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. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.Matthew 28:5-7
All around the world today, people are greeting one another with the joy of Easter: For Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Our churches may be empty, but our hearts are full. And no pandemic can take away the joy that we have today. Because Jesus, our Savior, who died for us, has been raised from the dead. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
“We are an Easter people,” the great St. Augustine said many centuries ago, “and alleluia is our song!” A lot has changed in our world since the fourth century. But we are still an Easter people. And alleluia is still our song. And this Easter, as much as any Easter I’ve ever experienced, it is good to remember this: that we are an Easter people.
As Christians, we believe that because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we do not need to fear death any longer. Today is the day we celebrate our Lord’s victory over death. “Thine is the glory,” we are getting ready to sing to Jesus, “risen, conquering son; endless is the victory, thou over death hast won!” That is what Easter is all about. That is what we celebrate today, wherever we are. And there is no pandemic that can take away our joy, or take away this celebration.
I want you to think about that first Easter for a moment. And think about this obvious little detail: That the first Easter did not take place in a church. On that very first Easter, those very first Christians did not put on their new Easter clothes, and gather in their churches, to greet their friends. They did not celebrate with the joyous sounds of their choir, with their handbells playing, and with their children singing. The first Easter did not take place in a church at all.
That first Easter took place while those first disciples were sheltering in place, to put it in current terms, hiding in the upper room, and afraid that they would be the next ones to be crucified. And that first Easter took place at the tomb, too. At the place of the dead. As we just heard, when the women went to find the body after the Sabbath, they didn’t find his body, as they were expecting. Instead, when they arrived, they were greeted by an angel of the Lord, who had rolled back the stone and was sitting on it. And the angel said to those women that first Easter morning, what surely the angel is saying to us on this 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.” He is not here, the angel said to those women that first Easter.
I read an article this week about all the churches that are empty this year on Easter morning, including ours. And what the author suggested is that we put on our church signs that same message from the angel: He is not here. I might want to qualify that a little, and say that: He is not just here. He is not confined to a church building, any more than he was confined to a tomb.
And maybe all of our empty churches this year can remind us of this. That Jesus is not only found in a church building. He is found wherever we look; wherever we are. This year, as much as any year that we’ve ever experienced, we are reminded that the church is not a building, and that our crucified and risen Lord is not confined to our buildings. What is the church, after all? It is you and me, singing our alleluias, wherever we are, and proclaiming the joy of the resurrection to all who would hear it.
It is sad, without a doubt, but also ironic that this is expected to be the deadliest week so far of this terrible pandemic. We certainly grieve with those who grieve, we mourn with those who mourn, and we are understandably afraid for ourselves and for our loved ones. But at the same time, we remember today that we are still an Easter people, and that alleluia is still our song. We are people who have heard the message from the angel, loud and clear: do not be afraid, for Jesus has been raised, just as he said.
The angel went on to say to those women, that first Easter morning, that they should go and tell his disciples that he has not just been raised from the dead – he is going ahead of them to Galilee; there they will see him. I have made this point before in an Easter sermon, but I think it’s worth making it again this year: that the angel did not instruct those first disciples to go to the Temple. The Temple would be the obvious place to see their risen Messiah. But that is not where they were told to go. They should go home, back to Galilee, 90 miles away from the Temple. They should leave Jerusalem, and go home. There there were promised to see Jesus. In Galilee.
Galilee. Their home. Where they grew up; where they fell in love, and where their hearts were broken; where they learned to fish; where their children were born; and where they buried their loved ones. Galilee. That is where they were promised to see our risen Lord.
Isn’t that the case for us as well? Isn’t that the promise that we hear again this Easter? That in our own Galilees we will see our risen Lord? In our homes, or wherever we are quarantined and sheltering in place? Wherever you are right now, as you watch and listen to this, there is your Galilee. There is where you are promised to see our risen Lord. Wherever you are, Jesus is with you there. So do not be afraid. Separated by this virus, but together in our faith, we proclaim today that we are still an Easter people, and alleluia is still our song.
This year, more than any other, we should not cower in fear; we should not silence our joy. This year, it is time for us to once again sing our alleluias, and proclaim our joy, and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.
There is another story that I have shared before on Easter morning, because it is a story that speaks so powerfully to me. And I want to share that story again this year, because I think that it speaks to us in a whole new way in the midst of this pandemic. It’s not a story about a people living through a pandemic, but of a people living through the threat of atheism and communism in the suppression of their religion. It’s a story that takes place in the Soviet Union, when communism was still very much in control.
There was a well-known Russian communist leader, who was also an atheist. And one day in 1930, he was sent to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd that day, he argued eloquently against Christianity and even against the existence of God. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be a people convinced by the weight of his argument. “Are there any questions?” he demanded. Silence filled the auditorium. But then an elderly man approached the platform, stepped up to the lectern, and stood near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right.
And then he shouted three simple words, that refuted everything this man had argued. Three words. And you know what they were: “Christ is risen!” And the response from the crowd that came roaring back? You know that, too: “He is risen indeed!”
This story speaks to me again this year, not because we are dealing with communism or atheism, but because we are dealing with another very different kind of threat. It is a virus that is causing untold havoc, and disrupting our way of life as much as anything ever has. And it is creating doubt, and fear, and anxiety. And what this world needs right now, it seems to me, is more than simply answers to why this pandemic happened and how to stop it. This world needs you and me, with our simple, humble, faith, to stand up, and say to our fear-filled world: Christ is risen!
You and I don’t need to explain this pandemic. We don’t need to understand it. Just as that elderly Christian did not need to understand or refute the arguments made the famous atheist. We simply need to turn back to the rock foundation of our faith. And then say, in whatever way that we can, and in whatever way that we are called: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. We are an Easter people. And there is no virus that can take away our alleluias, because we know that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I say to you again this Easter day: Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He has been raised, as he said. So go to your Galilee; to your home, to your corner of the world; and there, you will see Jesus. And then: sing your alleluias. And share your faith, and your hope, and your joy. And find a way to approach the platform of life, and speak those three words that make all the difference, to us and to our world: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.