening far into the future at the end of time. Above all, resurrection was for the more liberal minded Pharisees a requirement for the last judgment – God would have to raise the dead if everyone was going to be present for the Great Trial at the end of time.
Resurrection is a disputed question and has been for ages. It is for some an ambiguous symbol expressing human ambivalence about the finality of death. However much we human say we accept death, it seem that we cannot help projecting into some distant, mythic future the possibility of restoration to life, in the symbol of the rising of the body from the grave.
And on a particular Sunday morning, God did something absurd in the face of all the controversy and solemnity about death. God took our symbol literally. God did something scandalous and for some offensive to their sense of propriety and their understanding of the spiritual. God decided to enter the debate about resurrection in a whole new way, as if to say, “having trouble with that rascally symbol of resurrection? Well how about this, look at my beloved Jesus. Now you see him, now you don’t. One grave empty, the rest to follow, stay tuned.
The joke is that human beings like their symbols to stay symbolic. Undoubtedly that is why every year several books are published that endeavor to return the concept of resurrection to the realm of the symbolic and away from this tomfoolery of empty tombs and grave clothes lying about. The resurrection they say, and have been for years is a “legend.” The writers of these learned theological books all adopt a rather injured tone. The resurrection should symbolize the enduring and uplifting effect of Jesus’ teaching in the hearts of believers, or express dramatically that Jesus is now an exalted spiritual leader for many. These scholars are embarrassed or infuriated its hard to tell which sometimes at the naiveté and stubbornness of those ordinary preachers and faithful Christians who keep celebrating the emptiness of the tomb with rest of the disciples, and the women, especially Mary. They are incredulous about why we don’t embrace their message – the resurrection is such a beautiful metaphor in and of itself, there is really no reason why we must insist on anything special or unnatural happening to the corpse of Jesus.
But perhaps they have missed something; perhaps they just don’t get the joke? Maybe we who believe in the empty tomb are simply captivated by the audacity and boldness of God’s sense of humor. Who but the God of Jesus would think of such a wild joke to take humanity up on its fascination with resurrection, blowing a hole in the middle of human history and human thought? Resurrection not as a tame and distant symbol but rather as powerful reality, a tear in the fabric of the universe that exposes God’s hidden purposes for all that he has made.
The story of Christ’s passion, his crucifixion and burial are all about human power over God. We, yes our sinful humanity took God’s expression of God’s very self, nailed it down, killed it, and buried it. We took the Son of God and tried to push him out of the world. But the funny this is, just when we thought we had him contained, entombed and out of the way for good, suddenly the stone was rolled away and …. Nothing, nada, Gone! As Martin Smith says the whole thing is in terribly bad taste, as if God were to play Houdini. God get free. He escapes. His mission impossible is accomplished. The grave is empty, and the shroud and head cloth are folded neatly. Martha Stewart would be proud. The Lord of all creation seems to wink at us, behaving like a thoughtful houseguest who doesn’t leave the bedclothes scattered about the room when he leaves.
Jesus is free to leave the tomb, and that means that we lost. We failed to keep God contained or shut him up even by dragging him into our death. But this is a very strange game after all. By losing, we win. The result of it all is that the rules have changed. The universe is different. God is free to punch a hole in the fabric of reality with resurrection and what is more he intends for us all to follow Jesus through this opening into his arms open arms. The hole in the universe has a tremendous gravitational pull drawing us all into the life and being of God. Jesus says, “I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God and your God.”
By losing we win. The joke of the resurrection is on us. God plays this masterful joke on us by taking us up on our dream of resurrection just once for Jesus his beloved. And you either get the joke or you don’t. If you get the joke you realize that life can be full of holy laughter. You begin to realize that those who want to insist that resurrection is merely symbolic and that “Of course the tomb wasn’t actually empty” really are rather humorless and unimaginative sorts.
Realizing that the joke of the resurrection is on us, makes the Gospel’s playful accounts of the disciples varied encounters with the Risen Lord full of humor and sense of comedy. In John, Mary mistakes Jesus for the Gardener? Was he sporting a large floppy sun hat and a pair of pruning sheers strapped to his side? And what about Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach for his tired disciples, offering the first breakfast of a new creation in the light of the resurrection? Or Jesus as the mystery traveler on the road to Emmaus, and then performing a disappearing act at the dinner table? These are strange and comical stories. They are stories of people who are lighthearted and feel the wonderful freedom to make the joke they have heard from the mouth of God even funnier in the retelling.
So laugh this day, don’t be afraid to laugh down in your soul in your very bones. Feel the laughter of the universe, the hilarity of the hole God has punched in the fabric of time and space with the joke of Jesus resurrection. Laugh out loud if you want, laugh for joy, laugh at Jesus wearing a funny floppy gardener’s hat, laugh at Jesus minding the BBQ on the beach and eating fish, laugh because you have hope, a wild hope that death is not the end of the story. Laugh because you get the joke, God’s love is stronger than death. Laugh as you bath in the hilarious light of the Risen One. Laugh and dance for the story that seemed a tragedy has become a comedy, for Christ is Alive. That is the joke and a joke we can keep telling until we find ourselves dancing and laughing will all the saints at the end of time.
I wish to acknowledge my debt for the concept and flow of this Easter sermon which I borrowed liberally from Brother Martin Smith, SSJE whose writing and theology has enriched my life for years. May we all know the Holy Laughter of Christ’s resurrection deep in our bones.