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Holy Humor

Years ago, before I was born, my family was at my great grandfather’s funeral. Knowing that they would drive to the cemetery after the funeral, the funeral director instructed the family members to leave their cars running, give him their keys, and the staff would turn the cars around and get them in line. Well, apparently, my great aunt Eula didn’t think about needing to put her car in park. And so, as you can imagine, her car started rolling away. And Aunt Eula, who was closing in on 70, started running. She was chasing her car screaming “You stop! I’m telling you to stop! Stopppp!” And it did stop. Eventually. After running into the family car which my grandmother was exiting at that exact moment. The impact sent my Mimi flying. And from the ground, with bloody knees peeking out of the giant holes in her panty hose, she looked at my grandpa (who had been trying to get out of the car behind her) and, believing that he had impatiently pushed her out, said, “COULD YOU NOT WAIT?!” On an unrelated note, they divorced not too long after.

My mom and dad watched the entire scene play out from their Granada, and they were in hysterics. So much so, in fact, that my grandma told my mom to keep her face covered until she could get it together, it being bad form to laugh through your grandpa’s funeral. The preacher was a close friend of the family who also witnessed the scene, and later he said he couldn’t even look in my mom’s direction through the funeral, because seeing her with her hands over her face, shoulders shaking, for the entirety of the funeral was too funny for him to bear. After the funeral, people kept comforting my mom, believing she was absolutely devastated. She had to pretend the whole time that she was crying with sadness and not, in fact, crying with laughter. For years, funeral-goers talked about how devastated she was.

Great humor comes from a few sources. 1) It makes you laugh to see expectations so reversed- a funeral is supposed to be sad, not hilarious. Grandmothers are supposed to be well-behaved, not swatting their adult children throughout a funeral to make them stop laughing. 2) Good humor helps you to see the everyday realities of life in a different way. Think about Jerry Seinfeld and his famous observational comedy. Here’s one of his bits that is topical, if nothing else- “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”[1] 3) Good humor can often take you into those places of fear or anxiety and give you something to laugh at. Dave Chappell has a great joke related to school shootings- something that is never, ever funny, except in this case.

Humor matters. Humor is important. Laughter, like tears, is the glue of community. Joy is like oxygen when you are suffering. Perhaps G.K. Chesterton said it best when he wrote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the devil fell by force of gravity. He who has the faith has the fun.” So, on this Holy Humor Sunday, I want to invite you to find the humor- the subversion of expectations, seeing everyday problems in new light, and the hilarity in the terror- in today’s text.

But first, let’s unpack what’s happening in these verses a little bit. Acts is considered the continuation of the Gospel of Luke and it tells of the events that happened immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. In verses 4-8, Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit is coming to them, and they will be witnesses, sharing the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world. These words form the structure of the rest of the book as the gospel spreads far beyond Jerusalem. Then, in verses in 9-11, Jesus ascends into the heavens, not into space like a human rocket, but Jesus transcends from a life bound by space and time, into eternity, into God’s realm. This happens in fulfillment of prophecy and in ways similar to the ways God’s glory filled the Temple with cloud in Moses’ time or how Elijah was taken up into a cloud. Finally in verses 12-14, the apostles are continuing to practice their faith, and the age of the apostles begins.

Our ancient theologians sometimes referred to Jesus’ resurrection as “God’s Joke.” God played this monumental joke on death and evil- just as it seemed all was lost, and that evil had won, God pulled out the punchline by bringing Jesus back to life. And the opening verses of the book of Acts reveal that life, that joy, that joke. From tremendous suffering and terror, Jesus emerges to great joy. We ourselves step into that story when we live into our lively Easter celebrations. You might say Jesus becomes “the life of the party.” (Okay, that’s a bad joke.)

But just imagine the disciples and followers of Jesus gathering around to hear his teachings, to see the proof of his life, to reveal in his presence! What a tremendously wild and hilarious thing to live through! What a joke God has played! And in that joke, in that life, we too find the courage to say “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Jesus has taken this undeniable reality of life- death- and changed it completely, allowing us to see it in a new way completely.

But the joke isn’t just on death, of course. The joke is also on Jesus’ followers, because, of course, everything has changed for them…again. In verse 6, they ask Jesus if THIS is finally the time that he will restore the kingdom to Israel. It’s sort of the disciple version of “are we there yet?” And the answer is, as always, no. It’s still clear that they don’t understand what’s happening. Not really. And we can hardly blame them! They thought they understood who Jesus was and what he was doing, but no. And then they grieved deeply to see him beaten and killed. But also, no.  And now he’s resurrected so surely this is the big reveal? But again, no. Of course they’re confused! There’s almost a slapstickiness to it. A “who’s on first?” kind of comedy. What are we doing here? What does it mean? Who knows? It is a constant reversal of expectations.

Jesus tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to them. And they will go out into all the world as witnesses to the good news of Jesus. And then we read that Jesus was lifted up and taken away into a cloud. And the disciples stand there, looking. You can practically see their faces, tilted up to the sky, mouth open, eyes wide. Two men in white robes appear beside them, asking “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It’s a funny moment, really. I imagine there’s a smile on the faces of the two angelic men. “What are you looking at? Don’t you have work to do?”

The joke is also on the powers and principalities of this world that believed that they could overcome Jesus. The Roman authorities and they scribes and Temple leaders who plotted against Jesus in the name of maintaining the façade of peace and their measure of power thought they had won. They thought they’d put an end to all of this Messiah foolishness. But they did not. They could not. Because not only did Jesus rise again, but the Jesus movement coalesced into something even greater, even stronger. Jesus’ words about the disciples sharing the good news were true. The good news spreads. But even before that, on a more personal level, we read in verses 12-15 that many of these faithful people gathered together all the time and that they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”

This act meant to kill not just Jesus but also the whole movement, failed completely. Those who believed violence could overcome truth were proven wrong. Joke’s on them. The Greek word in verse 14 translated “together,” is homothumadon. “Together” is a weak translation. The word really refers to having a unanimous passion, a common belief in a cause greater than any individual. Those who do word studies use the image of an orchestra ensuring that each individual instrument is properly tuned to a common pitch so the music will be just right, or a color palette including the exact right hues to create a work of art. This is the early church coming together with their passion, purpose, and principles to fulfill their mutual calling in Christ. The joke is on anyone who thought they could be defeated.

If you heard my sermon last week, you might remember that I said in scary moments in my childhood, my mom would tell me to “just laugh.” She is maybe a little deranged. She laughed through the entirety of her grandpa’s funeral. But also, maybe not. Maybe she was trying to teach me that laughter is what gets us through hard times. Maybe she wanted me to know that joy is like oxygen when you’re drowning in suffering. The work Jesus calls the disciples to- being witnesses to all the world- it was not without risk. Many of them ended up as martyrs. The book of Acts tells many stories of them being attacked or imprisoned. Marvin McMickle explains that “a witness sees something, says something, and suffers something.” Being a witness is not easy work.

And that makes laughter and joy that much more critical. The horrible reality of death is why we must muster the courage to laugh in its face, knowing that it cannot, it will not be our ultimate defeat. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection turns the entire world upside down. It’s why the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that God “made foolish the wisdom of the world” and that God uses “the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe.” Friends, revel in the foolishness, in the joke. Laugh! Dance! Sing! Play! Christ is risen and has brought us into the joy of new life too! Amen.

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