John 20:11-16; I Corinthians 13:12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 27, 2016
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have different versions of what happened, with Mark writing 40 years after it happened and John writing 80 years afterwards. Paul, who wrote his letters 20 years after Jesus’ death, does not even mention an empty tomb or any details. However, all are clear that what did happen was extraordinary and all are unanimous that the crucifixion of Jesus was not the end of his life.
Today, we hear the story from the perspective of the writer of John’s gospel. Much to the chagrin of the male-dominated church of the fourth century, the hero of this story and person who is the first to understand the miraculous events is a woman – Mary Magdalene. In order to refute her importance, the later male church leaders called her a prostitute, for which there is no evidence in scripture.
But Mary is clearly the first to understand. What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was.
Easter happens to each of us each time we realize that God knows us well enough to know our name. We are not some faceless, unknown mass of humanity to God. We are each individuals – people – unique and special, and our relationship with God is unique and special. We must not get so focused on the empty tomb that we miss the gardener. When we focus on the strangeness of Easter and the miracles, we can easily miss the gardener, the everyday commonplace appearance and presence of God in the people around us.
John Shelby Spong, in his extraordinary book, The Fourth Gospel, on the Gospel of John writes,
“Resurrection is not about physical resuscitation. John will make that clear. It is about entering and participating in the ‘new being.’ It is about the transformative power that is found in Jesus, that which issues in new dimensions of what it means to be human.”
And Marcus Borg, in his book, Jesus, says that, just as Jesus told parables to help us see the meaning in life, the Gospels must be understood as parables about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, as ways to try to understand the meaning in something that happened that was so unique that all of the tellers of the story struggled to find some way to describe what it meant. Borg writes: “I find these stories to be powerfully true as parables of the resurrection. It does not matter to me as a Christian whether any of them describe events that you or I could have witnessed. It does not matter to me whether the tomb was empty.”
I really like what Paul writes, describing us as only able to see right now as if we are looking in a dingy mirror without much light. And Paul goes on to say that we can only now comprehend a part of who God is, who Jesus is, what gives meaning to life. New Testament scholar Elaine Pagels writes: “We need not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead to grasp the spiritual significance of such a resurrection. In one of the ancient gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi, an early Christian ridicules those who take the resurrection literally, saying instead that they must ‘receive the resurrection while they live.’ Another second-century gnostic writer asks, ‘Why do you not examine your own self, and see that you have arisen?’ (from The Gnostic Gospels).
So many people have said to me over the years, “I really admire Jesus, and can even imagine that he was God’s son, but I have trouble with the empty tomb.” Then I would say to them, “Then forget the empty tomb, and focus on the fact that Jesus is still with us, still at work in our world, that God is not limited by anything.” Resurrection is not some strange story from 2000 years ago. Resurrection is a continuing understanding of life here and now.
It seems to me that this is the most important reason to be here today, to sing “Hallelujah,” to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The facts about exactly what happened are not what is most important. If they are, then we are not recognizing the gardener. And that means, we are not able to hear our name being called, our humanity and compassion being called out. Resurrection only has real meaning if it has something to say to us while we are alive, struggling with what life means and who we can become, in a world that is filled with a lot of suffering.
Anne LaMott described a time when she and a friend, who had suffered terribly through multiple skin grafts, celebrated Good Friday:
We celebrated Good Friday that night. It’s such a sad day, all loss and cruelty, and you have to go on faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. I hate that you can’t prove the beliefs of my faith. If l were God, I’d have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check to see if you’re on the right track as you go along. But nooooooo. Darkness is our context, and Easter’s context: without it, you couldn’t see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s choosing to believe that love is bigger than any grim bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.
After the Good Friday service, Sue wanted to show me her legs, the effects of all the skin grafting. The skin was sort of shocking, wounded and alien as snakeskin.
“Wow,” I said. She let me study her skin awhile. “I have trouble with my cellulite,” I said, guiltily.
“Yeah,” she answered, “but this is what me being alive looks like now.”
- Small Victories
Resurrection is what Jesus being alive looks like. For us, receiving the resurrection now is what being alive looks like, what finding out who we are now and who we can be, looks like. It means that some of the griminess of Paul’s mirror is wiped off and we are able to see a little better, and that we realize a little more about who God knows us to be, and we realize that the gardener actually knows our name.
