April 20, 2014: The Continuing Story by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 20:1-18))

While it was still dark Mary came to the tomb.

While it was still dark the resurrection had already begun.

While it was still dark and her heart felt like it would be broken forever, the stirrings of a new way were underway.

While it is still dark: any resurrection worth our attention begins precisely then.  That’s the nature of it:  it comes utterly unexpected and only when we have known the place where hope is dead, where hope can’t be seen for the darkness of the night, where fear seems to have won the day.

Resurrection begins while it is still dark, touching our lives and our hearts as the first glimmers of morning light crest the horizon leaving us at once surprised, overwhelmed and terrified.  Resurrection leaves our heads spinning and our world turned upside down.

It was still Good Friday in her heart when Mary made her way to the tomb that first Easter morning.

It may well be Good Friday in your heart today: you may be screaming silently:  what about the five young lives cut senselessly short in Calgary this week?  What about the tragedy in the cold ocean waters off South Korea? What about my broken heart and shattered dreams?

In some ways Good Friday is more understandable than Easter.  We know death all too well.  We don’t need any convincing that death will come to our loved ones, to our relationships, to our dreams, to our hopes and ultimately to us.

And yet, Easter insists that Good Friday and resurrection must always be intertwined:  a fact that seems to have been understood by the late Winston Churchill.

Nearly fifty years ago, as his funeral came to a close, a service he had planned himself, a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Cathedral and sounded “Taps,” day is done, gone the sun: the song that signals dusk and the close of another day.  After a moment of stillness that followed the last plaintive note, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul’s, the end that faced the rising sun, and played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.

“Churchill perceived, that Christ’s resurrection signals above and beyond all else that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear — though sometimes we wish desperately that it would — but it does offer us courage and hope by anchoring us in the sure promise that God will have the last word, and that that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy and love and peace.”[1]

Though life and death, Friday and Sunday are inherently intertwined we still find it difficult to make the leap, to see when it is still dark. On our way to Easter Sunday we can get stuck on the mechanics of resurrection:  baffled by what in the world the empty tomb might mean for us today.

I find myself for the first time in a long time, rather uncertain about where I stand on resurrection.  For a good many years I was a faithful progressive liberal Christian and would align myself with the work of Borg and Crossan as outlined in their book Jesus Last Week.  I wold have agreed readily with them in saying the inconsistencies in the resurrection stories of our four gospels, the lack of historical evidence proves to us that ultimately these stories are parable.  Rich, poignant, beautiful stories: that could never have happened but hold a truth that is universal and beyond time.

Currently my imagination is captured by the idea that the resurrection had to be more than parable to have had the impact it has for these centuries:  something had to have happened that first Easter day.  Here I draw on the thinking of theologian Bruce Epperly who insists:

Something happened that radically transformed the lives of Jesus’ first followers – something that was more than a parable, but was embodied meaning. The resurrection stories told in our scriptures even in their tremendous diversity, point to an encounter with the Holy that gave new life to Jesus’ frightened and hopeless followers. Could Jesus really have breathed on his followers? Could they have felt a gentle wind or a healing touch? Could his life energy have materialized in a way that enabled Mary of Magdala, the disciples at the seashore, and Paul on the way to Damascus to “see and touch” the Risen One?[2]   

In this light, the resurrection becomes a mystical encounter as real as any bodily resurrection.

The mystical resurrection experience resonates with my own life experience as I recall standing by my grandfather’s open casket at nine years of age.  Standing there in a room filled with people yet feeling utterly alone, hearing my name called and looking for the source of the voice only to realise that it was my dead grandfather who was calling out to me with a voice of love and assurance.  Like Mary at the empty tomb I was at once terrified and filled with a calm and re-assuring sense of abiding love

At the far end of the resurrection spectrum is the broken and defeated body of Jesus clearly missing from the tomb.  Why not a bodily resurrection:  the tomb was empty after all? Is there really any harm in trusting in a one off supernatural experience?

