April 19, 2003
We have all heard of Easter joy. But how much we do know of Easter fear? That is the question that today’s gospel poses. Because in this resurrection account by the evangelist Mark, there is very little joy to be found. When the women discover the empty tomb and they hear the news that Jesus is risen – they do not rejoice. They flee from the tomb and say nothing to anyone because they are afraid. Fear at the tomb might at first be puzzling. But upon closer reflection it contains a central message of the Easter story. The women were afraid because as soon as they realized that Jesus had been raised up, they also realized that their lives would have to change. As soon as they saw that the tomb was empty, they also knew that all that Jesus had taught them was reliable and true, that God was alive, that life was more powerful than death, and that their lives would have to show it.
We find ourselves in a very similar situation to the women at the tomb. If we don’t believe in the resurrection, if we think that the message of Jesus is misguided or misdirected, we can go home and no one will expect very much of us. But the minute that we believe the message that Christ has been raised up, that God is now working in the world through Christ, then in that moment we must admit that people should see God in us. And that is where the fear comes in. For such a calling is an awesome responsibility.
Yet there is no way around the fear. The women at the tomb remind us that whenever we encounter life, we encounter not only joy, but fear, not only grace but also responsibility. In our deepest moments of joy, is there not always a tinge of fear? When we realize we have been given a tremendous opportunity in our work, or our career, along with our joy is there not the doubt: “am I really up to this challenge?” When we find someone at last whom we love completely and that person loves us in return, do we not also find in the midst of that joy a question: “Can I be generous enough, can I be forgiving enough, can I be faithful enough to allow this love to last?” When we hold a newborn son or daughter in our arms for the first time and are overwhelmed with the joy that has been given to us, can we not hear in that joy a whisper asking: “Are you wise enough, are you brave enough, are you loving enough to shape this life into a new human being?” One of the things that that fear in the midst of joy does for us is to remind us that life is real. As much as life is a blessing, it also calls for responsibility. It also asks us to live what we have been given to the best of our ability
So how do we cope with this fear? How do we find the courage even in our joys to assume that we can live what is asked of us? Only by depending on one another. That is why we are here tonight. That is why we are community, church. We come together as a people tonight sharing the same fears. The fears of whether we are good enough as a spouse, as a parent, as a friend, as a disciple. Yet we come together tonight and stand together knowing that despite all of our fears and doubts we can still claim God’s mercy and God’s love. In a special way tonight we think of Jeff and Rob who are preparing for baptism. I have talked to both of them and they have shared with me that their feelings are a mixture of joy and fear. It is important for both of you to know that that mixture of joy and fear is the true sign of a disciple, something that every believer here tonight shares with you. You need to know that your willingness to be baptized into Christ Jesus, your willingness to be covered by the waters of baptism so you can rise to new life is a sign to us that despite all the fears and imperfections that we share together, we can still allow Jesus to be seen in our midst.
If your Easter does not have at least a bit of fear, you might be missing the fullness of the Easter message. Because the Easter message is that God is real, that Christ is risen, that life is stronger than death and that our lives should show it. Yes, that is a frightening call. But there is some fear in everything which has value. So let us tonight stand together and push through the fear to the joy. Let us admit our doubts but choose to believe nonetheless. Let us join our lives together and with all of our imperfections and nevertheless fearlessly proclaim: “Christ is risen. Alleluia!”
The Resurrection Code
April 16, 2006
It is peculiar that when Jesus meets Mary Magdalene at the tomb in today’s gospel, he tells her not to touch him. Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples. You would think that when Jesus and Mary were reunited, they would embrace in joy at his victory over death. But Jesus not only tells her not to touch him, but implies that there will be a time when they can touch. He says, “Do not touch me for I have not yet ascended to my father.” What is this strange comment of Jesus about? He seems to say: Do not touch me now but touch me later—do not touch me while I am here; touch me once I have gone away. What is Jesus attempting to say? His meaning is certainly obscure. But there is a saying in biblical interpretation: the obscure is an opportunity. The things we do not first understand are an opportunity to think more deeply, to investigate and discover a meaning we never expected.
