This sermon was first preached on Easter Sunday, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where I was rector from July 1993 to June 2003. I had thought it lost when that parish abandoned its internet domain after I left that position. However, at the urging of a friend, I searched for it on the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” and was surprised to find it. I have updated some of the references and corrected some mistakes to publish it here. I have always thought it a pretty good sermon, and I guess others have thought so, too: in the course of researching sources to update the footnotes, I found that a rather large chunk of it had been reproduced in full, without attribution, as the pastor’s 2019 Easter letter in the newsletter of a Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.[A] (As my fellow Anglican cleric Charles Caleb Cotton wrote in 1824 – and Oscar Wilde later quoted and expanded – “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”[B])
Easter is a joke. Amen.
(The Preacher steps out of the pulpit, perhaps even returns to his chair, then returns to the pulpit.)
OK … I guess I should explain that. What is a “joke”? Princeton University’s WordNet Dictionary says, in one of its definitions, that a joke is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
I wrote in our newsletter, The Canticle, that the Sunday we call “Easter” is really not a separate feast day; it is the third part of a three-day celebration that begins at sundown on the previous Thursday, the day we call “Maundy.” This three-day celebration is called by an ancient Latin name, “the Triduum.” The Triduum is a single celebration in three acts. We have arrived at Act Three in the drama of redemption.
In the first act on Maundy Thursday, we witnessed the institution of the Holy Eucharist, that joyful and boisterous multidirectional celebration which connects human to God, God to human, present to past and future, the ordinary to the sacred. In that first act, we heard Jesus give us a new commandment: “Love one another even as I have loved you.” The first act of the drama of redemption had such promise.
But then, in the second act on Good Friday, everything seemed to go to Hell. Literally! Jesus was arrested, tried, mocked, scourged, made to drag a cross through the streets of Jerusalem, then nailed to that cross and hung to die, and die he did. Most of his followers scattered, disheartened and afraid, denied even knowing him. Satan seemed to have won the day … the drama of redemption, the second act seemed to indicate, was a tragedy; evil clearly had triumphed.
To those who lived through that tragic day the drama surely seemed to be finished. The Passover Sabbath, the day we have come to know as Holy Saturday, was not a time of joy for them; they spent it grieving for their lost leader who lay dead in a borrowed tomb. What had happened? Where had he gone? We know that Holy Saturday turned out to be a sort of entr’acte, a kind of long intermission … but for them it must surely have seemed the tragic end of their enterprise.
Tragedy, however, is only one kind of drama. Webster’s Dictionary tells us “the principal species of the drama are tragedy and comedy.” Good Friday turned out not to be the end. Satan turned out not to get the last laugh. The drama of redemption had a third act, Easter Day, and the drama turned out to be a comedy.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the devil fell by force of gravity . . . A good joke is the closest thing to divine revelation . . . They who have the faith have the fun.
Easter is a good joke! Easter reveals God as no other celebration has ever done. Only God can draw the greatest good out of the greatest evil. Of evil, Saint Thomas More once wrote, “The devil … the proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.” The people of the Middle Ages understood this and decided to have the last laugh on evil. In the Middle Ages some communities would throw a laughter party on Easter Sunday. Its purpose was simple: to celebrate God’s triumph over evil. People would come back to church on Easter Sunday afternoon, which is the end of the Triduum, for Vespers and Benediction services. As a reward to the faithful after many serious Lenten homilies, the priest would insert funny stories, poems, and even off-color jokes into his sermon and would draw moral conclusions from them.
The ancient Russian Orthodox tradition was to sit around the Easter dinner table telling jokes. Like those 13th-Century Germans, they even told them in church. Why? Because they felt that way. After all, they were imitating the cosmic joke that God pulled on Satan in the resurrection. Satan thought he had won, but then God raised up Jesus from the dead and had the last word. And the world laughs at Satan’s chagrin. Laughing at the Devil even has a name in theological tradition; it is called the risus paschalis, “Easter laughter”.
This was the way people rejoiced in the triumph over death that Easter embodies. Death had been a disturbing thing. For much of human history people have had an attitude toward it somewhat like the character Kleinman in Woody Allen’s 1975 play Death, A Comedy in One Act: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Jesus’s resurrection turned the tables on Death. It was a cosmic joke! Where death had once been something to shudder at, the resurrection shows, as one Sunday School student put: “When you die, God takes care of you like your parents did when you were alive … only God doesn’t yell at you all the time.”
German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who wrote the book The Theology of Joy, writes, “The Easter laughter is rooted in the wholly unexpected and totally surprising ‘reversal of all things.’ God had brought this reversal about by raising Christ…. The expectation was for cosmic death, but what comes is eternal life.”
We North Americans, especially folks here in the middle of the country, are too darned serious. Praying and laughing seem to be far apart in our culture, but at Easter they come together, as they do throughout scripture. In the Psalms, the Hebrews praised God with mirth: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.” Jesus promised laughter to those who are favored by God: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” It seems the ancients were much more aware of the relationship between prayer and laughter than are we. Our word joke derives from the ancient Umbrian word iuka, which means “prayers”!
