The resurrection of Jesus is a matter of faith. Perhaps you have heard Christian pastors or leaders argue that the resurrection of Jesus is the most clearly attested event of history. That, of course, is not true. The Easter stories in our Gospels are stories of faith, not historical reports. There is no way to verify historically the resurrection of Jesus. What we can say historically is that some of Jesus’ closest followers, who participated in his mission, became convinced that God raised him from the dead.
All four of the Gospels give us an empty tomb story. There are certainly differences in the details, but they all build a story around the empty tomb. And three of the four Gospels, with the exception of Mark, give us appearance stories. Our Gospel story today combines the empty tomb story with an appearance story. Now, one might think that appearance stories are stories only relevant to Jesus’ first disciples who actually knew him personally. That’s not true. Nor are appearance stories confined to sacred literature or a past era.
Seminary professor and preacher, Tom Long tells about the time when, as a seminary student, he served an internship at a church where he provided pastoral care to families. One of the families under his charge was quite large, and their youngest child, Robert, had cerebral palsy. More often than not, when he visited the family they would be gathered together in a large group, at the dinner table or in the den, laughing and telling stories, but not Robert. Robert always seemed to be on the outside of those gatherings, watching the others.
On one occasion, it was just Dr. Long and the mother visiting together. After some small talk, she told him about something that had happened just a few days prior to his visit. She was sitting in the family room in the late afternoon, and Robert was standing in the darkness down the hall, watching from a distance. She felt what she described as a “strange shift in the room.” She looked up from her knitting, down the hallway toward Robert. She told Dr. Long that she saw Jesus with his arm around Robert’s shoulder. She looked away, looked again, and there was only Robert. But she was convinced that she saw Jesus. I suspect the same way these early disciples were convinced that they saw Jesus.
Dr. Long says that to this day he’s not sure what to make of it. One can’t prove or disprove these appearances. At the time, he decided to psychoanalyze the event, thinking that she probably felt so guilty about the ways she and the family had excluded Robert that she was projecting her failings through the symbol system of the Christian faith. That was how Dr. Long, the seminary student, made sense of it. And yet, the mother was convinced that she saw Jesus. Does anyone have the authority and the right to deny her experience or to interpret her experience as a psychological projection? And after that experience, says Long, that mother was not the same. It was a personal experience, but it didn’t remain personal. She went to work in the community and started several programs for children with disabilities. Her experience inspired and empowered her for good. She became a force for good in her community.
These disciples who spoke of having seen Jesus alive, were the ones who had deserted him in death. They did not have the courage and the commitment to drink the cup he drank from or to be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with. And after his death they went into hiding fearful that what happened to Jesus would happen to them. So what was it that brought them out into the open, out of the darkness into the light? What was it that changed them? They had an experience or experiences that convinced them that God had raised up Jesus and that the Christ had forgiven them and had imparted to them a new mission. Their experience of the living Christ inspired, emboldened, and empowered them to fearlessly face the powers that be with a message of hope in Christ.
The first part of our text is John’s version of the empty tomb story. The second part is about Mary Magdalene, who according to John’s telling was the first to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. She was already burdened and overwhelmed with grief. Now, someone has stolen the body, she thinks. Surely she is at the brink of despair. And then John says she sees two messengers who ask her why she is weeping? After she answers the two messengers, she turns around and sees a man. It is Jesus, but she does not know it is Jesus. She assumes he is the gardener. She sees a man, but she doesn’t see Jesus. She does not know that it is Jesus.
Why is that? Is her grief just too great? Is the loss so painful that her mind and heart would simply not allow her to recognize Jesus? She clearly wasn’t looking or expecting him to be alive. Is not Mary’s experience our experience? Through no fault of our own, circumstances beyond our control impact our capacity to see. We can be so overwhelmed by grief, by shock, by fear, by anger that we cannot see the Christ who is with us.
And then sometimes it’s our own doing. We just get stuck. We get caught up in our own little stories, in pursuing our own agenda and interests. We become trapped in negative patterns of thinking and feeling and reacting. Sometimes it’s the group we belong to, the people who influence us, the powers over us who exert influence. We get caught up in “group think” and the pressure of the group prevents us from even considering other possibilities. I see this in Christian congregations all the time. It can be some false attachment or destructive addiction that keeps us from seeing.
So what is it that brings illumination? What is it that opens our eyes? What is it that creates an opening so that we might have a revelatory encounter with divine grace and truth, when suddenly like Mary, we can see what we couldn’t see before. I wish I knew. I used to get really down when someone would leave the church and walk away because I could not get them to see what I see. And then one day I realized that’s not my job. No amount of logic, or common sense, or reason, or persuasive arguments can open someone’s spiritual eyes. Reason, common sense, methods of biblical interpretation, and the like are certainly helpful, when someone’s eyes are opened. But until they are opened, words fall on deaf ears.
Consider Paul. Thirteen documents in the New Testament are attributed to him. He probably did not actually write all of them, but he wrote a bunch of them. He was a persecutor of followers of Jesus. He despised Jews who became disciples of Jesus. He regarded them as heretical Jews worthy of death. What changed him? It wasn’t logic, or reason, or common sense, or really good biblical interpretation was it. It was an experience of the living Christ. It was his experience of the love and grace and truth in Christ that opened his eyes. And once his eyes were opened, he could then rely on reason, logic, and common sense to make sense of his experience. His experience completely altered, completely revolutionized the way he read and interpreted and applied the Hebrew scriptures. It was all based on the experience of seeing what he could not see before.
I suspect there are some of you hear today, and maybe you have been a Christian for years, all your life perhaps, but you have never had the kind of revelatory experience that opens your eyes to see what you could not see before. And honestly, I don’t know what it will take in your life for that to happen.
