Knowing Easter Joy In the Midst of Grief

Knowing Easter Joy In the Midst of Grief

by the Very Rev. Larry Holben, Priest in Charge at St. Barnabas', Mount Shasta and Dean of the Alta California Deanery

Two days before the Third Sunday of Easter, a beloved member of St. Barnabas Church, its volunteer organist for thirty-nine years, died after a short, brutal struggle with pancreatic cancer.
The sermon that follows attempted to provide a bridge between that congregational reality
and the Easter proclamation of the day’s gospel.

There are times when life just doesn't follow the liturgical calendar.

On that calendar, this is the third Sunday of Easter. The church throughout the world continues to celebrate the glory of Jesus’ resurrection. Our liturgy rings with Alleluias. The sanctuary is still full of lilies. The Paschal candle – symbol of the risen Christ – remains lit, standing in its place of honor.

But for many of us this morning, the Easter Alleluias strike a strangely discordant note. Our hearts are heavy. We feel loss at the death of a beloved member of our church family. We grieve with and for those left behind.

Sacred time, represented by the unchanging annual rhythms of the church calendar, and linear time, the time we inhabit, here and now ... today these two simply don’t align.

And in this incongruity, we find ourselves confronted with difficult questions.

Why does a good woman, remarkable for her generous service to her church and her community, suffer a relatively early death, while others – others who, at least from our admittedly limited perspective, seem far less worthy – live to a ripe old age? Despite what we read in some of the Psalms, is there justice in this life? Are the righteous assured of earthly blessing; do the wicked receive their just deserts?

And how are we to understand Jesus’ promise that anything we ask the Father in His name will be granted, when our initial prayers for our sister’s healing were answered with a “no?” Are Jesus’ seemingly unequivocal words about the power of our prayer in reality just pious exaggeration?

We recoil from such questions, we don’t want to think about them ... but they confront us at times like these ... confront priests every bit as much as they confront anyone else.

I suspect precisely these sorts of questions were weighing heavily on the minds of the two disciples we read about in our appointed gospel for this morning, making their way to Emmaus late that afternoon on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death and burial.

One of these disciples, Luke tells us, was Cleopas. Some Scripture scholars suggest this disciple’s unnamed companion was his wife Mary, mentioned in the gospel of John as standing with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross during His execution. Some church tradition also places Mary, the wife of Cleopas, among those women who came to the empty tomb on Easter morning, bearing spices for His burial.

We’ll never know for certain whom it was traveling with Cleopas to Emmaus. But while Luke’s description of what was going on between them is rather matter-of-fact, even bloodless – “they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened” – it seems obvious that their conversation would have been filled with confusion, pain, grief.

They’d had such high hopes: Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had followed as their rabbi, whose disciples they had been ... Jesus had healed the sick, cast out demons, fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish. He’d even raised the dead.

Surely all this indicated that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed one, the focus of all their hopes. Surely in Him God was going to fulfill His ancient promises and restore Israel’s sovereignty, renew His chosen people in freedom and righteousness.

And yet now Jesus was dead.

I think Cleopas and his companion must have been experiencing many of the same feelings we’re experiencing this morning. They must have been struggling with some of the same hard questions that confront us.

Why did this happen? How could this happen? What does this do to our most cherished convictions about God and his working in the world?

In the midst of their anguished conversation, a stranger appears, falls in step alongside them. On most occasions, a fellow-traveler, a Jew like themselves, might provide welcome company on the road, even a greater measure of safety. Perhaps it was so this afternoon, as well. Or perhaps the very last thing Cleopas and his partner wanted right now, in the midst of their grief and perplexity and pain, was having to make conversation with a stranger.

Whatever their reaction may have been, this stranger keeps pace with them. Before long he’s asking what they were talking about.

Cleopas is astounded that the events which have turned their world upside down wouldn't be known to everybody: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who isn't aware of what’s been going on these past few days?” he asks.

So they begin tell the stranger, tell him everything: how Jesus spoke with such authority, acting with the very outstretched arm of God himself to heal and release from demonic bondage; how they had come to hope that He was the promised Messiah. And then how, despite His goodness and compassion and spiritual power, Jesus had been taken into custody by a group of powerful religious leaders and handed over to the hated Romans to be crucified.

