Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
Several months ago, a number of us from the parish began to read, pray, and discuss the upcoming Sunday scripture readings during our Tuesday evening celebrations of the Eucharist. Our prayerful reading of the biblical lessons has become both a deeply moving time for me as well as a critical part of my sermon preparation. The observations and insights of the group often help me to hear the scriptures anew.
Not wanting to lose that period of prayerful reading of scripture during this pandemic, I’ve offered a weekly invitation for you to join me in the practice on Thursday afternoons by way of online discussion. I’m glad I did, for our discussions continue to challenge, inspire, and compel me to see new things in the scripture readings.
Such was the case a couple of weeks ago when a handful of us discussed the Palm Sunday readings. As we were, a couple of us lamented the pandemic’s impact upon our Easter celebrations, forbidding us from joining as one in a joyful celebration. In response, one of the participants, parishioner Janet Niedoba, made a fascinating observation. Janet wondered whether our period of isolation and social distancing might offer us an opportunity to share in the first disciples’ experience of the resurrection. She observed — and you can read more on our website — that the disciples were alone and frightened in the days after Jesus’ death. Even after encountering the risen Lord, the disciples remained hidden until the day of Pentecost, some fifty days later.
Janet’s words left a significant impression upon me. Since our conversation I’ve ruminated and contemplated further on her point. Indeed, we will be like those first disciples: alone and isolated, uncertain and afraid of what life will be like in the days, months, and years ahead. Whether we like it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to be in solidarity with the first disciples and to experience Easter for what it really is, and not for what our consumerist society has made it out to be. This day is not about the Easter Bunny and indulging in every earthly delight. Rather, the feast of the resurrection is a time for us to run with Mary Magdalene to the tomb, to the place of death, to look for life.
Unfortunately, however, many of us think of Easter and the resurrection as some sort of fantastic event by which Jesus heralded in an eternal utopia where everyone ought to be happy and not suffer. I suspect one of the reasons why so many people doubt the resurrection of Jesus is because we mistakingly believe the resurrection abolished suffering and death. To be sure, Jesus vanquished death. He overcame suffering and death’s strong clench upon creation and inaugurated the reign of God. But as I’ve said so many times before, you and I stand in a liminal time. In other words, we live in what is known as the “already-but-not-yet” time. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead. Yet we also yearn for him to come again and for the day when all creation shall be made new. We affirm this each week when we pray in the Creed, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
The Easter celebration of the resurrection is not a denial of suffering and death; it is going to the place of death so as to find life. This will be difficult for many of us to appreciate. We want to escape suffering and death and enjoy everlasting bliss here and now. However, Jesus never promised his disciples immediate gratification and joy if they follow him. Instead, he tells them to take up the cross:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:24-26)
What is so striking about the Christian message of Easter is that it is a paradox: we have to go to the place of suffering and death to find life. The resurrection cannot be understood without the cross, and vice-versa: the cross makes no sense without the resurrection. As theologian Martha Moore-Keish writes,
The joyful proclamation of new life at Easter is only good news to those who know the threat of death. We have to tell the truth about death in our world in order to receive the truth about Easter life. For this reason, though it may seem peculiar, Easter can summon us to new reflection on death as it comes to us in the midst of life, as well as the promise of life that comes in the midst of death.
While we may want to escape pain and suffering — which I’m sure we’re all too familiar with during this pandemic — we need to turn to the pain for that is where we will find life.
Surprisingly, of all the apostles and disciples who followed and walked with Jesus, only a handful of women understood Jesus’ message. Today, in our reading of the Gospel of John’s account of the resurrection, we hear of one such woman: Mary Magdalene. Unlike all the other disciples, Mary does not let her fear and pain paralyze her, but rather she goes to the very place of pain to seek Jesus. Upon finding the tomb empty, she tells the apostles the news.
While the apostles eventually run to the tomb and see for their own eyes the empty linen wrappings that once held Jesus, they do not remain. Instead, they go back to their homes. Mary, on the other hand, remains. She enters into the depths of her pain and weeps. As Dorothy Lee notes,
it is this willingness to remain in the place of sorrow and to articulate the pain of the believing-yet-doubting community that finally leads her to the joy and hope of Easter (16:21-22; 19:34). Not unlike the Samaritan woman (4:7-42), Mary Magdalene persists in her search, without letting go, without disowning the pain.
