Why Do So Many People Go to Church on Easter?
APRIL 6, 2022
When I was a young pastor serving my first church and preaching my first Easter sermon, I noticed that the ushers were putting up extra chairs in the sanctuary . . . and I was astonished.
We had services all winter with only a small amount of people in attendance (frankly, it looked like the rapture had occurred), and it was a hard time. In those days, I didn’t know much about Jesus (that’s another story), and I wasn’t big into forgiveness. As I watched the ushers add chairs, I became irritated. Not only that, I was mad as H___, and everybody was going to know it. I went back to my small study and started to put on my Johnathan Edwards mask, planning to preach a sermon that made his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” seem like he was singing, “Kumbaya my Lord” around a campfire.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got.
That was when the church’s part-time janitor and my friend, Ralph Richardson, came into my study, closed the door, and said, “Steve, sit down and listen to me.” I did. Ralph said, “Calm down. You get only one shot at these people. Don’t blow it!” Then he walked out of my study, softly closing the door.
Just so you know, my “better angels” took over. While not one of my best sermons, in the sermon I preached (as well as I knew how in those days), I talked about the risen Christ and the difference his resurrection made.
I’m a lot older now. I know about love and forgiveness because I’ve been loved and forgiven. My view of the church and its ups and downs has matured. And I’m not as angry as I used to be. My anger has turned into a modicum of compassion and many questions. One of those questions is why church attendance at Easter (and, of course, at Christmas) goes through the roof. One of my church friends refuses to go to church on Easter and Christmas because she wants to give her seat to unbelievers who the Gospel might touch. (I told her that was okay . . . as long as she didn’t forget to send her tithe.)
That is the question, though.
Frederick Buechner—novelist, writer, and ordained minister—early on in his career was the chaplain of Phillips Exeter Academy. In one of his autobiographical books, Now & Then, Buechner describes the first time he preached at the chapel:
“I thought—the sheer arrogance and madness of the thing I was doing as I got to my feet and stepped into the pulpit in my new black robe from Bentley and Simon, religious outfitters, with the choir at my back, my heart in my mouth, and that great patchwork of faces in the pews in front of me. . . . The minister steps into place. The congregation is silent. What have they come in search of? . . . Expectancy. That is why they are there, why all of us were. At that strange, still moment just before the show starts, it is above all else expectancy that throbs in the stillness like a pulse. All those people out there in the pews—some hostile, some searching, some both at once; some young and some old . . . The event they await so expectantly is the sermon itself in which, whether they recognize it or not, they all of them, want to find the answer to one question beyond all other questions, which is the question, Is it true? Is it true?”
That’s it! People (those in the pulpit and the pews) want to know if it’s true. If a dead man got up and walked out of his grave and said we could too and that we’re forgiven and loved, it is very good news. If he didn’t, then everything is meaningless and dark, and you can forget about forgiveness and love. Paul made Christ’s resurrection central to the veracity of the Christian faith: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 17-19).
Christ’s resurrection is the exclamation point that God put on everything Jesus said and did. If it didn’t happen, Jesus is just another man whose corpse provided fertilizer for flowers outside Jerusalem. If it did happen, Easter becomes an incredible and wonderful celebration of God’s love.
But here’s the interesting thing, and it is so exciting it should cause us all to speak in tongues because we don’t have the words to express our surprise, joy, and praise. God decided he would provide one place where the evidence was incontrovertible, one place where anybody who checks will have tangible and incredible evidence, and one place where there isn’t surmise and doubt. God did that with the resurrection.
Frank Morison was one man who checked. In 1930, Morison decided to write a book to destroy the Christian church. During his research, he checked out the resurrection and ended up writing one of the best books ever written affirming the truth and accuracy of the biblical account of Christ’s resurrection, Who Moved the Stone?
The list of evidence is long. There are the witnesses willing to die for their testimony that they had been with a dead man after his crucifixion. Add to that 500 other witnesses, the fact that nobody could have moved the stone and found the body, and the incredible explosion of growth in the Christian faith for which there is no other explanation. Someone has said (and they’re right) that there is more evidence for Christ’s resurrection than there is for the life of Julius Caesar.
I could go on and on, but I’m rambling here.
The fact is that those who go to church on Easter will be confronted with historical, time-and-space reality. Only those who don’t want to believe (some would rather be God than worship him) won’t believe. Those who believe will dance, laugh, and rejoice.
I started this letter by telling you about my first Easter sermon on Cape Cod. I just thought of another incident that happened pretty close to that sermon (I may have even shared it with you before). The Parks Commissioner of East Dennis was also a church member. We had only one “park” in that small village . . . the graveyard. The Parks Commissioner’s job description included mowing the grass and cleaning the tombstones in the graveyard. Many of those graves were very old, and the people buried there were buried before the state required concrete coffin liners. One day, when he was cleaning a tombstone, the ground gave way, and my friend fell into the hole and onto the rotting coffin. As he was pulling himself up out of the hole, someone driving through the graveyard saw him. Later, laughing, my friend said, “They thought I was a corpse climbing out. I’ve never seen anybody get out of the graveyard so fast. He almost hit a light pole on his way out.”
For some, graveyards can be scary. For others, there is hope and laughter in graveyards . . . especially the one where Jesus was laid to rest.
I sort of feel sorry for unbelievers on Easter. Many are forced to be at the Easter service with heel marks from their homes to the church door. It’s not easy to be an unbeliever. There are books you can’t read, Christian acquaintances you have to avoid, ideas you can’t entertain, and certain movies you can’t watch. And funerals must be horrible because it’s hard to avoid the corpse. And that leads to dangerous thoughts about one’s own life and death. Easter worship services must be a major hassle, too. It can’t be easy to sit in a hard pew, listen to music one doesn’t like, and be forced to think thoughts that are sure to mess up one’s life. But facts are facts even if denied, and truth is truth even if rejected. A dead man got out of his grave, and that fact changed the world.
So, look around on Easter Sunday. If some people seem very uncomfortable, leave quickly and rush to their car, pray for them. They decided to run.
The ones laughing know they are forgiven, loved, and free. They know that, just like Jesus, they will live forever. They know that the only one who has “been there and done that” has promised, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you will also live” (John 14:18-19).
Christ has really risen and everything has changed.
He asked me to remind you.