All four gospels have Resurrection stories, and none of them are the same. In some, Jesus appears to all of the disciples together, in others to only two of them, in the one from John which we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus first appears to one person, a woman, Mary Magdalene. The only thing all these stories have in common is that nobody recognizes Jesus at first. Apparently he didn’t look the same as he had before. But then, you don’t go through something like Jesus did without being changed.
He had been betrayed and abandoned, arrested, beaten, humiliated, whipped, and crucified. Then, the creed says, “he descended into hell.” You may have seen people who’ve been through hell on earth–into a war zone, perhaps, or a refugee camp, been through chemotherapy or a nasty divorce, survived a terrorist attack or been an EMT at the site of a horrible accident–it changes a person, and those are only temporary hells. Imagine being in a hell of eternity, if only for a day. One writer imagines Jesus sitting there in Hell, embodying Love in the midst of all those refusals to love or be loved. Still Jesus sat there, this vision suggests, simply holding Love out to begin the redemption of even those in hell. The task of rolling up his graveclothes would have been a welcome change of pace.
Mary thought he was the gardener. Peter and his fellow fishermen thought he was a guy on the beach looking for some fish to eat. The two disciples on the road thought he was a clueless stranger who had missed all the events that had taken place in Jerusalem that weekend. And it was something different for each one that allowed them finally to believe it was really him. For Mary, it was hearing him say her name. For John it was simply seeing the gravecloths rolled up where his body had been laid. Luke says that’s all that Peter needed. For the couple on the way to Emmaus, it was when he broke the bread at their table. The fishermen knew who he was when he reminded them of the abundance all around them.
“So,” as Nancy Rockwell observes, “don’t expect a recognizable Jesus to appear anytime soon. Instead, expect to meet the Risen Christ in someone who seems to be a stranger.” [biteintheapple, 3/20/16] Maybe you’ve already encountered him, or her, but you were expecting something or someone else. “For me,” Brennan Manning says, “the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” (Cited in sermonseeds, 3/28/16) Is it possible, in the out-of-control, excruciating, violent times in which we live, that Love is alive, standing before us, though looking like a stranger? Or, maybe equally unbelievable, is it possible that God is becoming flesh in you and me? Do we have the courage to say yes to that?
Peter and the disciple Jesus loved–presumably John–both saw the empty grave with the rolled up graveclothes and “believed.” And they went home. But it was to Mary Magdalene, to a woman, one who was on the margins of society, that Jesus entrusted the telling of the news to the community. The church has not always believed he may have done that intentionally, even saying that the men were the “real witnesses” to the resurrection; but God is not finished with us yet! And even to Mary, Jesus says, “Don’t cling to me.” It’s time to grow up now. I’m going to God, he told her, to my Father and your Father. Don’t hold on to me, to the Jesus you once knew. You can be one with God as well, like I have been. Don’t cling to the past. Open your eyes and ears, your heeart and mind to the future god intends for you.
Carolyn Heilbrun wrote, “Power consists in deciding which story shall be told.” [cited in sermonseeds, op cit.] As we’ve seen, there are lots of stories. The fact that Mary Magdalene’s story, of being the first to recognize the risen Christ and to be charged with witnessing to that encounter, is a remarkable testimony to the importance and power of this woman in Jesus’ early circle of followers. Over the years, some have tried to downplay and discredit her–saying she was a woman of ill-repute, she had been possessed by demons–but her story continues to be told.
There are other stories that we have been told aren’t important, aren’t the real story. Julia Esquival, a Guatemalan Presbyterian, wrote a poem entitled, “Threatened by Resurrection.” Imagine the resurrection story being told by those who live in poverty, [one writer suggests] who bear the consequences of the unjust use of resources. [Kate Matthews, sermonseeds] For them, the resurrection is not just a happy ending to an otherwise sad story, something that is only an assurance that there is life after death. Rather the resurrection is a game-changer right now. This is what God can do, God who is creating new heavens and a new earth, as the prophet Isaiah said, who cannot be stopped by death-dealing powers. In the kingdom of God which Jesus talked about, which is coming and now is, all the children of God live in shalom–peace, and wholeness –where there is enough for all, where mercy and justice reign. That’s the “dream of God,” as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan call it. That’s the “threat of the resurrection” for those who like things just the way they are, who want to make the resurrection only a personal story, of life after death, instead of also being about abundant life for all, here and now. “Power consists in deciding which story shall be told.”
After Peter and John had seen the folded gravecloths in the tomb, they “returned to their homes,” John says. But Mary wasn’t satisfied. She wasn’t ready to “go home.” She looked into the tomb herself, and saw two angels sitting there, John says. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked her. She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” That was the only possibility Mary could think of at the time–they’ve taken him away. But then she turns around to another possibility, and sees a man whom she assumes to be the gardener standing there. She says the same thing to him, but he speaks her name. “Mary.” “Rabbouni,” she cries, and falls at his feet. “Don’t cling to me,” he tells her, but “Go and tell the others.”
What do you need to see or hear or experience in order to “go and tell”? What story of the resurrection could open up the floodgates of abundant life for you? What would it take for you to live your life so fully and passionately that others might say, “Wow, I’ll have what she’s having” or “I’d like to find out what makes him the way he is”? Would it be a vision of the risen Christ, with flowing white robes, the holes in his hands and feet, reaching out to you? Or might it be an experience of sensing the presence of a loved one who has died, full of peace and joy and love, in a dream, or just a sense? Would it be witnessing the courage of those who are not afraid to die, but who nevertheless put themselves between harm and another person to save them? (It is certainly not in those who say they are not afriad to die who use their bodies to destroy and harm innocent people.) Would it be a near-death experience of such love and light that death loses it terror?
Or might it be experiencing a community that witnesses to the life-giving, love-extending power of God in ways that transform not only others but themselves as well? Might it be experiencing acceptance and forgiveness and healing even as you battle addiction or depression or some other illness? Might it be experiencing love and acceptance that is truly unconditional, despite and even because of your flaws and weaknesses and failures? What would it take for you to “Go and tell” with your words or, more importantly, with your life?
“Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” God says, “for I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” “We do not live in an era of change,” writes Jan Rotmans of the University of Rotterdam, “but in a change of eras.” (FB) When our lives and our institutions seem to be unraveling, when all they seem to be is empty, do not doubt that God is most powerful in emptiness. In the crysalis, at the bottom of an addict’s downward spiral, in the openness to possibility, in the unknowing and the mystery, in the empty tomb, God is able to create new life–a whole new heaven and a new earth. “Not only is another world possible,” writes Indian writer Arundhati Roy, “she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Listen, can you hear it coming?
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark