Out of curiosity the other day, I read all four gospel accounts of the first Easter morning. I read them in the order in which they were written.
Mark has just 8 verses in which he says that several women found the tomb open with a young man sitting there who told them that Jesus had been raised; despite being directed to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Matthew has 12 verses with more detail. The young man in the tomb had the same message. But in Matthew’s telling, Jesus met the women as they were leaving the garden and told them that he would meet his followers in Galilee.
Luke also has 12 verses about Easter morning, but he adds a second young man in the tomb. There’s nothing about a future meeting in Galilee. The women went back and told the disciples that the young men said that Jesus had risen. The disciples dismissed it as an idle tale, and didn’t believe them. Peter went to the tomb to check it out for himself and found it empty. Then he just went home.
John (as we just heard) has 18 verses. In his telling, only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and ran to tell Peter and John who both ran to the tomb. John believed that Jesus had risen. Peter seemed skeptical. Then both of them just went home. Mary, who had followed them, waited outside until they’d left. She looked in and saw two angels, who asked, “Why are you crying?” She said, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.” Then she turned around and there was Jesus whom she mistook for the gardener. When she asked him where he’d taken the body, Jesus said, “Mary!” She then recognized him. He then instructed her to tell the disciples that he was ascending to God. So Mary did what he asked and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
Mark’s Gospel was probably written around 40 years after these events while the last Gospel may have been penned nearly 90 years the first Easter. I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s interesting that the farther away in time each gospel writer got, the more elaborate the story became. That’s fully in keeping with what we know about human behavior as each author tries to embellish the story to make it more compelling. It’s same phenomenon that has the fish that got away grow in size with each re-telling.
Another observation. There are some things missing in all these accounts of the Easter story. There’s absolutely no mention of colored eggs, chocolate crosses, Easter bunnies, or jellybeans. There isn’t a single “Alleluia” or a “triumphant glorious day.”
I fear that over the centuries we Christians have sanitized and domesticated Easter to the point that the power of the original is almost unrecognizable. Now don’t get me wrong. I love our music and Easter traditions, the Easter finery, flowers and jelly beans (especially licorice jelly beans).
But I have to ask myself if, in our ways of thinking about and celebrating Easter, we might be missing something important . . . something critical that’s masked or buried beneath colored plastic grass. Have we domesticated Easter because the untamed version is just too much, too difficult, too frightening?
Some years ago one of my friends told me that he had given up cigarettes for Lent. The only problem, he said, was that in his craving for a cigarette, Easter that year became, for him, a carton of Marlboros. Is it possible that for us our Easter celebration becomes something that it isn’t – a substitute for the real thing?
An alternative scripture text for Easter is from Isaiah, the same prophet who gave us the beautiful language quoted in the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah. Isaiah reminds us that what God is about is nothing less than the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, where “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
What former things? Isaiah paints a picture of a Good Friday kind of world where people—men, women, and children—are strung up on crosses of greed, violence, hardness of heart, injustice, and oppression. God’s new heaven and new earth does away with these former things and replaces them with a new people—an Easter people—a people committed to join God in making all things new. When we become members of the body of Christ, when we sign on to be part of this new heaven and earth, then we agree to join in Jesus’ work.
Today we welcome Rob, RJ, and Parker as they join in this work through the Sacrament of Baptism. In a few minutes we shall all reaffirm the covenant—the agreement—we make with God about the nature of the Easter work.
- Will you “continue” in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? This is not a one time event, but commitment to a lifetime of connection and learning and worship.
- Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? To be God’s Easter people is to turn away from being stuck in our past and to live into God’s merciful future.
- Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? By how we speak and how we behave, we agree to become the new creation that God is bringing into being.
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? You see, baptism is not just about our individual salvation. God’s Easter project is so much greater than that. It is about the making of a whole new heaven and earth.
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? We seek justice and peace and dignity not just for certain kinds of human beings—not just Christians even—but every human being.
Being Easter people is so much more than putting on our Easter bling, singing some great hymns, and going off to Easter dinner. In the real Easter the old death dealing ways are to be put aside right along with Simon Peter’s sword.
In all the Gospel accounts there is plenty of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion about what exactly happened. Despite the claims that “He is risen,” there’s no sense of triumph or great joy. Mark has no resurrection appearance, while the other gospels have differing descriptions about where, when, and to whom Jesus appeared.
But there is a deep conviction that began on that first Easter morning and spread over the known world within a few decades—a conviction that something has fundamentally changed. The fearful, cowering, timid disciples began to speak boldly. They became apostles of the new Creation that God is bringing into being. And they invited people to live into this new resurrection reality.
In a prayer attributed to St. Francis, the old and new creations are contrasted in this way.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
–The Rev. John Paddock
 Isaiah 65:17 NRSV
 Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 833