If you’ve never heard of Holy Humor Sunday, you’re in good company (at least, if you think I’m good company!). I came across it several years ago on a worship web site I often use, and my first response was “When did Hallmark cook that one up?” But it turns out that Holy Humor Sunday—also known as “Laughter Sunday” or “God’s Joke” Sunday or “The Easter Laugh”—was “cooked up’ in the 1400s by the church in Bavaria. It was a day to remember the cosmic joke that God had played on Satan. Satan thought that in Jesus’ death, he had won the battle against goodness and love. But, God had something else up the divine sleeve. Jesus was raised from the dead, death was defeated, and the joke was on Satan! How God must have laughed!
On the Sunday after Easter, the Bavarian priests would continue to celebrate the joy of the resurrection by deliberately including funny stories and jokes in their sermons in an attempt to make the faithful laugh. (I’m fortunate enough to have some help with this from our in-house stand-up comedians.) After the service, people would gather together to play practical jokes on one another and tell funny stories (kind of like April Fool’s).
That means that, in order to be faithful to the origins of Holy Humor Sunday, I need to at least start this sermon with a joke. As I was thinking about a joke I could tell in worship, I thought of how our scripture passage today reminds me of all the jokes I’ve heard that begin with “a man walks into a bar.” I don’t know if our District Superintendent or Bishop Palmer randomly check out pastors’ sermons on line, but I’m pretty sure if I told a “man walks into a bar” story today, this would be the week they’d check out our web site or Facebook page. So the “man walks into a bar” jokes were out. Fortunately, though, I found a joke that starts out, “A man walks into a church.”
Here goes. A man walks into a church. He’s a visitor; it’s his first time coming through the doors of this particular church. It is a beautiful sunny day, and he’s in a good Sunday-morning mood. He greets everyone he meets with enthusiasm, even though he doesn’t know them. He sings the hymns at the top of his lungs, in spite of some funny looks he gets from those who are singing in a more dignified way. During the “greeting time” he hugs people, ignoring their offer of a polite but somewhat distant handshake. He laughs loudly and even shouts an “amen” or two during the sermon.
After the service, a few people come to him and tell him that this is not how they worship at their church. They suggest that he might be more comfortable worshipping somewhere else. The man leaves the building and dejectedly sits down on the front steps, sadly wondering what he did wrong. the next thing he knows, someone sits down beside him. It’s Jesus. Jesus puts his arm around the man and says, “Don’t feel bad. “I’ve been trying to get into that church for years.”
Our Scripture passage today about Jesus appearing to his disciples could very easily start out like a “man walks into a bar” joke. Imagine a room in Jerusalem where a crowd of excited men and women are all talking about how Jesus had appeared to Peter—and others. (If you’re trying to remember a story of Jesus appearing to Peter, don’t bother; it doesn’t appear anywhere in Scripture.)
Two men walk into the room. They had left Jerusalem earlier in the day on the road to Emmaus. Jesus had walked and talked with the two men over the course of some miles, but they didn’t recognize him. Then, he broke the bread at the supper table, and they realized who he was. He vanished, and the two men rushed back to that locked room in Jerusalem to tell the disciples and the others what they had seen.
The two men walk into the room, and they hear the people talking about how Jesus has been appearing to members of the group. They say they’ve seen Jesus, too! They’re pouring out what happened with Jesus on the road and what happened with Jesus at dinner afterwards and then—Jesus walks into the room. He just shows up in the middle of all these people who have just been talking about seeing him—people who have seen him themselves, people who had eaten with him and walked with him and talked with him.
How do they respond? Do they say, “Oh, Jesus, there you are! It’s about time! We’ve been wondering when you would get here!” “Jesus, sit down and talk with us!” “Jesus, are you hungry? We still have some fish left from dinner?” When Jesus appears in their midst, right after talking about how he had been appearing to members of their group, do they reach the obvious conclusion that it’s Jesus? No. They think he’s a ghost.
