The first Easter morning did not begin with songs of praise. It did not begin with trumpets and alleluias. It did not begin with easter lilies, easter eggs, or chocolate bunnies.
The first Easter morning began with frantic desperation.
As soon as the Sabbath was over, before the sun was even up, while the dew was still on the roses, Mary hurried to the tomb where they had placed the body of Jesus.
It was empty.
Frantic, she went running to Peter and another disciple, to tell them this startling news: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and I do not know where they have laid him!”
I can’t imagine what that would be like: your friend, your teacher, your dear, dear brother, arrested, sentenced, executed, buried… and as soon as you could, as soon as the Sabbath is over, you go to honor him… and his body is not there.
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and I do not know where they have laid him!”
Some might wonder: Was Mary being hysterical? Was she so overcome, that she had gone to the wrong place? Did she, perhaps, have an agenda, and make it all up?
Some might try to discredit her this way. Truthtellers then and now often find that those who are opposed to the truth will slander and make up lies about those who do speak truth.
Peter and the other disciple knew better. They knew that Mary was a trustworthy witness.
So they went. They ran to the tomb with Mary. Now all three of them were wondering: Where is Jesus? Where have they taken him?
Peter and the other disciple left, but Mary stayed. And she was weeping.
Two angels appeared. They asked Mary why she was weeping. She said: “They have taken the Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Jesus himself appeared, but Mary did not recognize him.
She said to him: “Have you taken him away? Please, tell me where you have taken him.”
They have taken Jesus away. They have taken him, and Mary didn’t know where they have laid him.
That’s how things seemed to Mary.
In his excellent new book called Reconstructing the Gospel, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove asks: “What happens when, like Mary… you realize they’ve taken away your Jesus and you don’t know where they’ve laid him?”
Do you understand what he’s asking?
What happens when, like Mary, you realize they’ve taken away your Jesus and you don’t know where they’ve laid him?
A lot of people are searching for Jesus! A lot of people who go to church are searching for Jesus. And a lot of people who don’t go to church are searching for Jesus.
They’re searching for salvation. They’re searching for healing. They’re searching for wholeness.
They’re searching for Jesus. But they can’t find him.
The frantic desperation of Mary Magdalene is real.
People are having a hard time finding Jesus, because too many of our leaders who are supposed to be showing Jesus to them have instead hidden him away.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove asks, “What do you do when you realize that … the name of the one who came to set us free has been hijacked by the principalities and powers that bind us?”
We have leaders in our country - leaders in politics, leaders in religion - who claim to follow Jesus, who claim that they act on behalf of Christian principles… Yet despite what they claim to stand for, Jesus cannot be found in their words or in their actions.
They have taken away the true Jesus, so that many are unable to find him.
Lisa Sharon Harper is another author who has, in her own way, wondered where they have taken Jesus. Her book is titled The Very Good Gospel. In it, she points out that the gospel is, by definition, good news.
Gospel means “good news.”
However, when listening to the loudest voices in American Christianity today, it’s very hard to find news that is good.
Where have they taken that good news? Where have they hidden it? People are looking for some good news, people need good news: news of freedom, news of affirmation, news of hope.
Where is it? Where have they put it? Most of what they talk about isn’t “good news” to so many who hear what they say. What have they done with the good news?
The message of Easter is that Jesus is alive. And we celebrate, because that message is good news.
But the way Jesus is presented today, the good news has been replaced by bad news for many. The gospel of hope and freedom and new life has been replaced by a gospel of judgment, a gospel of condemnation, a gospel of oppression, a gospel of death.
That is not good news. Where is the good news? They have taken the good news away, and many wonder where they have laid it.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove notes that those who claim to be Christians “are more likely to be racist, homophobic, self-righteous, and blindly patriotic.”
People look at the lives of these Christians, but they do not see Jesus.
Those who claim to be Christian are also the least likely to extend hospitality and provide refuge to immigrants and refugees.
And from their mouths and in their actions, Jesus cannot be found. Jesus, the true Jesus - who proclaimed good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed - cannot be found. The Jesus who welcomed and embraced outcasts cannot be found. The Jesus who was himself a refugee cannot be found. The Jesus who dined with sinners and tax collectors, affirming them and all people as beloved children of God, cannot be found. The Jesus who came into the world so that all people could have abundant life cannot be found.
It should not be this way. When people look at American Christianity, they should see Jesus; but instead, Jesus is missing.
There are echoes of Gandhi here; Gandhi said he had a hard time seeing Jesus among Christians. “I like your Christ,” he said. “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi looked for Jesus, but the so-called Christians he met had hidden Jesus, taken him away, made him hard to find.