This is what I would like to explore with you on this Easter night—to answer the question, why does Jesus tell Mary “Do not touch me now”? To answer that question I am going to call upon the services of one of the giants of Western Art—the Italian artist, Giotto. Everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. About 700 years ago Giotto painted a resurrection scene based upon today’s gospel. You will find it on the front of the bulletins which you received coming into church. I would ask you to look at the picture now. How has Giotto presented Jesus’ resurrection?
On the left hand side of the painting you see two angels. They are rather chubby and contented. They are sitting on a rosy marble tomb. Since this is a resurrection story, we presume the tomb is empty. At the base of the tomb you see the soldiers who have been assigned to guard the tomb. They are fast asleep. To the far right, you see the risen Jesus, dressed in white. Kneeling on the ground in a maroon cloak is Mary Magdalene. Here, Giotto has illustrated the very question we are trying to answer. Mary Magdalene is reaching out, trying to touch Jesus. But Jesus, with a gesture of his hand, is resisting her.
How can this painting by Giotto assist us tonight? Because (with apologies to the DaVinci code) I believe that Giotto has hidden in this picture the answer to our question. I would like you to notice three details in the way he has drawn the figure of Christ. If we can appreciate them, I believe we can not only answer our initial question but also come to a deeper understanding of the resurrection and how it applies to our lives.
The first detail to notice is that Jesus is drawn holding a banner. You see it flying gently in the breeze, emblazoned with a cross. The banner is a sign of victory. Of course, it is the victory of Christ. But victory over what? We usually answer: Jesus’ victory over his death. But the victory is much bigger than that. We believe that the resurrection of Jesus is the first step in God’s victory over the evil in our world—the first step in the establishment of God’s kingdom. What Easter is about, what Jesus is about, what our faith is about is a God who is opposed to evil and is determined to eliminate evil from our midst. I mean all evil: the evil of poverty, of violence, of hatred, of suffering, and even of death. God intends to establish the kingdom. When that kingdom comes all evil will be destroyed. Jesus’ resurrection is the first step in that cosmic plan. The banner is a sign of the victory that in Christ has now begun.
For the second detail, look at Jesus’ foot. See how it reveals the slant of his leg beneath his robe. You can see by that slant that Jesus is moving, moving away. At this moment he is pressing up to the very edge of the picture. With one more step he will be gone. Where is he going? He tells us himself that he is ascending to the Father. We know that Jesus is not going to be gone forever. We believe that he will return. He will return to complete the victory over evil and to finally establish God’s kingdom. But until he does return, the victory over evil is not complete. As Jesus ascends to the Father, we must admit that for now evil remains in our world and in our lives. It can touch us and the ones we love. Until the time when Jesus returns, we will continue to experience poverty, violence, hatred, sickness and death. So Jesus’ foot points to his departure. It reminds us that at present the victory is incomplete.
The third detail is Jesus’ hand. It is the most telling detail of all. At first glance it appears simply as a gesture to keep Mary Magdalene from touching him. But look at how Giotto has drawn the hand. It is not a flat palm pressed as a wall between Jesus and Mary. It is an open hand facing downward. Where have we seen that gesture before? We have seen it at confirmations and ordinations. It is the gesture of imposing hands. This gesture commissions a person, sets someone aside for a mission. If Mary Magdalene were to be moved to the right one inch, Jesus’ hand would be on her head. He would be imposing his hand upon her. Giotto has done here something that only artists can do. In one gesture he has captured two meanings. One indicates that Mary should not touch Jesus now. The other commissions her for a mission. What is that new mission? To take up Jesus’ mission of course—to carry on his work; to be in the world opposed to poverty, violence, hatred, sickness, and death. Mary Magdalene kneels here as our representative. In the resurrection Jesus commissions us to carry on his work until he returns.
Here we find the answer to our initial question. How will Mary Magdalene be able to touch Jesus after he has ascended? How can we touch Jesus before he returns? We touch him by engaging in his mission. We touch him every time we touch the poor, the suffering, the dying, the victims of violence and hatred. For he has told us whatever we do for the least of our brothers or sisters we do to him. Until Jesus returns we are commissioned to touch him in one another. In touching those we serve, we touch Christ himself.