In the movie, The Flight, Denzel Washington plays a pilot, Captain Whitaker, who performs an amazing maneuver to land a plane, saving most of the passengers and crew. The irony is that he accomplishes this phenomenal maneuver while legally intoxicated, which he denies. His story is a story of denial. He is an alcoholic who keeps lying to others and himself and keeps getting away it. Well, actually he doesn’t get away with it. He alienates and drives away the people who care about him.
Well, he has a great lawyer who has worked the system so that it comes down to a final hearing that will require a final lie. But, and here is what makes it so difficult on him. His denial – this final lie – will set him free of charges, but it will probably cost the flight attendant her job. They found empty alcohol bottles in the trash on the plane and if he denies that they are his, and they were his, they will most surly pin that on the flight attendant. He struggles. He hesitates. He takes a drink of water. There is an intense inner struggle going on. In the end, he just can’t do it any longer. He finally comes to the place where he could no longer live with himself. So he confesses. And that’s what it takes for him to see.
In a final scene, we see Captain Whitaker sitting in a group with some other prisoners. He has been in prison for over 13 months and he is sharing his story. He says, “My chances of ever flying again are slim to none, and I accept that . . . I wrote letters to each of the families that lost loved ones. Some of them were able to hear my apology, some of them never will. I also apologized to the people who tried to help me along the way, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen. People like my wife—my ex-wife, my son and again, like I said, some will never forgive me, but at least I’m sober. I thank God for that. I’m grateful for that. And this is going to sound real stupid from a man locked up in prison, but for the first time in my life I’m free.”
Now, obviously, this is a fictitious story. But it is a true to life story. It is drama that mirrors life, that reflects human experience. So what brings him to this point? What opens his eyes? Why is he finally able to break out of his denial and see the truth? For Captain Whitaker it all came down to that decisive moment. All the preaching in the world would not have opened his eyes. It took what it took. For you and me it takes what it takes. For Mary, in our Gospel story, it was when Jesus spoke her name. What will it take for us? One of my mentors, Richard Rohr likes to say it takes great suffering or great love. But even then, there is no guarantee. Suffering can just as well harden a heart as open it right? I’ve seen people hardened by suffering, and I’ve seen people transformed by suffering.
After Mary’s eyes are opened and she can see the truth, and she knows that it is Jesus, she clings to him. “Do not hold on to me,” says Jesus. “Stop clinging to me,” says Jesus. She doesn’t want to let go. She wants her experience with Jesus to be what it was. But it can’t be what it was. Otherwise, there would be no growth, no development, no maturity, no transformation. She can’t have her old time religion like she had it before. She can’t have Jesus the way she had him when she accompanied him on his journey throughout Palestine. She has to let go of that and be willing to change and to experience Jesus in a different way.
The journey doesn’t end when our eyes are opened and we are able to see. That simply marks the beginning of a whole new stage in our journey. And like Mary in our story, even after our eyes are opened we are going to struggle with old ways and patterns and beliefs and habits, which we will want to hold on to. This is why we need community. This is why we need each other. We can’t go it alone. Because, like Mary, we will want to cling to the way things were.
The things that kept us from seeing won’t just automatically go away. And if we cling to them they will continue to keep us from seeing and from growing and becoming. It could be our old coping mechanisms that never really worked and were never helpful. It could be a belief system that we want to cling to that no longer fits our experience and the new ways in which we now see God and the world. It could be old grievance stories of past hurts and offenses that we keep replaying in our minds over and over and over again. It could be the fears and insecurities that kept us blind for so long. These are things we will have to stop holding on to and clinging to if we are to continue to see and grow.
Sue Monk Kidd tells about a little boy named Billy who was living at a shelter for abused children. He had been horribly wounded and was reluctant to move beyond the security he found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he refused to leave the safety of his room and join the party. He told one of the workers he wasn’t going. The volunteer who had spent considerable time with him said to him, “Sure you are, Billy. All you need is to put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up as he seemed to drink in the possibility. After a long pause, he said, “Ok.” The volunteer then helped him put on his imaginary courage skin and off he went to the party.
Once again, sisters and brothers, I don’t know what it is that gives us the courage to let go of unhealthy beliefs, attitudes, habits, patterns of thinking and reacting, and gives us the inspiration and courage to be able to move forward and become more of what God wants us to be. I don’t know how that happens. But I do know that a healthy community that allows us to question old ways and explore new possibilities sure helps. A community that emphasizes a wider, greater, deeper, more expansive and inclusive divine love than what we have known sure helps. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it helps.
The powers that be thought they had silenced Jesus, they thought they had put an end to the alternative wisdom he taught and the magnanimous, inclusive love he embodied. But how could they have imagined or anticipated what some of his followers experienced – Jesus alive and the Spirit of Christ filling them with motivation, love, courage, faith, and hope. And what they experienced validated and vindicated what Jesus taught, how he lived, and how he died. Easter gave them hope.
Easter gives me hope. It gives me hope that no matter how dominant the forces of greed and hate seem to be, no matter how powerful these forces are at preserving the status quo, and stifling the pursuit of justice, the common good, and the liberation of all people, Easter gives me hope that God’s love, God’s peace, and God’s righteousness will one day prevail. The Christ is not going away. The Christ is here to stay.
I don’t know what it takes for people to hear the Christ call their name and for their eyes to be opened to the greatness of God’s grace and love. But I am glad that no matter where we are on the journey, anyone of us at any time – walking in darkness or in the light, blind to the truth or enlightened to the truth, clinging to the past and refusing to let go, or leaning forward into the newness of life – wherever we are along the path, I am glad God loves us all the same.
Our good God, I don’t know what it takes in our lives to open our eyes so we can see. But I pray that somehow, someway, the experience will happen in all of our lives – not just once, but again and again. Amen.