The Essential Easter
By Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
(1 Corinthians 15:14)
I am starting this devotional thought differently than the devotions I have received (and shared) this past month. I want to avoid mentioning COVID-19, yet it is, as some would say, “the elephant in the room.”
Holy Week and Easter 2020 gives us an unprecedented opportunity to test our mettle. Nothing tests the depth, breadth, and tensile strength of religious convictions like a genuine challenge to the traditional ways of doing things.
I am the early riser in the family. I am usually showered, shaved, and in my office by 5:30am most mornings. The Easter Sunrise Service at 6:30am fits me perfectly. I love it!
Sometimes worship feels a bit too somber, the liturgy moves a bit too slowly, and we sing a bit sluggishly. Not so on Easter! The organ is louder, the trumpets blare, and the congregation belts out “I Know My Redeemer Lives” – often by memory and with a faint glimmer of a smile.
I also have met more new visitors at the traditional Easter morning breakfast than at any other time at church. I have worshiped with the newest members and visited with the family and friends of long-time members. All of these describe the steeped traditions associated with my church life at Easter time.
This is how I was raised. Even very infrequent church attendees tend to make a special effort to attend church on Easter Sunday. This makes it especially painful since the government forbade the gathering of more than ten people for all but “essential services” during this pandemic. It invites the question, “Shouldn’t Easter worship be considered an essential service at this time?”
Jesus faced a comparable challenge during his ministry when, on the Sabbath, his hungry disciples picked seeds of grain, removed the outer hulls, and ate them. The critics felt they broke the law based on both the Old Testament writings and their established traditions. Jesus responded,
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Jesus picked up on a problem that had eluded his critics. Elsewhere he said, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Mark 7:6).
The essential element of Easter is not found in the traditions we have established – no matter how precious they have become. The essential element of Easter is its message – that sin has been conquered, our salvation is secure, and though we die we shall live. It is the cornerstone of our Christian faith. We can have everything else but if we do not have the resurrection of Christ, we have nothing.
The story of perfectly-sacrificial love moves us emotionally. From Spirit-inspired hearts, we are struck by the abuse Jesus experienced from Gethsemane to Calvary’s hill. We see it in each harsh word thrown at him, each mockery made of him, each fist that struck him, every strap that flogged him, every thorn that pierced him, and every nail that was driven into him – because we caused it.
The prophet spoke so clearly about it hundreds of years in advance:
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5)
But could this really be so? Is it possible that all our sins, our terrible thoughts, the bad things we have said, our heartless moments, our apathy, our self-righteousness, our arrogance, our rebellion against God and all in authority could be placed on Jesus? The empty tomb is the answer. As Paul told the Corinthians,
“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The evidence of the resurrection is that God accepted the payment. If not, the tomb would still be sealed. The body would turn to dust, and there would be no redemption, no salvation, no deliverance. Even in the Old Testament, Job – a probable contemporary of Abraham – knew that God’s love transcended the ages and even the foe of death itself when he confessed:
“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.” (Job 19:25–26)
There are other elements of my traditional Easter that can’t be observed this year. Most painful is not having the children and their families around. In our busy culture, such gatherings are far too rare as it is. Easter, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, is a time when our other concerns are laid aside, and family comes together. Not this year – or at least, not now.
I will miss hiding eggs and watching the grandchildren find their negligible treasures. I will miss their smiles as they take possession of their over-priced Easter baskets. I will especially miss seeing them dressed in their best for this special day. It always reminds me of the time my daughters were young and each one was outfitted in a beautiful dress and an Easter hat.
These things are a precious part of an enduring tradition, but they are not the essential message of Easter. Easter, today, lives in the heart of every Christian. It’s the comfort that sustains us at the passing of a believing loved one. It is the courage to face the unexpected illness. It is the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope that does not disappoint, the trophy at the end of life’s race.
I believe that for many years to come we will talk about the lessons we learned from this pandemic. There will be the accusations tossed around about how prepared we should have been and what we should have done. Fault-finding seems to be an enduring tradition as well!
A lot of us, however, will reflect on this time within the context of our faith. All of us will be forced to ask ourselves whether Easter had lost its luster this year because we got lost in the traditions.
It seems to be in our sinful nature to always measure what we lose. We mourn those who have died. We lament the income we have lost. We miss our routines. We long for our traditions. We desire our way of life to return.
Yet, as siblings of the resurrected Lord, we can cherish our blessings – even in the worst of times. We can celebrate the lives that blessed us, even though they are now gone. We can be thankful for the times when we had an adequate income, and it was sufficient to have met our needs. We can celebrate the freedoms we had to live out our routines and enjoy our traditions. All of this is possible because the essential Easter is the message that “He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:6).
The truth of the resurrection story shades us with enduring comfort during the worst, hardest, saddest, and most difficult times of our life. Paul said,
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).
The Apostle Paul craved the fellowship and the mutual benefit to be drawn from his Christian brothers and sisters. He told them,
“I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong” (Romans 1:11).
Never lose the desire to be together in worship. Whenever and wherever possible, encourage it as something to be desired and pursued:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24–25)
Never forget, however, that the essential element of Easter is the Easter message. As we gather this Easter just with our household, or perhaps all alone, we will undoubtedly miss some of the traditions that we have embraced over the years. Do not lament the loss of what does not last. Rather, embrace the enduring message that “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” It changes everything!
May 4, 2018