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This story, this story that has birthed a following that has endured some 2000 years is large enough for all of these interpretations and more.  No matter the path, resurrection: if it is to mean something, if it is to contribute to our lives, however it happens, brings us to the same place: a place where pain is not taken away or dismissed, where fears are not swept under the rug, a place of new life and possibilities and love that is grand enough to include and transcend all of the brokenness.  Whatever happened was enough to utterly change lives, to send Mary running to tell the others, to send weary travelers on the road in a new direction, to birth a religion that, however imperfectly, continues to endure.  And the places where it really endures are the places where it radically changes people’s lives.

Resurrection leads us to the place where we look at everything in a new way, but it is not a new way it is the way it has always been.  God did not do something atypical that day.  But: something about the depth and breadth of the loss, something about that bodily or metaphorical resurrection awakened in those first followers a memory. Something broke through the stories Mary and the others had resigned themselves to believing and turned them toward the timeless and universal truth of love and hope.

The late Henry Nouwen described it this way:  “We allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: ‘you know it all; you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past.  Try to survive it as best you can.”  We buy into what Nouwen termed the great lie:  that there is nothing new under the sun.  The problem with this is that when newness comes our way we no longer have the ability to see it.[3]

Easter is that moment when, to our terrifying surprise, we see the possibilities beyond what we can imagine.  The fact is:  resurrection doesn’t take away the agony of a nation as we grieve for five young lives senselessly stolen. It doesn’t even take away our responsibility to dream and act like we can actually do something about global warming or underfunded public education or the loved one who is on a path of self-destruction.  Resurrection is what empowers us to let go of what was and to walk face on toward what is, so that we might be part of creating what needs to be.

I’m not sure that it matters how you get there:  whether through bodily resurrection, mystical resurrection or parable:  when you believe in resurrection, when you breathe the promise of resurrection when you embrace this most central part of the Christian story as truth, it leads always to the same place: it has the power to turn everything on its head.

“Our lives [are] tinged by both fear and joy. Fear of what may happen to our children in a dangerous world; joy at the blessing they are to us and, we pray, they will be to the world. Fear of whether we will have a job in the year to come; joy at the colleagues that surround us. Fear about the fate of a loved one struggling with illness; joy in the gift that person has been to us. Fear about the future amid problems both national and global; joy in the present moment surrounded by those we love.

It’s striking that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. This is the very definition of courage. And, I would argue, courage is precisely what Easter is about. For while some preach that coming to faith in Christ should smooth all the rough places of life and still the tremors of this world, I believe that the gospel gives us the ability to keep our feet amid the tremors and enables us not just to persevere but even to flourish when life is difficult.[4]

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Oscar Wilde captures the particularly subversive and threatening nature of resurrection in his one act play Salome. It tells the Biblical story of Salome, stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who, to her stepfather’s dismay requests the head of John the Baptist, on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils.  In the play Herod hears from a messenger about Jesus healing people, doing extraordinary things, and even raising the dead.  Herod is quite happy to have someone going around healing but he asks a servant quite indignantly: “He raises the dead?”  The servant replies:  “Yes, sir, he raises the dead.”  To which Herod goes into a bluster:  “I do not wish Him to do that. I forbid Him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This Man must be found and told that I forbid Him to raise the dead.”

Wilde’s Herod “knows that death is the last weapon he possesses, and if someone is raising the dead, everything is going to be turned upside down.”[5]

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While it was still dark Mary came to the tomb.

While it was still dark resurrection had already begun.

While it is still dark we dare to hope.

While it is still dark we are met by the one who is life from death, the one who insists that love is stronger than hate, that hope is deeper than fear and that we have a part to play in turning the world upside down.

Amen



[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org David Lose, Dear Working Preacher Easter 2014

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org David Lose, Dear Working Preacher Easter 2014

[5] N.T. Wright, “The Resurrection: Historical Event or Theological Explanation?  A Dialogue” in Robert B. Stewart, ed., The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue (Fortress Press, 2006), p. 22.