I want to tell you,
there is rarely a time that I am more unsettled about the life of faith
than when someone asks me the question:
Come on, man! Do you really believe it?
Do you really think its true?
It doesn’t matter if this question is coming from someone I love
or from those who I think are out to test me, test my mettle.
The interrogation could come from someone
who is so FIRM in their conviction
that they are trying to probe my doubt and prove my heresy,
or from someone who is searching for God
who is suspicious of all the hypocracy
and the judgement
and the rules and requirements…
and they might be looking AT ME
for some glimpse of something they themselves
might latch on to.
Or maybe its your average Joe,
who reads these beautiful resurrection stories with the eyes of faith
but who sometimes…. wonders….
But I also gather, since we are not so different, you and I,
that you might also have this experience sometimes.
Where you are asked that question: do you really believe it?
Or, maybe, ask your self that question: Is it true?
And maybe you find yourself, on an Easter Sunday morning,
with flowers and bonnets and plans for Brunch whirling about
when you are struck by the profound questions of faith
and your heart races just a little bit more than what is comfortable.
We read two of the four Easter stories today.
Did you notice all the energy? Uncomfortable energy?
Matthew’s hallmark Easter quality is the Earthquake and the Angel.
There’s not much more unsettling than an earthquake.
No, wait. Maybe the Angel would trump an earthquake.
But the Angel, like at the Birth, says: “Be Not Afraid!”
And off they went, running to tell the others.
And then there’s John.
Did you notice how John’s Easter account begins with a lot of running too?
The scene opens with Mary Magdeline
approaching the place where Jesus’ body was set
after he breathed his last on the cross.
You can sense from the passage Mary’s anxiety, her consternation.
She approaches the tomb early, perhaps for a time of private grieving,
for beginning the slow, painful process of coming to grips
with the absence of someone that she deeply loves.
Her tears are right on the surface,
and a cemetery is an appropriate place to grieve.
the missing stone, and the empty tomb
they DISRUPT what she is about
WHERE have THEY taken his body?
WHAT have they done with it?
WHO could have done such a thing?
and she BOLTS…
Mary’s confusion and incredulity prompts her to RUN
to go get some friends,
and to try to figure it out together.
She’s off to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple.
And when THEY hear her report,
like the shot of the gun at the starting line,
the two of them are off running THEMSELVES to check it out.
And they arrive back at the scene, breathless, and unsettled…
Is it true? Is the body really not there?
As John paints the picture for us,
the three of them, Peter, the disciple that Jesus Loved,
and Mary Magdalene each approach the tomb
in a slightly different way:
The beloved disciple got there first, peeked around the corner
and when he saw some linen wrappings there on the ground,
he was caught up in the swirling emotions and
catches his breath.
The Beloved Disciple can’t go in. Its too much.
Then comes Peter, who arrives shortly behind.
He goes right in to look.
He cannot wait. He must take it ALL in.
And the headcloth is neatly rolled up.
the wrappings folded separately.
And it is clear that Jesus is gone.
The Beloved disciple comes in and surveys the tomb.
And he believed what Mary had said:
Namely: that “They have taken the Lord…”
Everything is so tidy. The cloths are there.
Jesus’ body is not.
And with that, these two erstwhile sprinters go… home….
all that they have witnessed
leading to more questions and pondering…
They go Home to mull it all over.
They will have to wait to encounter the risen Jesus.
No evidence that they have seen has solved all the riddles for them.
But Mary, she sticks around.
She stays there, tomb empty, tears flowing.
Her emotions finally released and her grief taking on a new dimension:
not only is Jesus dead, but his body is missing, too…
And now She is the one who looks in,
and She is the one who takes in the tomb.
But for her, there is something new.
Now two angels are there,
asking her tenderly but directly “Why are you weeping?”
This must seem so strange to Mary.
The others didn’t see anyone inside.
And why shouldn’t she be weeping? Wouldn’t you be weeping?
So she is blunt:
“They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him!”
And then, to Mary, Jesus appears.
The RISEN Jesus. The one crucified. Dead. Dead dead Jesus.
That Jesus appears.
And Mary….well she doesn’t know it at first.
He also asks her why she is weeping,
and she mistakes him for the Gardener:
“Please, sir. Sir! Tell me where you have taken him…
I will take him away…”
This is such a touching, moving encounter,
this first appearance of the risen Jesus.
To this woman, who loves Jesus, who is hurt, and aching,
longing for understanding and meaning.
To her, Jesus clears away all of the confusion
by calling her name…
And with that intimate, personal, direct encounter,
her eyes are open
and she KNOWS that the one she loves,
the one who loves her, is ALIVE!
Henry Nouwen reflects on this encounter this way:[i]
This simple and deeply moving story
brings me in touch with my fear, as well as my desire to be known.
Jesus KNOWS Mary of Magdala.
He KNOWS her story:
Her sin and her virtue,
her fears and her love,
her anguish and her hope.
He knows every part of her heart.
NOTHING in her is hidden from him.
