Easter Ought to Mean Joy
“The Lord is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” This traditional Christian call and response ought to be shouted with great joy! The resurrection of Jesus is good news for all people. It signals the hope (confident expectation) of life conquering death, not by the earthly powers of Spring but by the divine power of God breaking into and overcoming death and decay.
According to the gospel Jesus did not merely “come back to life.” His resurrection was not his resuscitation—only to die again. According to the gospel of the resurrection Jesus rose to a new form of human life previously unknown—a bodily life fit for heaven (this earth renewed). His resurrection was the “arrabon,” the down payment, the guarantee of our future resurrection to that same new form of life. But not only that! His resurrection was the beginning of the possibility of “life abundant,” “eternal life” now.
This is the message of Easter too often missing in Christian communities. We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection as a message about our future with him in heaven, but we too often neglect the other dimension of Easter: that a new life can be experienced now even in the face of inevitable death.
What is that new life now? What is the message of the resurrection for our present—beyond hope for a final triumph over death in the future?
It is, in a word, “joy.” Not just the joy of celebration that Jesus is alive—which is plenty of reason for joy! It’s also a new sense of living in the midst of death, decay and destruction. It is not just “knowing” (mentally) that those do not have the final word because Jesus rose from the dead. It is also being transformed “inside”—in the inner center of the personality—away from gloom and fear and melancholy toward an exuberant disposition that wants to express itself outwardly.
“He is risen indeed!” should be shouted. But it is perhaps the only time we are permitted to shout our faith, hope and love joyfully in church. Too often we fear exuberance in worship and enthusiasm in expressing our faith. We encourage exuberant outbursts, loud expressions of heartfelt emotion, at athletic events and some concerts and other venues, but we “put a lid on it” in church.
I often wonder what would happen if someone bursting with the joy of new life just couldn’t contain herself during worship and shouted out “Hallelujah! He is risen indeed!” after the ritual singing of “He Lives” or “Up from the Grave He Arose.” What if she stood with tears of joy streaming down her face and with arms lifted up shouted “Thank you Jesus for this new life!”? I imagine that happening and the whole congregation including the worship leaders, the musicians, just stopping and staring in horror. I imagine the ushers solemnly walking to her and urging her to control herself. But why? Emotion is a natural response to great good news! On television we see people jumping and shouting and crying and almost fainting when the people from some magazine lottery surprise a “Grand Prize Winner” with the news he has won a million dollars. We totally understand and know we would do the same. But then we frown and duck our heads if someone in church expresses joyful enthusiasm over the greatest news of all: “He’s alive!”I admit it. I’m suspicious of people who never express emotion in church and I’m suspicious of churches that discourage it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of chaotic worship or of people drawing attention to themselves with manufactured displays of emotion. But that’s no problem in the Christian circles I move in (or most that I know of).
One of my favorite memories of church from childhood is of an elderly woman who often “danced before the Lord” like David during worship. She was known to be a dear saint of God filled with great joy in the face of her own impending physical demise. Almost every Sunday evening (back when churches have Sunday evening worship) her feet would start moving as she sat in her pew singing a beautiful hymn or gospel song with the rest of the congregation. Then she would stand and with face lifted up with rapturous joy begin to move around in the aisle near her seat—usually with eyes tightly shut and arms up in the air.
When the pastor asked her about this (he explained to the congregation one time when she wasn’t present) she told him that she just couldn’t stop her feet and legs from moving when she was overwhelmed with great joy. Eventually the congregation came to accept this individual expression of worship and others began to express their own joy—with tears, upraised hands, vocal expressions or just standing up while singing.
I cannot imagine that real, true, great joy can be experienced without at least occasional emotional expression. Why can most of our churches not find ways to make room for it or at least not discourage it? We too often reduce our Christian experience, especially in worship, to something cerebral and practical. Our Christianity consists of “learning and serving.” While I have nothing against those I believe they are not the whole of Christian living. We all have an emotional side to ourselves and the great good news of the resurrection should at least occasionally stimulate that side to expression. My challenge to Christian pastors and worship leaders is: Overcome fear of the unexpected and unpredictable and find ways to make room for exuberant expressions of great joy by worshipers.