I like to think that all of us are living in a gradual revelation of Jesus in our lives of one kind or another. We never get there completely but I think what we experience over time is probably better than getting everything at once. Everything at once would overwhelm us. Emily Dickinson said this:
“Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.”
That’s what we see when we look at the story of the resurrection from the perspective of Mary this morning. It was a gradual revelation from darkness to being dazzled. Let’s look at the passage in John 20.
She sees in the dark that the stone had been removed from the entrance. She does not look inside but turns and runs to tell Peter and John. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.” She immediately assumes the worst in the darkness – and how can we blame her? Jesus did not die as a hero or celebrity but as a criminal. In fact, it was a borrowed tomb so it would not have been impossible to think they had taken him out to make room for someone else – someone more deserving. It’s easy for us to be the same way. In the darkness the best possible news is bad news.
After the men have looked in and returned to their homes Mary stays and then looks in only to see two angels sitting where Jesus had been two days before. What do they say? It’s not what we expect, is it? It’s not comforting or even sensitive. All she gets is questions and no answers. When angels show up you expect something different than that but this is a pattern with angels. Look at Acts 1:11, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Those questions seem irrelevant and useless. Why are you crying? Why are you standing here? I don’t know why angels ask questions that don’t seem to help things. They just do.
Why does God ask questions at such a time like that instead of speaking words of consolation? It feels almost cruel and heartless. There are times in life when instead of God giving us answers He only gives us more questions. We say, “Jesus is the Answer” but it turns out he is often the source of a whole new set of questions. I don’t really want more questions as much as I want answers. I want certainty. I want comfort…but what I get is more questions.
It is written in Hebrews that the angels are ministering spirits and it is easy to take that to mean they are always comforting and encouraging. Sometimes, like this, they are not. Yes, they are ministering but in the way we need sometimes. We need people around us to ask the hard questions and make us uneasy. We need that kind of ministry as much as we need any other.
And then she sees but does not recognize Jesus because, again, more questions. “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Does it seem to you as it does to me that he is playing with her this time? I know that seems heartless but from his perspective the depth of her impending joy will be so deep that this moment is almost like teasing. “See, I told you so” is his response instead of being angry. It’s almost playful in a way how he can now hide himself and then open their eyes when he wants them to see. I played “peek-a-boo” with my granddaughter this week-end and it was the same response. Wonder, confusion, surprise and glee. I do hope my disbelief will be met with the same playful recognition that I am but a child instead of my being fearful of judgment. Why does it not seem impossible to imagine all of us dancing ring around the rosie in front of the tomb?
She sees but does not recognize Jesus because she was focused on the only explanation she could imagine. She connected the only dots she had and the greatest thing in the world that could ever happen looks like the worst.
She is blind to what is wonderful by trying to fix what was.
And how does that suddenly change? She sees but does not see – just like the men on the road to Emmaus that very same day. It’s almost like Jesus has to give us one more clue to open our eyes. Our eyes are not enough. They see but they do not see until Jesus breaks the bread. Later, in the last chapter of John the disciples see a man on the shore but they do not recognize him until their extraordinary catch of fish. Mary sees but does not see until she hears him speak her name. When the one who names you calls your name it is unlike any other voice. The way my mother said my name was different from any other voice. It wasn’t just the sound. It was the relationship. It is the same with Mary. He says her name and she immediately recognizes him. The gradual revelation is complete and she sees and hears not only her Teacher but her Lord.
I can imagine how she might think everything was back to normal now that Jesus has returned. But, that’s not so. Jesus says, in effect, “Mary, do not cling to me as you used to know me. The old order has changed… and you are going to have to break with it. You have lost what you knew and loved. Let go.” In some ways, that must have been harder than losing him the first time.
Jesus is not where or who we expect him to be – even now. We see but we do not see.
Two stories – one at the beginning and one here at the end – almost merge in some ways. Look at Jesus when he was 12 in Jerusalem. There are two Mary’s – one his mother and in this account Mary Magdala. In both stories, Mary is looking for what has been lost. One a child and the other a man. In each, three days have passed. In each, there is amazement in finding him. As well, in each there is that question that seems so insensitive. In the first, the question is “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house? In the second, the question is “Who are you looking for?” And in both we realize that something has changed and will never be the same again. Mary has to let go of her son and Mary Magdala has to let go of her teacher. There is for all of us a time when we have to let go of what used to be that we loved so much because it is standing in the way of what will be.
