We live in the time after the resurrection. And given that, here is the question with which we are confronted. Given the staggering mystery of the empty tomb, what should we do? How should we live? What does resurrection mean?
These questions are as old as the Christian movement.
We can imagine the apostles asking this question. After encountering resurrection, after living the strange, wonderful miracle that was the resurrected Jesus for fifty days, after being part of this holy party that waited on the far side of the cross, they say:
What now? What does everything that just happened mean?
Well, part of the answer to that question is recorded in the Book of Acts, a book that we might call What the Apostles Did Next or, maybe, How They Made Sense of the Resurrection. Part of it is recorded in a collection of letters, some of which are bound into the Bible. Part of it is recorded in ancient church documents: beautiful, searching texts like the one that we call the Didache, that tell us what it was like be part of the young church.
And part of the answer is recorded in this very service and in the three days that came before it.
The first Christians knew that the resurrection had changed everything. Now, they didn’t understand the resurrection, any more than you or I can understand the resurrection. To stand before the empty tomb is have an encounter that bends the very rules of life, of reality. But they knew that it made everything different. Resurrection (and forgive me if this is a flippant analogy, I don’t mean it to be), is like a twist ending in a story or in a movie. When you encounter it you want to go back and read everything or watch everything again to see the clues that you missed before, to see what they might mean in light of what you now know.
Jesus’ life and his death are different when you understand that resurrection is coming. Creation itself is different when you understand that resurrection is coming.
And so, over the three days that end Lent plus this, the anniversary of the day of the resurrection, the day of Easter, they crafted a series of practices and symbols that told the story of, well, everything. It was as though they wanted to cram absolutely all that there was and all that there ever has been and maybe all that there ever will be into church.
Maundy Thursday, where we remember and embody Jesus washing the feet of his friends and establishing the Eucharist, the holy meal that we will share together in a few minutes. Good Friday, where we journey with Jesus to the cross and watch helplessly and hopelessly as he suffers and the life bleeds out of him. The Easter Vigil, where we tell one story after another after another from scripture (way back when, that service lasted all night long, so that the worshippers would have literally journeyed from darkness and into light, so that the Vigil and today’s service would’ve been the same thing). And then today, where we hold this celebration, where declare that God has broken the very bonds of death.
The Vigil – the old beginning of this service – begins with the very first reading that there is in scripture, with the part of the Bible that says in the beginning.
One of the big questions that the first Christians wrestled with back then and that those of us who do our imperfect best to follow Jesus are wrestling with still goes something like this: When God became human and lived with us and told us stories and healed us and then died and then proved to bigger than death, did God do that because we humanity was terrible, because we had made so many, selfish mistakes, because we had spectacularly screwed up the world, because we were such awful sinners?
Or was there another reason?
The first possibility is maybe the one that we are the most familiar with. This is the possibility that God, like a disappointed Dad getting up from the TV to deal with the yelling in the living room, God had to come to earth because we were kind of awful. In that reading, the first two humans introduced this thing called original sin into the world. (“Original sin,” by the way, is a phrase that appears exactly nowhere in scripture.) Ever since the first humans ate from the wrong tree and original sin got introduced, humanity has gotten worse and worse, running up a bigger and bigger tab of sinful debt with God, until the debt was so bad that humanity no longer had the capacity to pay it.
And because the debt had to be paid, because someone had to die, and die horribly, for all of our sinning, God sent God’s only son to suffer and suffer and suffer and finally die on our behalf.
And that’s an okay understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I guess.
With the lone problem that it makes God into a psychopath.
Why in the world would God require that his only son be tortured to death? And if God did require that, why in the world would we worship that God? Wouldn’t we have a moral duty to refuse to worship such a God?
Thanks be to God, we’re not stuck with that explanation. Because for someone like the wonderful Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, the Incarnation was not an in-flight correction but, rather, was God’s plan from the very beginning. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God digs out God’s paintbrush and chisel and creates this world of wonder and beauty. God says that it is good. Some theologians reckon that we should not speak of Original Sin but of Original Blessing.
And God decides that God will neither watch what God had created passively from a distance, and nor will God operate reality like a puppeteer pulling on the strings of a marionette. Rather, God will participate in reality, with all of the grief and the joy that comes of being alive.
