The Easter story is so familiar to us that I think we miss the shock, perhaps even the terror, of someone coming back from the dead. Especially when, as we hear in our passage from Acts, this Jesus, back from the dead, is God’s judge. We hear that this Jesus is the one who has the power to pronounce guilt and deal out punishment: “The one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42)—that’s what Peter says in his speech in Acts.
For the disciples who abandoned Jesus during his time of trial, like Peter who denied that he even knew him, and the other disciples who kept their distance to save their own lives, to keep themselves from being implicated in the charges against their leader, to protect themselves from allegations of conspiracy. For all of them, for this Jesus to return to life, as their judge, might not be heard as good news, at least not at first as they sort through Jesus’ motives for coming back from the dead.
Maybe that’s why, in the Easter story, Peter doesn’t want to believe that the tomb is empty. Maybe that’s why he’s disturbed when he sees the empty tomb for himself.
The translation we just heard says that he’s amazed, but the Greek word could just as well mean disturbed. Let me read that last verse again, from Luke’s Gospel. “Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, disturbed at what had happened” (Luke 24:12).
There are lots of ancient stories of the spirits of the dead coming back to haunt the living. In those stories, spirits are troubled enough to return from the grave and seek revenge—to get back at those who harmed them, to make life miserable for those who killed them. That’s usually how those stories go. The return of the dead would be terrifying; news of their return would make you take stock of your life, to wonder about what you must have done to them or to their friends. The return of the dead would usually be very bad news. Reason to go to sleep every night in a panic, with dread, disturbed with the thoughts of someone’s vengeance.
But listen to what Peter says in our passage from Acts when he preaches the story of Jesus’ return from the dead:
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear… He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins… (vv. 39-43)
Jesus comes back not to avenge his crucifixion, not to get even with his murders, not to make life miserable for his friends who had abandoned him in his time of need.
No. Jesus does not come back for revenge, but to offer forgiveness, the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness to everyone who had abandoned him, everyone who watched him murdered and did nothing—forgiveness to his friends and his enemies. Forgiveness—that’s the good news of Christ’s resurrection.
When Peter shares this good news of forgiveness, after the resurrection, after Easter, he doesn’t forget about the sins that sent Jesus to the cross. Peter is clear about what has been done. He is clear about all that happened: “they put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” he says. Those acts of harm are part of the story; to forget what happened is to lose sight of the miracle of resurrection—that “God raised him on the third day,” as Peter goes on to say.
Forgiveness isn’t forgetfulness; instead, the forgiveness made possible through Easter is about transformation, it’s about memories being transformed, healed, the sinner redeemed.
Easter becomes not just a name for a day, not just a noun, but something more like a verb: a doing, a making, an activity, Christ becoming present in us, the Holy Spirit converting us into a forgiven people who forgive, God transforming us into good news for the world.
Easter is an invitation to become new, to be renewed with God’s joy—to grow in joy and delight, as God says in our passage from Isaiah: “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people” (Isa 65:18-19).
The invitation of Easter is for each of us to become reasons for joy and delight, for us to share God’s joy and delight in the world. And the way into that joy and delight, how we get there, if these Easter stories have anything to say to us—the way to joy is our transformation, the changes that happen to us through forgiveness, which may feel like a kind of death in us, a kind of death to who we’ve been, a death to how we’ve made sense of the world, a death to the stories we tell ourselves about each other, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about who we are.
Let me explain. We hold grudges—sometimes small ones, sometimes big ones that take over our headspace. We’ve all got a list of wrongs, either what we’ve done or what someone has done to us, a list of people who have sinned against us or against people we care about. We organize our world with these lists—the good people in this column, and the bad people in that one.
We make sense of the world with these lists in our heads. We use them for telling the stories of history, our family history, our personal history—the lists help us develop a plot to make sense of our lives, to order the decisions we’ve made into a story that makes sense, at least to us, to justify ourselves. This is why forgiveness can feel like an unraveling, a transformation that can feel like the end of our world, a turning away from everything we thought we knew about ourselves.
Jesus comes back from the dead to forgive his enemies and the friends who let him down, not to plot their downfall, not to put them in their place. Easter isn’t a victory like other victories, where one team has to lose in order for the other team to win. Instead, Easter is an invitation for us to let go of our resentments and to let the forgiveness of Jesus to take hold of our lives, for God to work through us.
God raised Jesus from the dead to come back and offer forgiveness, to offer the invitation of communion, our union with God and one another. To forgive is to welcome the power of the resurrection into your life—and through your life, into the world.
On Easter we remember that we are forgiven people who will spend the rest of our lives learning how to forgive and to ask for forgiveness—the unending work of grace, of mercy, in our lives, our refusal of the resentments that threaten to consume us.
Communion is that reminder, where we eat and drink together, and center our lives on this sign, the cup and the bread—this sign of God’s love for us, Communion returns us to the risen Jesus, whose life is forgiveness: a forgiveness that heals relationships, a grace, alive in each of us, a love that hopes for miracles of restoration.
Easter is an invitation, a calling to love this world as Christ does, to care for each other with the love of God, to give our lives to a love that does not die, to the one whose very life is love without end.