Preaching on Easter Sunday is both a privilege and a challenge. Of course, that is true every time we preach, but especially so on Easter.
The privilege is to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection, the foundation of Christian hope. The challenge is to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection, the foundation of Christian hope.
As my Latin professor in college used to say when we learned some particularly momentous new phrase (like carpe diem), “This is BIG!”
Easter Sunday? This is BIG!
How does a preacher do justice to this central claim of Christianity; that, in the words of Peter’s sermon, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses” (Acts 10:39-41)?
And how does a preacher do justice to that claim in a society that seems to grow more and more cynical and skeptical of any truth claims, especially truth claims from traditional authorities like the church?
I occasionally watch “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” As Colbert interviews various celebrities, he sometimes gives them a questionnaire, asking them things like, “What’s your favorite sandwich?” “Favorite action movie?” “Dogs or cats?”
One of the questions Colbert, a practicing Catholic, asks is, “What do you think happens when we die?” And the answers vary widely. In a recent interview, Prince Harry responded, “I think we become animals.” Colbert clarified, “Like, we reincarnate?” “Yeah,” Harry replied.
The actor George Clooney spoke about how he was raised Catholic, like Colbert, but has left that behind. “But as I get older,” he said, laughing, “I start renegotiating things a little bit. And you start thinking well, maybe there is something that happens.”
Some of Colbert’s guests get very uncomfortable at this particular question. Others speak about the body decaying. Others simply express a wish to go to “somewhere beautiful.”
When asked this question, former first lady Michelle Obama said immediately, “We go to heaven.” And rock star Bono, also a Christian, said, “We are born. I actually believe that’s when we’re born, when we begin. These are labor pains, Stephen.” And I am guessing that he had in the back of his mind Romans 8:22-23:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Bono, like Colbert himself (and like Prince Harry), lost a parent at a young age. Bono also grew up in Ireland during “the Troubles,” when acts of sectarian violence were a regular occurrence. He has seen and experienced suffering and he has been shaped by lifelong study of Scripture and by communal worship. His answer reflects that depth of faith and experience. What happens when we die? We begin a new life. “These are labor pains.”
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Now, I know that Christian faith is not only about what happens after we die. Jesus came that we might have life, abundant life here and now. But Christian faith does have something to say to the question of what happens after death. We, of all people, should know that. Christians do not shy away from the fact of mortality. After all, we began this journey to Good Friday and Easter by receiving ashen crosses on our foreheads and hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
That is a pretty stark way of putting it. Remember that you will die and return to the dust. And so will those you love most in the world. Hopefully, not for a very long time, but eventually, yes. It is a reality none of us can escape.
Some of the best literature and theater explores this reality, and even some thoughtful television shows. In the quirky comedy series, “The Good Place,” four people in the afterlife explore what it means to be a good person and argue with the powers-that-be (no God here) about who therefore deserves to be in “the Good Place” (turns out, at least at the beginning of the series, not many people at all). Eleanor Shellstrop, the protagonist, at one point tries to explain the human condition to Michael, an immortal being going through an existential crisis:
“You’re learning what it’s like to be human. All humans are aware of death, so we’re all a little bit sad. All the time. That’s just the deal.”
Michael responds bitterly, “Sounds like a crappy deal.”
“Well, yeah, it is. But we don’t get offered any other ones. And if you try and ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway. I’ve been there. Everybody’s been there. So don’t fight it.”1
In other words, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
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On this Easter Sunday, then, acknowledge that reality. Speak the truth about the human condition. Many in your congregation will not have attended Ash Wednesday or Good Friday services, when that reality of death is so prominent in the liturgy. So instead of jumping immediately to the promise of resurrection, be a theologian of the cross, as Martin Luther describes it, one who “calls a thing what it is.”2
You are helped in that task by the story of that first Easter morning. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” come to the tomb to mourn. Their friend and rabbi is dead. That is just the reality of it. There are no Easter lilies and trumpets on that first Easter morning, no Easter dresses or baskets. Just the reality of death and grief in the pre-dawn darkness as they walk to the tomb.
Describe that reality. Call a thing what it is. And then, and then, proclaim the deeper reality of that first Easter morning: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said!” (Matthew 28:5-6).
On that Easter proclamation rests the hope of Christian faith. It is a bold proclamation, especially in the face of skepticism, cynicism, and denial. It is a bold proclamation and one that you are privileged to make every week, and especially on this Sunday of Sundays. We worship the God of life, who is faithful even until death, and beyond.
Thank you for your partnership in proclaiming that Easter faith. May God give you joy in the journey.
- “The Good Place,” Season 2, Episode 4, “Existential Crisis.”
- Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis #21.