The Same Old Story
It always felt wrong, and I thought maybe it was just me. But then I heard similar musings from fellow pastors who also felt guilty about it. Easter, after all, is the liturgical high point in the Christian year. More so even than Christmas, Easter sees churches packed to overflowing. So why as a pastor did I sometimes see Easter Sunday coming down the pike and feel a sense of . . . well, not dread, but a certain heaviness—the kind of thing that could wring a sigh or two from me?
I’ve never sensed this from church musicians. Holy Week and Easter are surely a busy time for anyone involved in the worship life of a congregation. It takes a lot of work, extra planning, and more rehearsals than usual. But musicians always seem to have a lot of joyful fun with it, pulling out all the organ’s stops, adding some members to the praise band, or pulling together a brass quartet to declare Easter’s glad tidings.
Why, then, might a preacher feel daunted? One obvious reason is that people’s expectations for the Easter sermon are higher than usual. The whole family will be in church, including a couple of relatives who seem lukewarm about Christianity. Easter is the pastor’s chance to reignite the flame of faith for some wavering soul. And in the midst of glorious anthems played on brass, the choir’s rousing rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” and the congregation’s exuberant singing of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” the sermon had better be mighty robust lest it wither by comparison.
There is that. But the reasons a pastor might feel daunted could be deeper. Maybe it’s because there is a sense in which preachers proclaim the resurrection every Sunday. In the Reformed tradition, “every Sunday is a little Easter.” The only reason for anyone to mount a pulpit on Sunday is because once upon a time Jesus rose again. Take away the resurrection and on any given Sunday you may as well sleep in, watch Meet the Press, or take the dog for a walk.
But in fact the resurrection is celebrated every Sunday. And that’s just it: When you talk about something every week, what’s left to say in a concentrated form once the Big Day rolls around? Haven’t we already said it all? Maybe.
So what’s the preacher to do? Well, I’ll offer a couple of ideas for my fellow preachers.
Preach the Gospel
First, though we do say it in some fashion every week, we should never underestimate how much people long to hear this radical good news once again: Christ is risen! In a world of doubt and cynicism and competing truth claims, it does people’s hearts good to see a stalwart witness to the resurrection in the person of the preacher. Maybe even wandering cousin Jack might hear something transforming. Jack comes to church only twice or so a year and is here on Easter only because his aunt’s truffled mashed potatoes are so good at the big dinner afterward. Still, a confident, joyful affirmation of the resurrection might cause even Jack’s heart to skip a beat or two and then, by the Spirit, who knows?
Preach from the Gospels
Second, we preachers can take some solace in the fact that unlike at Christmas, when the biblical materials are a bit more scant, we have four full resurrection accounts to choose from come Easter, each of a slightly different texture. Allow me to suggest some ideas from each and perhaps something here will jumpstart the imagination next Easter.
Matthew: Like all the resurrection stories, Matthew’s account is surprisingly spare. Someone once observed that for all four gospels this was strategic. To tell a triumphant story in non-triumphant ways creates irony, which in turn creates a community of readers who know the real meaning. But a key characteristic of Matthew’s final chapter is the pairing of what Frederick Dale Bruner has called “The Great Counter-Commission” and “The Great Commission.” Jesus tells the women to tell the disciples he is alive, but before Jesus commissions those disciples to spread the news to the whole world, we get the counterstory concocted for the guards: They must say Jesus’ body was stolen. There you have it: The whole course of history up to this present moment is previewed. Some will tell false stories to cover up the resurrection, and others will tell the true story for all who will believe. We ought not be surprised there are competing versions of the Easter truth. It has been so from the start.
Mark: Mark’s gospel takes off like a rocket and ends with a bang. Everything in Mark is fast-paced, the adverb “immediately” being Mark’s favorite. Mark’s resurrection account is also brief, but then it ends in silence. Like projectiles hurtling out from a huge explosion, so the women are caught in freeze-frame in Mark 16:8. Arms extended, eyes wide, mouths agape, they are the picture of terror. They say nothing to anyone on account of it. Thus the question gets forced on us: Can the gospel end in silence? Of course not. And so with a knowing look on his face, Mark stares us readers straight in the eyes and says, “True, it cannot end in silence. So what are you doing to make sure it doesn’t?”
Luke: This Easter account makes it crystal clear that women were indeed the first evangelists. But like another preview of all that was to come, the men don’t take the women seriously and so downplay the first-ever resurrection sermon. But then comes the lyric story of disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke is the best storyteller in the whole Bible and does not disappoint with this final story. But what is wonderful about this story is that both on the road and then back in Jerusalem, it is Bible study that takes center stage. On the road Jesus teaches the two travelers about how the whole Bible witnesses to him. Back in Jerusalem Jesus does the same. On a day associated with all things high, bright, and loud, Luke concludes very quietly as people with furrowed brows sit at Jesus’ feet trying to understand the whole Bible. What a wonderful foil to so much of what we usually associate with celebrating Easter!
John: John begins his resurrection account with “While it was still dark . . .”. That is when Easter begins for all of us: while it is still dark, while there seems to be no hope, while the bottom has dropped out on everything we once loved and felt sure about. Easter begins in the darkness. In fact, John’s story shows us that as often as not, Easter does not break down the front door of one’s life but creeps up slowly and quietly from behind. “Mary” is all the stranger says to the weeping woman in John 20. Just her name in the predawn semidarkness. But suddenly all is transformed.
Trust the Spirit
Years ago a pastor friend of mine said that one Easter they had had a grand worship service and in his sermon he had given a full-throated affirmation of the resurrection. The next morning a high-powered attorney from his congregation called and asked if he could stop in for a moment. The pastor said of course, and a bit later the lawyer was in the pastor’s office.
“Do you really believe it, pastor? The resurrection?”
“Yes, I do,” the pastor replied.
“Thanks,” the attorney said. “That’s all I really needed to know.” And he left.
On Easter it need not be too daunting. Just tell people what they need to know.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.