University Congregational Church
Apr. 16, 2014
John 20: 1-29
According to those who calculate such things, it was probably on April 7, 30 C.E., that Jesus, son of Joseph and a teacher from Nazareth, was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was springtime in Judea; the olive trees were in bloom and the hills to he west of the city were turning green. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the first flowers were pushing up through the earth and pollen covered everything like fine gold dust. The birds sang and the breeze blew and the air smelled sweet as the world came to life, but up on Golgotha, from noon until three, someone was dying.
Three men hung there on rough wooden crosses, two common thieves and one puzzling revolutionary with a sign above his head: “Jesus of Nazareth” it said in three different languages.
There were the relatives of the convicts, and especially the women who loved them. It was a deathwatch, and down on the ground everyone was doing what people do on such occasions. They were thinking about the lives of the people who were dying in front of them, remembering the good times and lamenting the times when things went wrong. They were trying to find the meaning in all those times and they were thinking about their own lives too, their own lives and their own deaths and where God – if they believed in God – where God was in the midst of it all.
One Easter morning during the Easter breakfast, a child came up to me and just blurted out, “Robin, do you really believe that stuff about Jesus being raised from the dead?” When I didn’t have an immediate answer, he continued. “When you die, you die. That’s it. You don’t come back. There’s no such thing as resurrection.” Period.
Not a very Easter-y kind of thought. Not a fun sort of conversation to have, sitting there at a table decorated with overflowing baskets of candy, flowers and ceramic Easter bunnies. I wanted to hide.
The truth of the matter is that resurrection is nothing any of us has ever seen or experienced for ourselves. Near-death experiences, yes; ghostly visitations, perhaps; but none of us knows firsthand what it is like to be resurrected from the dead. According to the Bible, God set it up that way. Hundreds of people witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, but not one living soul was there when he was raised from the dead. The women saw him afterward, when he was back on his feet, and his disciples saw him after that, although not for long, but no one was allowed the privilege of seeing him come back to life.
So none of us should feel too badly about finding it hard to believe. And then there is the problem of our human minds mixing up resuscitation with resurrection. Easter isn’t about the resuscitation of a dead body. Easter isn’t even about the divine spark that endures after the end. That’s Plato, not Jesus. Resurrection is not something we can test, like gravity or true north. It is a nonmaterial reality, a step of faith. There is a Lenten prayer that reads:
winter’s robe lies heavily upon my frozen heart
dare I ask for spring?
dare I ask for new life –
beyond my dreams, beyond all hope?
I see the signs, the willful green nudging into view
budding limbs, barely patient
awaiting release from winter’s dark pregnancy
I feel the signs within me, too
I fear these the most, God
I fear this new life you call me to explore
I fear the pain of growth
I cannot embrace your gift of resurrection
for I cannot risk the loss of myself
my hands can carry no nail prints, my forehead no scars
new life carries too high a price
the ice-fortress holds fast
I dare not cry
yet I feel your tears
the gift is given to us all
such love breaks my heart
yours was broken for all your children
I taste my own tears
dare I pray for spring?
I have to admit that this hasn’t been a very Easter-y week for me. In fact, I’ve been whining all week. A friend whom I’ve grown to love over the years died this week. Her funeral was Friday. A couple of my close girlfriends have been fussing. I have another problem hanging over my head that I just know will have to be dealt with. And I just haven’t felt much like writing an Easter sermon. I stared at the computer several days this week and nothing happened. No resurrection to be found. I just wasn’t in the mood.
When the Biblical writers pushed the notion of resurrection, they were pushing us to believe that life is more than we can see, taste, or feel. They wanted us to realize that there is a dimension and quality of life that is all but invisible to us – something much more comprehensive than the present – that if we miss out on, we are the most pitiful people on earth.
We do not know what resurrection will mean for us in the end. We cannot know how it will feel or work or look. But we do have evidence that it is so. God has woven resurrection into our daily lives so that we can learn the shape of it and perhaps learn to trust the strength of it when our own times come.
Carole Parsons is an example of the evidence of resurrection. She lives in a cheaply furnished basement apartment in a decrepit Chicago bungalow. Every December, she invites someone for tea and Christmas cookies. Carole has little money. She suffers from muscular dystrophy. Her only daughter has multiple sclerosis. Her apartment is decorated with a scrawny, eighteen-inch Christmas tree with a few candy canes hanging from it. But when Carole sets out that plate of cookies, she inevitably speaks with heartfelt thanks about the different Jesus makes in her life. You have the sense, sitting there with her, that Someone from Galilee has broken bread with her – perhaps even that morning. Carole knows about resurrection.
Another example of resurrection: imagine that your child, or grandchild, has surgery, even low-risk surgery. While you sit in the waiting room, you think of all the possible outcomes. After a long few hours, the surgeon comes out to tell you that everything went smoothly. Relief spreads over your face and you think about how grateful you are for the gift of that child’s life. You thank God. You feel even more love swell inside of you. Why? Because you approached death (even if only in your mind), and you experienced a profound sense of God’s presence. You experienced a taste of resurrection.
Bob Biles called the church office this week. Although he knows he has Alzheimers, and he struggles to speak, he was calling to thank us for the Easter basket. The lilt of his voice is charming as he carefully chose the words to thank us. I experienced a bit of resurrection during his call.
For some, Easter is simply a pleasant rite of spring, a happy milestone on the journey from a wearisome winter to the warm days and emerging greenery of April and May. And that is enough. For some. But for Christians, that will never be enough! Easter has to be more, much more. Easter means that there is a promise that emptiness is not the condition for which we were made. It means that unfinished business is not the end.
It is how God works, now and forever – not by protecting us from death but by bringing us back to life again – because life, not death, is God’s will for us. Every moment of our lives carries the seeds of that truth. Those who miss it are of all people most to be pitied. And those who believe it? Our hope shall never die.