Medical school students are warned not to look for a rare or obscure diagnosis when there is a more likely commonplace explanation for a given set of symptoms. They are told, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” But the disciples and the others? In spite of all they’ve just heard, they go straight for the zebra.
I’m pretty sure Jesus knew what kind of reaction he’d get and was pretty tickled at the prospect. I can imagine him just waiting for it. After all, how many other times have the disciples gotten this wrong? When he walked out to them on the water? Thought he was a ghost. When he calmed the storm? They wondered what kind of man he was, that the wind and seas obeyed him. Who’s the guy in the garden? Mary thought he was the gardener. Can’t you just see him planning his appearance and smiling in anticipation of yet another clueless response from the disciples?
And they don’t disappoint. In spite of the fact that he had told them he would be raised from the dead after three days, and the angels had told them he had risen, and Peter and Mary and the two men from Emmaus had said they had seen him, the disciples still think it’s more reasonable to assume he’s a ghost rather than Jesus, up close and personal, in living—really living—color.
So he says, “Guys, what’s the problem? Look, it’s really me. Skin. Bones. You can touch me if you want.” And still they’re disbelieving. Joyful, sure, but they still can’t wrap their heads around this. And so while they’re still hashing all this out, Jesus asks for something to eat. And what do they give him? Fish. And I’ll bet that got a chuckle out of Jesus. Because what had he just shared with the men in Emmaus? Bread. Ring any bells? Bread? Fish? Five loaves of bread? Two fish, shared with 5000 of your closest friends? I’ll bet Jesus made the connection and laughed.
The disciples don’t get the joke, though. Not about how yet again they didn’t see the Messiah, even though he was literally right before their eyes. Not about the bread that opened the eyes of the men in Emmaus and should ring some bells about the bread they had shared with Jesus just a few nights before. Not about the connection between the bread and fish and the miracle Jesus had performed out there on the mountain.
And they certainly don’t get the best joke connected with all this—the divine joke God had played on Satan. One way the Church through the ages has explained Christ’s victory on the cross is by describing Jesus as a ransom for all of us. Satan was holding humanity captive, thinking he really had God over a barrel. He demanded a ransom for all these sinful people in his clutches, and no mere mortal would do; only God could pay the ransom. So, the reasoning goes, God sent God’s Son, who was crucified and died. And Satan said, “Ha! I win!” and lets humanity go.
But Satan does not have the last laugh. God still has a card to play, a trick up God’s sleeve. God raises Jesus from the dead, and Satan has the rug pulled right out from under him! Ha ha! Laughing Out Loud! Sorry, Satan; the joke’s on you! God wins, and so do we, in the most glorious joke ever played.
Jesus’ entire life and ministry was full of humor and surprise. He loved to use exaggeration in his stories. He had nicknames for some of the disciples which may have poked some gentle fun at them. Jesus could be a very funny guy, and the disciples, through their well-intentioned bungling, offer some pretty funny moments, too. Jesus said and did lots of things that would have been hilarious to his listeners and followers. We just miss a lot of it because the barriers of time and culture and language make it hard for us to get the joke.
Jesus was smart and clever and witty and warm; we know that from his parables and his teachings. We know that people brought their children to him, and children generally don’t like grim, grumpy people. And we know that Jesus wept, so certainly that means that Jesus also laughed. Jokes and humor and laughter were a big part of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Jokes and tricks and humor of all kinds depend largely on one thing: the element of surprise. We are led to think a story is going to end one way, it ends in an entirely different way, and we laugh. It’s the unexpected event, the unanticipated punchline, the surprise ending that grabs our attention and makes us howl. Jesus was a master at this. His parables, his interactions with people, his daily life—they’re full of reversals, the unexpected taking the place of the expected. The poor come out ahead of the rich. He reaches out to sinners rather than the outwardly righteous. He ignores the rules while fully obeying God’s commandments. Jesus is full of surprises, and many of those surprises are downright funny. And those surprises, along with his masterful use of humor, enabled his followers to learn from and about him.
