University Congregational Church
April 1, 2018
“New Life Bursting Forth”
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:1-18
For the children in Vacation Bible School one year, I purchased two dozen chicken eggs. For weeks, I incubated those eggs, turning them every few hours, making certain the thermostat was correctly heating, carefully tending to the eggs like a mother chicken. My plan was that the eggs would begin to hatch and baby chickens would appear about Wednesday or Thursday of the Vacation Bible School week. I wanted to spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday getting the children excited about the new life which was hopefully going to pop out of the eggs!
I should have known better than to try to coordinate and schedule when new life would come! Wouldn’t you know it: on Monday morning, as the children arrived for their first day of Vacation Bible School, chickens started pipping, egg shells were cracking open, baby chicks were bursting out into the warmth of the incubator. The children gathered around in herds, exclaiming, laughing, and staring in awe at the new life bubbling forth. They were taken completely by surprise and could not be contained. All my lessons on biology, theology and resurrection were totally lost on eggs breaking open to wet baby chicks. New life cannot be contained.
On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene made the discovery: Jesus’ tomb was empty. A report of such significance from a woman would be questionable. That is, no doubt, why she ran to find some of the disciples to corroborate her discovery and verify her findings.
Peter and John came themselves to see with their own eyes what Mary Magdalene had described to them. When they had seen for themselves, they had no option but to believe her report. And so they went back to tell the others what had happened. But the truth is they did not really know what had happened. They, like Mary Magdalene, assumed that Jesus’ body had been removed from Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb and placed in some less pretentious grave. They did not remain in the garden. They did not make any effort whatever to ascertain the facts in the situation, to find out how the removal had taken place and where Jesus’ body had been buried. They forgot he had told them that he would rise again from the dead. They thought their time with him had ended with his crucifixion. They had no idea they were about ready to give birth to a new movement, which would be called Christianity. They had no plan to evangelize the world, but new life burst from them (in spite of their disbelief) as they told the stories of Jesus. New life could not be contained!
This was also true of Christopher Columbus. He discovered a new world, but he did not realize it. He had sailed from Spain expecting to find a new route to the Indies. What he found was not the Indies, but the Western Hemisphere. Two more continents, as a result of his voyage, were added to the western geographers’ map of the world. He did not know it at the time, but he gave birth to a new era of discovery, settlement, development of culture and ultimately, a country. New life in the western world could not be contained!
Teresa of Avila thought she had found solitude in the silence of her cell in the convent. But what she really found in that silence was not solitude, but the vision of God, which in middle age threw her, body and soul, into the hurly-burly of the world. She worked determinedly till the day she died, against fierce opposition, to achieve what she took to be the will of God for Spanish monasticism, confessing in old age, “My body is old and weak, but my desires are still young and vigorous.” Even in her old age, Teresa was shaping justice and peace in the world. She strained and pushed and gave birth to a new vision of Christian life. Hundreds of years later, Teresa of Avila is remembered for new life that could not be contained!
You see, resurrection is not about the resuscitation of dead bodies. Resurrection is about the bringing to life, in new ways, shapes and forms, something which was once lifeless. Easter is not about death and burial, or even about empty tombs. Easter is about celebrating the new life in each of us because of our dynamic faith. The church is not about history, past events and death. The church is about bringing new life and hope into lives of people. We are here to give birth to and welcome people whose faith is growing, alive and well.
Clarence Jordan said, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”
Let me tell you about a couple of resurrections I have experienced recently. Two weeks ago we had a visitor from St. Petersburg, Russia. She exclaimed over the trees with no leaves and the plain browns of the landscape. She asked why nothing was green when it was so warm here (compared to St. Petersburg, which was -24 degrees celcius when she left!) I explained that we have 4 seasons and that spring hadn’t started, but that the grasses would turn green and the trees would bud. Two days later, it began to happen in front of our eyes. A few white blossoms came out on the pear trees. 3 lone daffodils bloomed in our yard. A forsethia bush burst into yellow bloom. The new life of spring could not be contained!
I don’t know about you, but I have been lamenting for months about the dynamics of our country. Partisan politics, school shootings, the threat of nuclear war, racial tensions… the list continues. Just when I thought the ideals of our country and our society were at risk, I watched with delight as teens led a March for our Lives last weekend. They spoke loudly that enough is enough. They stood up for common sense. They demonstrated strength and excitement for the future. The resurrection spirit was alive and well! The new life teens brought into our world could not be contained!
What about you? Are you involved in resuscitating dead things in your life? Are you huffing and puffing and struggling to breathe new life into dead relationships, hopeless tasks, burdensome projects? Do you allow fear and worry to take you into hopelessness? Have you been focusing on the wrong things – or the brokenness of our world?
To be an Easter person is to discover the joy of giving birth to new life, new relationships, hopeful beginnings, and exciting adventures. What is straining within you to be born? What is warm and helpless, like a baby chick, pushing to break free from inside and be welcomed into your world? Is it poetry? A new venture? A dream? A relationship which is budding? Is it music waiting to be written or played? Is it a new skill waiting to be developed? Your faith anxious to be shared?
Another resurrection story burst forth this week. Two weeks ago, we had a cluster of deaths in our congregation. Paul and I drew on reserve strength to make it through a myriad of hospital visits, deaths, funeral arrangements, and services. Several moments stick out to me today. I was so proud of this church family when we offered care, support, ushering, receptions, sympathy cards, hugs, music, cookies, and physical presence one day after another to the families affected. That in itself was a resurrection.
Another moment that sticks out was when I sat with a family as they faced the death of their loved one. In a hospital room there were more than 10 people taking turns holding hands, giving hugs, speaking loving and comforting words, and just hanging on breath by breath. I suggested that they might want to share aloud a few memories and stories while their loved one was still able to see and hear them. And this family rose to the occasion with joy! They began to tell funny and touching stories – about weddings and babies being born – about tough and beautiful moments – about teaching children their ABCs and facing illnesses – about love and laughter. They gathered around the bed and they laughed and they held each other and they said in many ways that death was not the end. They claimed that love lasts longer than life. They celebrated family and story and new life in heaven. And a few days later, when they lost their loved one, the grieving spouse looked me in the eye and said, “She is not there anymore,” as he pointed to her body in the bed. “She is here (pointed to his grandson). And she is here (pointed to his heart). She is with God.” Those were his words of resurrection. And in the tears of that moment, several of us smiled big smiles because we knew he was speaking truth. New life had just been born in that room and it filled our hearts with the truth that life cannot be contained just in a body!
Just like those incubated eggs, you can nurture the life inside you. You can warm it, let it grow, turn it around and around so that it is well developed. But, be careful: you never know exactly when the dream will decide to come pecking, prodding, and tumbling out!
I believe with all my heart that we should worry less what people say they believe happened 2,000 years ago and more whether we are living as if resurrection still happens. The question is, “How are we partnering with God today in transforming despair into hope, apathy into compassion, hate into love, and death into new life?” (Carl Gregg)
To be an Easter person, you must be ready to blossom and grow, to give and accept new life, to allow the hope inside you be shared with others. Easter is not about resuscitating dead bodies. It is about giving birth to newness of life. What is within you, bursting to be born?