By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The title of the sermon this morning is inspired by history professor, Steven Ware. It comes from an article he wrote for The Christian Century entitled, “When Is Easter This Year?”
It caught my attention because, believe it or not, it’s a question frequently asked around the church: “Say, does anyone happen to know when Easter is this year?” From one year to the next, Easter never falls on the same date. It can come as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.
Steven Ware says this was a problem for him growing up. He writes:
“I was born on Easter Sunday morning.
With a birthday in early April,
I supposed Easter would fall regularly on my birthday.
But when I discovered that Easter would not fall on my birthday again
until I turned 62
…I became intrigued with the Easter cycle.”
“When is Easter this year?” For those of you who didn’t learn this in confirmation class, the date of Easter corresponds to the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Seriously.
In his article, Ware explains how this came to be. Here’s the short version of the story: In 325 A.D., Constantine, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, convened the Council of Nicea.
Among the business before the council was to establish a uniform date for Easter. Out of the discussion and debate came the “Easter Rule,” setting Easter, as I said, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. As is often the case with church councils, the decision was not unanimous. The Eastern bishops wanted to schedule Easter in conjunction with the Jewish Festival of Passover since, after all, Jesus went to Jerusalem, in the first place, to celebrate Passover. The Western bishops preferred a date corresponding with the beginning of spring, because that was the time already established for a lot of pagan celebrations, and they figured to capitalize on the momentum. This is why, to this day, we have such things as the Easter Bunny and colored eggs associated with Easter. Well, on this, and other issues, the church eventually split. To this day, we, who are descendents of the Western line of Christendom, use a different calendar than the Eastern Orthodox churches. Sometimes our celebration of Easter falls on the same day, and sometimes it varies by as much as five weeks!
And so, it’s a good question: When is Easter this year? I’d like to invite you to keep this question in mind as we listen more closely to the gospel lesson this morning. To put it this way:
When will the reality of Jesus’ resurrection occur to Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, the other disciples? When will Easter come for you and me? The story begins,
“Now on the first day of the week,
Mary Magdalene went early,
while it was still dark, to the tomb,
and saw the stone taken away from the tomb.
Therefore she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple
whom Jesus loved,
and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb,
and we don’t know where they have laid him!'” (John 20:1-2)
Mary sees the empty tomb, recognizes that the body of Jesus is not there, but, in no way, concludes that he has been raised from the dead. He’s missing, that’s all. Easter has not come for Mary. Not yet.
This is our first hint as to how to answer the question, “When will Easter come this year?” It will not come when we gather enough empirical evidence. The empty tomb alone is not proof of the resurrection. And that’s frustrating, because we are, after all, rational men and women, open to reason and willing to accept the results of quantifiable data. We’re students of the scientific method: Develop a hypothesis, test it over and over in a controlled environment, and trust the outcome to be factual and true.
This has led us to put our hopes in such discoveries as the Shroud of Turin – the ancient linen cloth believed to be the burial cloth in which Jesus’ body was wrapped – the Dead Sea Scrolls – scriptures and writings of the Essenes found near the Dead Sea – or, more recently, the discovery of an ossuary – a small coffin containing what is believed to be the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. It’s as if to say if only we could nail it down, gather enough tangible evidence to document the historical record, then we could prove, once and for all, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, who died for the forgiveness of our sins and rose from the dead that we might have the promise of eternal life. If only the empty tomb were enough. But it’s not. Easter comes by faith, and faith alone.
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When we were first introduced to algebra in high school, we learned a theorem called, “The Transitive Law of Property.” It went like this: “If A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.” You can imagine the various applications. Using the Transitive Law of Property, you can prove all sorts of things. One, not in the textbook, was this: Did you know that peanuts are better than ice cream? It’s true. Peanuts are better than nothing. And nothing’s better than ice cream. Therefore, peanuts are better than ice cream.
Sounds logical, doesn’t it? And it is, only it’s not necessarily true. Whether or not peanuts are better than ice cream is a matter of personal taste. There’s no proving it, one way or the other. Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb, but it didn’t prove a thing, and it certainly didn’t transform her life. Easter was yet to come.
As the story goes, Mary ran to tell Peter and John, and they raced to the tomb to see for themselves. Sure enough, just as she’d said, the stone had been rolled away, and the body was gone. I can just imagine them standing there scratching their heads, wondering what had happened. John says,
“For as yet they didn’t know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.” (20:9-10)
When will Easter come? Not yet. John goes on to say,
“But Mary was standing outside at the tomb weeping. So, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. They told her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
“She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.’
