One of my favourite Holy Week stories centres around a church in suburban America that put on a passion play for their community. On Good Friday, the night of the show, they were pleasantly surprised to have a full house. Word had spread in the community that something special was about to happen. Little did they know how special.
Everything went well during the first part of the play. The problem, however, occurred during the crucial crucifixion scene, which had Jesus dramatically hanging from the cross. For those who know the story, you’ll remember the part where the Roman soldier pierces the side of Jesus. This was the moment in the play where the wheels began to fall off. What the cast did not realize was that the glue that attached the rubber head of the spear to its pole had hardened to the point that the spear was no longer as flexible as they thought. One of the soldiers, played by a junior-high boy caught up in the drama of the moment, stabbed Jesus with the spear with as much gusto as possible. Jesus on the cross cried out in pain, "Oh God, I’ve been stabbed.” The audience was caught up in the moment and didn't sense that anything was amiss. The stage manager, however, realized something was wrong and quickly brought down the curtains. Everyone rushed to the bleeding Jesus, who had to be taken to the emergency room for a few stitches. The cast and crew gathered behind the curtain, certain that the play was ruined. But the audience, not knowing anything was wrong, politely waited for the final scenes. The cast and crew decided the play must go on… and so they made preparations for the final scene, the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Jesus' understudy, a high school senior, felt he could do it since it was only a few lines… So they hurriedly said a prayer and prepared for the final powerful scene, where Jesus spoke to the disciples before he ascended into the sky in dramatic fashion. The crew had worked long and hard to make this ascension scene as realistic as possible. They had even brought in an apparatus called Peter Pan Weights. Wires were attached to the body of the actor portraying Jesus with sandbags as counterweights, which would normally gently lift "Jesus" up into the air as he ascended into heaven. What no one had thought of was that the "new" Jesus weighed about thirty pounds less than the old Jesus. So when the final scene came to a head, as the new Jesus lifted his heels right on cue as he pronounced to the disciples that he would return, he was jerked up into the air with a shriek, disappeared into the rafters rather forcefully, and hit his head on the ceiling with a loud bang. And, for the second time that night, Jesus had to be taken to the hospital. But all the audience heard and saw was Jesus being yanked up into the heavens, a loud crash, and two sandals gently floating to the stage before the shocked disciples.*
In some ways—with what’s going on in the world— we’re a little like the people in the audience waiting patiently… not really seeing what’s happening behind the scenes. In other ways, we’re like the performers on the other side of the curtain—confused, a little rattled and unsure of what to do. Like the passion play that lost Jesus. We’ve had our world turned upside down.
Easter isn’t supposed to be like this. Easter is supposed to be a packed church; singing familiar hymns; the procession of leaders; reaching out for the hand of a friend and a stranger and saying “The Lord is Risen!” and hearing them say “Risen indeed!”. Easter is receiving communion; wearing a colourful hat (for old time’s sake); It’s a minister in an alb with a white stole; the choir or the worship band leading us in song.
Much of this has been taken away from us and we’re left to pick up the pieces and find a way to carry on. Today, on the other side of the curtain, there are faithful church leaders wondering what to do.
While the audience on the other side patiently waits they’re trying to learn technology on the fly. They’re doing Facebook live and Youtube services to the best of their ability, embracing the beauty of choppy live feeds and half-baked graphics. I’m thankful for them. They’re the ones patching the holes in the sinking canoe, providing care as best they can. Faithfully guiding their communities of faith to the other side of the lake.
Other faith leaders—the ones who presume to understand the way of Jesus better than others—are even refusing to give up their Easter traditions. They’re defying stay-at-home rules and prohibitions on gathering thinking that this is what Jesus needs (what God desires) is a packed stadium with professional lighting and a finely coiffed worship band. This isn’t what Jesus wants.
Like a friend and colleague of mine in California said this past week—The tomb was empty on Easter morning, it’s okay if our sanctuaries are too.
All this begs the question—What is Easter? What path would Jesus have us walk down this resurrection day? What is God calling for from the other side of the curtain?
In the story, the cast decided that the show must go on. In their desire to do what they thought was best, they ended up injuring Jesus yet again. How might we avoid that same fate? If we listen closely to the words of the gospel story, we can hear the answer.
In the story from Matthew 28, the two Marys go to the tomb. In this version of the story they don’t carry burial spices and other things. They simply come that they might look upon the tomb. An angel appears and tells them not to fear… he tells them that Jesus is risen AND he gives them instructions to GO tell the other disciples. As they race toward the place where the disciples are staying they meet the risen Christ. Now, we don’t get a description of what Jesus looks like. The story just tells us that the two Marys fell at his feet to worship him. And, Jesus—practicing good social distancing—tells them to get up and GO. “Go and tell”, the angel says. “Go and tell”, says Jesus.
We’re reminded in this moment that Jesus is a different kind of leader, a different kind of messiah who gives us a glimpse of a different kind of God. He’s not concerned with the traditional reverence that is held for people of power. The women greet him by doing what they think is best—worshipping at his feet. But Jesus cares not for these things, nor does he demand these things. Instead, he calls on those who follow in his way to widen the circle; to stretch the realm of God further and further.
Resurrection moves us toward societal wholeness. The worship of Jesus does not require crowds of people singing songs of faith. It doesn’t require slick sermon presentations, Easter bonnets, or fancy vestments. Dare I say that it doesn’t even require elaborate communion celebrations. Instead, it should move us out in different directions, out toward the women who Jesus sent on their way in the gospel story. It should send us out to care for the poor and those on the margins. Rather than defying government orders and gathering on this day, it should move us to acts of defiance where we see that societal wholeness means healthcare for all. Works of love that move us to that place where black and brown people aren’t disproportionately dying from Coronavirus. Being an Easter people is more than just opening up the curtain and saying “the show must go on” It’s about the story inspiring us toward justice, peace, and love.
Wholeness is what God wants, not blind faith that says, “I don’t have to fear COVID-19 because I’m covered in the blood of Jesus.”
Easter faith is a faith that moves us from the God of “Me” to the God of “We”. It’s not concerned with buildings or worship attire or icons or stained glass windows or perfectly polished brass candle holders and crosses. And so, this time away from all these things provides a perfect opportunity for getting to the heart of the Easter message—of shaping us into Easter people.
Before we hook Jesus up to the peter-pan wires and send him sailing up into the rafters… let’s stop. Let’s keep Christ grounded in our everyday living. Let’s leave our place of worship with a sense of longing and wonder. For a life lived in the way of Jesus is one that will always lead us down unexpected roads. It’s one that will always keep us guessing. It will always surprise us and force us to think about those things that we assume God wants from us.
Author and Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, says that, “God’s dream is to show God’s self… God’s dream is to show off who God is. And once we become the seers who are willing to see what God is showing us—which is everything, all the time (even the suffering)—we are in on it… we are in on the dream of God.” In other words, God want us to see beyond our small lives, our small definitions, and see the wider definition of life, love, and beauty.
God didn’t cause this pandemic but God is present with us in the midst of our isolation and our new reality showing us new ways of being, new ways of connecting with one another. New ways of breaking out of our limited view of the world and seeing colours we’ve never seen. Hearing songs we’ve never sung. And, if we listen closely and open our eyes, we will become the seers. We will be in on the dream of God. With any luck it won’t come with a pierce in the side OR a thud in the rafters. But, if that’s what it takes for us to see God’s dream, I’m all in. Amen.
*FROM "Being Disciples of Jesus in a Dot.Com World" by Foote, Thornburg (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
**FROM: theworkofthepeople.com video “Reformulating All Possibilities”