Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they grieved his death? They had come with him from Galilee. They thought he was the Messiah. It’s likely many, if not all of them, imagined that when they got to Jerusalem, Jesus would instigate a revolt that would lead to the Jewish people’s independence from Rome. Instead, here they were the day after he had been arrested and crucified in a public and horrific display of Rome’s power. If you read the gospels, it’s clear that the disciples themselves went in hiding. They were noticeable for their out-of-town accents and likely feared that if they were caught, they would end up like Jesus, crucified, crushed under Rome’s tyranny.
How deep was their grief and despair? Had they begun to consider what they were going to do with the rest of their lives, that is, if they safely escaped Jerusalem? Or would that come later, after the worst of the grieving was over, after they had made their way to safety, after they had begun to pick up the pieces of the lives they had left behind, months, or even years before?
I wonder if the feelings they had in those couple of days are anything like the feelings many of us have right now, as we despair over the state of our city, our state, our nation, even the world. The unrelenting barrage of negative news just keeps coming. Global Warming threatens life on our planet and we’re experiencing foretastes of it with longlasting drought in California. Violence in our world as we hear stories of the deaths of Christians in Kenya, in the Middle East, and Nigeria. War continues in so many places—Syria, Ukraine.
It’s no better closer to home. How many of us are struggling with the threatened budget cuts—to UW, for example? What about the ongoing racial disparities in our community? And then there’s the despair and grief that only or our closest friends and family know—the deaths of loved ones, serious illness, broken relationship, unemployment. The euphoria created by a Badgers victory in the Final Four is only temporary. Too soon, today, tomorrow, Tuesday, we’ll be back to the reality of our lives and world.
Some of us may be asking questions very like the ones Jesus’ disciples were asking, “What now? How do we put our lives back together? How do we go on?”
We bring those questions with us today. We bring with us the struggles and pain of our lives and our world. We are like Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death. Her world was broken, as ours is. She was lost and grieving. We don’t even know why she came to the tomb that morning. Unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t say she came to anoint Jesus for burial (In fact, that had already taken place). She came in grief, to mourn her teacher.
When she came to the tomb and found it empty, she ran back to tell the disciples. Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran back with her, probably in disbelief. They wanted to see for themselves that the tomb was empty, that Jesus’ was gone. And when they arrived and their curiosity was satisfied, they returned to the place they had been staying.
But Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping, disconsolate. Peter and the Beloved Disciple had looked in the tomb; they saw the rolled up linen burial cloths. They had seen enough. Mary followed them. Only now did she peer inside the tomb, and she saw something very different. She saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping. She still couldn’t figure it out—she didn’t know who, or what, they were.
Then she turned and saw another figure, one who asked the same question of her that the angels had, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She’s still confused, she thinks it might be the gardener, so she replies to him as she had to the angels, asking where Jesus’ body had been taken. It’s only when he says her name that she recognizes him and calls him, “Rabbouni.”
The whole gospel has been building to this moment. This encounter has been foreshadowed repeatedly from the very first chapter. When Jesus called his first disciples, he bid them “Come and see.” When Nicodemus came to him by night, wanting to know more about this great teacher and worker of miracles, Jesus talked about the new life that he was offering those who followed him. In his last public appearance before his arrest and crucifixion, some Greeks came, they wished to see him. In each case, people came in search of something, wanting to see Jesus, but it’s not clear that they did; it’s not clear that they encountered him, understood his words. It’s not clear that experienced his life-giving words.
And now, in this encounter in the garden, Mary Magdalene, didn’t know who or what she saw until Jesus spoke to her, and called her by name. In that moment, with that simple word, her eyes were opened and she experienced resurrection.
Well, I suppose that settles it. Or perhaps not. The resurrection—the notion that Jesus emerged from the tomb after dying, that he lives now—lies outside of human experience. Even the gospel writers, even Paul, in the reading from I Corinthians, struggle to make sense of it, struggle to communicate what it was, what it means to their readers and to us. The stories in the gospels are confused and contradictory—was it a young man? One angel? Two? Who came to the tomb and why? And to whom did Jesus first appear?
There are actually only a few details on which the gospels agree—that women, among them Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb; that it was empty; that they received the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. And Paul, who’s writing a few decades before any of the gospels were written, doesn’t seem to know anything about the women or the empty tomb. He says the Risen Christ appeared first to Peter, then to the twelve. He goes on to list other appearances of the Risen Christ including one to himself, “and last of all as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.”
But to ask these sorts of questions, as interesting as they are, is to miss the point entirely. We are trained to be skeptics, even cynics. We want only to believe what we see with our eyes, what we can touch. We want to believe only what conforms to our worldviews, our expectations, the narrow confines of our minds. Think of our political and cultural discourse. We are full of what is called confirmation bias—fitting the evidence into our preconceived categories, expectations, and worldviews.
But the resurrection lies outside all of that. It is incomprehensible, incommensurate, inconceivable. To imagine what might have happened, to understand what Mary Magdalene might have experienced, we need to think differently, we need to have our eyes opened.
John begins his account of the last supper with the following sentence, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In those chapters, indeed throughout the gospel, in Jesus’ encounters with others, he offers them new life, rich abundant life, life lived in him. That’s what he means by love. Love is not just an emotion, it is a way of knowing, a way of knowing the other fully and through that knowledge, coming to know oneself. That’s what happened to Mary when Jesus called her by name and her eyes were opened.
The resurrection of Christ offers as an encounter with his love and it changes everything. When we open ourselves to Christ’s love, when we are opened by Christ’s love, we see the world in new ways; our old ways of thinking and being are shattered by the reality of the new creation and the hope.
Resurrection, the new life of Christ, new life in Christ, opens up to us a new world, a world in which we can imagine and help to bring about the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ. The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing, a new way of being, where we are no longer constrained by the limits of our imagination, or by human sin and evil.
The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing ourselves—in spite of our shortcomings and struggles, in spite of our doubts and despair, when the risen Christ calls us by name we can see ourselves as he sees us—as new creatures, new beings, living in him.
The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing each other—no longer focused on the ways we’ve been hurt, the ways others have fallen short, we see them with the eyes that Jesus saw Mary, we can see each other as new beings alive in Christ.
Whatever struggles we have today, whatever our fears, doubts, whatever suffering and pain we might know—all of that might still be with us tomorrow, it probably will—but thanks to the resurrection, thanks to the Risen Christ, we know the possibility and reality of new creation. We know the world is being made new by the power of love; we know that Jesus Christ has triumphed and a new world, the reign of God is being born.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!