Look again at the whole figure of Christ. The whole Easter message can be found in his figure. That message is not limited to what happened to Jesus two thousand years ago. It outlines the pattern of our lives today. The three central virtues of the Christian life—faith, hope and love—correspond to the details which we examined. Faith calls us to believe in the banner of Christ’s victory, that the destruction of evil has begun and no force can turn that victory back. Hope is what we hold to in this time when Jesus has ascended to the Father and when evil remains in our world. Love is our mission, our call to serve one another, to touch Jesus in the least of our brothers or sisters.
The whole Easter message is contained in Giotto’s figure of Christ. It is a lot to absorb. In the picture, Mary Magdalene does not seem to see it. She is still too busy trying to touch Jesus at the tomb. The guards are oblivious. They are asleep. But look at the angel on the far left. He is pointing to what he sees in the risen figure of Christ. He is pointing for our benefit, lest we miss it. This angel is proclaiming the Easter message to us. Here is his proclamation: “You have heard the gospel. Here you can see the gospel. But now you must live the gospel. You must live it in faith, hope and love.”
April 12, 2009
Christ is risen, and we are called to Easter joy. But not all joys are the same, and Easter joy is a particular variety. Therefore, before we continue this liturgy, we should make it very clear what Easter joy is and what it is not. Easter joy is not the joy you feel when you win the lottery. It’s not the joy that you feel when you have a perfect delivery of a new son or daughter. Those joys are perfect, without any shadow or cloud on the horizon. Easter joy is more complex. It has a darker dimension. After all, Easter joy was first discovered at a tomb.
It is clear that the joy of Easter is connected to sorrow, suffering, loss, and death. Not that we are supposed to rejoice in those things. In fact, whenever possible, we are called to avoid suffering and loss and pain. But when these unavoidable evils enter into our life, it is then that Easter joy is operative. When our life falls apart, when our friends leave us, when our job stinks, when our health fails, it is then that we turn to Easter joy. And Easter joy is possible even in the midst of pain, because Easter joy does not depend on us. It depends on God. In fact, the revelation of Easter is the revelation of how deeply God loves us, and what God intends to for us.
What became clear on that first Easter morning, what became obvious to the women at the tomb, was that God’s love was stronger than death. God’s power could conquer the grave. Jesus who suffered had been risen up. The one who was crucified had entered into a new kind of life. If God had been so faithful to Jesus, then we can dare to believe that God will be as faithful to us.
You see, what we believe on Easter is not simply that God raised Jesus from the dead, but that God plans to do the same for us. We believe that God plans to give us life. So Easter is not about celebrating our pain or sorrow, but believing that God will lead us out of them. As strong as evil may be, it is no match for God. We believe that God has the power and the intention to lead us out of death to life. Therefore it is the love and power of God which is the basis of our hope and the source of Easter joy.
But now we come to the practical question, which is in some sense the most important question. How do we get to Easter joy? If there’s pain or suffering in our life, how do we move to the joy of Easter? We get to the joy of Easter by embracing the cross we cannot escape. When unavoidable pain comes into our life, we are called to accept that pain in the light of Easter, to take up the cross as Jesus took up the cross, and to believe that God will lead us through that pain to life. Whatever that evil might be, whether it’s losing our job, dealing with a divorce that upsets our family, grieving someone who we have lost, fearing to grow old, or coping with a sickness that will not let us go—whatever that evil may be, once it becomes clear that we cannot get around it, we are called to take up the cross and walk through it. And we walk through it not on our own power, but on the power of God, whose love can conquer death.
God has not promised us that walking through that death will be easy or short, but what we have been promised is that, if we take up the cross with Christ, we will also rise with him—that even in our pain, we can with God’s help come to Easter joy.
So there is good news and not-so-good news in the message I just shared with you. The not-so-good news is: if your life is perfect, if you have no regrets or pain or struggles, then perhaps it will be difficult for you to understand the meaning of Easter. If you life is perfect, you will have to cope with this holiday as best as you can. So enjoy the ham. Delight in the Easter pastries. Celebrate the time you can spend with your family and friends. And be thankful. Be very thankful. But the good news is: if your life is not easy, if you worry about your family or your health or your future, if fear is your constant companion, then you have the choice of taking up the cross you cannot avoid and believing that God will help you carry that cross, because you believe in a God who raises the dead.
So on this Easter night, let us not just believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Let us dare to believe that God intends also to raise us up. And let us have the courage and faith to take up the cross we cannot escape, believing that the burden we carry will not lead ultimately to the tomb, but to the resurrection, not to death, but to Easter joy.