“When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, and didn’t know that it was Jesus.” (20:11-14)
Now, you’d think that the witness of others would be enough to prompt the power of the resurrection, especially the witness of a couple of angels. Of course, in John’s gospel, the angels only ask Mary the question, “Why are you weeping?” But in the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – the angels offer a stirring testimony. According to Luke, they said,
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?
He isn’t here, but is risen.
Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee,
saying that the Son of Man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?” (Luke 24:5-7)
Well, there you have it. What more could you want? If you can’t believe the angels, who can you believe? Yet, there’s nothing in the text to suggest that Mary is convinced, one way or the other. To this point, she has yet to experience the resurrection.
This is our second hint as to how to answer the question, “When will Easter come this year?” It will not come when we gather enough testimonials. The faith of our fathers and mothers and neighbors and friends is important, but it’s not enough to transform us into the image of Christ. We need to see and hear and experience the risen Christ for ourselves.
Some like to say, “God has many children, but no grandchildren.” And it’s true: The church of Jesus Christ is made up of first-generation Christians, each coming to faith in his or her own way, each being born again in the spirit of the living Christ. It’s up to each of us to develop a first-person relationship with Jesus Christ, not just know about him through others.
In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about the importance of the community of faith. He tells the story of Harry Golden, who once asked his father, “If you don’t believe in God, why do you go to synagogue so regularly?” His father answered, “Jews go to synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkle, who is Orthodox, goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.” (p. 122)
There’s nothing wrong with going to church to talk to each other. Christian fellowship is at the heart of a life of faith. But fellowship alone is not enough. Salvation doesn’t come vicariously, one gleaning from the experience of others; it doesn’t come by sitting next to someone who’s religious. It comes by a personal encounter with the living Christ.
And this is what happened to Mary. According to John, Mary turned and saw what she took to be the gardener standing behind her. He asked, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Still not yet having experienced the resurrection, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” At that moment, Jesus said to her, “Mary.” And Mary exclaimed, “Rabboni!” and sought to embrace him.
And this is the answer to our question, “When will Easter come this year?” Easter will come when the Lord calls your name, and you hear his voice and respond in faith and devotion and love.
The Bible is filled with stories of those who did just that. Take Abraham, for example. God picked Abraham to be the father of his chosen people, Israel, and Abraham, on God’s command left his homeland, his friends and family and journeyed into the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Then there was Moses, whom God called from the burning bush and sent down into Egypt to tell the Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” (Exodus 3:1-10)
And there was Samuel, who, as a child, heard God calling his name and answered, “Speak; for your servant hears.” (1 Samuel 3:1-10)
And Jeremiah, of whom God said, “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you. Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you.” (Jeremiah 1:5).
The list goes on and includes Peter, Andrew, James and John, to whom Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” (Matthew 4:19)
And the other disciples, whom Jesus called, one by one – men like Matthew, the tax collector, who walked away from a lucrative position of prominence and power to follow Jesus.
And, of course, the Apostle Paul, who met Jesus in a flash of blinding light on the Damascus Road and heard the voice of Jesus calling him to stop persecuting the church and, instead, devote his life to building it up. (Acts 9:1-9)
There’s a common denominator in each of these stories: God calls an individual by name, and that individual hears God’s voice and responds in faith.
This is what happened to Mary. When Jesus called her by name, her eyes were opened, and she recognized that this “gardener” was Jesus, the risen Christ. At this moment, Easter came to Mary. The power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal life were hers, never to be taken away.
When will Easter come this year? Easter will come when God calls your name, and you hear his voice and respond in faith. Which leads me to ask, has God called your name? Have you heard God’s voice? Have you responded in faith? Has Easter come for you?
If this makes you a little nervous, relax. No one’s ever heard God’s voice completely.
No one’s ever comprehended the mystery of God’s holiness fully. No one’s ever responded to God’s call without some reservation. We’re all works in progress. Like Mary Magdalene, we may cry out, Rabboni, and seek to embrace the Lord, but, even so, we grapple in the dark, not really sure what we’re doing.
The Good News is that, in the wee hours of Easter morning, Jesus spoke to Mary, and she heard his voice, and she responded in faith, and that was enough. The miracle of Easter became a reality for her.
I’m confident that, on this Easter Sunday morning, God is calling us once more. The question is, are you listening? And are you, like Mary, willing to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ and grow in the knowledge of his grace and love? If so, there’s a simple answer to the question, “When is Easter?” Easter is now. Let us pray:
“I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
and it told Thy power to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith,
and be closer drawn to Thee.
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord
to the Cross where Thou hast died;
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer,
to Thy precious bleeding side.”
(Cokesbury Hymnal, p. 139)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
––Copyright 2003, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.