Laughing with God at Death

John 20:1-18

First in the series “Laughing with God”

[Introduce the traditional Easter greeting:  “Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!]

One Sunday before Easter, a Church School teacher asked her class about the meaning of Easter. One pupil said:  “Easter is when all the family gets together and they have a big turkey and talk about the pilgrims and all that.”

The teacher said, “I’m sorry, but that’s not it.”

Then a second pupil responded: “I know what Easter is. Easter is when you get this pine tree and cover it with decorations and exchange gifts and sing lots of songs.”

Again, the teacher had to say, “No, that’s not it either.”

Then came the third pupil. He began: “Easter is when Jesus was killed, and put in a tomb, and left for three days.”

Inside the teacher said to herself ecstatically, “He knows! He knows!”

But then the boy continued.  “Then everybody gathers at the tomb and waits to see if Jesus comes out, and if He sees His shadow, there are six more weeks of winter.”

I might hesitate to open my Easter sermon with that story, except for the fact that one of the descriptions of Easter by early Church theologians, such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, says God played a gigantic joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead.  An early Orthodox Church tradition involved the congregation gathering on the day after Easter to tell funny stories and jokes.  In the 15th century, the Easter Laugh was part of the observance, as pastors and church people played pranks on one another, told jokes, sang and danced.  By 1600, the Church hierarchy banned the practice, maybe because worshipers were having too much fun.

Today, as followers of Christ, we celebrate his Resurrection.  Maybe you’re here as an April Fools’ prank.  Perhaps you’ve come full of chocolate bunnies and candies. Maybe you came because you love seeing the flowers and hearing the beautiful music.  You might be here because a relative always invites you to come, and the big dinner at their house isn’t till later.  Perhaps you’ve come with questions, fears and struggles weighing you down.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we gather to celebrate the marvelous, earth-shattering truth:

  • The tomb is empty
  • God has triumphed over sin and death
  • Mary Magdalene, the disciples and other witnesses shared the testimony
  • The good news is offered to all people, even you and me

Today is a day of joy, celebration and the laughter of eternal life.

On our calendar, though, it is also April Fools’ Day.  Historians speculate about the origin of this day – there is a wide range of opinions, some of which relate to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 – but since at least the early 18th century, today has been marked by telling funny stories and playing practical jokes.

The last time Easter fell on April 1 was 1956; it will occur again in 2029 and in 2040.  We’re using this as the occasion to begin a new series in which we “Laugh with God.”  The tomb is empty, death defeated, sin conquered, and we can laugh at the days to come.

In the Resurrection, Jesus fooled his enemies and the powers of this world.  In first-century AD, the Roman Empire occupied the land of Palestine and much of the Mediterranean world.  In Jerusalem, there was an uneasy relationship between the Roman government and the Jewish religious leaders.  In his ministry, Jesus regularly clashed with the religious leaders, challenging their authority and their understanding of God.  As he grew in popularity among the people, the Jewish leaders became jealous and plotted to have him killed.  But they couldn’t do that without the Romans.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem a week before Easter on the back of a donkey, the pilgrims in the city hailed him as Lord and King, which threatened the Jewish leaders’ power and also challenged Roman authority.  You see, in the Roman Empire, it was understood that Caesar was Lord and absolute loyalty was demanded.  The proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” was a great deal more dangerous for believers 2,000 years ago. It was a direct challenge to Roman power, and that confession cost thousands of martyrs their lives.

The Jewish leaders hatched a plot involving one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus into their hands.  They brought Jesus up on religious charges, but the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, said he had no jurisdiction. So they changed the charge to rebellion.  Yet, despite the fact that Pilate found Jesus not guilty, he gave in to political pressure and chose to crucify him on a cross under a sign proclaiming him “King of the Jews.”  Jesus died and was buried in a borrowed grave.

His enemies – the Jewish religious leaders and Romans – thought they had won. On the third day, Jesus had the last laugh, when God raised him from the dead to new life.  The corrupt and unjust system that condemned an innocent man was defeated, and Christ was vindicated.  So we can join God in laughing at the powers of this world, then and now, for it is God who has the ultimate power and authority who is always working for justice and equity in the world.

