Rise and Shine!

Well, Friends, God has surprised us yet again. Just when we thought all was lost, the world was falling apart, all the goodness we had hoped for and counted on was nailed to a cross; just when everything looked dark and all our best efforts came to nothing, God surprised us.

Just when we were believing the worst—that deception had overshadowed Truth, that greed had bested generosity, and war won out over peace, God said, “Hold on a minute. Wait. Breathe. Pray. Find your faith. This story is not over.”

The story wasn’t over for the three women who went to the place where Jesus was buried that day, although they clearly and understandably thought it was. It wasn’t over for the disciples who were waiting back at home, destroyed and certain now their lives were also in peril. It wasn’t over for Herod, or yet Judas, or any of the Pharisees who were clearly on the wrong side of history. God’s story was still unfolding. Have faith, He whispered to hearts so broken they couldn’t yet hear the stirring of a hope that would change everything.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be one of the three women going to the tomb just before daybreak that day? As we learned last week, even though it wasn’t yet light, it’s likely there was a “dawn chorus” of birdsong, a harbinger of hope along the way. The air would have been cold so early and they carried baskets of herbs they would use to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They couldn’t have been expecting anything beyond more heartache, tears, and the weary silence of resignation.

But as the path opened to the tomb site, they had their first surprise. The stone, usually positioned up against the tomb to seal the entrance against robbers and wildlife, was rolled away. They must have already been wondering at that point. “What’s this?” they asked themselves. “This isn’t right. What has happened?” They went closer and looked into the tomb. Jesus wasn’t there! What is going on? It’s likely their first thoughts were that those in power—the ones who crucified Jesus—had done something terrible, taking his body so that the faithful couldn’t care for him. It would have been easy to imagine a cruel plan designed to further scatter the remaining followers of Jesus.

And then—another shocking surprise: Two men dressed in “clothes that gleamed like lightning,” suddenly stood beside them. The women must have known immediately that these were angelic visitors; their radiant light lit up the tomb as well as the women’s hearts; they felt it. When these beings spoke, they offered ideas that shepherded the women’s despairing thoughts back toward their faith:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They asked. “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”

And this next sentence is so important: “Then they remembered his words.” Right there is the point in the story where the women turn away from their sorrow and turn toward their hope in God. Instead of continuing to despair, believing in the darkness that for the moment had engulfed them, the women let the angels point their thoughts back toward their faith, the living faith Jesus had ignited in their hearts long ago, with his presence, his ideas, his love, and his actions. As they remembered his words, their hope was resurrected. What they were hearing, could it be true? He lives? He has risen as he said!

What a moment that must have been for the women! They saw that the belief they’d placed in Jesus all along was true and that his words were being fulfilled right before their eyes. Our Old Testament reading from the psalmist describes the moment perfectly:

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

So much gratitude in that! So much joy! The overflowing of thanks when we realize for ourselves, as St. Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” In a holy instant, the women’s sorrow had been transformed into joy and their despair, to hope. It’s hard to grasp how completely everything changed in that one moment. They went from feeling all was lost to knowing that their faith, their hope, and their trust was affirmed—everything Jesus said was true. They must have been filled with wonder and awe—and gratitude that just spilled out.

The women hurried back to tell the disciples what had happened. They must have been so excited as they traveled back the way they had come. The anticipation of telling the men that Jesus wasn’t dead at all, but lives! And that angels had told them so.

As they now happily made their way in the growing light, it probably didn’t occur to them that they might not be believed, but that’s what happened: the disciples listened to their story and thought they were talking nonsense. Perhaps it was just too much to hope for. Or maybe the men were upset and bitter—and more than a little afraid—and they couldn’t yet open their hearts to a new possibility, even a miraculous and joyful one.

Chances are that we have all had the experiences in life when we share something we’re excited about, something that has reignited our hopes, and another person’s cynicism ruins it for us. We see this often on social media, but it happens in our living rooms too. One person says, “Look at this great thing someone did!” and another says, “Oh, they probably had selfish motives.” Or one student shares, “I am going to study hard and get into the best college I can!” and another says, “Why bother? College is a waste of money anyway.”

People may think when they throw water on our dreams that they are saying those things to protect us, to keep us from getting our hopes up about something that seems unrealistic to them. Perhaps they don’t want us to risk being disappointed down the road. But here’s the thing: Our hopes, our dreams have a purpose and an energy. They point us toward something good, something better, something we feel in our hearts is possible something that God may be inspiring us to bring into our lives and into the world. And if God planted those dreams in our hearts, they are not only possible, they’re inevitable, no matter how much doubt someone else might express.

