Text: Matthew 28:1-10
One of my favorite children’s books is The Velveteen Rabbit. It chronicles the story of a stuffed rabbit and his quest to become real through the love of his owner. One day while talking with the Skin Horse, the Rabbit learns that a toy becomes real if its owner really and truly loves it. Listen to their dialogue.
“”‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender…’Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’
“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
“‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
“‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
“‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?’
“‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
“‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. ‘That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’
“The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”
Today, on this Easter Sunday, the message we proclaim is that “Christ is risen. He is alive! Alleluia.” When we say it, in all of our excitement and enthusiasm (and feeling good about ourselves all dressed up), it almost sounds like we believe it—like it is true and real. But “What is real?” What makes this story about Jesus being raised from the dead real to us? What makes this more than just “the Easter story” that we read once a year? Or what makes it more than good fodder for heated theological debate? Is the Easter message that Jesus has been raised from the dead—that he is alive today—really real to us? And if so, what makes it real?
First of all, let me say a few words about what doesn’t make it real. Gathering here in this sanctuary, ringing our bells, shouting our “alleluias,” and singing the Hallelujah chorus doesn’t make it real. Simply saying the words “Christ is risen. He is alive.” doesn’t make it real. Reading the story from the Bible doesn’t make it real. Someone telling you that it is real, doesn’t make it real. Even believing that it is real doesn’t make it real—although it helps.
So what does make Easter real? What makes us believe in the possibility of being raised from the dead into new life and of Jesus’ presence being alive today in our world? What makes the Easter message real is when we feel and experience this story happening to us in our lives, and when we see it happening in our world, and when we participate in making it real in our world. What makes this story real is when you choose to enter into your darkest tomb of grief and sorrow; of despair and hopeless not knowing if you will come out alive or find even a glimmer of light, but you go in anyway. The Easter story becomes real when each of us risks going into our darkest place with a bit of hope that we may stumble into a new possibility of what living and loving are about. What makes something real? What makes this Easter story real? The Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit says it best when he says, “Real…is a thing that happens to you.”
What made the story of Jesus being raised from the dead real to those first disciples was not a literal empty tomb or seeing Jesus in bodily form after his execution or crucifixion. What made it real to those first disciples was being able to feel the continuing presence of Jesus with them, to be able to recognize the same Spirit they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and to still experience the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate—the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. That is what made the Easter story real to those first disciples and it is what makes it real for us today. We know this story is real when we experience those moments in our own lives when we move from death into life—when we are able to let go of patterns of behavior that have hurt us, and dare to step forward into new ways of being; when we honor our grieving and allow time and grace to renew our joy and our hope; when we can step outside even our deepest beliefs to embrace the strangers, within and outside. In these places of hope and love and forgiveness, we know in our innermost selves that the Easter story is real.
There is one more thing that makes the Easter story real for us today. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. Easter is not about an afterlife or about happy endings. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus against the powers who killed him. The Wednesday lectionary group said it this way, “Injustice was done to Jesus. God raised Jesus. God’s justice won out!”
We know the Easter story is real when justice is done—when the poor have food, the sick receive care, those in need are helped, and the wars cease. We will know that Easter is real when there is no gap between the rich and the poor; when we put more effort and resources into creating jobs rather than building more jails. We will know that Easter is real when every state in our nation rejects racial and religious profiling and any policy or practice that identifies people of color as criminals or terrorists; when we adopt immigration reform that reflects our deepest values: honoring the dignity, humanity, and rights of all people; and when people of every nation and country turn their swords into plough shares and we practice “war no more.” Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.
In light of the whole Christian revelation, an Easter faith is a reasonable faith, but it certainly cannot be proved or even made to look reasonable or real by irrelevant arguments about whether the tomb was empty. The only real “proof” is that in the living Christian community, then and today, the presence and Spirit of Christ still lives and acts through humanity and that God is still creating, reconciling, redeeming, and raising us up from our dead places in life.
One of the pieces of wisdom that the Skin Horse imparts in The Velveteen Rabbit is his comment that becoming real doesn’t happen “all at once.” He tells the rabbit that it takes a very long time, and while he uses much simpler terms, his message is that you must undergo transformation. You won’t look the same once you are real. In fact, he says, you don’t become real until “most of your hair has been loved off.” Part of the temptation of Easter is to see resurrection as a one-time event. But as we know, and as the Skin Horse knew, and even as the biblical writers point out throughout scripture, resurrection and transformation happen over a lifetime—not once and for all.
And so, my Easter message for you is this: Resurrection is “that thing that happens to you” when you allow God to love you, REALLY love you. Then, you become real and the Easter story becomes real and we move from death into life. Alleluia. Alleluia.