God will walk the earth.
If that’s right, then the cross isn’t something that God wanted or needed. Rather, it was something that we in our fearfulness and our anger and our violence did to God. Jesus, as Marcus Borg would put it, did not die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world. But here’s the amazing thing: God figured out how to turn even the cross, even the worst that humanity could come up with into something wonderful and something freeing. And even more than that – and this is a part of the story so beautiful that it puts you on your knees – God accepted that very worst thing that we could do. And God kept on loving us anyway.
There are lots of stories where the hero comes back from the dead at the end. Go see a Marvel movie. So that part of the story is maybe not so different. But there is a part of the Gospel that is entirely different. Because what does the hero say when they crawl out of the rubble?
The villain is going to pay.
That is what we would expect from Jesus. But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus refuses to return our violence or our hatred to us. The resurrection is all about shared meals, shared possibility, shared loved.
We are people who live after the resurrection. And we have this ancient question: What now? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have seen the staggering goodness of God? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have participated in resurrection?
Five Meditations on Resurrection
I am visiting with a woman whose husband of almost fifty years died the summer before last. The woman was young when she and her husband met and married, she was only a handful of years into her twenties. The two of them were together for just about all of her adult life.
Now he is gone.
Maybe it is because I want everything to be okay for her. Or maybe it’s a little more selfish. Maybe I want everything to be okay for me. My wife, Phoebe, and I were more or less the same age when we got together as the woman was when she and her husband met. I’m not sure that I know how to be a grown-up without Phoebe. I’m not sure that I remember how to live life without her.
And so I say something facile, something neat and simple and clean about the importance of reengaging with life after the death of a loved one. I offer the woman this advice – and I am embarrassed to confess this to you – in much the same way that I might tell a child who has fallen off of her bike to climb back on and start peddling again.
I guess that am trying to reassure at least one of us that such a reengagement is possible.
The woman responds to the foolishness of my words not with anger or disappointment, but with a tired wisdom (is “tired wisdom” a category that even makes sense?) with the insight that comes from carrying a barrelful of grief for a long time.
It’s hard, she says to me.
It is hard to decide that life is still worth it.
And in that instant I catch a glimpse, a fleeting glimpse, of just how hard the woman is working. I don’t think that I had guessed before. I don’t think that I had guessed that she is like a marathon runner, her knees almost buckling as the miles move further and further into the double digits; that she is like a swimmer pulled by the current far, far out into the ocean, beginning to wonder if she can keep the struggle going, if she wants to keep the struggle going, knowing that sinking beneath the waves promises rest.
The woman has chosen to keep on living. She has chosen life. She has made this choice at great cost to herself.
The story says that there is a stone in front of the tomb.
You have to push hard if you want to move the stone.
The farmer and poet and prophet Wendell Berry ends one of his most famous poems with a two-word invitation or command:
Practice resurrection. Resurrection, Berry suggests through the unexpected intersection of these two words, is something more than a piece of history, something more than an idea to which you and I are expected to agree, something more than a 2000-year-old fact to which you and I, because we are sitting in a church, are expected to intellectually assent. Resurrection, somehow, is about you and me.
Around the year 33, the women find the tomb empty.
Around the year 2017, you and I find the tomb empty.
The tomb is opening still. It is opening right now.
If Wendell Berry is right, then you and I are called to witness its opening.
If Wendell Berry is right, then you and I are called to practice resurrection and to participate in its opening.
A United Airlines flight sits on the tarmac. And a man of Asian descent who has bought and paid for a ticket is inside. The staff managing the flight realises that United has sold more tickets than they have seats. And so, aided by a computer algorithm that randomly selects his seat number, they tell the man to get up and get off the plane. When the man refuses to do so, when he says that he needs to get to his destination, the flight staff summon United’s security team. And the security guards drag the man from the plane. His fellow passengers get out their mobile phones and film as he is pulled down the aisle like a sack of garbage. The man’s lawyer will later explain that the security team broke his nose and knocked out two of his teeth.
This is the data. How shall we interpret it? What story shall we tell about it?
