Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been placed on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know who it was. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will gladly take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I greet you in the name of God who shows no partiality, but loves all humankind with an everlasting love. And in the name of Jesus, who came as God among us, showing us a way of love and forgiveness; who was tortured and then executed without once wavering from that way; and whom God raised from the dead. From the earliest days of the Christian witness, this was and remains the most important thing to know about Jesus and to pass on: that he died on a cross; that God raised him from the dead; and that through his death and resurrection, we can experience a love so deep, so broad, and so high–a love that forgives, heals and sets us free.
And if, by chance, you’re not sure if what Christians celebrate on Easter is true, or if it is true, if it matters; or if something’s happened in your life or in our world that’s caused you to doubt what you once believed; or if you’re not even in the zone but just trying to make it through the day and somehow you wound up here, trust me, you’re in good company.
For no matter how well we all clean up, or in my case, how fine the vestments I’m given to wear, even the most seasoned Christians have times when the faith we thought we had wavers, when events conspire to shake our resolve and cause us to wonder if what we’ve staked our lives on is, in fact, true. That should be of some comfort to you, given that we’re talking about the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, and that so much of what we see and experience in this world is at odds with what we profess here. I wouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t wrestle with these things. And sometimes we’re all at as much of a loss as Mary and the other disciples were on that first Easter morning. Take note of that: their first experience of resurrection is not presented in ways that convey spiritual confidence. On the contrary, it’s a scene of mass confusion.
What brings me back, and I daresay others, and keeps us going, and in the end allows us to affirm our belief in the resurrection of Jesus as it’s told in Scripture, and that it matters, are our own experiences of resurrection–the ways we ourselves have died and been given life on the other side of death through a power not our own. It didn’t just happen to Jesus; it happens to us. And as we’re able to interpret our experiences of moving through to life through the lens of Christian witness about Jesus’ and his resurrection, it feels real to us and for us in ways that give us confidence to place our trust in Him. And when that confidence is shaken, we keep on the path, trusting that what matters isn’t the strength of our faith but the power of God revealed in Jesus.
So what I’d like to do is walk through the story of that first Easter morning and lay alongside it what it can feel like for us to move from death to life. My hope is that doing so can help answer in the affirmative two very important questions: Is the story of Jesus’ resurrection true? And if so, does it matter? And not only for us, but for the good of humankind.
The first thing to say about the Easter experience is that we are not talking about resuscitation, about coming back from the brink and carrying on as before. Resurrection is something else entirely, and the context for it isn’t a near miss, when we’re spared the worst that can happen. The prerequisite for resurrection is, in fact, the worst that can happen: devastating loss and death.
Christians around the world have just spent the last week reminding ourselves of each painstaking detail of Jesus’ violent death. We remembered how the Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders colluded to rid themselves of this nuisance of a man; that his most ardent disciple denied three times that he even knew him; that another disciple betrayed him. Everyone close to him deserted him in the end, except for a few women who watched him die close up. All were devastated, and for some their grief was compounded by guilt for what they had done or failed to do for their friend.
Likewise for us, the starting point is deep grief in the face of tremendous loss. Fill in the blank of what that loss has been for you; I could certainly tell you of mine. If we laid our losses alongside each other, what our experiences would have in common is their finality. A dream, a relationship, a beloved dies. Sometimes we know ourselves to be responsible for we’ve lost; other times we suffer at the hands of another, or worse, we’re caught in cruel indifference of collective evil, either as its victims or perpetrators, and there’s seemingly no way out and no going back. And so we grieve, going through all that grief requires. You know: it’s exhausting, and it takes a long time to work though. We can get stuck in grief, of course, but equally dangerous is trying to rush through it, as if death were something we could bounce back from. There’s no bouncing back; we are forever changed.
The text tells us that on the first day after the sabbath, Mary rose and went to Jesus’ tomb, most likely to care for his body, for that was a burial ritual reserved for the women of that time. We recognize what’s happening here: she’s going through the motions. Grief puts us on autopilot, as we do what must be done.