Confused and concerned about what has become of Jesus’ body, Mary doesn’t immediately recognize Jesus until he calls her by name. Jesus speaks directly to Mary in her sorrow and it is in his speaking that Mary experiences life. As Moore-Keish wonderfully says, “Life emerges right in the place that was suffused with the scent of death.”
Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene leads us to consider another aspect of our celebration of Easter: the solidarity of Jesus with us. Whether we realize it or not, Jesus speaks directly to you and me in the very depths of our pain and suffering. Jesus is one with us in our suffering.
In fact, ever since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have asserted that Jesus is not only with us as we traverse the valley of darkness and death, but that Jesus willingly allowed himself to sink to the very depths of darkness, despair, and death This was alluded to in our second reading on Palm Sunday: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6) Again, we say this every time we pray the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended to the dead.” Jesus knows the pain and anguish we so often endure on our earthly pilgrimage.
Strangely, this has been a point of great comfort for me in my life for I now know I am not alone even in the worst of pain and suffering. I first learned of this nearly twenty years ago on the eve of what would be one of the most painful chapters in my life. I so happened to come across this theme in a book I read in my final year of seminary. The writer, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, a man who also suffered greatly in his own life, reflects at length on Jesus’ solidarity with us in our pain and suffering. Balthasar writes, “in order to assume the entire penalty imposed upon sinners, Christ willed not only to die, but to go down, in his soul, ad infernum — to the dead.” Even more striking and relevant for our own time, he further writes, “Let it not be forgotten: among the dead, there is no living communication. Here solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.” Perhaps we are not so alone after all in our period of isolation and social distancing.
But more importantly, Jesus also is with us when he gives us life. In fact, some suggest the word resurrection at its most basic etymological sense means to stand, or rise-up. Earl Kooperkamp recalls this and reminds us of the unity of the Jesus’ rising-up and his solidarity with us:
Jesus stands for something. Most pointedly, in the resurrection Jesus stands for me. The resurrected Jesus stands for you also, dear reader. As a matter of fact, I believe that the resurrected Jesus stands for the world. This ‘standing for’ is the aspect we celebrate at Easter: that Jesus the Christ was crucified, dead, and buried and on the third day rose again for me, for you, for us. This resurrection is standing with, and standing with meaning, a solidarity with all in the midst of life and death. Standing for, standing with, solidarity, if you will, is the ultimate affirmation of my life, of our lives, in the midst of struggle.
If read this way, the implications of the resurrection extend well beyond that first Easter morning when Mary discovered the empty tomb. First and foremost, in rising from the dead, Jesus raises all of us out of the misery of our suffering and death. His resurrection breaths life into our mortal bodies, burdened by the difficulties of this world. Although we may not feel that fully now, we know well that one day we shall rise again on the last day and share in the final resurrection and life of the world. For now, however, let us live as persons filled with the life-giving Spirit of God and walk in his ways.
Furthermore, if we take the resurrection seriously, we ought to go out to the places of sadness and pain and proclaim life, much as Mary Magdalene did when she returned home and proclaimed to the disciples that Jesus truly rose from the dead. (John 20:18) We are to be evangelists of life, the life of God who yearns for all to share in the Kingdom. If we fully believe Jesus rose from the dead, then we can no longer tolerate the social structures and systems that continue to oppress and hold people back from living life to the full. Rather, we must work for the life of all, and in particular for those who suffer from homelessness, hunger, and violence.
Finally, as we are baptized into Christ’s body and take on the name of Christ, we must stand in solidarity with all of humanity and God’s creation. The resurrected life compels us to live another way, the way of life. We must confront anything that stands in opposition to the resurrected life, including the destruction of God’s creation.
We are indeed like those first disciples gathered in the upper room, alone and afraid. At the same time, we are called to be like Mary Magdalene and run to the tomb to meet our risen Lord. For in going to the tomb, we shall find life. Amen.