Maybe this is a story about a group of employees forgetting the dignity of a customer and, in so doing, forgetting their own dignity. Maybe this is a story about the danger of uncritically following orders. Maybe this is a story about a business culture that dehumanises its customers and employees alike, about a business that studies its spreadsheets hard but has forgotten how to study morality. Maybe this is a story about the erosion of community, about neglecting our duty to our neighbour. Maybe it’s a story about still another official act of violence directed against a person of colour.
All of these stories are true.
The story that I am curious about this morning, however, is another one. It is the story of you and me watching the cell phone video of the man being pulled from the plane. James Martin, the wonderful Jesuit writer, invites us to listen to ourselves as we watch, to notice the voice inside of us that says:
Pay attention to that voice, James Martin says. Pay attention to the voice that says, “That’s wrong.”
Because that voice is your conscience.
That voice – and the similar voices inside of the millions of others people watching this video – is the good news hiding within this story. When we see something wrong or evil or broken, there is a temptation to interpret what we are seeing as a fundamental indictment of creation, as evidence that God is absent and that the world is fractured beyond repair, as an invitation into despair and rage and apathy.
But actually, the very intensity of our reaction is good news. The world might be hopelessly broken if we watched the video from the airplane or the footage from Syria or – we don’t even need a screen here – the evidence of poverty in our own neighbourhoods and we shrugged, and we said, “That’s just the way things are.”
But we don’t shrug. Our consciences speak. And through our consciences, Christ speaks. Through our consciences, Christ invites us into action.
Sometimes the voice inside of us that says that’s wrong is the beginning of new life.
An elderly man sits at home. The man has gotten to be older than most people get. He doesn’t leave home much any more, his body is reluctant to take him too far into the world. But he remains lucid, his mind clear. He sits by the window in the sunshine and watches the marvel of creation in the back yard.
A younger friend comes to visit the man – although to be this man’s friend means that, even though you are younger than him, you yourself are beginning to be old.
The two of them talk. And the younger person asks the questions that friends ask when they get together: How are you? How is your life?
The old man responds.
Now I am almost entirely love.
The women come to the tomb before the sun rises. Much as they stood at the foot of the cross, their plan today is to stand outside of his grave.
What do you notice about their story?
Notice that the women come before dawn. In the cold and the dark and the lonely confusion of this night, there is the absence of light in every sense.
Notice that, in this short reading, we hear about fear over and over For fear of the angel, the soldiers guarding the tomb become like dead men. The angel says to the women, fear not. And Jesus says the same words to the rest of the disciples.
Notice that, notwithstanding the darkness and the fear, the women go towards the tomb. Somehow, part of meeting God involves overcoming our anxiety and, as Jesus did throughout his life, going towards the pain.
Notice that resurrection begins with an earthquake. That it begins when the very ground beneath our feet shakes and we are not sure anymore what is stable and what is true and real and what is up and what is down.
Notice that the angel says to the women:
You are looking for Jesus
who was crucified.
Resurrection is something other than optimism, it is something other than a happy ending to a movie. Jesus does not come out of the tomb saying, “Don’t cry: it was all a bad dream. See? I’m fine!”
Jesus is risen. But the reality of his crucifixion remains. The wounds remain on his hands and his feet and in his side. Resurrection does not say that the hurt or the injustice or the grief or the trauma never happened. It does not say that the bomb did not fall or that the man was not dragged from the plane or that the one that we loved did not die. It says that these hard, hard truths remain. And that, somehow, somehow, there is new life even as we continue to carry them.
Last of all, notice that resurrection means being with Jesus. At its simplest level – and at its most staggering level – this is what resurrection is. When the women brave going to the tomb, when we brave going to our own tombs, who we fid there is Jesus Christ himself.
At the beginning of the Gospel, we learned that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. At the end of the Gospel, we learn the same thing. God is with us in our searching and our grief our lostness as suredly as God is with us in our triumph and our ecstasy and our jubilation.
Before he died, Jesus said to us, I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
Outside of the tomb, we know that abundant life is ours.
Before he died, Jesus said to us, I am the way and the truth and the life.
Outside of the tomb, we know that Jesus will show us the way to the Father.
And today. Today Jesus says to us, Fear not.
And amazingly, in the cold of the early dawn light, we notice that we are not shaking anymore. We notice that our fear is gone.
This is resurrection.