The Last Laugh

by David Baer, April 1, 2018

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Text: John 20:1-18

What does Jesus say when he goes to the disco and can’t find his groove on the dance floor?

“Help, I’ve risen and I can’t get down!”

This is a day for laughter, for joy, for celebration—and yes, for occasional irreverence. Because something astounding and joyous and unexpected has happened. Jesus is risen, and God has had the last laugh, and the world will never, ever be the same! So let’s laugh today—at ourselves, at the defeated powers of sin and death, and with the God who loved us enough to pull off the greatest joke there ever was.

Look at our gospel lesson this morning—when Mary sees the empty tomb and reports it to the disciples, two of them set off on the first ever Easter 5k race. I like to imagine the scene with an announcer: And they’re off! It’s Peter in the lead, but wait! Here comes the beloved disciple! It’s Peter, beloved, Peter, beloved! The beloved disciple is pulling ahead! He’s going to win!

And yet for all that effort, racing out of town early in the morning, the two of them gain nothing beyond what Mary Magdalene has already told them. The stone is rolled away. Jesus isn’t there. But what does it mean? The story says the beloved disciple believed. But what did he believe? That Jesus was risen, or simply that Mary was telling the truth when she said he wasn’t in the tomb? Whatever he believed or didn’t believe, after the mad dash to the tomb, Peter and Beloved shrug their shoulders and go home. Whatever they believe or doubt, it doesn’t move them to do anything about it.

It’s Mary who stays behind, weeping. And she looks into the tomb and sees two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” This being a tomb and all, I would have thought the answer to that question should be obvious. Mary hasn’t come there to look for her car keys! “Why are you weeping?” Who would think to ask that, at a grave!

And then Mary turns around, and she sees Jesus, but she thinks it’s the gardener. And Jesus asks her the same thing, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Can you imagine him saying this without a smile on his face?

Empty tomb with stone rolled away
“Empty Tomb 2(K),” photograph by Flickr user Kodi Tanner. Used with permission.

Something funny is happening here. All the landmarks people use to navigate a time of grief aren’t where they’re supposed to be. The dead stay dead and in the tomb. Large heavy stones don’t roll themselves away. People come to a cemetery to cry, and to remember. The guy tapping you on the shoulder as you look into the tomb is almost certainly going to be the groundskeeper, not the decedent. This is the way things work, the way they’re meant to be, the way they’ve always been. And yet every time Jesus’ friends turn around they are tripping over something new, some unexpected obstacle that wasn’t meant to be where it is. It’s bewildering, disorienting.

And if you get the joke, it’s hilarious!

When I was a sophomore in high school I took an interest in chess, and one day I ran into a short, gangly, bug-eyed freshman who asked if I wanted to play. “Just take it easy on me,” he said. “I’m a just a freshman.”

We sat down and started to play. Pretty soon I had lost a few major pieces and had committed one blunder after the other. The freshman’s friends began to gather around. “I must be pretty lucky today,” the kid says. “I’m just a freshman. But I’m sure you’ll beat me in the end.”

In the end it was a total rout, taking probably ten minutes from start to finish. I was stunned. One of the kid’s friends, laughing, leaned over and said to me, “You know who this is, right? Charles Gelman, the national junior chess champion?” Charles piped up, “It sure was nice of you to make me feel better by letting me win like that. After all, I’m just a freshman. Do you want to play again, for real this time?” I decided I didn’t need to play him again. It was a trap, and I had fallen for it. This was no mere freshman, and I got schooled badly!

There was a tradition that arose in the early days of the church about something called the Risus Paschalis, the Easter laugh. See, the way things were supposed to work was that because of human sin, the devil could claim every human life and drag it down to the grave and to hell, never to be seen again. But by laying down his own life, Jesus tricked the devil, just like the freshman chess shark tricked me. By dying on the cross, Jesus gave himself over to the power of hell, saying, “Please take it easy on me! I’m just a frail human being!” But he wasn’t just a human being. He was the eternal Son of God, and when hell tried to chew him up and swallow him, it ruptured from the inside out, and Jesus led all its captives into the sunlight, laughing as he went. And he left hell behind him, holding its belly and fumbling around for the Alka-Seltzer. Death, hell, and the devil never imagined that God, out of love, would voluntarily suffer with and for us, so they assumed they would always win. The Easter Laugh is a laugh at their defeat through their own overconfidence.

The great fourth-century preacher, John Chrysostom, put it this way, in an Easter sermon that you can still hear repeated in many churches:

Death received a body and encountered God.

It took earth and came face-to-face with heaven.

It took what it saw and fell by what it could not see.

Death, where is your sting?

Hades, where is your victory?

Christ is risen and you are overthrown.

Christ is risen and demons have fallen.

Christ is risen and angels rejoice.

Christ is risen and life rules.

Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the tomb.

Viewed in this light, resurrection is the greatest of all pranks. It’s the best joke of all time. So what if it has to do with the most serious things that touch our lives? So what if it has to do with God, death, guilt, and forgiveness? We have jokes about marriage, sex, illness, children… Why shouldn’t God play a joke on the devil? Why shouldn’t Jesus’ gift to us at Easter be laughter as well as life eternal?

Resurrection is a dizzying, disorienting gift for us to accept. Just as for Peter, the beloved disciple, and Mary, we can no longer rely on the old landmarks. The Christian author and pastor Frederick Buechner wrote, “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” What are the “worst things” that you’ve always assumed to be final? Is there something terrible that you did or had done to you that still seems to be gripping you tightly? Is there a pattern to your life—maybe an addiction, but maybe some other kind of destructive cycle you can’t get out of? Are you facing an illness that is going to change your life, even if it doesn’t end it? Are you missing someone today, and not sure you can imagine life without this person? In so many of the stories we write for ourselves, the worst thing is the last thing. It’s either the last, worst thing lurking somewhere in the future, making us fearful and cautious, saying, “Please, don’t let this happen!” Or else it’s the last, worst thing in our past, the event that divided our life into “before” and “after,” that shut the door on the hopes we had once held; it’s the period at the end of a tragic sentence. If your life is oriented around a story where the worst thing is the last thing, then an empty tomb and a risen Jesus might just turn it all upside down.

A thousand years and more before Jesus walked the earth, God told Abraham and Sarah, an elderly couple, that they would have a son, Sarah laughed in astonished disbelief—who could dare to imagine such a thing for these two people whose childbearing years were long past, who were as good as dead themselves? But Sarah’s bitter laughter turned joyous when the promised son was born. Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6).

Jesus’ resurrection is God’s last laugh—not a laugh at us, but a laugh for us and with us. It’s a warm laugh, the kind meant to be picked up and shared with those you love. It’s the kind of laugh that cuts through a tense and anxious standoff and allows everyone to start again. The Easter laugh is a new beginning, Jesus ascending to the Father to prepare a place for us, and leaving his friends the power to do greater things than he himself ever did in this life. God has brought laughter for us, and as a resurrection people we are invited to live in the lightness and joy of God’s gift. God has brought laughter for us, and just as for Sarah, that laughter is meant to lift up those around us, so that they can see and take hold of the new life themselves. The laughter of Easter means not taking ourselves too seriously. The laughter of Easter means embracing a playfulness that makes our friends and even our enemies feel safe and at ease, that spawns new ways of living together. The laughter of Easter makes all those things that threaten and limit us seem so laughably small next to the tomb-shattering greatness of God’s love.

The stone is rolled away, the tomb is empty, and God has the last laugh. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Alleluia! He is risen indeed!