The Punctuation of the Resurrection
April 8, 2012
Christianity stands or falls on the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. We believe that by the power of God, Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. If you take this belief away, Christianity is no longer Christianity. It may still be a wonderful collection of moral teachings. There will still be a long tradition of holy men and women who show us how to live. But without the truth of the resurrection, there is no gospel, there is no good news.
The resurrection reveals something to us about God. It gives us one clear instance when the power of God and the goodness of God were so real that death was reversed and a new kind of life emerged. If we believe in a God who gave that new life to Jesus, we also believe in a God who give that life to us. So the crucial question is how do we respond to the proclamation of the young man in today’s gospel. He says to the women, “Jesus has been raised.” Do we believe him or not?
Or to put this in another way, what kind of punctuation mark would we place after this young man’s words? He says, “Jesus has been raised.” We could follow that with a period. A period is a mark that indicates that a thought is finished, and it is time to move on to another. A period, then is not a very encouraging punctuation. After the proclamation of Easter, it says: “Yes, yes, Jesus has been raised. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. Whatever. It happened a long time ago. I know the story—the empty tomb, the spices, the women. Yada yada. But, I have things to do. I have meals to prepare, homework to finish, work to complete, plans to make. So, it is time to leave such resurrection thoughts behind and move onto something more pressing”. There is not much promise, when we follow the Easter proclamation with a period.
It’s much better to use a question mark. Jesus has been raised – question mark. The question mark gives us permission to challenge the proclamation. We do not have to be polite as long as we are honest. “Do you really mean to say that someone who is dead for three days has been raised up? Have you looked at the world around you, in all of its injustice, in all of its greed and selfishness? How can you ask me to believe in a loving and powerful God? What signs can you produce to show that God is real and that God is active? The question mark is better than the period because it at least values the proclamation enough to argue with it. And, if we argue, if we doubt, we engage with what has been proclaimed. Then in time it is possible that our question mark might become a comma.
Jesus has been raised . . .comma. Jesus has been raised, and therefore it may be possible that God is real and that God has not forgotten me. Jesus has been raised (comma) and therefore, even if I have lost my spouse, even if I am unemployed, even if I flunked a test or I have just been diagnosed with cancer, even then, I might still have reason for hope. Because, if Jesus has been raised, then there is a God who has a power that is greater than any evil I can experience. Jesus has been raised (comma) and therefore it is possible that all my blessings: the love of my family, my talents, my achievements, all that I have is only a hint, only a shadow of what God intends to give me in the coming kingdom. A comma is a good way to punctuate the announcement of Easter because it gives space for us to see our own lives as connected to the proclamation. It allows us to believe that if God raised Jesus up, God will raise us up as well.
The Easter proclamation has been made, but how do you hear it? Choose your punctuation carefully, because the correct punctuation can change your life. If we accept a God who, in truth, raised Jesus from the dead, then we can live our lives believing that joy can bloom from the soil of sadness, that hope can rise from the dust of despair, that life can spring from dead things and flourish. That is the gospel. That is our faith. It is an astounding way to live.
Jesus has been raised – exclamation point!
The Young Man at the Tomb
April 5, 2015
Easter is about transformation. Even though we usually describe the transformation as a movement from death to life, from a corpse to a risen body, from a broken world to God’s kingdom, these descriptions do not exhaust the meaning of Easter. In fact, we could identify several other movements that truly point to the power of Jesus’ resurrection. The evangelist Mark offers us one such transformation in his gospel.
In Mark’s account of the empty tomb there is an unusual character. When the women enter the tomb, they see a young man dressed in white. We are not told who this young man is. But he announces to the women that Jesus is risen. Now Mark is the only gospel that places the Easter proclamation at the tomb on the lips of a young man. Matthew uses an angel. And in John’s gospel, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene himself. So why does Mark situate this young man at the empty tomb? We can answer this question when we realize that there is only one other place in Mark’s gospel where a young man appears. It is during Jesus’ passion. You may remember it from the passion we read last weekend. At Jesus’ arrest, there is a young man who is dressed only in a linen cloth. When the guards try to arrest him, he breaks free, leaving the cloth behind and running away naked.
