I live in suburbopolis. This means I’m surrounded by community churches which are in full marketing mode trying to reach out to the countless middle-class families that will not ordinarily darken the door of a church. The flyers are accumulating on my kitchen table. “Come celebrate Easter with us!” “He is Risen!” “Join us for an Easter Experience!”
So what exactly is the Easter Experience?
For ninety-nine percent of Americans, the Easter experience goes something like this…
We get the family all dressed up, especially the kids, and show up to a church which has extra services provided to accommodate the bi-annual capacity limits. These are known as “C & E’s.” Drop the kids off to some Easter egg hunt or fun attraction, then find our way to the auditorium where we’ll struggle to find a seat amidst countless lost people who don’t usually attend. We’ll be greeted by at least five overly excited and friendly people. The music will begin, turned way up, or the processional gets going and all the regulars do most the singing. Endless announcements, then a prayer or two, some more singing about Jesus being risen, alive, our out of the grave, and then the senior pastor preaches some sermon about how Jesus died for our sins and how he resurrected and if we believe, then we’ll be forgiven our sins and be resurrected too one day after we die. Then some more songs and prayer, and the crowd will exit to make room for the next group who got their later than we did.
That’s it. That’s our experience. The “big show” has been and continues to be the American Easter Experience. It’s a program. A transaction. It’s designed to be welcoming, encouraging, non-threatening, and the staff is praying God finds you in the midst of it…and sometimes He does.
The observation is that the encounter with God is despite all the theatrics, not because of it. Which begs the question: “What about those who have no encounter?”
Our series entitled “Famous Last Words” has been a “fly on the wall” deep dive into the conversation Jesus had with his disciples following his public ministry and prior to his arrest and crucifixion. As we follow the story to Jesus’ resurrection, the experience of the first Easter is quite different than what America is experiencing this morning. If you are seeking an authentic Easter experience, may I share some of the first comments recorded on the first Easter.
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:2)
“Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.” (v. 8-10)
“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (v.15)
Here are some of my observations:
- The Easter Experience was not a religious experience.
Mary was the first to notice the tomb was opened. She was going to pay respects following the Sabbath. Her religious experience was to not touch anything unclean on her holy day. The first Easter was not the Holy Day. Her Easter Experience was that of confusion and concern. She was so distracted with the fact that Jesus’ body was not there, that she could not recognize him as he stood before her. This has been the case for every person in human history, every single day since this event.
Christ stands before us each moment. None of us have ever been alone.
Easter is found in the everyday experiences, it is not some punctuated holiday on some carefully crafted liturgical calendar which was originally designed to overwrite competing religious celebrations. The real Easter egg is the discovery of something beautiful hidden in plain sight, a presence hidden in the present moment of every single day. When the disciples saw nothing, they went home. Mary didn’t see Christ until he spoke her name and brought her into the moment.
Perhaps stillness gets us closer to Easter. In fact, for the disciples, Easter was spent in hiding in fear of religion (v.19). Sobriety instead of elation. Solitude rather than volume. Self awareness rather a busy morning. Isolation rather than tradition.
2. The Easter Experience was not about the disciples sins.
“Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.” (v.17-18)
In light of our series, we can see now how vividly Jesus’ message of bringing others into the divine union he shared with his Father is front and center. Religion was not the way to God or he would have told the disciples to be more religious. The way to God is Christ following, not religious observance. The way to God is believing there is more to this life and asking for eyes to see it. There was no discussion about substitutionary atonement. No mention of Jesus covering all their sins with his shed blood. Modern religion makes all of this a precondition for God to accept dirty sinners like us. Easter is when we become aware of Christ’s sacrificial death on the back end… later… upon reflection. The passion is not the antecedent which opens the door to belief, it is the dawning awareness which ratifies our existing belief.
The shed blood is the caboose, not the driving engine.
As your read this or listen to this on Easter, I invite you to find even ten minutes of stillness and quite. Endeavor to not think about any of this. Do your best to simply observe your thoughts coming into your mind and carrying you away from Easter. Distracted thoughts carry you away. Dirty thoughts carry you away. Self-absorbed thoughts carry you away. Religious thoughts carry you away. Every thought misses the true Easter experience. Yes, thoughts of Easter actually rob us of an Easter experience. Thinking is not the experience. Neither is feeling. It does us no good to feel good nor to feel bad. To feel elated, or sad. All emotional extremes are rafts that drift us out to sea away from the Easter Experience. Our emotions are usually grounded in self-pity, self-absorption, or a veil of piety which is meeting some external, socialized expectation. None of it draws God closer.
Easter is to be still and know…
God is not an object to be objectified. Jesus never asked to be worshiped, only followed. The God revealed by Christ is a subject, it is relationship. As such it is not a thing or a “no-thing.” Religion makes God a thing, Easter revealed by Christ, is presence… it is “Being” itself. When Easter becomes a big thing, it means we have no sense of what Easter is. Being present in the divine union is the Easter experience. It’s the relationship Jesus promised us prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Easter is every mundane moment of existence in life. It is finding God in “this” moment. Finding God is closer than finding the end of your nose. Easter arrives the moment we rest and “don’t cling” to our hurried, distracted, entertained, and illusory self.
The Easter experience, if we care to find it, is the moment we realize our existence is one of seven billion expressions of God’s existence. Easter isn’t a particular Sunday, it’s every moment of every day. Easter is the awareness of the love and existence of God is on display in the love and existence of everyone and everything in the world. Easter, it turns out, is closer to all of us than we are to ourselves.