So, Easter is a joke, a great big cosmic joke, in which God turns the tables on Satan, turns the tables on evil, turns the tables on death! A Unitarian pastor of my acquaintance speaks of “Eastering moments” in which the tables are turned in various situations and the outcome is other than the world would expect, other than what Satan might want. Here a few examples of Eastering moments:
* * *
In the early 1920s Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin was sent from Moscow to Kiev to address an anti-God rally. For an hour he abused and ridiculed the Christian faith until it seemed as if the whole structure of belief was in ruins. Then questions were invited. An Orthodox church priest rose and asked to speak. He turned, faced the people, and gave the Easter greeting, “He is risen!” Instantly the assembly rose to its feet and the reply came back loud and clear, “He is risen indeed!”
That was an Eastering moment, and though Communism seemed to be winning for nearly 75 years, we all know how that turned out….
* * *
In 1980, Christian writer Warren Webster told of a Muslim who became a Christian in Africa. Some of his friends asked him, “Why have you become a Christian?” He answered, “Well, it’s like this. Suppose you were going down the road and suddenly the road forked in two directions, and you didn’t know which way to go, and there at the fork in the road were two men, one dead and one alive which one would you ask which way to go?”
That man’s conversion was an Eastering moment. Islam had been the most powerful religion in Africa for centuries, but in the past 20 years the Christian faith has made significant in roads. In our tradition of Anglicanism, Africa is where we are strongest and growing fastest.
* * *
The Unitarian Universalist Association’s education program for Grades 4-5, Love Connects Us All, relates a story from the 1976 Seattle Special Olympics:
[N]ine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.
While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears rushing down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell, they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.
That is an Eastering moment, turning the tables on a world that says, “Win at all costs.”
* * *
In one of his lighter moments, Benjamin Franklin penned his own epitaph. Franklin didn’t profess to be an orthodox Christian; he was more a deist, a believer in a clock-maker God than in the personal God of Jesus Christ. But it seems he must have been influenced by the Church’s teaching of the resurrection. Here’s the epitaph he wrote for himself:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer – Like the Cover of an old Book Its contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Guilding, Lies here, Food for Worms, But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, Appear once more In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended by the Author.
That is an Eastering moment, when we come to the realization that after death comes our correction, amendment and perfection “by the Author.”
* * *
A woman identified as Lois Morgan is described in one book as a psychiatric patient suffering from depression. In the midst of her battle with that debilitating disease, she wrote this prayer:
Jesus, I believe you laughed as Mary bathed you and Joseph tickled your toes. I believe you giggled as you and other children played your childhood games. And when you went to the Temple and astounded the teachers, I believe you chuckled as all children chuckle when they stump adults. And surely there were moments of merriment as you and your disciples deepened your relationship. And as you socialized with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, mirth must have been mirrored on your faces. Jesus, I know you wept and anguished. But I believe you laughed, too. Create in me the life of laughter.
That is an Eastering moment, when a person in the depths of melancholy can pray for the gift of laughter.
* * *
Eastering moments, Easter laughter, are ours because the third act in the drama of redemption shows that the Divine Playwright is a comedian who pulled the grandest, most cosmic joke of all, turning the tables on evil and death.
Sister Anita M. Constance, a member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, is a poet whose works are collected in a volume entitled A Time to Turn…The Paschal Experience. I will close with her poem entitled The Resurrection of Our Lord:
Laughter echoes in the tomb,
fills the hollows
and rolls away the stone
that separates the heart
from the heart of God.
The song of birds
greets the laughter —
blends with it
and plays with the melody
of joy in the morning.
Wrappings of yesterday
are left as memories,
reminders of what was…
and what will be for us.
But empty grave and
hold the laughter
that will follow —
for we, too,
will leave yesterday behind.
May the Risen Lord give you joy and mirth this Resurrection Day, for the third act in the drama of redemption reveals that the drama is a comedy and that Easter is a joke!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
As mentioned above, this homily will be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001, to the people of St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where Fr. Funston was rector from 1993 to 2003.
The lessons for the service were Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; and St. John 20:1-18. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
Note to Introductory Comments:
[B] Cotton, Charles Caleb, Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words, Addressed to Those Who Think, William Gowans, New York: 1849, p. 127
Notes to Sermon Text:
 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield: 1998
 Chesterton, Gilbert Keith, Orthodoxy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 1995
 Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1553), Book Two, Section XVI, Scepter Publications, Strongville OH: 1998
 Quoted in Messham-Muir, Kit, It’s Not that I’m Afraid to Die, Art Monthly Australia, Issue 304, Summer 2017/2018, p. 64
 Psalm 126:2 (BCP 1979 version)
 Luke 6:21 (NRSV)
 See Clackson, James, A Companion to the Latin Language, Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken NJ: 2011
 Today in the Word, September 1989, p. 8
 HIS Magazine, April, 1980, p. 13
 Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Diplomat, International Celebrity, History on the Net, Salem Media
 Samra, Cal & Rose, Holy Humor, Mastermedia Limited, New York: 1996
 Constance, Anita M., The Resurrection of Our Lord, A Time to Turn…The Paschal Experience, Paulist Press, Mahwah NJ: 1995