The First Easter and Empty Churches

That past few weeks have been quite challenging for all of us. We’ve all had to adapt to a new reality brought about by a pandemic. Parents must think about managing children while schools are out. Teachers switch to distance learning. Many workers have made changes to try and work remotely from home. There’s also the tragic reality of job loss, too. Even something as simple as going to the grocery store leads us to be much more conscious about where our hands have been and noticing our personal space!

Speaking as a pastor, I never in my life thought I would preach to an “empty” church for an Easter morning service. Of course, we had a handful of volunteers present running the sound and music, but it still felt somewhat eerie. I know we are still “connected” online through livestream, but if you’re like me, you sometimes still wonder about all the uncertainty and feel confused.

Is all this really happening?

Where is God’s plan in all of this?

Will it get better? When?

Now don’t misunderstand me—I want to be clear that I’ve certainly seen God work in so many new and unique ways. Yet if I’m being honest, these kinds of questions do enter my mind every now and then. I imagine you might ponder them, too. It’s perfectly normal to experience doubt or worry.

In John’s gospel, the resurrection is actually filled with a lot of confusion. I had never noticed this striking detail until I was preparing my Easter sermon for this year. I grew up reading about the resurrection for years and never realized this odd detail!

In just one chapter, so many characters don’t know what’s going on. Mary Magdalene sees the tomb is empty. The disciples race to see what is going on. There are heavenly messengers. Mary confuses Jesus with a gardener (we explored Jesus’ interaction with her in yesterday’s sermon!). Thomas is uncertain about the news and asks for more proof. Read John 20 for yourself and note how many questions and ambiguity there is.

We have the gift of hindsight and know the “end” of the story. We know Jesus will rise from the dead. We know that Good Friday does not have the final word. So sometimes in our reading of Easter, we miss out on the confusion, uncertainty, and worry experienced by Jesus’ followers. There were rumors about what actually happened. People tried to make sense of it all. The disciples were apparently separated from one another.

Doesn’t this sound familiar?

In many ways, the first Easter actually has a lot in common with our current state of affairs. There was no massive church service gathering. People heard the news in their homes or out on the road. Based off characters like Peter, Mary, and Thomas, I imagine many were also asking themselves where God’s plan was in all of this.

The good news is that despite the confusing morning, Jesus Christ still rose from the grave. That same good news applies for today, too. Jesus Christ is alive in our hearts, even if we cannot meet for in-person worship. Christ is still with you, even if you worry what the future holds.

Reflecting on this Easter reminds me of the origin of sunrise services. In 1732, a group of Moravian Christians gathered in modern day Germany for an all night prayer vigil. As the night ended, the young men of the community walked out to the church cemetery at the sunrise and sang hymns about the resurrection of Christ. This tradition soon spread to Christians in other denominations all over the world. (As a side note, John Wesley was impacted by the Moravians on several occasions, and they played a part in his call story!).

What a wonderful example of the Easter message! Christ conquered death and offers us hope for resurrection. Knowing this allows us to be able to praise God, even in the middle of a cemetery on Easter morning.

The world might be broken. There are cemeteries filled with graves. There are also pandemics. But our faith leads us to rejoice, no matter what the circumstances might be. Christ is risen!

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