Why is the resurrection so important? Why can we not be satisfied with a great moral religion? Why not just focus on the teachings of Jesus? Paul says it best in 1 Corinthians 15: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
I know we need to make room for all religions in a pluralistic society. I would not want to live in any other kind. However, I have to remember that faith without a resurrection is futile. It does not mean it is bad – only a dead end. It does not mean it is evil – only a pitiful substitute for Christ. There is nothing in it that dazzles or surprises. Yes, it is the best we can do and, yes, sometimes it calls out of the us the best we can be on our own but that is not what it means to live a life of the Spirit. The distinction of Christianity in a pluralistic society is not love your neighbor. It is the resurrection.
As well, we have to be careful that we do not make our faith in Christ so practical and focused on being a way to make this life better that we lose the one thing that makes it real. Our faith in Christ is not simply a way to improve this life. In fact, we do not have any reason to believe it will. The problem is we put off thinking about a resurrected life after death in order to improve our lives in the here and now. I know it is hard – almost more than we can do. Eric Hoffer said “It is hope around the corner brand of hope that prompts people to action, while the distant hope only acts as an opiate.” We want that around the corner kind of hope and the resurrected life is so unknowable. We want the world to change for us. Anne Lamott says,” I think they are tired of me saying around Easter that the crucifixion looked like a big win for the Romans. The following Monday, Caesar and Herod were still in power. The chief priests were still the chief priests. (And meanwhile, in a tucked-away corner, the 12 were transformed. And some women, too.)” It still feels like a big win for the Romans sometimes.
We have so many stories from Jesus about the Kingdom of God but do you ever wish he would have told a few about what the resurrected life is like – just to give us a hint about what we are waiting for? Had I been Matthew or John, both eyewitnesses and authors of the gospels, I would have written far more about the resurrected Jesus. What was in like in the forty days he was with them afterwards? What did he say about heaven? What is it like to have a resurrected body that can appear and disappear and mask itself from even the people closest to you? What else could he have said or done that would make it easier for me to believe?
But it would have been like telling the seed what a tree will be like. That is why we need stories, metaphors and poems. That is why, in the end, we have to trust.
But it is our paying attention to the fact of the resurrection that allows us to live in the here and now with purpose. You know the C.S. Lewis quote. “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. He said, “Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.”
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” That doesn’t mean Paul saw life as an illusion or as unimportant. It does not mean his suffering had made him think only about heaven. I think it is more like he fixed his eyes on the not yet seen that was more real than anything we can imagine. Think of standing at a train station looking down the track. You are waiting for something that is real. It is not delusional or denial or hoping something will happen. You believe in the not yet seen. That is how I try to think about the life of the resurrection. I believe in the not yet seen. I am preparing for that yet unseen train to arrive.
And while we wait the Spirit of God is gradually but relentlessly recreating us from the inside and making us ready for what is next. We know that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in us, and he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in us. We will live different lives not just later but now. We live in that in between time – the tension between the seen and yet to be seen. We are not afraid of death or disinterested in life. We are confident that the one who began a good work in us will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. We know that this life and this body is just a seed that has been planted and unless it dies it will not become filled with the splendor God intends for us. “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”
Frederick Buechner said this: “The worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best…All is well.” That is our faith in these times that seem so hopeless and dark. It is not the worst. It is not the last. If we fix our eyes only on what is seen we will lose heart but we don’t. We fix our eyes on what has yet to be seen but will be. Jesus is still about his Father’s business. He has gone on ahead of us and that train will come right on time to take us where he is already waiting to welcome us.
I don’t know what this means for you but I want to leave it with you and hope that you can explain it because I think it is important. It is a poem by Wendell Berry and it closes with these words.
“So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
This was not in the lesson this morning but I want to include it because it is so true. So many people, including theologians, have made the Resurrection into a metaphor or a symbol of what life in the here and now can be like. Or, they turn it into an image of the annual renewal of Spring. Resurrection is not renewal. It is not a metaphor for a new life and a new beginning. It is literal, physical and without it, as Updike says, “the Church will fall.”
Seven Stanzas At Easter
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.