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Take Another Look: Easter Sunday

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John 20:1-18

There is always great controversy among biblical scholars and theologians about the Easter story. According to traditionalists, Christianity demands that we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Such a belief is, they say, a core tenet of the faith. For others the only requirement is that we believe in the spiritual resurrection of Jesus. What is important is not that his body rose from the dead, but that his spirit came back to live in the community. These controversies have been going on for years, but this year a new controversy took over, eclipsing all former controversies. Everywhere I looked among pastors I saw the same conversation: Do the April Fools’ joke or not?

Easter doesn’t fall on April Fools’ Day that often, and some preachers say you’ve got to go with the joke. It’s right there, so obvious, everybody will be expecting it. What would Easter Sunday be, they proclaim, without imagining Jesus stepping out of the tomb announcing April Fools! Others say no. Some resist the obvious joke because, well, it’s too obvious. It’s not funny if everyone is expecting it. Others say no to the April Fools connection because it’s too corny or hokey, while still others say it belittles the significance of the resurrection to equate it with a radio station prank.

All of this led me down an interesting rabbit hole in my sermon preparation. I have a bad habit of getting intrigued by a question and then following that line of thinking until I either get bored or discover that it has nothing to do with my sermon. In this case I googled “What makes something funny?” and discovered several theories on humor. Aristotle and Plato introduced the superiority theory of humor—we laugh when we can consider ourselves to be superior to others. This could explain “blond jokes” because we get to feel intellectually superior, and lawyer jokes because we get to feel morally superior. I don’t know about Aristotle and Plato’s time, but today our humor is not all about feeling superior. “The majority of humor experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect to happen and what actually happens.”[1] This makes sense for many jokes, sight gags, etc. What it doesn’t explain is why some things that are definitely incongruous and unexpected, aren’t funny at all.

So the latest theory on humor is the benign-violation theory. The benign-violation theory is that in order for something to be funny, it first has to be a violation, a breaking of rules or expectations, AND it must be perceived as benign or safe, not threatening or dangerous. “A joke can fail in one of two ways: It can be too benign, and therefore boring, or it can be too much of a violation, and therefore offensive. To be funny, a joke has to land in that sweet spot between the two extremes.”[2] See what I mean about my tendency to follow rabbits? So then, of course, I had to ask: does this theory apply to the whole question of Jesus’ Resurrection and whether it can qualify as a joke (April Fools’ or otherwise). Coming back to life is certainly unexpected, so we have the violation of the way things are, and Jesus’ coming back to life was non-threatening (unlike, say, zombies), so yes, it could qualify according to this theory.

Many churches play on this idea every year, not just when Easter falls on April 1. The Sunday after Easter they have Holy Humor Sunday because, the theory goes, God played a joke on the devil by raising Christ from the dead. But I like this writer’s take on it better. He said, “What more could Jesus have done to mock the world that killed him than rise from the dead?”[3] Although I don’t particularly care for the idea of Jesus mocking the world, I like the point. The world crucified him to silence him, but he would not be silenced. The world tried to put an end to his heresy, but he would not be stopped. The world killed him to quash the movement that was building around him, but the movement would not be stifled. I am reminded of a proverb, inspired by a Greek poet: They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.

The Easter story is about defying expectations, proving the world wrong, laughing because death thinks it gets the final word. Mary Magdalene, of course, thought it did. The woman in our scripture for today was not Mary the mother of Jesus, but the one out of whom, we are told, Jesus cast seven demons. Of course, the exact nature of these “demons” is up for interpretation. Perhaps they were actual evil spirits, which Jesus’ exorcised. Or maybe they were voices in her head—some mental illness, which Jesus healed. But no matter how we interpret those demons, undoubtedly this healing changed Mary’s entire life. Not only was she free of the demons or illness or voices in her head—she was free from the bondage of exclusion. She could re-enter society, no longer an outcast. She could even become a follower of the man who healed her, the man who gave her life. Can you imagine how thankful she was? Can you imagine how much she loved him?

And then she watched him die—a cruel, torturous, agonizing death, and she was there for every minute of it. After his death, she was overcome with grief, but also with fear. Now that he was dead, what would become of her? Now that the power that healed her was gone, would the miracle disappear, too? Would the demons return? Would the voices that had tormented her come back to reside in her mind?

She must have spent a horrible Saturday, reliving the trauma of the crucifixion, worrying about every voice in her head. The voice that said “Hope is gone.” The voice that said “Love has died.” The voice that said “It is finished.” And so, before the sun even rose, she was off to the tomb, to visit his grave. But the tomb was empty, and there was only one logical explanation: someone had taken Jesus’ body. Grave robbery was not uncommon at the time, especially of a tomb belonging to a rich man like Joseph of Aramathea. Grave cloths were expensive, as were the spices used in preparing the body for burial. And according to the story, they used 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes—a grave robber’s dream. That must be what happened. That was the only logical explanation, and the logical explanation was the only one she could consider. Anything else would prove she had gone mad again. She couldn’t listen to the voice that whispered inside her “He said he would rise again.” “He said he was the resurrection and the life.” Those voices were the voices of madness. She had to listen to reason.

She was so focused on what was logical that she couldn’t see what was real—Jesus standing before her. It took him calling her by name to open her eyes. Her first look was blinded by expectation. The incongruity was too great. She had to take another look to really see.

For Mary the gap was between what she expected to see and what was real. For us, the gap is more likely to be between what the world is and what the world can be. Looking at the stark divisions in our country, I have trouble seeing how we will ever be healed. Looking at the violence in our society, I have trouble envisioning a world where all are safe. Looking at the injustice and inequality around us, I have trouble grasping a vision of a world where value isn’t defined by outward characteristics. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said he had a dream of such a world, and I do, too; but sometimes I lack the ability to see it.

Fortunately for us, God has no such trouble. God has no trouble envisioning a world of equality and justice and love, for that was God’s intention for the world and is waiting for us to join in the creating. But God’s vision isn’t only global; it is also personal. God has no trouble envisioning for you a life of healing and wholeness. God envisions for you a place of comfort and joy. God envisions for you a lifting of burdens, a lightening of the load. “I know the plans I have for you,” the Lord says. “Plans for good and not for evil. Plans to give you hope and a future.” How do we know it’s possible? Because Christ is risen. And once that happened, nothing is too incongruous. It may take a second look for you to see it. Or a 22nd look. But you will see—you will one day see—because you have heard Christ call your name.

I don’t know why you’re here this morning. Maybe you’re here every week, and maybe you’re here once a month, and maybe you’re here every Easter because it makes Mama happy. And maybe you believe in the power of resurrection with all your heart, and maybe resurrection is no more real than a radio station’s April Fools’ Day prank, and maybe the person sitting behind you “sings ‘Up from the grave he arose!’ with more confidence in the single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years”[4] and maybe resurrection only happens in your dreams.

And maybe . . . maybe . . . you can see the humor, the benign violation of it all, that denial is what leads to devotion, that doubt is the foundation of faith, that what you thought was myrrh was lilies in bloom, that Christ is risen, whether we’re ready or not. It’s not a prank kind of joke. It’s not a ha-ha funny kind of joke. It’s the kind of joke that says, You thought you had me. You thought you stopped hope. You thought you silenced joy. Think again. Take another look. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

[1] The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Slate.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Miles Townes. “When Easter Falls on April Fools’ Day.” The Christian Century, February 21, 2018.

[4] Rachel Held Evans. “Holy Week for Doubters.” rachelheldevans.com

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