On Resurrection day, Jesus fooled the women.  The Gospels tells us variously about grieving, faithful women who came to the tomb expecting to complete burial preparations of Jesus’ body.  They came with spices, hoping someone would help them roll away the stone.  They were in for the greatest surprise ever.

The stone was rolled away.  The guards were gone. The grave clothes were neatly folded. The tomb was empty.

Mary Magdalene stayed outside the tomb weeping.  She didn’t understand what had happened. In confusion and despair, she thought someone had stolen Jesus’ body.  But when Mary saw the Risen Lord, she thought he was the gardener.  The Gospel writer John included this moment of great irony in his Resurrection account.

In the hours before his arrest and crucifixion, during his Last Supper, Jesus tried to help his disciples understand who he is and what was about to happen.  In John 15:1, Jesus said to them, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”  Mary’s mistake becomes a moment of cosmic significance!  In the Resurrection, we see that Jesus is indeed God!

Mary thought he was the gardener.  When he called out her name, there was a moment of shock and amazement – perhaps a moment of great joy.  I imagine that Mary could laugh and cry in the deep emotion of that moment.  I can almost picture Mary talking with Jesus during his 40 days on earth after the Resurrection, chuckling, “And I thought you were the gardener!”  Mary could laugh at the irony.

Moments like that are the best in our lives – moments when we can laugh and cry.  One time in life that we experience this is around funerals. We experience those moments when we remember those who have died and who have gone on to eternal life.  We shed tears as we feel a sense of loss that they are gone; yet we can often laugh with joy at memories of fond moments and with the assurance of eternal life.

On Good Friday, we had tears, but Resurrection Sunday calls out for laughter.  Jesus Christ had suffered in the Garden, been beaten, scourged with whips, crowned with thorns and tortured on the cross – there were plenty of tears.  But on that Sunday morning, it was a day of joy and surprise, and our laughter is a gift of a joyful heart.

And so Jesus sent Mary to be the first messenger of the Resurrection.  She didn’t say, “April Fools.”  No, she told them the good news:  “I have seen the Lord!”  Mary, full of faith and joy, shares the incredible news.  If it weren’t for women preachers – and Mary Magdalene was the first – we would not know about the Resurrection.  John left the tomb, believing Jesus’ body was gone; Peter didn’t know what to think.  Luke’s account says that the disciples (the men) could not yet believe the news, until later the Risen Christ appeared to them and their doubts were turned to faith and their fears to laughter.  God can accept us, even in our misunderstandings and questions, and use us to share good news with others.

Ultimately, the greatest joke is on Death itself.  The book of Genesis records that Death entered into this world through deception.  Humanity was easily fooled into trading our faithful obedience to and relationship with God for a moment of pleasure and the belief that we can be in control and have our own way. That great trick ruined what God had intended and still does today.  We can each think of examples in our own lives.  In life in this world, we deal with despair, fear, hopelessness, grief, and pain.  How can we laugh at that?

Resurrection is not a trick; it’s the truth. More importantly, it’s a truth that we need in a world where so much is not funny. The fact that Jesus could face every horrible thing this world could throw at him, could be literally dead, and could rise again is a sign that life will always win in the end. That is so stunningly inexplicable that it is laughable.

And yet it is true. And so our joy can be true too.

Because we know that God is greater than sin, doubt, shortcomings and even death itself.  The empty tomb stands as testimony to the Power of God.  The Risen Savior has the last laugh.  So we know that failures are not fatal, because there is always grace and hope to start afresh.  We know that death is not final, but a new beginning, where we may come at last face to face with the source of all Life, Love Himself.

The sad truth is that the suffering in our world and in our own lives is no laughing matter, if by laughter we mean the cheap, cynical, silly and often hurtful stuff our culture calls humor.  But if we believe the deeper truth of the Resurrection, we can hear, even in the dark places of suffering, despair and death, the sound of laughter that will ultimately echo through the universe.  We can laugh the laughter of God because Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!

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