by Daniel Harrell
We’re reading one of the traditional Easter passages this morning since we sorta skipped it last Sunday. This is totally allowed since Easter officially occupies 50 days on the church calendar—the colors stay white all the way to Pentecost. We spent the forty days of Lent focused on deadly sin, so it only makes sense to give time to resurrection, new life, new beginnings and new light.
Resurrection’s association with new life is a big part of the reason Easter always happens in spring (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). Another reason is to preserve Easter’s association with Jewish Passover. John’s gospel identifies Jesus as the Pachal Lamb of God whose blood spread over the doorposts of our hearts takes away the sins of the world. Resurrection happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week, and not a Sabbath, like Passover, so the church needed to make sure Easter consistently did the same. Thus the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, upon his conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, decreed Easter would fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (April 1 next year, no fooling). Easter’s tie-in to the seasons and nature is natural. The dynamic interplay of love within God between the Father and the Son and the Spirit—living and losing and dying and rising and living again—is the natural dynamic of history and creation itself.
What’s not natural is for dead people to rise up from graves. Bury what appears to be a dead flower bulb in the ground and you’re never surprised by the glorious bloom six moths later. Not so when you bury a dead person.
Mary Magdalene went to pay her her respects to the dead Jesus early that first Easter morning while it was still dark—the reason we do sunrise services. Alarmed by the horrible truth of an empty tomb, Mary ran to inform Jesus’ disciples what anybody would have concluded: “Somebody has stolen the Lord.” Peter and John immediately dashed back to the graveyard. As narrator, John makes sure to inform us how he ran faster. Getting there first, John looked into the tomb and saw Mary was right, but no way was he going in. Peter, perhaps compensating for his cowardice a few nights prior, blew past John and found Jesus’ burial cloth all nice and neatly folded. That was weird.
Nobody understood what this meant, so Peter and John simply went home like grieving people eventually must do. You gotta move on. But Mary wasn’t ready to move on. Grief makes you want to move backwards, go back and do things over and maybe get a different outcome. Mary looked again in the tomb and still no dead Jesus. But there were two live angels. Somehow this did not impress her or frighten her. Therefore, instead of leading with their usual “Fear not,” they asked why Mary was crying. “Well, why do you think I’m crying?” To which the angels said nothing but perhaps turned and pointed, like Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams pointed Kevin Costner to the mysterious figure standing over at home plate. [In addition to springtime, Easter also coincides with Opening Day.] Mary looked over and thought she saw the cemetery gardener. Maybe he knew what happened.
David Yeats was telling me about his trip to the Holy Land years ago. If you’ve ever been, you know how Protestants, being Protestants, have our own version of the empty tomb. Unlike the Greek Orthodox and Catholic version, recently refurbished and packed to the rafters with tourists and pilgrims and smells and bells, the Protestant version is quiet and contemplative. It’s located right beside an Arab bus station, and there’s never a crowd or long line. You can step inside and lay where Jesus lay, and even take pictures like I did. Jesus was not there, which came as a huge relief. David told me he sat in this space for what felt like hours, contemplating Jesus’ sacrifice and the hope that springs with resurrection. When he walked out, he looked and saw a gardener. Knowing John’s gospel, he had to wonder. David then looked again and the gardener was gone. I was like, “David! Did you talk to him?” David just shook his head. “I guess, I should have,” he said.
Mary saw Jesus risen and thinks he’s a gardener. He asked why she’s crying too, and then ironically added, “Who are you looking for?” Mary missed the joke. So Jesus gave her a hint by saying her name. Mary must have freakin’ lost it. She must have screamed, tackled Jesus, held on for dear life. But rather than welcome her embrace, Jesus tells her to back off and not to hold on to him. In most artist renditions, Jesus pushes Mary away as if she has cooties. In this famous one by Titian, Jesus hardly looks like a gardener. He looks like he’s about to whack Mary in the head with his victory flag. Given her grief, perhaps Jesus wanted to make Mary understand resurrection as more than merely resuscitation, more than just coming back and going back to how things used to be. Resurrection meant new life, a new life Mary couldn’t grasp as long as she kept holding on to Jesus. She had to let go.
This is what people will tell you has to happen when you suffer heartbreak, disappointment and loss. “You need to let it go.” But how do you do that? You can try and distract yourself for a moment or two, think about other things. You hear me right now and say to yourself, OK, he’s right, I gotta move on. But as soon as you head home alone all the emotions creep back. Christian friends will advise you to “let go and let God.” But you figure if God was going to do anything, he would have kept the heartbreak from happening in the first place.
Except the whole trajectory of Lent and Easter and Pentecost is that kind of Trinitarian love made manifest of living and losing and dying and rising and living again. God’s mercy is costly. Christ’s love entails loss; it flows not from some surplus; it is not a spilling over but an emptying out. To presume you can love another without heartbreak or grief is to presume to be better than God. Real love, God’s love in Christ, always drains and destabilizes, it renders broken and vulnerable and fearful, hung up to die but ready to rise, wide open to resurrection that in turn fills with a capacity to love back with abandon and abundance, making the sacrifice worth every ounce of depletion yet so full of joy and beauty and glory. The Father empties himself into the Son. The Son then gives glory to the Father. More than moving on, Jesus was moving up—“ascending to my God and my Father,” but also, to “your God and your Father,” implying somehow that we too are part of this dynamic. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus stressed how he had to go away so be more fully present. Mary had to stop holding on to what was for the sake of what was to come.
Albert Tate, senior minister of a large California church, told of an opportunity he had along with 20-30 other Protestant ministers (not including me), to travel to Rome to meet Pope Francis. Papal protocol insisted on no cameras, no phones, all questions prescreened. But Pope Francis, hearing about these restrictions from his papal people, texted the tour leader and said cancel that. The reverends could whatever they wanted. We’re gonna have a good time. They went into this back room at the Vatican with a big papal chair and in walked Pope Francis, and everybody’s glory-struck.
I was telling the New Members’ Class how the first thing the Pope says is how when people kill Christians they never ask whether we’re Catholic or Protestant, conservative or liberal, Baptist or Congregationalist. “They just ask whether we’re Christian. If our enemies don’t make distinctions between us, why should we?” He then launched into a vibrant conversation about resurrection and our calling as one body of Christ and completely flipped the room. Each pastor got a selfie and what was supposed to last an hour turned into two and then three, just hanging out and kicking it, and when Pope Francis left, nobody noticed. Who doesn’t notice when the Pope leaves the room? He’d totally transferred the power. It wasn’t about him being in the room anymore.
This is what Jesus does. He leaves the room without leaving us alone. Jesus goes but his Spirit comes and fills the church. Easter declares Jesus risen and accounted for in the loving lives of his people. It’s that we love and not whether we’re Catholic or Protestant or conservative or liberal or Wayzata or Edina that matters. “So go tell my brothers,” Jesus told Mary, making her the first of the apostles, apostle to the apostles (apostle means one who is sent). Jesus sends Mary and she goes and Jesus goes and sends the Spirit and transfers the power: weak-kneed disciples turn into Pentecostal apostles. Their faith converts the whole empire and the emperor himself, so that every year since, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, people all over the globe pile into churches and sing Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Spirit is here! No going back! Together we’re all moving on—or more to the point—we’re all moving up.