In a world of such great suffering, such unspeakable violence, such overwhelming tragedy, we are called to be resurrected now, to become more of the person that God has created us to be. But how can we do that when it seems so overwhelming, when the needs are so great? In his beautiful book on the 23rd Psalm, Rabbi Harold Kushner gives us a clue:
When we have poured out all the love and all the strength we have on behalf of people who need our love and our strength, when we have spent ourselves holding the hands of the fearful and drying the tears of the grieving, when we have labored to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and build homes for the homeless, and despite our efforts, the problems are still there, where do we find the strength to go on?
When our souls are on the verge of giving in to compassion fatigue, when we know what the right thing to do is but we are tired of being charitable and helpful, that is when we need God to restore our souls, to replenish our ability to act like human beings, to understand that what is asked of us is not to make the world perfect but to make one person’s life better.
When events challenge our faith so that we find it hard to believe that this world is God’s world, that is when we need God to restore our souls, to reinforce our ability to believe in ourselves and in our ability to do good things. Even as a faithful shepherd gives his flock the food and water they need to be sheep, God, our faithful shepherd, gives us the strength of soul we need to be human.
-Harold Kushner, The Lord Is My Shepherd
Being resurrected here and now is not about becoming supernatural. It is even more than that. It is about becoming even more human. The resurrection of Jesus means that God is stronger than anything in life. It means that God enables us to continue to live even after terrible things happen to us and to our world. When the gardener calls our name, it means that God knows us personally and nothing can separate us from the love of God. Resurrection means that we are called to bless those around us-even when we feel most vulnerable- because we find that we are blessed.
Rachel Remen tells the story of one of her patients who learned, out of her suffering, that life is about blessing those around us:
I have come to wonder if blessing life is not a final step in some natural process of healing from suffering. A blessing is a place of refuge, a connecting back to the place in us where we are coherent and whole. A remembering of who we are.
A friend and colleague told me about the first hours after she discovered that her fifteen-year-old son had drowned. She had gone downstairs to get a cup of tea, and another woman, herself shaken by grief, had chided her, asking her how she could drink tea at a time like this. “Up until then, Rachel, I had been a person who was always afraid of doing things wrong, always hesitant and full of self doubt over the smallest action. But when she spoke to me I suddenly knew that in this I could do nothing wrong: This had struck me to a place of such depth that everything I did or said or thought or felt in response was completely true. This was beyond rules, beyond judgments. This was all mine.”
Her healing has taken time, more than eighteen years. She works now with groups of people who have cancer, helping them to move through their grief and losses in order to connect back to the place in them that is coherent and whole. Speaking of this she says, “For me, the loss of my son went from a singular event to something that is woven into the fabric of my being. It is always present to me, part of my work, part of my experience. Having experienced that deep a grief, that suffering, I am no longer afraid to go back there. I have been around it and with it and come through it and I know it very well. I have also somehow survived it. I think the people in my groups know this. They know that I am not afraid anymore.”
Dr. Remen goes on to say:
The power to repair the world is already in you. When someone blesses you, it reminds you a little – untying the knots of belief and fear and self-doubt that have separated you from your own goodness. Freeing you to bless and receive blessings from everything around you.
–My Grandfather’s Blessings
In order for anyone around us to believe in resurrection, we must incarnate Easter for them. The only way anyone will believe that Easter happened, that resurrection is a possibility, is if we are there for them. It is not the miracle of the empty tomb that will make a difference for them. It is that, in the midst of their everyday pain, someone calls them by name, and they begin to believe in the possibility that God is stronger than anything, stronger than death, and stronger than what they are going through right then.
Unless the God of the empty tomb still lives within us, then Easter is just a very nice, old story. It has little to do with us today. But the crucifixion of Jesus can be the window of faith which allows us to look at life in a whole new way. God is at work in our world, still bringing new life from death. Part of it is up to us, but part of it will come from the ordinary people and events around us, “just the gardener”, who surprise us as vehicles of God’s presence, who truly know our name.
When we go through the overwhelming places in life that feel like death, like the end of hope- things like chemotherapy or cancer, the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job or a career- we will find signs that God is still at work in our lives, still present with us, that God brings new life out of darkness and despair.
The power and the light of resurrection bring hope into the darkest places of life. The miracle of Easter is that we cannot know all of the meaning in any event when we go through it. The miracle of Easter is that there is always more life, more hope, more possibility in the events of life than we can possibly know at the time.
The miracle of Easter is that God is with us, and that his love is present in the ordinary events and the ordinary people around us. And God calls us to be the incarnation of his presence, the incarnation of Easter for those in need.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! In our world, in the lives of those around us, and in our own lives!