He knows her even more deeply and profoundly than she knows herself.
Therefore, when he utters her name
he brings about a profound event.
Mary suddenly realizes that the one who truly knows her, LOVES her…
I can see (Nouwen says)
what a healing moment this encounter must have been.
Mary feels at once fully known and fully loved.
The division between what she feels safe to show
and what she does not dare to reveal no longer exists.
She is fully seen and she knows that the eyes that see her
are eyes of forgiveness,
and unconditional acceptance.”
And with this, Mary went running AGAIN, and announced to the disciples,
“I have SEEN the LORD!”
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
If EASTER means anything,
its here: this love of Christ that is more POWERFUL than death.
That God calls those who love him by NAME.
Calls you, and me, by name.
What JOY! To be called by name.
To be known, and loved, and known, and accepted.
Mary’s nice, tidy, neat, logical world, and OURS
is broken open when Jesus calls her by name.
The One who was certifiably dead greets her.
The established ORDER: WHAT can happen, HOW things happen:
these are overthrown.
It is a new day.
I get unsettled when I talk about this story, I think,
because the resurrection stories in the Gospels are replete
With QUESTIONS. With CONFUSION.
Mary, Peter, the Beloved Disciple: each one of them
WANDERING, FOGGY people
in the face of something truly mindblowing.
There’s doubting Thomas. There’s the encounter on the road to Emmaus.
And time and time again, THE WAY the Gospels ANSWER the doubt
of those seeking to understand is not through rational, logical answers.
The Gospels offer encounter, offer action,
offer an invitation to touch (but not hold)
offer the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal
or, as in the Gospel of John,
to Mary, they offer the calling of a name that instantly
reveals the depth and breadth of God’s risen love.
Everytime we experience forgiveness
Everytime we hold the hand of a hurting friend
Everytime we look cancer or abuse
or hunger or homelessness or discrimination
in the eye and say NO,
THERE is God saying that Death SHALL NOT win.
I get unsettled because THAT is not something that can be plainly explained.
It is only something that can be shared through invitation
to experience THAT love
to witness THAT grace
to enact THAT mercy
whenever and wherever we find it
and to point to that and say
LOOK! THERE IS EASTER!
THERE IS THE RISEN CHRIST!
CHRIST IS RISEN! ALLELULIA!
So, we are called to say along with Mary: Christ is Risen!
I have seen the LORD!
We are invited to hear Christ calling to US
with OUR name on HIS lips,
pointing us to his everlasting, overflowing life…
We are asked to invite others into the incredible good news
that in God’s EASTER world:
Life is stronger than death
that Love wins.
I can share with you the time that I was the most unsettled.
It was 2009, and I was, of all places, at a Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The theologian and gadfly Peter Rollins was speaking.
And I knew that he was challenging and edgy and maybe even dangerous.
I wasn’t sure, really, what he felt about all ….this.
This time, It was me who asked in my heart whether he believed it or not…
And then he said this, and it unsettled me:[ii]
Last time I was in Grand Rapids,
I was speaking at Calvin College, Said Rollins…
and after about a five hour session,
near the end someone said to me,
“You know Pete, all of this theology,
you don’t say much about this Resurrection.
Do you DENY the Resurrection.
And I said, Ok, this is time to fess up.
Yes, I do. Of course I do.
Everyone who knows me knows I deny the resurrection.
I do deny the resurrection…
every time I do not serve my neighbor
[I deny the resurrection….]
every time I walk away from people who are poor
I deny the resurrection…
every time I participate in an unjust system.
AND I affirm the resurrection, every now and again,
when I stand up for those who are on their knees.
I affirm the resurrection
when I cry out for those people
who have had their tongues torn out,
when I weep for those people
who have no more tears to shed….
So. Its Easter. What do you think? Is it true?
Here’s what I think:
Yes, it is true, every time we encounter the risen Lord among us,
it is true.
Every time we are INSPIRED by Jesus
and stand up for the blessed,
stand with the meek,
those who hunger and thirst, the poor.
those who society rejects or doubts or marginalizes.
Right THERE: the resurrection is TRUE.
There are so many opportunities for us to LIVE it.
Today. To love wantonly. To serve selflessly.
To stand up for justice fearlessly.
Where is your chance to SEE Easter?
Where might you look to see the Risen Lord in our midst?
Are you listening for Christ to call your name,
and to know, in your heart, that you, YOU are loved
in ways you never fully understood?
And so, this Easter Sunday,
my prayer is that we might hear Jesus calling our name
and KNOWING that Christ loves us, knows us, frees us,
may we be set free to tell the world that
WE HAVE SEEN THE LORD
and, doing so, let us AFFIRM
that “Death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political Power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
and from that tomb,
Arises Christ, Alive
Let it be so. Amen.
[i] Henri Nouwen, The Road Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey (New York: Doubleday, 1988) 164-165.
[ii] Video of his talk (as of April 20, 2014) is at vimeo.com/19258866
[iii] From a prayer of Brian McClaren, http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/a-prayer-for-pastors-on-easter.html