Now – if all that were not enough – now some of the women who had followed Jesus, supported His ministry ... perhaps Mary herself, Cleopas’s wife, among them ... now these women were claiming to have found Jesus’ tomb empty, and were spreading a bizarre tale of angels appearing to them and telling them that Jesus is alive.

The stranger’s reaction, at least as Luke tells it, is a little surprising, even rude to our ears: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”

Well, Luke wasn’t there, and I suspect the stranger’s approach, given who we know He actually is ... but that’s getting ahead of ourselves in the story ... I suspect the stranger’s approach may have been a little more gentle, a little more pastoral. But his point remains: Cleopas and his companion, in their disappointment, their grief, even perhaps their despair ... are assuming that, because things didn't work out as they had hoped, this means everything they believed about Jesus, everything they believed about God and His relationship with His people, is suddenly open to question.

And so, patiently, even methodically ... beginning all the way back with Moses and working His way through the prophets ... the stranger patiently explains that the Messiah they had so long awaited, the Messiah they hoped they had found in Jesus, was in fact only to achieve His victory by first passing through betrayal, suffering and death.

I find it significant that, even though they would, later, in retrospect, speak of their hearts burning within them as the stranger spoke ... I find it telling that at this point Cleopas and his companion still don’t recognize who this stranger is, for all the solid teaching He gives them, all the wisdom He imparts.

Instead, it’s only when they offer Him the hospitality of their supper table, only when He takes bread and offers the prayer of blessing ... most likely the prayer an observant Jewish father offers at every Friday evening Shabbat supper – “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth” – it’s only when the stranger replicates the action of the Last Supper ... breaking the bread and giving it to them ... and in doing so turning their simple supper into a Eucharist ... it’s only then that the stranger is revealed for who He is: the risen Lord himself, Jesus ... alive.

What does this story have to say to us this morning, caught between the conflicting emotions of the Easter joy proclaimed in our liturgy and the sorrow that weighs on our hearts?

The obvious answer, of course, is that, despite our sadness at the loss of someone we love, she and we have the assurance of a glorious resurrection to new and eternal life; she and we will ultimately share in the victory of Jesus’ own resurrection, so death does not have the last word for any one of us. And in light of that assurance, the fulfillment of God’s justice – the reward of the righteous – lies on an arc that stretches beyond the limits of our earthly lives, to be perfectly fulfilled only in eternity.

But all that is, I think, a bit like the stranger’s opening of the Scriptures to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road. What He said was true, to be sure, just as this too is true, profoundly true. It’s the core truth of our faith. But even so, at this moment we may ache for something more, some more immediate comfort.

That comfort I believe can be ours in the loving, healing presence of the risen Christ in our midst; and we experience once again that presence – if we will open our hearts in trust – as we do what he did that evening at the supper table in Emmaus: He took bread, He blessed it, He broke it, He gave it to them ... and in that action they saw and knew Him for who He truly is.

So we too, in a few moments, will take bread, bless it, break it, share it. And just as He was at Emmaus, Christ will be among us. Jesus will be present with us, sharing our tears, bearing our sorrow, comforting us.

This doesn’t mean our grief will simply vanish. Reality is more complicated than that: the glorified body of the risen Lord still bore the marks of his suffering.

But it does mean that our grief, a grief we believe Jesus understands and shares, does not overwhelm us. It means that, even in the midst of our grief, we can still know Easter joy.

Our hearts are heavy, but Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. We grieve the loss of one we dearly loved, but Christ is among us, waiting to reveal himself in broken bread and shared wine – Christ, our strength and our comfort, our assurance that one day, in the Kingdom of God, we will feast together with all those we love who have gone before us.

And so, perhaps, we find that sacred time and our time are not so at odds as we first thought. Indeed, part of the mystery of the human experience we all share is that, as one of the anthems from the burial office puts it: "in the midst of life we are in death."

And conversely, now, this morning, in the midst of death ... we are in life; we celebrate life, the new and eternal life that is ours in the risen, victorious Christ.

And so we can say, even in the midst of our sorrow, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” Amen.


2 comments (Add your own)

1. Linda Clader wrote:
Thank you, Larry, for this very fine Easter homily. It tackles the big questions of our Easter faith head-on. Clear and pointed, all the way!

Wed, May 21, 2014 @ 10:25 AM

2. Virginia McNeely wrote:
Good homily--addressed the needs and concerns of the congregation in the framework of the lessons from the lectionary. I'm sure it was well received by the congregation.

Wed, May 21, 2014 @ 11:39 AM

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