What Mark has done is positioned two unnamed young men, one just before and the other just after Jesus’ resurrection. He does this because he wants to use the character of these two young men to describe the transformation that Jesus’ resurrection brings about. What is the transformation that Mark is describing? The beginning point is easy. The young man at the arrest is afraid. He flees in panic. His character is a character of fear. But the young man at the tomb is a surprise. Because if these two young men are meant to describe the transformation that Jesus’ resurrection brings about, we would expect a movement from fear to courage or from fear to peace. But that is not the movement that Mark gives us. He presents a movement from fear to service. The young fearful man in the passion is contrasted to the young man at the tomb who serves the women by proclaiming the resurrection and telling them that they are to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus. The young man at the tomb might still be afraid, but somehow Jesus’ resurrection has turned him away from his inner fear and has re-orientated him to see the needs of others.
Mark uses his gospel to apply the resurrection to our lives. What he is suggesting is that when we are afraid, we should act in service to others. If you are afraid that your career is not going as you had hoped, if you are afraid that you will never find another person to love as a partner in life, this gospel challenges you to find someone who is struggling, to serve that person, and to leave the rest to God. If you worry about your children or your grandchildren—will they be safe? will they be good? will they make wise decisions?—this gospel asks you to find people in need and to help them. It asks you to let your generosity be a light to guide and direct those who you love. If you are afraid that you will never overcome the grief that you feel over the loss of a loved one or that you will never have the strength to face a serious sickness or to cope with your own death, the young man in today’s gospel asks you not to turn inward but outward. To take whatever gifts you have and offer them to someone who will receive them. He promises you that this is the way to peace.
We all have things we fear. Mark’s gospel asks fearful people to serve. It tells us that the way we deal with fear is not by lamenting and worrying, but by acting and giving. Of course, it takes faith to believe that Jesus’ resurrection works in this way. But the young man in today’s gospel assures us that such faith is the faith of Easter.
Not Fully Prepared
April 1, 2018
Every Easter we hear in the gospel that holy women bring spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. But we might not notice how ill prepared they are to accomplish this task. In order to anoint Jesus’ body they would have to touch it. But his body was in a tomb that was sealed by a large rock the women could not move. Their dilemma is expressed in their conversation to one another. “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Well frankly, shouldn’t they have thought about that before they left? They had the spices, but they had no access to Jesus’ body. Was it a wise plan to imagine that they would run into some burly men hanging around the cemetery early on Sunday morning willing to help strangers?
It is clear that the women did not have all that was necessary to accomplish their purpose. So why did they set out in the first place? I would suggest to you that they did so because they were women of faith. They believed that what they desired to do was important, and too important to wait. They trusted that God understood and supported their desire to anoint the body of their Lord. They therefore trusted that God would help them find the pieces that were missing from their plan, that God would provide those things they could not.
In our lives there are issues that are so important that we must set out to solve them even though we do not have all that is necessary to do so. There are aspects of living that are so valuable that we must act to protect them even though we do not have an exact idea of how to accomplish that task.
You might have a deep desire to have a partner in life, someone to love, someone with whom you can raise a family. But you have no clear idea of how to bring that about. The holy women in today’s gospel tell you to set out, to begin to talk and meet other people, and to trust that God is going to provide the things that you cannot. You might have known for some time that a significant relationship in your life is falling apart. As important as this relationship is, you know that you do not on your own have the means to fix it. The gospel tells us to begin, to talk to the person, to reach out and seek out help from others—always trusting that God will help you find the pieces that you are missing.
We might be disgusted by the injustice of the world, by the selfishness of our culture, or the incompetence of our government. But we say to one another, “What good can I do to change what is so wrong in the world?” The gospel today challenges us to set out even when we know that we do not have all the necessary resources, to begin to talk to others, support those endeavors that are moving forward, and insist on principles that are moral and right. We may be surprised how God can use the little efforts we make for larger purposes.
Now, of course, the good news of Easter morning is that when the women arrived at the tomb, God did provide what they could not. Not only was the stone rolled back, but the man they came to anoint was raised up. God’s actions far exceeded their expectations. That is the way our God is, always willing to astound us with his strength and his love. But this much is certainly true. If the women had decided not to go because they did not have all that was necessary, they would have not found the empty tomb. They would have missed Easter. Today let us promise one another that we will not.