'It is not Easter Sunday, but Good Friday, which is the day of Jesus’ victory.'
You know, I’ve been thinking – a dangerous pastime, I know. But I’ve been thinking about something which sounds a little shocking on the face of it, but which I don’t think is too far off the mark. I’ll have to explain what I mean, and by an incredible coincidence, it should take about twelve or thirteen minutes.
The thought is this: Easter Sunday may not be as important as we always thought it was.
I’ll say that one more time just in case you’re not sure you heard me right: Easter Sunday may not be as important as we always thought it was.
Now, some of you may be wondering if the pastor’s gone off his meds. Some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, now you tell us. I got up this morning for nothing.’ Some of you may be curious to hear why and how I’ve come to this admittedly controversial conclusion.
We think of Easter Sunday as Jesus’ victory over death and the triumphant finale to his story. But are either of these things true? Is it that we’re so in love with the idea of a happy ending that we have to make it so? Despite the hymns and the anthems, the argument can be made that Jesus did not defeat death on Easter morning, and Easter morning is not a happy ending.
Now, Ted, you’re the council president. If I don’t explain what I mean fast, say, in the next ten minutes, you’ve got to be on the phone tomorrow with Bishop Dan explaining that your pastor is denying the faith and unsettling the people. So I’d better get on with it. I don’t want to ruin your week.
I’ve put forth two reasons why Easter morning is less important than we think it is. I’ve said that we can say that Jesus didn’t defeat death on Easter morning, and that Easter morning is not the triumphant finale to his story. I think both of these statements are true, but not because there’s no victory and no triumphant finale.
For Jesus didn’t defeat death on Easter Sunday morning. He defeated death on Good Friday.
How could he defeat death on Good Friday? we may be thinking. After all, on Good Friday – he died. That’s not winning over death. That’s losing – even if later, like on Sunday, he wins. Good Friday is a day of sadness and gloom. Easter Sunday is a day of joy and light.
Moreover, if we believe the creed we say today, we believe he descended into hell after he died. How can I say that Good Friday is Jesus’ victory if after that he goes to hell? Hell is bad.
These are the understandings I grew up with – and maybe you did too. But the ancient and deep tradition of the Church understands Good Friday to be a day of rejoicing. Perhaps it is solemn rejoicing, but it is rejoicing nonetheless.
Last week, we observed Passion Sunday. That is the time we focus on the suffering of Jesus. This is why we call it the Sunday of the Passion, for the word ‘Passion’ means ‘suffering.’ We also focus on Jesus’ suffering when the altar is stripped on Maundy Thursday evening.
But on Good Friday, if you were at the night service, you may remember that the last hymn we sang was not a funeral hymn or a hymn of confession or a hymn of reflection on Jesus’ suffering – it was a victory hymn. On Friday I invited you to ‘behold the life-giving cross, on which was hung the Savior of the whole world.’
On Friday we read the story of Jesus’ Passion according to the Gospel of John. In John’s telling, Jesus’ last words are not ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ the words of dereliction from the cross so familiar from Saints Mark and Matthew. Rather, Jesus says, ‘It is finished.’ We could take that as a sigh of relief that his suffering is over. But we could also better understand it as a cry of triumph, a testimony to all the universe that though death had done its worst, he had still remained faithful to his Father and therefore accomplished what he had come to do – to make a way of salvation from sin, death, and evil. Now, sin, death and evil still afflict human beings, but not mortally – for Jesus’ death on the cross draws the poison from our wounds and makes toothless the jaws of the serpent.
And yet, ‘he descended into hell.’ Actually we don’t say that this morning – that’s in the Apostles’ Creed, not the Nicene. When I was younger I thought that he had to endure the punishments of hell before he rose again. But according to the tradition of the Church, he went to the abode of the dead as a victor. Scripture and Church tradition tells us that he went there to preach the Gospel to the spirits there. He went there so that there might be no place in the universe where his flag of victory does not fly. We think of hell as the realm where the devil rules – but that is untrue. The devil has no dominion anywhere in the universe, even when suffering, sin, and death seem their sharpest. For Jesus has made a way through suffering, sin, and death to new life.
So it is not Easter Sunday, but Good Friday, which is the day of Jesus’ victory. But I made another statement, and my time is running short. Easter Sunday is not the triumphant conclusion to Jesus’ story. This should be an easy one – Jesus is alive on Easter morning. Therefore, it is not the end of his story. If you’re still alive, the end of your story hasn’t been written yet.
He appears to his disciples – but that is not the end of the story. He ascends to heaven – but it is not the end of the story. He sends the Spirit to the Church on Pentecost: you guessed it, not the end. He will come again to judge the living and the dead – but even that is not the end of the story, for we confess that ‘his kingdom shall have no end.’ Easter Sunday can’t be the triumphant conclusion to Jesus’ story because Jesus’ story will never end. His story is still going on, and we are part of it, because through our baptism we have been made an integral part of the story. Jesus is still working through us, praying through us. We participate in his suffering, and we rejoice in his risen life.
It’s the day his disciples found out what really happened on Good Friday. The women went to the place of death where they expected him to be so they could do what they could to care for his dead body, and could not do it because there was no dead body there to care for. Peter went to the place orf death went home with his mind spinning, for he thought that the story of Jesus was over, but it wasn’t. In the coming hours, days, and weeks, he would find out that it wasn’t.
And it isn’t over yet. For you are here, and I am here, and the Church throughout the world continues to draw life from the victory of Good Friday. We come to the place of death and we find the flowers which would mask the smell of death instead have turned into trumpets to herald the return of our conquering Lord. He is risen! and we follow him into the world of darkness, armed with the message we heard from angels, the message of life and light: forgiveness of sin, deliverance from evil, victory over death in Jesus Christ.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!