Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash
I’m not sure if social distancing and spending more time with the people we’re closest to are making us more or less honest. But I’m an optimist. And, if we’re being honest, one of the first thoughts I had when all this started was, “Thank God it’s not football season.”
Maybe it will be eventually; I definitely would’ve had a different answer if we lost last year’s basketball season, when Tennessee had a real chance to win it all. Still, losing opening day, The Masters, and the NCAA Tournament is sad. But losing football season? We’ll do anything to keep that from happening (and we might get our chance to).
Football drives life in the south in ways you can’t escape, even if you don’t care for the sport or the idea. It weaves its way toward December, a three-month lead-in to another inescapable truth: Santa Claus.
This is a more universal concern, even in the south: “Thank God it’s not Christmas.” So much of what we actually look forward to in December – presents, presence, etc. – would’ve been lost to unemployment and quarantine. And no doubt, even nine months from now, there’s no guarantee things will be the same as they were before.
But for now, football and Bethlehem are safe. Instead, college basketball is over. And Easter might be next.
I’m a United Methodist pastor; all of our churches, at least in our East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia conference, were closed by our bishop. I’m not sure anyone knows what it will take to reopen them right now. In Virginia this week, the governor put a 30-day ban on gatherings of 10+ people, which would carry us a week past Easter on April 12. Meanwhile, the president is using Easter as a hopeful restart date for the country.
There’s a sense that Easter could grow into a significant point of tension. For churches, sure, we’d like to meet in person! Along with everything we miss from every Sunday we’re together and all of our vibrant Holy Week traditions, there’s the practical: Easter is always the most-attended Sunday of the year. That often makes it one of our best Sundays for giving; losing in-person worship on Easter might mean losing a big piece of an already-thinning financial pie.
But the truth for most of us, even us Christians? We’d rather lose Easter than Christmas.
And I get it. Me too.
I’m not here to shame you for caring more about Christmas than Easter. I’m here to say, if you’re consumed with worry over losing Easter? Or if you’re propping it up as something we absolutely, positively have to have in person, no matter the cost? Because celebrating the day Jesus rose from the dead matters more than anything?
We might actually be selling that day short.
We might be missing the fullness of resurrection.
Do you know why we have church on Sunday mornings?
It’s not the Sabbath. Our Jewish friends would be quick to point out that Sabbath takes place from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the seventh day of the week, when God rested.
In the resurrection accounts in the New Testament, only a few details show up in all four gospels:
- Women and at least one angel were there at the tomb.
- The stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.
- And all of it happened in the morning on the first day of the week.
Which is Sunday.
Which is why you go to church on Sunday.
Easter is not like Christmas. This is true for our personal reasons that make us secretly grateful this is happening now and not then. But it’s also true theologically.
Christmas is an event we celebrate on December 25, plus a month of build-up (if you’re a good person; more than that if you hate Thanksgiving and love Hobby Lobby and Hallmark). One of my wife’s grandmothers, born on Christmas Day, often shares a saying from her mother: “Nothing is ever quite as over as Christmas.”
But Easter? Resurrection is not an event we celebrate on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox, and then move on to the next story. Resurrection is the story.
If I stood in front of you holding a candle on Christmas Eve and asked you to live every day like it was Christmas, you’d appropriately roll your eyes. But living every day like the tomb is empty is exactly what we’re called to do.
Alongside the resurrection accounts in the gospels, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 are the most thorough New Testament argument for the importance of resurrection. Listen to the way he talks about it:
- “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
- “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (verse 17)
- “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (verse 19)
- “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (verse 32)
Essentially, if there’s no Resurrection, let’s move to Vegas, baby, for tomorrow we die.
But that’s the thing:
- “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (verse 55)
Resurrection is not a thing we celebrate one Sunday a year. It is the reason for Sundays. It is the reason for everything.
This is not a matter of secondary importance, and not some obscure thing we believe. The Apostles’ Creed, a shared statement of faith for churches of so many different names from one century to the next, spends more time on this than anything else. Our core doctrines and most meaningful truths – who is Christ, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life – are all held together by resurrection.
And even when other parts of the calendar work to our advantage – “Thank God it’s Lent,” perhaps – resurrection still breaks through. If you gave up something for Lent and thought you signed up for 40 days, if you count the Sundays as well you’re actually getting 46 days. That’s because on Sundays – every Sunday – we celebrate the resurrection. And nothing – nothing – gets in the way of that. When I was a kid I used to think this was cheating at Lent, and good Christians did the whole 46. Now I believe good Christians seek to understand and live the fullness of resurrection.
If we can’t meet in person on April 12, I’ll be sad. But the resurrection cannot be contained by one Sunday. If we think it’s only a story for springtime, we sell it short. When we’re consumed with meeting in person on that day no matter the potential cost to others, we misrepresent it. When we’re tempted to tether it to a political party or the health of any economy, even our own, we misplace it.
Resurrection is not just a thing we celebrate on Easter. It’s a thing we celebrate every Sunday. It’s our very life. As Eugene Peterson says in his paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15:30-33 in The Message:
It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live.