But in resurrection something begins to shift, ever so slowly, and it catches our attention. The first thing Mary notices when she arrived at Jesus’ tomb was that the stone covering the entrance to it had been removed. That may sound like a small detail, but it’s a big deal. It was a big deal for her, because it was sizeable stone. It’s a big deal for us, because that stone represents all that keeps us tethered to our loss. And when it’s gone, and we feel a lightness that we weren’t expecting. A weight has been lifted; a way seems to be opening through what we thought was solid rock.
Now you’d think we’d feel exhilarated by this, and maybe we are, but we’re also completely disoriented. Rarely do we feel ready for this when it happens. We may not even want our burdens to be removed as yet, if at all.
I’m reminded here of a little story told in the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about an old man who had been half-deaf since childhood, the “stone” in his life being a small pea that had lodged itself into his ear when he was a boy. When the village doctor realized what had impaired the man’s hearing all these years and managed to extract the wax-and-dirt encrusted pea, the man was at first elated, then completely disoriented, and finally fatigued by the noise all around him, most notably, his wife’s voice that he had never fully heard before. Soon he returned to the village doctor, pleading that he put the pea back.
There’s part of us that would prefer to our stone back, whatever it is, because grief has its comforts. It’s quiet; little is expected from us. With the stone gone, we’re not sure what to do. Mary doesn’t know. She runs and gets Peter and John. They don’t know, so they run around too, and actually look into the empty tomb; one “believes” as a result, whatever that means, and then both inexplicably exit the scene. They go home.
Our heroine stands on the side of this confusion and weeps. There she sees Jesus, not recognizing him until he calls her by name. And then she does what any of us would have done, what we all want to do: she tries to hold onto him as tight as she can. But he says to her, and this is the biggest step of all: you have to let me go.
There is no better way to describe what resurrection requires of us: letting go. I mean really letting go. If your fist is clenched in anger, you have to let it go. If you’re hanging onto something or someone as if your life depended on it, you have to let go now because your new life depends on it. Picture yourself on the edge of a cliff, leaning backwards away from the rock while every instinct in your body tells you to hang on. Or sky-diving the moment before jumping out of a plane. In twelve-step spirituality this moment is known as “admitting powerlessness,” a letting go experience if there ever was one. But as hard as it is, there’s a relief that comes with it. Finally, whatever is going to happen next is out of our hands.
Then comes the most amazing thing: as we’re suspended in mid-air, we feel the presence of God with us, sometimes in the form of Jesus himself. And he’s calling us, as Jesus called Mary, by name. It’s an experience of profound acceptance and unconditional love. We’re incredibly vulnerable, and yet we feel loved, and buoyed by a strength not our own. This is especially powerful when we feel personally responsible for the suffering we’ve endured or caused or others; when the burden of guilt is as strong as whatever it is that we’ve lost.
The classic resurrection story of forgiveness comes a bit further in the text. It’s just as mysterious and confusing as the story of Mary and Jesus the gardener. This story is of Jesus the short-order cook. According to this account, after Jesus’ death some of disciples from Galilee decide to return and resume their former lives as fishermen, and honestly, it’s as if the empty tomb experience never happened. One morning they’re out on the water and they see someone beckoning them to shore. It all feels eerily familiar to them. They have the sense that it’s Jesus, but no one dares say anything. One jumps and swims ashore while others bring in the boat. Jesus is there building a fire, cooking breakfast. “Come and eat,” he says. And they do, not quite sure what to make of it all. After breakfast Jesus takes Simon Peter aside, the one, remember, who denied him three times. He doesn’t berate Peter, tell him how disappointed he is in him. He doesn’t say, “I told you so.” He simply asks: “Do you love me?” Three times he asks, and by the third time Peter is reduced to a puddle of tears because he knows exactly what Jesus is doing. Jesus is healing him of that most shameful memory, replacing it with an affirmation of love. Resurrection is like that: your sin is taken away; the slate is clean. And what’s more, from rising from that very painful experience, you’re given a job:
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus tells Peter. “Share with others what you have received.”
