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John 20:1-18

On that first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ male disciples were huddled behind locked doors, overcome by grief and paralyzed by fear. The one they had believed was the Messiah, the one they had expected to restore their people to power and glory, had been tried and tortured and executed like a common criminal, and then buried in a borrowed grave.

For all the disciples knew, they might be next. And so they hid from the authorities. Their every last hope had been vanquished, and they hardly knew who they were anymore.

On this Easter Sunday, our situation is not so different from theirs. We are isolated in our own homes, forced by a deadly virus to keep distance from even our closest family and friends, required to stay away from even our favorite places, to forgo our holiest habits, and to avoid going out to complete the most basic life-maintenance tasks except when absolutely necessary.

We tell ourselves we are staying home to protect others, that this how we love our neighbors in a pandemic—and that is true. But, if we are honest—and if we have been paying any attention to the unbelievably horrible news—we are also at least a little bit afraid—scared of getting sick, scared of suffering, scared of losing someone we love, scared not only of death but also of dying alone.

We know that we could be next. With our lives so different that we hardly know who we are or what day it is, with every person we encounter and every surface we touch a potential source of contagion, we isolate. We wash. We pray for the sick and the people who take care of them.

And we wonder when it will end. We wonder if Easter will come. We wonder what Easter is without balloons and brass, choir and coffee hour, excited children and childlike joy, crowds of old friends we haven’t seen in forever and new friends we’ve never seen before.

We’ve never done Easter in a pandemic before. We’ve never before sung “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by ourselves in front of our computers while wearing our pajamas. As uncomfortable as those old pews are, we can’t help but feel we’d rather be sitting in them, surrounded by our friends. It’s hard not to wish things would get back to normal.

All of which makes us not that different from Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter Sunday morning. Grief-stricken and lost, confused and afraid, they were ready to give up on that whole kingdom of God thing. Already they were planning a retreat to their former lives. In fact, in just a few days, some of them would be back to their old ways, casting their frayed nets and hoping to catch some fish.

But among their number there were some who refused to give up so easily, some who still longed for the new world Jesus had promised.

And so it was, our story says, that while it was still dark—while their hearts were still broken, while they still couldn’t believe Jesus was really gone, while the present was still scary and uncertain and the future was impossible to imagine, while it was still dark and they weren’t sure if the sun would ever rise again—Mary Magdalene and, according to other gospel accounts, some of the other women, set out for the tomb.

They set out for the tomb. Where they knew there would be guards. Where they knew there would be danger. Where they knew there was a huge  and heavy stone.

And still they went. In the dark.

What were they thinking?!? Were they out of their minds?

Or had they, as Jesus had told them, decided they were willing to lose their old lives to find new life?

Had their lives already been transformed by a wondrous love? Did they already have what we would now call an Easter faith?

Now, before anyone starts worrying that I’m going to suggest that we all leave our safe shelters and head for the nearest crowd, let me be clear: Please stay where you are. Please stay as safe as you can. Please continue to practice physical distancing and vigorous hand-washing and careful mask-wearing.

Easter faith is not reckless. Easter faith is not irresponsible. Easter faith is not blind or foolish, rigid or unrealistic. Easter faith is not even necessarily a firm belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

No, true Easter faith is the trust that life is about so much more than what we can see. True Easter faith is the refusal to let death have the last word. True Easter faith is the love that sets out in darkness to follow the Light. True Easter faith is the hope not that things will get back to “normal” when this pandemic is over, but that things will change, that values and priorities, ways of thinking and being, and entire systems and institutions will be re-made, that we all will rise from our self-isolating tombs to embrace new and better life.

Now you may be thinking that all this talk of Easter faith is a bit odd when I haven’t even gotten to the part where the Risen Christ greets a weeping Mary Magdalene, or how it’s his tenderness that reveals who he is. You may be thinking that, surely, Easter faith has to be based on something?

And it is, of course!

But first let’s consider what Easter faith is not based on: things like  success and certainty, things like smooth sailing and good results, things that can be predicted, things that have been seen before, maybe even things that can be imagined.

Easter faith sets out while it is still dark, while we are still scared, while we don’t know what will happen or how things will turn out—because we have been loved with a wondrous love and because that love has opened our hearts to believe and our eyes to see that another world is possible,that healing can happen, that love is greater than death, and that new life is what God wants for us.

Some of you may remember that when Lent began—which feels like a   lifetime ago now—our theme for the season was “for God so loves the world.” We had barely begun focusing on how much, and in what ways, God loves the world, when an epidemic became a pandemic and life as we knew it, and church as we knew it, ended. Lent is only six weeks long, and it has been five weeks since we worshipped together in person!

Easter faith is the faith that proclaims, even in the midst of a raging pandemic, even as the number of Covid-19 deaths in this country increases by the thousands every day, even as unemployment rises to historic levels and unpaid bills pile up, that God still loves the world.

That God loves every infected person struggling to breathe. That God loves every family member and friend distraught because they cannot be with their loved one. That God loves every doctor and nurse and CNA, every EMT and respiratory tech, every caregiver and public health official giving their all to save each life. That God loves every worker who’s lost a job, every business owner who’s had to shut down, every grocery store worker and farmworker and delivery person getting us what we need, and every person working from home.

Easter faith trusts that God loves every teacher trying to do distance learning, every parent trying to homeschool their children, every college student and child missing their friends and their activities. That God loves every mountain vista that hasn’t been seen in decades, every smog-free sky,  and empty airport. That God loves every person who steps out on a balcony to clap hands or bang pots in gratitude for health care workers. That God loves every anxious person wondering whether to go to the grocery store, and every extrovert craving connection.

Easter faith trusts that God still loves life—even now, especially now—and that God loves new life.

Easter faith celebrates the Risen Christ—even from home, even alone, even with at-home communion elements pulled from a half-empty pantry. Easter faith knows that God is in the resurrection business.

And so it is that even while the stench of death permeates the air, even while the world we have known is crumbling, even while people everywhere are wondering if they’re going to be okay, Easter faith begins working with God in the re-making of the world.

Easter faith celebrates not only that Christ is risen, but also that Christ calls us to a whole new way of living and being.

Easter faith sings “What Wondrous Love Is This” as a fight song, because Easter faith can see a new world rising even from the ashes of the old.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!