I once heard a story on the radio that makes me wonder if it was the very surprise of Jesus’ appearance among the disciples that helped them finally understand who he was and what had happened in the resurrection. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that babies’ desire to learn increases when they are surprised by something.
They tried two different experiments. In one, there was a ramp with two walls at the end. Only the tops of the walls were visible; the bottoms of the walls were covered up so you couldn’t actually see them. A ball was rolled down the ramp toward two walls. The babies seemed to understand that the ball should by stopped by the first wall. But when the cover was removed, the ball was resting against the second wall, as though it had rolled right through the first one.
In the second experiment, a toy truck was pushed across a table. The babies seemed to expect that when it got to the edge, it would fall off, but the truck continued to roll along, as if in thin air. The babies couldn’t see that it was attached to a slot in the wall behind it.
After the tests, researchers gave the babies the balls and trucks. Babies who had not seen the toys behave in surprising ways quickly lost interest in them. But the babies who were surprised spent a long time with each toy, banging the balls on the table to see if they would go through the surface, or pushing the truck to the edge to see if it would fall off or not. Babies who were surprised had a greater desire to learn about and understand what they had witnessed.
Perhaps it was the same with the disciples. Perhaps it was Jesus’ surprising appearance among them that stimulated their desire and ability to learn and understand what he had done. Because we know from Scripture that this time, they get it. When Jesus ascends to heaven shortly afterwards, they return to Jerusalem and the temple with great joy, worshipping God. This continues until the day of Pentecost. On that day, through Peter’s words, we know that on that day when Jesus walked into the room, they finally understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them all along.
I remember the day Jesus walked into a room and surprised me. I imagine he anticipated my reaction like he did the disciples’. I had been calling myself a Christian for a long time by then, but I hadn’t really gotten who Jesus is or what he’s all about. I had been in Jesus’ presence many times but didn’t recognize him when he was right in front of me.
This particular time happened more than twenty-five years ago on the Emmaus Walk, long before I had any inkling that ordained ministry was in my future. I had no interest in going on this three-day spiritual retreat. But I had become acquainted with a neighbor who really wanted to go. She had three toddlers—triplets—and this was to be her first outing away from her little ones. All the plans were in place, but she didn’t want to go without someone she knew. So I went, not because I wanted to or expected to get anything out of it, but just to keep her company.
I’m not going to give you a lot of details, because I hope some of you will go on an Emmaus Walk yourself if you haven’t already, and being open to the unexpected throughout the weekend makes it more meaningful. But suffice it to say that at a point in that weekend, I experienced a surprise. During an activity in which I had no expectation of seeing Jesus, Jesus walked into the room. And for the first time, I really understood who he is, and what God did for me in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Like the babies in the experiment, that surprise made me want to learn about and respond to the one who lived and died and rose for me, through study, prayer, worship, service, and giving. And, that’s a desire that continues to this day.
How about you? Has Jesus walked into the room where you were, and you didn’t recognize him? Or did you see him, but come up with every possible explanation but the right one—that the risen Christ is right in front of you and wants you to truly understand what it means that he was raised from the dead for you? Have you allowed Jesus to surprise you into wanting to know him better—to grasp that however well you think you know him, there is more to learn and more joy to experience? Have you truly gotten the joke that God played on Satan that day so long ago—that Satan thought Christ’s death on the cross was the last word, but that God spoke the true punch line in raising Jesus from the dead and erasing the fear of death for each of us?
This is what Holy Humor Sunday celebrates. We celebrate knowing that we have been freed from the power of sin and death. We laugh at the defeat of Satan’s imagined power, and laugh with joy over Christ’s victory on the cross and in the resurrection. We laugh out of gratitude for the Divine Trick that God played on Satan, and we laugh with delight that we are in on the Easter Joke that assured us of eternal life. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young