Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two Easter, Holy Humor Sunday
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth…

The Sunday following Easter is one of the least attended services of the church year. Perhaps people feel burnt out after a week full of extra activities. Holy Week for many churches have services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil. Many churches also hold special activities for the kids. The pastors are so busy through Lent with the extra worship, studies and sermons to write that by Easter day they are tired. Many take vacation the week after Easter to rest and recover. It is no wonder that people don’t attend church on the Sunday following Easter. When the pastor is away, the congregation gets to play. The empty pews seem particularly bad when compared to the overflowing sanctuaries of Palm Sunday and Easter. Lent is over, the fast is over, Easter has come and gone, so the people go back to their lives as they had been.

There may be another reason people do not attend worship on the Sunday after Easter. The story in today’s Gospel lesson is the same story we hear each year. The story of Thomas is a wonderful story and relevant story to our lives of faith today. It is appropriate to read the text on this Sunday because it describes an event that happened a week after the Resurrection. It is familiar and it is very comforting. In this story we see the worst of human responses played out by the people of faith from whom we have received the witness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. If they could be afraid and doubt what was happening and experience the forgiveness of Christ, then surely His grace is also meant for us who live so far outside the events of His life. In this story we see that it is not our human strength or knowledge that gives us peace, but God’s power in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Easter is a time of joy, and yet the scriptures for this Sunday hold a powerful message about the Christian life we lead in faith and how it is not all sunshine and roses. In the passage from Acts, Peter stands up before the crowds and lays the death of Jesus at their feet: “…ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay…” he said. This was not a sermon that would gain Peter many friends. Instead, it was likely to gain him many enemies. The earliest days of the Christian church were filled with the kind of fear and doubt that we see in the Gospel lesson from John. They were threatened by the same people who participated in Jesus’ death. His resurrection did little to assuage their uncertainty about the future.

In the midst of this doubt, fear and uncertainty, we are reminded that this is a time of great joy. We see in Peter’s sermon that even though these things were done to Jesus, it was by God’s hand and it was so that we could live in the assurance of hope in His promises. In Peter’s letter we see that even though they will suffer trials, they will come through the fire with a faith that though tested will result in joy as Jesus is revealed with praise and glory and honor. John writes the story of Jesus’ appearance and everything else that He has done so “that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.”

We are reminded in the passages that the crucifixion is a very real and central part of our faith and that we will continue to experience the pain of the crucifixion as we go forth into all the world being witnesses for Jesus Christ. It isn’t all sunshine and roses. However, in the midst of that truth, we are also reminded to trust in God, to live in faith and to be joyful through the pain because our perseverance will bring us to the time of seeing our salvation in its fullness, enjoying the benefits of eternal life.

None of this may seem very humorous, especially when we are in the middle of difficult times. Though I doubt many of us are suffering the kind of persecution that the early church faced, we all can identify with Peter and the disciples. We’ve had to speak the truth that hurts to someone we love, words that bring broken relationships and mistreatment. We have all experienced fear and doubt. We do not know what tomorrow holds and though we have the hope of eternal life it is hard to remember when we are suffering today. We identify more easily with the suffering of the crucifixion than the joy of the resurrection.

Despite the reality of our Christian life as we see it in our passages for this week, this is indeed a time of great joy, joy that can be expressed in laughter and revelry. Early Christian theologians recognized the humor in the way God chose to bring redemption to the world. They called the resurrection of Jesus, “a practical joke on the devil.” They said, “Easter was the supreme joke played on death.” Because of this, the Sunday after Easter was known as “Bright Sunday,” and was a time for joking and laughter. The people played practical jokes on their priests and the priests told jokes in their sermons. It was a day of joy and laughter.

Eastern Orthodox priests have been known to gather together during the week after Easter to smoke cigars, drink brandy and tell jokes. Risus Paschalis, the Easter Laugh, celebrated the joy of the season, a joy that perhaps was lost in the solemnity of after Easter lessons. In 1988, the Fellowship of Merry Christians began encouraging churches to return to the tradition. Easter had become too dark, so they resurrected Holy Humor Sunday. This Sunday is a time to lighten up, to enjoy the humor of God, to laugh at ourselves and to experience the reality of our life in Christ with merriment and happiness.

A few thoughts about Holy Humor Sunday: This idea can get out of hand. As a matter of fact, it did. The tradition had become an excuse for abusing scripture and so it was banned in the seventeenth century by Clement X and in the eighteenth century by Maximilian III. For many the idea of having a Sunday full of joke telling and revelry is offensive. Some people will find it sacrilegious and irreverent.

We must take care that if we are going to tell jokes or play practical jokes that we do so in a Christian and gracious manner. For those who returned to church the Sunday after Easter after hearing the message of grace and forgiveness, a service of partying, jokes and laughter may be distasteful and repulsive. Practical jokes may seem funny, but they can also be hurtful and dangerous. Jesus laughed and I have always imagined Him to have been the life of every party. Theologians have suggested that some of His teachings were in reality jokes, humorous ways of addressing the issues of His day. I am sure laughter followed Him, not only the simple, faith-based joy we experience in a relationship with Him, but real hearty laughter. He would never have told a joke or played a practical joke that would have hurt someone. We must take care to do the same.

I don’t think we should do this type of service if our motivation is to get people into the pews. I have heard people say that it does bring up the attendance for that “low Sunday.” But we are not called to entertain people or to offer them something that will make them want to come so that they will hear the message. We are called to proclaim the Christ which by His own power will draw people unto Himself. While the Gospel can, and should indeed, be proclaimed with great joy, it is not laughter that will bring people the salvation of God. The grace of God brings forgiveness and salvation which in turn will bring people to peace and joy, even laughter.

I don’t think we should ignore the important stories that are found in our lectionary for the day. We can learn a great deal from Peter and Thomas, and hear the word of forgiveness and grace from God through these lessons. If Sunday is to be a “holy humor Sunday” then it should be woven into the powerful messages of the Second Sunday of Easter.

According to John’s account of the resurrection story, at the point of our lesson the disciples had word of Jesus’ resurrection, but they had not yet seen Him. The witness was Mary Magdalene. Despite her closeness with Jesus and her place among the disciples during Jesus’ ministry, she was still a woman and by some accounts not well-liked among the disciples. At the very least, the men had not seen Jesus for themselves. They had not heard His voice or experienced His presence. They only knew that one woman in her grief had met a man in the garden near the tomb and that he said He was Jesus. Could she have had a hallucination or was she just confused?

Jesus came and stood among them, appearing despite the locked door meant to keep out those who might destroy what little peace they had left. It was peace that Jesus brought, twice saying “Peace be with you.” In last week’s Gospel the women were twice told to have no fear. One word is never enough for certainty, especially if we are experiencing overwhelming emotions like grief, fear and doubt. Jesus knew that of all things, peace was the most important at this point. In peace, they could face whatever it was that waited for them outside the door to their room. They would not find peace out there, since the Jews and the Romans would eventually respond to the Christian story with violence and oppression.

From peace He moves on to the manifestation of peace—forgiveness. Or perhaps peace is the manifestation of forgiveness. They are inseparable. We can’t have peace if we are holding a grudge against someone. We can’t have peace if another is holding a grudge against us. But we can face the sin of our world with forgiveness, at peace with the reality of our brokenness and God’s forgiveness. As we dwell in His grace, we share that grace with others and we experience real peace.

Real peace is not the absence of conflict but an unassailable trust in God. The world outside our door is not conducive to that feeling of peace that we long for today. As a matter of fact, we face grief, fear and doubt every day. But Christ comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” He is saying, “Trust in me and trust in my Father. His promises are true and He is faithful. Whatever you face, do so with faith, knowing that everything is already taken care of for your and for the world. Live in the forgiveness I have obtained for you and take it out the door into the world for others.”

The story of Christ is ridiculous. It is no wonder that many people consider it little more than a fairy tale. Much of what we know about Jesus is beyond scientific explanation, beyond reason, physically impossible. That God could, or would, become incarnate to live among men and then live to die is outrageous. Some might even say it is a lie. All too many have tried to justify the traditional Christian beliefs by claiming the story is referring to a purely spiritual experience. For them, living so far from the time and place of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the bodily aspects do not seem so important. We can not touch, hear or see Jesus in the flesh, so it is the Spirit through which we know and experience God.

However, our faith is founded in the reality of what Jesus did and what God did through Jesus. There are those who would prefer to reduce Jesus to little more than a rabbi, teacher and example by which we are called to live. While He was those things, He was also much more. He was the Messiah. Though He did not live up to the expectations of what the people in His day were waiting for, He did accomplish the work that God foreordained.

Peter makes it very clear that what happened to Jesus, the things that they witnessed first hand, were exactly what God had planned. Though He was crucified at the hands of human beings, it was as God had planned. Jesus went to the cross by God’s hand so that His plan for salvation could be completed. There are those who say that the New Testament writers give us the impression that the Jews were at fault for the death of Jesus because the writers feared retribution from the Romans. However, in this speech, Peter lays the responsibility on both the Jews and the Romans (those outside the Law), but ultimately the responsibility belongs to God. All that they did, they did because God planned it to be done. It is no wonder the early theologians saw this as a great joke on the devil and death. It is foolishness! But it is a joyful joke for those of us who receive the promise by faith.

Peter tells us that David was a prophet because he foresaw the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Referring back to the Psalm, Peter took the evidence of the things that they had seen and experienced with Jesus and lined it up with the things the prophet King David had foretold. David and Peter were not speaking about purely spiritual things. David died and was buried and his tomb still existed in that day. Jesus, however, died but was no longer buried. Jesus was the promised King, greater than King David because He was the Messiah, the promised One of God. His body would not stay in the ground and it would not decompose as David’s did.

Peter states emphatically that they were witnesses to these things and we believe based on their witness. Though we can not experience the flesh of Jesus as they did, though we can’t see Him or touch Him or hear Him as they did, we can believe based on their testimony. To reduce the Resurrection of Jesus to something purely spiritual diminishes the witness of Peter and the others. It also diminishes Jesus to less than was promised by God through His prophets. It may seem ridiculous to our modern human sensibilities, but it as God intended. Jesus lived, died and rose again by God’s hand and for God’s plan.

In his letter, Peter tells us about the hope we have in Christ. Our faith is built on a rock. Our rock is Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for our sake. The promise of eternal life in His is not dependent on anything human or created, it is founded in God’s grace and love for His people. We have been given the eternal kingdom by resting on the True rock of our faith. The promise is real and the King is faithful. We may experience hardship and trials, but through those difficulties our faith will grow and mature. Our joy rests not on the blessings we will see in the here and now, but in faith that God has assured our salvation and that we’ll share in His glory.

There are those who do work that is often unseen and unknown but their work is vital to the results of the whole. They are hidden, forgotten, undervalued. We could hardly say that about God. We know that God is the ‘head,’ the ‘boss,’ the Great I AM. He is the top of the totem pole, and yet in the psalm for today, which Peter quotes in the first lesson, God is described as being at David’s right hand. In this psalm God is the right hand man. That is what is so incredible about the God we worship is that He never kept Himself above His creation, but instead came down to dwell amongst His people. The incarnation is absolutely ridiculous if we think about it in human terms; however, God does not think the way we do. His ways are higher. He stands as our helper, our guide, our hope. David recognized that he could do nothing without God at his right hand. He would fail without God’s help.

That’s why the devil didn’t see the joke coming. It was outrageous and preposterous. It was unexpected. Celebrating Holy Humor Sunday might just be the way to bring an old, beloved story to a people who have not really heard it for some time because they think they have heard it all before. Holy Humor Sunday might just be a way to laugh at ourselves, as perhaps Peter and Thomas and all the disciples must have laughed after they realized what had really happened to them over these amazing and outrageous weeks and years. We can tell jokes about ourselves, about our fear and our doubts and laugh in the joy of God’s forgiveness, trusting in His mercy and sharing His grace through laughter and merriment one Sunday a year. We can be glad and rejoice because what God has done is really a great joke that has brought salvation to the world.

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