The Gospel of Hope: a Reflection on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, and John 20:1-18
Whatever forms of despair, discouragement, and doubt you bring to church this day, a new way of living is available to you, because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There is hope.
Three individuals are at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter tells them that they can enter the gates if they can answer one question. St. Peter asks the first, “What is Easter?” He replies, “Oh, that’s easy! It’s the holiday in November when everyone gets together, eats turkey, and is thankful…” “Wrong!” replies St. Peter, and proceeds to ask the second the same question, “What is Easter?” The second replies, “Easter is the holiday in December when we put up a nice tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus.” St. Peter looks at the second, shakes his head in dismay, tells her she’s wrong, and then peers over his glasses at the third and asks, “What is Easter?” The third smiles confidently and looks St. Peter in the eyes, “I know what Easter is.” “Oh?” says St. Peter. “Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus and his disciples were eating at the last supper and Jesus was later betrayed and turned over to the Romans by one of his disciples. The Romans took him to be crucified and he was stabbed in the side, made to wear a crown of thorns, and was hung on a cross with nails through his hands. He was buried in a nearby cave which was sealed off by a large boulder.” St. Peter smiles broadly with delight. Then he continues, “Every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out…and, if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.”
Cultural pressure has shaped Easter into a holiday that celebrates the changing of seasons. But that’s not the religious meaning of Easter. To the contrary, the Psalmist speaking of God declares, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.” Hope is the anticipation of the future as the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Death did not win. That’s the meaning of Easter.
John 20:21 reads, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” Learning to navigate in the dark is a spiritual skill. People are looking for something. But, fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, doubt about the health of one’s soul, shame over our inability to speak about God without a thousand qualifiers are all examples of “the dark;” all immobilizers. We have a blindness in our pursuit. Whether it is love, peace, self-confidence, hope, health or meaning, people are looking for something.
Why did Mary go to the tomb that dark early morning? Perhaps she would anoint Jesus’ body, a tradition of Jewish burial. Maybe she went to see whether Jesus had risen from the dead as he himself had promised. The stone had been rolled away. The tomb was empty. Immediately she ran to Simon Peter and John and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Mary, Simon Peter, and John ran back to the tomb. The linen cloths were all that remained. Simon Peter and John returned to their homes, but Mary remained outside the empty tomb. She wept. Had the Roman guards stolen the body to mock Jesus publicly in the streets? Did some of the disciples take Jesus’ body to make it look like he had risen from the dead? Had Jesus only fainted on the cross, later waking, and walking out of the tomb?
“…Whom are you looking for?” This is the question Jesus asked Mary. James C. Goodloe writes, “The stated assumption of the question is the good news of Easter.” The tomb was empty. Jesus was not there. Goodloe continues,
This is the good news of Easter that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. This is the very content of the gospel…the major affirmation of the Christian faith…the great hope of all humanity that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead…This is the courage, by which alone we live that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
The context in the reading in Acts is this: Peter ended up in a village on the Mediterranean Coast called Joppa, following the resurrection. He stayed at the home of Simon, a new believer who was a tanner. An orthodox Jew was not permitted to have any dealings with anyone who worked with dead animals. Yet, while staying at Simon’s home, Peter had a vision. A sheet was lowered from heaven, the four corners of the earth, with all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds of which he was not permitted to consume based on Jewish food regulations. God spoke to Peter. What God had made clean must not be called unclean. Anyone who believes in God is acceptable. There is unity in difference and diversity through Jesus Christ.
Death was defeated at the resurrection. Death, the end of all life as we know it, the destroyer of all dreams, the breaker of all hopes, the crushing burden of all life, and the loss of all love was defeated. Its power has been broken. The empty tomb by itself is not sufficient for faith, but it is necessary to the faith. Without it there would be no resurrection, no faith, and no Christianity. Without the resurrection there is no hope.
So what, you may ask? Well, followers of Jesus are to be people of hope. We are to be missional people, bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and sharing the good news of the gospel with all people, particularly in the midst of human suffering. Peter J. Gomes, former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School writes, “If we want to know how hope works, we must look first to those who suffer, for it is only in and through suffering that hope is made manifest.” People’s pain in the brokenness of death, despair, discouragement, and doubt is fertile ground for hope.
God does not show partiality or favor to one particular group or another. God offers hope, restoration, and salvation to all people. Followers of Jesus are responsible for bearing witness. We are called to share the great truth that Jesus is alive. The resurrection of Jesus Christ not only constitutes the defeat of death, but also despair, discouragement, and doubt. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are given hope.
Easter is a celebration of hope. In Jesus Christ there is new life.
Adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2014), 13.
James C. Goodloe “Why Seek the Living Among the Dead?” a sermon preached on January 15, 2006.
Some concepts gleaned from James C. Goodloe’s sermon “Why Seek the Living Among the Dead?”
Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, (New York City, New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 221.
Adapted from Lauren Winner in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 366.