Magazine article The Christian Century

Thunderous Yes: Preaching to the Easter Crowds

Magazine article The Christian Century

Thunderous Yes: Preaching to the Easter Crowds

Article excerpt

IN A FEW WEEKS there will be less elbow room in the church pews. Neighbors whom I usually see only in the grocery store will show up in the sanctuary, as will church shoppers who have not church-shopped since Christmas, lapsed members, adult children of lapsed members, and total strangers. The Easter crowd is coming.

The assumption is that my job will be to make sense of scripture, to reduce the mystery, and to make God understandable. No one has ever put it to me that plainly, but for those who want a modern-minded faith the assumption is implicit. You bring your questions to an expert. I have fallen prey to this reasoning; I've preached dozens of sermons that aim to explain, clarify, and demystify.

One of the reasons I love Easter crowds, however, is that their arrival on Easter stands as a direct refutation of such nonsense.

If people came to church to hear reason, Easter would not be the most popular Sunday of the year because there is nothing sensible about the resurrection. Easter ought to leave us preachers scratching our heads. We are not able to define or even describe the resurrection. The empty tomb doesn't fit into our understanding.

Moreover, the crowds who come on Easter come to church. They don't want to step through the narthex and into my mind in order to settle down comfortably next to a reductionist misunderstanding of the resurrection. The first thing we pastors ought to admit on Easter is that God has done the incomprehensible.

But not the illogical. When our daughter was in kindergarten the church gave her and each of her Sunday school classmates purple plastic Easter eggs to take home. The egg contained a slip of paper. She was right in the midst of learning how to read so she seized on the paper's monosyllabic words as eagerly as if they were jellybeans. She read with confidence. "He is ..." Then she paused, carefully considering both syllables in the third word. "He is ... raisins?"

"He is raisins" is illogical. "He is risen" is merely incomprehensible. When preachers speak about God they must distinguish between things that do not make sense and things that we cannot make sense of. Easter falls in the latter category.

We prize the mind's ability to penetrate, grasp, order, and assimilate, but in this case our stupefaction is a very good thing. As Rowan Williams said, "You only get anywhere near the truth when all the easy things to say about God are dismantled, so that your image of God is no longer just a big projection of your own self-centered wish fulfillment fantasies." You only get anywhere near the truth when all the sensible things to say about God are overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus just stepped up out of the grave.

Of course, you can ignore him. But the crowds on Easter Sunday do not want us to ignore him. They may turn a blind eye to coffee hour, committee service, new member classes, Sunday school, and the church and all its trappings. That's too bad. It's their loss and ours as well. But they are wise enough to come to the heart of the matter. Easter gives us the opportunity to name the faith they aspire to: they long for a God who cannot be contained, confined, or even described, a God whose victory over the grave could redefine their lives.

Those of us who have decided to live inside the church can easily forget the limited options that exist outside it. The people in the Easter crowd know these options inside out and backward. And they are fleeing them, or trying to escape them for a day or an hour, hoping to catch a glimpse of that which pulses just beyond the border of their everyday existence. The Easter crowds are dissatisfied, and they come to worship hungry.

More than 15 years ago, when I lived in Minneapolis, my wife and I were invited to our neighbors' home for a dinner party. It was the dead of winter. Our hosts were a middle-aged Finnish couple named Eeva and Nils. The kind of gloomy northern Europeans who only come out of the sauna to drink and make sure the world hasn't become cheerful in their absence. …

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