All across the world on Easter Sunday, spiritual leaders will address their congregations, telling the story of Jesus’ miraculous triumph over death.
Perhaps they’ll sing a few hymns, and the congregation leaders will speak for an hour or more about the crucifixion and resurrection. It may sound like a simple task – after all, who isn’t familiar with the Easter story? – but it’s an undertaking that requires great reflection and months of preparation.
Joel Blunk, an associate pastor with the State College Presbyterian Church, says preparing an Easter sermon is no easy task. Yes, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection is widely known – but that’s part of what can make it challenging for church leaders to help their followers engage with the story in new ways.
“We’ll tell the story though scripture and proclamation of the word,” Blunk says. “Through our preaching, we’re trying to tell this story in modern context. We’re interpreting for the modern mind, and for people of faith today.”
And there’s more to it than just preparing a sermon that will resonate with the congregation – there’s all the practical, nitty-gritty details that go into planning a week of services and events.
Blunk explains that Easter is the culmination of the holiest week in the Christian faith. It starts with Palm Sunday the week before Easter – which celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem – and includes such spiritually significant events as Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and (of course) Easter Sunday.
That means Blunk and the rest of the church leadership have to prepare other sermons specific to these occasions. They plan special skits and plays to help people better connect with the story. They decorate the church in celebratory white cloth and flowers. They have to prepare their special Easter orchestra. They even make a wooden cross for congregation members to drive nails into, as a way of making a physical connection to this important Christian symbol.
Reverend Monica Dawkins-Smith of the Faith United Church of Christ also tries to find new and interesting ways to help her congregation connect to the tale of the resurrection. She says she begins thinking about her Easter sermon months in advance, opening herself to the Holy Spirit in prayer and contemplation.
Dawinks-Smith says she pours over the accounts of Christ’s Passion in the gospels of his disciples, where she finds herself asking seemingly minor questions in an attempt to fully understand the story. Was it sunny or overcast the day Jesus hung upon the cross? Was the ground covered in dirt or grass? In what way do the four gospels differ in their retelling of the same accounts, and why?
“Then I ask some of those same questions in my sermon. Why did one gospel writer not mention children, or why did another not mention women?” Dawinks-Smith says. “I try to introduce some historical context that could explain those questions. Each of the gospel writers was writing to audience, so what was that audience dealing with for the writer to try to encourage them?”
She says she finds value in questioning religious dogma and honoring religious traditions – even if those two ideas seem contradictory. For her, helping her congregation ask questions of their faith is a way for them to deepen their connection to God.
But what if some questions can’t be answered?
“Well that’s okay too,” she says.
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