As we are all aware, we live in a time and in a culture in which there is a great deal of legitimate sensitivity about any verbal public references to seasonal holidays which are rooted in religious observances. We often find ourselves second-guessing ourselves, or hesitating, or even completely resisting our own internal desire to extend good wishes to strangers, and sometimes even to friends, if those good wishes are phrased with explicit reference to a particular holiday season. With good and respectful reason, we hold back from wanting to cause offense if our words are phrased in ways that might be deemed to be insufficiently attentive to the beliefs and practices of those to whom we are speaking.
But on this Sunday of all Sundays, as we sit together as a gathered community in a church, I will make the assumption that it is safe for me, and perhaps even that it is appropriate, to resist any hesitation that I might otherwise feel in making explicit reference to the unique significance of this particular day.
So here goes…happy April Fool’s Day.
Quite a few months ago, when we sat down to take a look at the worship services in the spring of 2018, I found myself chuckling to realize that Easter morning would fall on the morning of April Fools’ Day this year.
This is, after all, the singularly strange and unique morning, each year, when we make our best attempts to tell a friend or a family member some particular whopper of a lie, and to do so in such a convincing way that they will believe us. If we are successful in this decidedly misleading venture, we then take great pride and pleasure in the knowledge that we are ridiculously successful liars, and they are the April fools.
And the bigger and more unbelievable the story, the better.
As I thought a bit more about this, I realized that there were, in fact, intriguing parallels between our April fools traditions and the Easter story…although not, perhaps, the parallels of foolishness that the authors of those slates of modern bestselling anti-religious critiques of faith and organized religion might suggest. Some of those books go to great lengths to suggest that we are all fools to believe in anything beyond what our senses can observe and verify, so every Sunday is a fools’ gathering anyways.
No, the parallels between Easter and April Fools Day may be even more intriguing than determining or accusing others of being fools.
Listen again to the author of John’s description of what happened on that fateful morning so long ago.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.”
What the author does not describe is what must have been going through the disciples’ minds when the women came back from the tomb with their strange and unbelievable claim that the tomb was empty.
What kind of fools do these women take us for? Are they completely delusional? We saw him crucified. And we all know that dead people don’t walk out of their graves. Dead people stay dead.
But for some reason, Peter and that unnamed disciple did not just laugh off what the women said. To the contrary, they ran to see for themselves.
Some might criticize the disciples for not simply accepting what they women told them. But really, would any one of us have believed them? Would we not have wanted to go and check it out for ourselves, if we had the chance?
Goodness knows that they had all been through an emotionally tumultuous week – welcomed into the city to the acclaim of the crowds, engaged in debates and controversies with the Temple officials about what should and should not happen on holy ground, engaged by Jesus himself in solemn and somewhat cryptic conversations about the threats and dangers that were rising against them, sharing together in a loaf of broken bread and a shared cup of wine, having their feet unexpectedly washed by Jesus before journeying into a dark garden where a kiss of friendship was an act of terrible betrayal, and then the soldiers, the beatings, the blood, the pain, the death. Things had completely spun out of control.
And now, these women were trying to claim that the body itself was gone.
Personally, I probably would have gone running too…but probably in the other direction rather than back to the tomb.
But that’s what they did. And what they came to realize was that the women were not joking. It was not some elaborate trick. They were not being played for fools. The tomb was empty.
We all know this story. We have all heard it before. And yet, even though we know the story, deep in our hearts there is still something about it that still seems to strain the bounds of credulity, something that goes against everything that we think that we know, something that makes us wonder, just a little bit, if the whole thing is a really great joke, perhaps the April Fools prank to end all April Fools pranks.
Can we actually believe that the tomb was empty?
Well, there is no way that I, or anyone else, can convince anyone that the claim at the heart of this story, at the heart of the Gospel and at the heart of the Church’s historic proclamations, is actually true. There is no argument so strong, no apologetic so persuasive, no rational defense so powerful that can prove, once and for all and beyond even the remotest possibility of question, that Jesus rose from the grave. The authors of the New Testament acknowledged the foolishness of the story of the cross, but nonetheless tried to provide as much evidence as they could that the resurrection happened – lists of people who saw him, stories of his interactions with friends and followers after the resurrection, accounts of conversations that he shared with those who also found the claims to be hard to believe. But even those lists and stories and accounts leave something to be desired to those who are determined to resist belief until they are presented with irrefutable, verifiable, absolute evidence.
But such absolute knowledge is not truly possible – precisely because this good news is something that we are invited to believe. It invites us to believe the seemingly unbelievable, to allow the bounds of credulity to be stretched beyond what we can ever absolutely and definitively know.
But that leap of faith, as Kierkegaard and so many others have described it, is not only intellectually defensible, but it just might make all the difference in the world.
And believing that the resurrection is true should, and does – and will – change everything. Consider.
Because if it is true, then a lot of things that we know, and that we take to be absolute and true need to be examined and questioned.
We know, after all, that death is the end of life, that it is the great and final annihilation of existence. We know that suffering and pain can be so great that nothing can overcome them. We know that injustice and violence can, and seemingly often do, seem to prevail in this world. We know that there are powerful systems that can exert tremendous, and lethal, force on humble peasants and insightful carpenters whose words and actions present challenges those in positions of religious and political power. We know that forgiveness is a nice idea, but that we need to live in the real world. We know that love can be a powerful ideal, but that hatred will usually win.
But what if…
What if the Easter story, what if the resurrection is embraced as the actual ground of reality, the new template for how to see the whole world?
What if death is not the end?
What if forgiveness can overcome brokenness?
What if love is more powerful than hatred?
What if justice and goodness are worth pursuing since they will ultimately prevail over anything that tries to stand in their way?
What if life and love will triumph?
What if the tomb was empty?
And what if you, or I, or all of us, gave our very lives to the possibility that such a vision is, in fact, the greatest truth that our world has ever known?
For what it’s worth, and I suspect that I am not entirely alone on this, I believe that what the women said, and what the disciples came to realize, and what the Church has proclaimed throughout the ages, is true. I do not fully understand it all, and never will, but I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
There are moments when I question, as everyone does, but the enduring fact is that not only do I believe it, but I also want to believe it. I want to believe it, because I want to live in a world where the implications of the empty tomb are true. I want to believe that we can order and re-order human existence in the confidence that love will prevail over hatred, that injustice will give way to the coming of peace and justice, that there is nothing that can separate us from the One who loves this world, that forgiveness can transform life, that goodness and compassion – though sometimes seemingly weak and seemingly crushed and crucified – are indeed the most powerful responses to wrong.
If believing such things – and if wanting to believe such things – makes me an utter fool, then I am okay with that. Because if suffering and betrayal and death and hatred are as powerful as they seemed to be on the cross, then we are all in a really bad situation.
But if the tomb was empty, as foolish as that might seem, there is hope for love, hope for the world, hope for life.
And I, for one, would rather be such a fool — a fool for life.
So happy April Fools Day.
Or should I say, happy Easter.
Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed.