taking the words of Jesus seriously

My favorite part of the annual Easter service is the joy.

Almost every year, Easter at church leaves me energized, excited, and engaged. Part of that is the crowd: The pews are full, the children are laughing at the egg hunt, and all my friends are at the celebratory post-worship lunch sharing in the good mood.

Another reason I find Easter so joyful is the music. The day brings with it some of the best hymns of the year, ringing out loudly thanks to large crowds and extra musicians: “Christ the Lord Is risen today,” “He is risen, He is risen,” “Now the green blade riseth,” and more. After two hours of soaring music and messages of new life and hope ringing in our ears, it is almost impossible to leave the sanctuary without a full heart.

This year, as churches painfully yet compassionately suspend services to stop the spread of COVID-19, there will be no in-person Easter gatherings. The pews will be empty rather than full, no children will laugh at church-provided Easter egg hunts, and there will be no trumpets or French horns to join the organ for Handel’s Messiah – at least not live.

But that does not mean we cannot still have joy at Easter. This year, watching services at home broadcast from nearly empty churches, we have the opportunity to experience the holiest day of the church calendar similarly to how Jesus’s original disciples might have experienced the very first Easter.

Upon rising from the grave, Christ’s first appearance was to a small group of women: Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Joanna. He then appeared to Peter, and to two men walking the road to Emmaus and discussing his death. Time and time again, Jesus appeared to groups of smaller than five, just as we gather now.

On at least four other occasions, Jesus appeared to a group only slightly larger: the eleven male disciples. I am especially struck that two of these appearances came while “they were sitting at the table,” hidden away from society in an upper room, scared of current events and uncertain of what would come next.

Paul also tells us that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time.” I do not think he means Jesus appeared at an event where 500 people were present. Such a visible gathering would have been extremely dangerous, not to mention logistically difficult, for the early, still unorganized church. Paul is instead telling us that Jesus appeared simultaneously to hundreds of different Christians in hundreds of different places – just as our churches will broadcast to thousands of laptops and phones on Easter morning this year.

We do not know who the 500 people that saw Jesus in that moment were. Perhaps some were sick, elderly, or disabled individuals living lonely lives of solitude. Just as Jesus appeared to them in isolation that first Easter, the churches of today can work to bring a joyful Easter to their homes and hospitals this year, as well.

If a small Easter was good enough for the Apostles, then surely it can be comforting and joyful for us today. Perhaps it can even be better, for we have a gift that the disciples did not: We already know what happened that third day. When Christ appeared, Mary and Peter failed to recognize him at first, and Thomas rejected what his senses told him. We have learned from their shock, and can now carry the hope of the resurrection with us at all times.

It is true that this year, we do not know when the promised resurrection will occur. We will certainly not begin to rebuild our lives or our society until well after April 12. What we do know is that whenever the day comes, we will, for the most part, be ready to rebuild. And we carry with us the assurance that Christ conquers death and will always show us new life.

READ: Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday with Red Letter Christians 

We also know that as we wait for our resurrection—as we suffer economic uncertainty, hunger, and poverty, and as we lose loved ones to COVID-19 without being able to sit with them or attend the funeral—Jesus is with us through it all.

Whatever pain we feel, we know that the incarnate God who wept at his friend Lazarus’ death, who begged to have the suffering removed from his heart in the Garden, and who was whipped and nailed to a cross before his mother has felt a similar pain and will be with us until our resurrection arrives. We cannot have Easter without first suffering Good Friday, but Easter always arrives, even if not on the Sunday our human calendars told to expect.

There is one more thing to remember about that first Easter season: The apostles’ work did not end with Christ’s resurrection. New life means new mission, as Christ instructed in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Make disciples by teaching people to obey everything that I have commanded you. And just what was it that Jesus had commanded us?

To love our neighbors, as well as our enemies.

To be peacemakers, merciful and pure in heart.

This is the charge of Easter, the mission that begins anew on Sunday even from within our quarantined homes: Give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; comfort the sick; proclaim good news to the poor, release the captives, and let the oppressed go free.

Recognizing that the coronavirus pandemic impacts the poor and vulnerable the most, the mission of Easter means that Christians cannot accept racial inequality in health care and coronavirus deaths. Churches have a role to play in pushing Congress to lift up the poor, and to put people before profits in the next round of relief legislation. 

The mission of Easter means we need to call on our governors and mayors to reduce incarcerated populations, since anyone living or working in prison populations is virtually doomed to catch COVID-19.

And it means that we must protect the vulnerable by countering the deadly inaction and misinformation spread by religious charlatans like Jerry Falwell Jr., Jim Bakker, and Tony Spell.

Once society begins to rebuild a post-pandemic economy, Easter Christians can lead the way in working for a new, regenerative community that respects all human dignity. The resurrected Body of Christ can lead the way in setting aside racial disparities, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and fossil fuel dependence, building in their place a more loving, equitable future for all.

That is Easter’s promise of the resurrection: That when we emerge, we will have the opportunity not just for life, but for new life.

So let’s experience Easter as the Apostles did: in small groups at home, preparing to share God’s love with the poor and vulnerable. This is not the Easter we hoped for, but it is the Easter we have. And when we remember who celebrated this way before us, who it is that always walks the road with us, and what it can mean for our shared future, then it can still be a joyful holy day indeed.

About The Author

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Nathan Empsall is an Episcopal priest, veteran progressive digital organizer, and campaigns director for Faithful America, "the largest online community of Christians putting faith into action for social justice." Nathan organizes rapid-response campaigns to help Faithful America's 150,000+ members reclaim the gospel's message of love from the Religious Right. Nathan is also a part-time parish priest, a member of the Episcopal Church's Task Force on Care of Creation and Environmental Racism, and the founding editor of Episcopal Climate News. Originally from Conroe, Texas, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, he is now a husband and father in New Haven, Connecticut.

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