Yesterday, Easter morning, I was at one of the most incredible services I’ve ever experienced. The presence of God was powerful, the choir matchless, the presentation of Scripture in perfect context. And there’s no way you could match the visual effects.
Where did I go? Out in the middle of nowhere.
Seriously. At 5:45 a.m., I poured myself out of bed, threw on some clothes and drove east, finally parking next to a fallow field on the Escalon-Bellona north-south road about 15 miles east of Stockton. See, after visiting sixteen different congregations this year, I kind of needed a break – especially on Easter, when the American church is practically drowning in pageants and “special events.” After 21 years as a believer, those events can be a bit tiring, even when you’re just watching. And I was already pooped. I was looking forward to this, as a chance to celebrate the Resurrection and worship Jesus in a different, and less busy, milieu.
(As an aside, I’ve often wondered if it’s wise to do all those events on Easter. Since Easter is the day where the unchurched are most likely to attend, might it be a better idea to give them an idea of what they’re missing every week, rather than pre-empt the usual service for a “special presentation”? Or, if we’d rather have visitors see a special presentation instead of our standard Sunday services, why do we do the standard services most of the other 51 Sundays of the year? I dunno, just a thought. Where was I?)
Anyway, I parked on the east side of the road around 6:15, broke out my Bible, my notepad and a towel to lay across the hood, and “had church” right there.
And what a site – and sight – it was. The eastern horizon was already that pre-sunrise dirty teal color when I left home; now it was beige and shading more toward gold. The air was fresh and clean. The only sounds were the cacophony of the birds in the trees, absorbed in their arguments and mating dances – it would take a good sound engineer a month with a bank of synthesizers to recreate one minute of their chorus. And then … a shaft of gold appeared over the Sierra foothills and took my breath away. It quickly grew until the sun was completely over the horizon and I couldn’t look at it directly anymore without ruining my eyes (even more). It was all so beautiful, I don’t mind saying I had tears welling up in my eyes.
Nor was it just because of the majesty of God’s world – in the midst of that I was also delving into God’s Word, re-reading the accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. A couple of things struck me with some force:
* * * I think that in the American church, we’ve lost some of the shock of the Resurrection because we treat it as inevitable. I mean, we know how the story ends – of course Jesus comes back from the dead; how could it be otherwise? But for the disciples, it was far from a foregone conclusion.
Granted, Jesus had told them that He would be killed and rise again on the third day. They can’t say they hadn’t been informed. But … c’mon, if someone told you that, would you put your confidence in it? How many people have you seen rise from the dead without medical intervention? (Right, me neither.) I can imagine them thinking that it was figurative – after all, He had talked about people eating His body and drinking His blood, and He hadn’t meant that literally. Regardless, what they knew for sure on that pre-Resurrection Saturday was that they had put their hope in Him as the Messiah who was going to redeem Israel … and now He was dead and entombed. Pretty hard to deliver the nation when you’re dead. Most of the inner circle were in hiding, making sure the Romans didn’t catch and crucify them too – not unwise given the circumstances.
One of the exceptions was Mary Magdalene, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot. Some scholars have equated her with one of the two women who anointed Jesus’ feet (the “immoral woman” in Luke 7 or Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister in John 12). Others disagree. Either way, “Maggie” was committed to following Jesus, even watching as He died and was put in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. He had seen her at her worst, delivering her from seven demons, and she was sticking with him to the bitter end. But was she expecting the stone to be rolled away and Jesus to walk out of there? Hardly, considering that she spent her last few hours before the Sabbath rest with some other women, mixing spices to embalm His body. And after the Sabbath was over, she was part of the crew that headed out to do just that …
* * * Only He wasn’t there. Imagine the whipsaw of emotion for Mary Magdalene and all the other disciples – from the joyous cheering of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, pregnant with thriumphal promise, to the shock and anger at His betrayal in Gethsemane, the sense of injustice coming from His trial before the Sanhedrin and His hearing with Pontius Pilate, the despair and grief from watching His bloody and painful death … and now even His body is gone?!? Maybe He literally rose again – or maybe someone just moved the body. You can’t blame them for not getting their hopes up after all they’ve been through.
So we find Maggie crying in the cemetery, too beaten down to recognize for a second that it isn’t the gardener she’s talking to. And then … how can You …? But You were … ! I saw … ! Any wonder that when she ran back and told the others, they thought she was hysterical? Heck, she must have been in a state – I know I would have been! And then the moment when she and all of them suddenly realize that Someone Else has come into the room – without using the door – and it’s their leader, the one they’d all given up for dead two days before! How often do we think about the emotional rollercoaster they must have been on? And how well would any of us have dealt with it in their shoes? (My guess: about the same, maybe a little worse.)
* * * Finally, going back to my earlier comments about special Easter events … I wonder if we haven’t made things in the church far more difficult than they need to be. After all, putting together an Easter pageant takes an incredible number of man-hours, and I think it’s an open question whether the church is gaining much from all that work. How many people do you know who have not only committed their lives to Christ because of an Easter presentation, but subsequently grown in the faith and become a contributing member of the church? I racked my brain for a while and came up with no names. And these, again, are the events we plan for the Sunday where unbelievers are most likely to show up at our religious buildings! It’s worth asking if maybe we’re throwing a lot of energy into something that’s not a good use of our time.
By and large, Jesus and the apostles didn’t depend on big events to draw people to salvation. Jesus would often tell people He had miraculously healed not to tell anybody. Peter shooed everyone out of the room before healing Dorcas. Philip was actually called away by God from a large (and growing) revival to teach one Ethiopian riding down the Jerusalem-Gaza highway. And most of the big crowds Paul dealt with were rioting mobs of pagans or orthodox Jews protesting against his preaching. But they turned the world upside down, and saw conversions far more dramatic than most of those in the American church.
Maybe, instead of putting all that effort into plays and pageants and whatnot on Easter (and other occasions), we could put it into what the apostles did: praying and studying God’s Word (Acts 6:4). It seemed to work well for them. I know I was far more refreshed by thirty minutes at the edge of a grassy field, studying the Bible, talking and listening to God, hearing the birds sing and watching the sun come up, than I’ve been at any religious meeting I’ve attended in the last couple of years. I had started the morning – and the month – exhausted, but came home with enough energy and enthusiasm to minister to my wife and kids and prepare a huge Easter dinner from scratch.
Maybe, if we all devote ourselves more to God and His Word, we’ll all be in better shape emotionally and spiritually. And maybe, if we’re in better shape, if we’ve drawn closer to God in prayer, if we know (and live by) Scripture better, we won’t need to hold big events to attract people – because we, God’s people, will be found more attractive than we are now, and more unbelievers will come because they want to be like us.
Just a thought. My prayer is that Jesus’ resurrected life would shine through each of His people, just like the sun coming over the hills. That would be the happiest Easter of all. (Aside from the first one, of course.)