There are echoes of Frederick Douglass here. Frederick Douglass was a former slave in the time of Lincoln who wondered where the church in his day had laid Jesus. He criticized the church for hiding Jesus away. He wrote that American Christianity in his time was a “corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity,” which he hated. He did not see Christ in that version of Christianity.
Nevertheless, he still loved what he called “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.”
There are echoes of Martin Luther King, Jr., here. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, this preacher of the gospel said he was disappointed with the church. He wrote that he had expected the church as a whole to support the struggle for justice, for freedom, for equality, because these are core gospel values; but instead, many church leaders refused “to understand the freedom movement… have been more cautious than courageous, and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
They were hiding the good news. They were hiding Jesus.
Lisa Sharon Harper wanted to know where it had gone. Where had that gospel of good news, the gospel of Jesus, gone?
She wrote this: “My limited, evangelical understanding of the gospel had nothing to say about 16,000 Cherokees and four other sovereign indigenous nations whose people were forcibly removed from their lands. And it had nothing to say to my own ancestors who were enslaved in South Carolina.”
Since the version of the gospel she had been taught didn’t have any good news, it was no gospel at all. There was no “Jesus” in it.
This leads me to wonder: what does American Christianity today have to say? What good news, what gospel, are we sharing with the world?
What does American Christianity have to say to people like Stephon Clark, the young man who, two weeks ago, was shot twenty times in his own backyard by police, even though he had no weapon?
What good news does American Christianity have to say to high school students Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Jaclyn Corin, Alex Wind, and Cameron Kasky, and all the other survivors of the school shootings in Parkland, Florida and so many other places around this country, who have experienced gun violence at school? All those students who marched one week ago: if they go to church today looking for good news, will they find it?
What good news does American Christianity have to say to Taseen and Naheen, two American children in New York who watched immigration officials take their father away in handcuffs one day while they were getting ready for school? He was a law-abiding college professor and loving father, and they took him from his family. Where is the good news?
What good news does American Christianity have to say to youth like Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who committed suicide after her church convinced her parents to send her to a conversion therapy program.
Where is the good news? Where is Jesus?
For Stephon and Emma and David and Jaclyn and Alex and Cameron and Taseen and Naheen and Leelah, where is Jesus?
Perhaps at one point in their lives, they looked for Jesus, but couldn’t find him. Perhaps others like them - countless others - are still looking for good news, still looking for new life, still looking for hope, still looking for a reason to live, still looking for Jesus...
Will they find that Jesus - the Jesus of the gospel - at church?
Is the church presenting that image of Jesus to them? Is the church listening to their cries, their anguish, the way Jesus would? Is the church offering them hope and new life, the way Jesus would?
Is the church affirming them as beloved children of God, the way Jesus would?
What have we done with the real Jesus? Where have we laid him? Where have we hidden the one who said he came to preach good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed? Where have we taken the one who said he came so that all people may have life in abundance? ...
In case you are wondering on this Easter morning where Jesus is… In case you are wondering where the good news of the gospel is… let me tell you...
Jesus is alive... but he may not be where you expect to find him… We’ve been misdirected. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, our gaze has been misdirected.
We’ve been fooled. It’s the greatest of all April Fools’ Jokes, but it’s not funny. We’ve been told Jesus is one thing, when he is something else entirely. We’ve been told he’s in one place, when he’s somewhere else completely.
Jesus is alive… but he may not look like what you think he looks like, or what you’ve been told he looks like... Like Mary Magdalene, you may even see him but not recognize him. Maybe someone told you Jesus looks a certain way, and it turns out that Jesus doesn’t look like that at all.
Jesus may be standing right in front of you, and you might not see him, because you’ve been told that’s not what Jesus looks like.
Mary was looking for someone who was dead; maybe that’s why she didn’t recognize Jesus. Jesus is alive. Jesus brings life. Jesus is life.
If you’re looking for Jesus, but you have in mind a harsh, judgmental, condemning sort of Jesus, then you aren’t going to recognize him when you see him. Because that’s not who he is. Jesus is life. And hope. And affirmation. And good news.
Our job as a church is to help people find Jesus.
American Christianity has hidden Jesus, stolen Jesus, taken Jesus away, but we can change that! We can say: “THIS is Jesus.” We can share the good news that Jesus offers. We can BE good news!
The world needs a church that brings good news to Stephon and Emma and David and Jaclyn and Alex and Cameron and Taseen and Naheen and Leelah and all people who have been oppressed, condemned, threatened, judged, or persecuted.
The world needs a church that brings people to Jesus - The living, resurrected Son of God, who brings wholeness and life in abundance to all.
The world needs a church that, instead of adding weight to the already burdened shoulders of so many, helps lift that weight from them, and helps them to stand tall.
We can be that church! We can be the church of new life and hope and good news. We can be the church that helps people find Jesus.