The story of Jesus we celebrate today reminds us that hope is real, celebration is justified, that good does overcome evil, and that love is truly, eternally, stronger that death. All that Jesus taught—about God’s love for us and the goodness of life and the kindness and mercy that both makes life worth living and serve as the foundation of a just society—it is all true. That is the greatest reason for hope, because it tells us that God’s story—and our part in it– always, forever, unendingly—continues.

Despair and sorrow bind us to the past for a time, and that’s a natural and normal part of the way we grieve. We grieve deeply because we love deeply—we saw this in the women going to the tomb and also in the disciples, waiting behind. That depth of our love is a beautiful testament to our capacity for connection and care. But the angels would also ask us to remember—as soon as we are able–that God is still good and God has a plan for our lives, and there may be even yet some blessed and blessing surprises in our not-too-distant futures.

Each of the Gospel narratives tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection a little differently, and in Luke’s version, as we heard, he focuses first on the women’s encounter with the angels, and then on the reaction of the disciples and—in particular, Peter’s response to this unexpected twist of the story. Even though Peter, like the others, had outwardly dismissed as wishful thinking what the women had said, he got up and ran—not walked, but ran—to the tomb. What made him run, if he didn’t believe the women’s story was possible?

The McClaren commentary here provides an interesting insight into what might have been propelling Peter in that moment. You’ll remember that Peter had had an experience that left him heartsick just the day before when he denied knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crowed, just as Jesus said he would. “Oh no, Lord,” Peter had protested at the time, “I will never deny you.” He shed bitter tears over the reality of that broken promise. And now, he hears that it’s possible Jesus is still alive. And he runs for the tomb.

McClaren writes, “Perhaps, if [Peter] had not had a troubled conscience, he would have had a quicker faith. He was not given to hesitation, but his sin darkened his mind. He needed that secret interview, of which many knew the fact but none the details, ere he could feel the full glow of the Risen Sun thawing his heart and scattering his doubts like morning mists on the hills.”

That’s a lovely and poetic way to put it, and it rings true for me. What made Peter run that day—run to the tomb—was his own personal need to see his beloved Lord, to talk with him one on one, to bare his heart and tell Jesus how sorry he was. He needed to ask for forgiveness, for himself and his actions and his fear. This was not a community need or a feel-good trip but a desperate yearning to make his heart right with God again.

In a Friends Journal article entitled, “What Did Easter Mean to Early Friends,” author David Leonard writes that, for Quakers, the traditional view “is that the active presence of God, of the universal Christ, received into our lives gives us the self-understanding, commitment, and divine support—the inward Light—to improve the ethical content of our lives.”

It’s obvious that’s just what Peter was hoping for as he ran toward the tomb, hoping to encounter the living Christ and be made whole again.

Leonard continues:

“As a consequence of the effect of the light, [Friends] were changed people. William Penn observed: They were changed themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments changed; and they knew the power and work of God upon them. . . . The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God; regeneration and holiness. Not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds, nor new forms of worship; but a leaving off in religion the superfluous, and reducing the ceremonious and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part to the soul.

That’s one of the things I love best about Friends tradition: ultimately what we seek is not a lofty feeling in the ritual and liturgy of the high church, but rather a quiet, simple, inward communion with God in the sanctuary of our hearts. We want a precious, vital, living relationship with the Light that shines away the obstacles in our lives and teaches us daily how to love and to forgive. Through that personal, intimate relationship with God, we become changed people, one by one, in the measure and timing and grace of God’s leading. We each walk or run to the tomb in our own lives, in our own ways. And the One we find there will help us discover what faith says to our circumstances, whatever they may be. God may yet surprise us. And likely will, if we give Him the chance.

And “Then they remembered his words,” and everything changed as Light began to dawn in their hearts. Which words of Christ will we recall, when we need to turn our minds away from our struggles and toward the loving answer of God?

Maybe we’ll choose one of these beloved phrases as an anchor point for our hope:

“In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33]
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” [John 14:1]
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” [Revelation 3:20]
“So I tell you: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” [Luke 11: 9-10]
“And if I go and prepare a place for you… that you also may be where I am.” [John 14:3]
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” [John 14: 27]
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]

All of these words are true, Friends. The promise is realized, goodness prevails; God is good and loves us with an eternal Love. Christ still comes to teach each one of us himself, guiding us day by day with love and light. The stone is rolled away for all time, sorrow is done, and hope is here. Our hearts can rise to the power and potential that is in us because God is at work in our lives. Our faces can shine with the grace and joy of a love that surpasses anything this world can offer. What we hoped, what we believed, what we worked for—it’s all true. He is risen; and He leads and loves, teaches and heals yet today. Happy Easter, Friends!

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