So, question number one: is the story true? Absolutely. I say that to you not merely because it says so in a book called the Bible, but because it’s written on my heart. It’s happened to me, more than once; I’m confident that it’s happened to you. Maybe in relatively small ways, but real, nonetheless, if we dare to claim it as true. I’ve also seen it in other people whose suffering by rights should have broken them completely but didn’t. If you pay attention to the people you admire going through this, and to your own life you begin to see the pattern, the form of it, the process of moving from death to life. Now this is not a journey any of us relishes; we’d all avoid it if we could. We’re talking about death first. But when death comes, resurrection follows, which is really good news. And if you’ve gone through it a few times while you’re still walking the earth, it makes the final resurrection that awaits us at the end less frightening. For we know the pattern, and the One who is calling us home.
And does the resurrection matter? Yes, it does. It matters for us. And I’m not talking about believing certain things about Jesus so you that can get into heaven. You don’t have to worry about that. I’m talking about the quality of your life right now.
And does it matter to the world around us that we are resurrection people? Yes, it does and here’s why. People of the resurrection are among the most joyful, passionate, generous, forgiving, life-affirming human beings on the planet. Think of them. Think of the people you’ve known or have admired from afar. Think of those who respond to hatred with forgiveness; who never seem to lose hope; who believe that all people matter to God. Think of the people who are more than willing to make a nuisance of themselves, as Jesus did, in oppressive societies, and like him, to challenge those who misuse their power; of the ones who are willing to walk into the most hopeless situations and say, “You know, we can change this.” They know that with God all things are possible. Think of the people who willingly go back into valley of death so that someone else might know life.
We can take our place among these, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection living in us. We can do it. WE are who we are, still in need of healing and forgiveness ourselves. We’re not yet all we were created to be. You’ve got your wounds and anxieties and I’ve got mine, and Lord knows we still live in a Good Friday world. But what is stopping us from being people of the resurrection, allowing the grace and mercy, forgiveness and justice of God to flow through us? What is stopping us? The stone is gone; there’s nothing we have to hang onto, God loves us. What else do we need?
So I’m going to give you an example of a person of the resurrection who took my breath away then wrap up with you a final image to take home.
A few nights ago, I heard an interview with Anba Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the United Kingdom. You know what happened in two Coptic churches in Egypt just last Sunday–terrible bombings in the middle of Palm Sunday services. And the bishop is being interviewed about it all.
The journalist asking questions wants to direct the bishop to speak politically and he will have none of it. He only wants to talk about the people suffering such tremendous loss. And he expressed his gratitude for the global outpouring of prayers and support for his people.
But he was also clear about what is at stake, that the goal of the Islamic State, or ISIS, was not merely to terrorize but to eradicate Christianity in Egypt. And at the end of the interview the journalist asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to say, bishop?” Bishop Angaelos said, “Yes, there is. I urge the world to pay attention to the resilience, courage, and forgiving spirit of the Coptic community in Egypt.”
“Do you forgive people who committed this crime?” the interviewer asked. Without hesitation the bishop replied, “Absolutely, I feel no need to forgive the act, which was vicious and evil. But we are all human beings living under the brokenness of sin, with the possibility of repentance. I am happy to continue forgiving, loving and hoping, because I am convinced that that is the only way to break the sinister spiral of violence that has swept across the Middle East.”
I don’t know if I could forgive like that, but I know a person of the resurrection when I hear one. Might we dare say something of the same, based on the bits of resurrection we have known, that we are happy to continue forgiving, loving, and hoping in order to break the spiral of violence and death all around us? Wouldn’t you like to live like that? The good news is that we can.
So here’s the image to take home with you. Not long ago I was venting about my struggles with all that we’re considering here with the person I speak with for spiritual counsel. And he reminded me of something that I’ll share with you. He spoke of St. Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in 15th century, who was instructed by her religious superiors to write a book about prayer based on her mystical experiences. She didn’t want to do it, but she was obedient and she set about the task.
The first image she received from God was that of a diamond inside her, a symbol of God’s overwhelming love for her. And my spiritual counselor said to me, “You know what makes a diamond shine so brilliantly, don’t you? The flaws and imperfections in the stone that reflect the brilliance of the light.” That’s how it is with us. All those things that you think are the worst parts of you? Those may be what God will use to bring light and healing and hope to another.
Does resurrection matter? Yes, it does. And if you want to be a person of the resurrection, what you need to remember is this: You can let go. God loves you with an everlasting love. And your imperfections may be the best part of you.