Scripture John 20:1-18 NRSV
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a]into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I think just about everybody here knows how excited I have been about Easter falling on April Fool’s Day this year. Honestly, just about anybody who has ever met me knows how excited I have been about this. I’ve been bouncing on my toes - like I used to be on Christmas morning, standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for my father to go down and turn on the lights and say the word that allowed the rest of us to walk into the space that somehow, overnight, had been transformed from ordinary living room into a Christmas wonderland! Waiting for Easter has been harder this year than probably ever before!
Easter is on April Fool’s Day! How cool is that? Oh, there are lots of congregations who celebrate Holy Hilarity the week after Easter, which I’ve actually never done or experienced, but apparently it’s all about jokes and such? But for the most important day of the entire year - of the entire history of the earth! - to fall on a day dedicated to practical jokes and basic silliness - that is awesome! Because, you see, although we will often talk about how Jesus kept doing things to turn the social order upside down, somehow we always do it so very seriously. We take Jesus’ words and actions and suck all the life out of them, making them a subject for study and never one to just enjoy. Consider, for example - “You have heard it said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you to love your enemy” (Matt 5:44) and . . . ”if your enemy is thirsty, give him a drink.” (Romans 12:19) We get all serious preaching that, but really - Best joke ever! It will make him crazy, waiting to figure out what you are going to do! Waiting for revenge that isn’t coming.
Another example, this one from a sermon by Kurt Vonnegut! - who was definitely not a minister, but who nonetheless preached by invitation in an Episcopal congregation on Palm Sunday, 1980. When Judas, was fussing over the woman spending money on ointment to lavish on Jesus, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Preachers tend to get pretty heavy handed trying to parse out what this actually means, and how we should use it as an example for our lives. Vonnegut suggests that Jesus wasn’t making a social statement, he was being more than a bit sarcastic, saying (according to Vonnegut) “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” This, Vonnegut says, is a “divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil, but to chide [Judas] about his hypocrisy just the same.” This example comes from an article in Christian Century magazine by Miles Townes, an author and elder in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), posted online February 21 and titled “When Easter Sunday Falls on April Fool’s Day.” ( https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/when-easter-sunday-falls-april-fools-day)
Among the many jokes in Scripture Townes points out is the mistaken identity joke in today’s scripture reading. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener! And she thought that because there was no way she could believe anything other than that Jesus was, in fact, dead, and that his dead body was missing from the tomb. And for Jesus it was like, “Psych!” When he spoke her name, it wasn’t so much compassionately comforting her, but more like, “Mary, it’s me!” like you might say to someone who doesn’t recognize you in a Halloween costume. The joke, here, Townes says, is about Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus while we, the readers, are totally able to recognize him - like a scene in a Three Stooges movie when you can see the disaster coming, a paint can is going to land upside down on Moe’s head, but Moe can’t see that coming, and it’s even funnier knowing that we know and he doesn’t. So we get to laugh twice!
What better joke could be played on the world that thought it was getting rid of Jesus than to have him come back from the grave? Instead of merely a martyr, a martyr who laughs at death! “Death, where is thy sting?” is a massive joke, because death is supposed to be final, and yet, it isn’t. The death that was to have brought darkness and despair to his followers, that was intended to end their movement, instead, gave them hope and power to go forward and continue to preach his upside down version of reality - the way of God instead of the way of the world.
Everything about Jesus was of the “Hah! Fooled ya!” variety. He was born of a poor family, not one of the rich and powerful. He was a simple rabbi, a wandering preacher, not a great king or general or even a priest. He wasn’t at all the kind of Messiah most people had been expecting. Even his message was a backwards. “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” “You have heard it said, hate you enemies. But I say, love your enemies.” “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.” “Whoever wishes to be great must be first be servant to all.” Instead of hanging out with the priests and scholars, he consorted with the outcast and unclean. Everything about Jesus was backwards. God planned it that way.
Sometimes I think that we don’t give God enough credit for having a sense of humor. Yet all we have to do is look around to see that our sense of humor had to have its basis in our Creator. I mean, kittens. Puppies. Hedgehogs. These and so many other parts of creation make us laugh, bring smiles and joy to our hearts. We are made in God’s image, and we have a sense of humor - some of us more than others, of course - so it seems to me that God also has a sense of humor. I mean - camels! For that matter, humans. We be pretty funny, just being ourselves.
The thing that separates us from God’s grace is sin. And part of our sin is our determination to take everything way too seriously. It is, perhaps, our Puritan heritage, in which anything that is thought to be worthwhile must be taken very seriously, and anything humorous is considered a waste of time, at best, something that might possibly help us relax, but which certainly has no place in the seriousness of life - or Bible study. Yet, there are enough teachers and students among us who know that humor is an excellent teaching tool. So perhaps Jesus, arguably the world’s greatest teacher, in order to bridge the gap between God and humanity, utilizes humor more than we realize. Townes suggests that in order to really understand the Bible, we have to be able to find and appreciate the jokes found therein (and some of them are seriously for adults only!) Come to think of it, we do recognize quite a few jokes in the New Testament, because we frequently laugh at the cluelessness of the disciples.
God is good at jokes, but I still think that me just being here, doing this, is one of God’s sillier jokes. Because God knows who I am, and who I was, and where I’ve been, and what I’ve done, and still called me to serve. And for me, that’s all about resurrection, because I woke up one morning knowing I was dead inside. I had reached the end of what I was able to bear and had to do something different. And as I made the physical changes I needed to make, and started to learn about how to live and act differently than I had my whole life, I found that spiritual change was happening, too. My soul, which had been dead and empty, was beginning to fill with a new life. And in that new life I discovered that some things I had thought were normal - and which, in the eyes of the world, are normal - were no longer the right way to live. So instead of always thinking that I had to get mine first, I learned to make sure others were cared for first - in as small a thing as to hold open a door for a person behind me instead of going through the door and letting it close in their face, or letting the person with 2 items go ahead of me in the check out line - little stuff that society says we don’t have to do because it’s all about me first and winning, don’t ya know. Later, as I began to switch sins for virtues - worry for faith, greed for generosity, denial for acceptance, materialism for altruism, gossip/lying for truth, and so on - I discovered that my life was now filled with more light than darkness. (This switching of sin for virtue, by the way, is more like cleaning the house than building a new one. Pretty much a constant effort, not a once and done kind of thing.) And when God called me to the ministry, I had to ask “Are you kidding?” because I knew who I had been, but God knows who I am. The joke, as usual, was on me.
Townes ends his article saying this. “We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed.” I like that. I like that in our study of Jesus’ ministry, we should be looking for his laughter, his joy, his jokes. I like that when we say, “He is Risen” we are proclaiming God’s greatest joke.
So let us go forth, looking for that laughing Jesus in our Bibles, and in our lives. Let us go forth knowing that He is Risen, indeed!
Please stand and sing with me, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”