Stories of Easter

Maybe it’s a man thing. Susan will ask me to bring her something and I’ll go and look where she has told me I’d find it and then holler back – “I can’t find it.” And you can guess the rest of that story, she comes and lays her hands right on it. Maybe that’s the reason God sent the women to the tomb first. As we read in the Easter story, Peter, James and John looked but were not able to see what was quite evident to Mary of Magdala.   Maybe because it is a familiar story, we tend to look at it casually. As a result there are things that we easily miss, like seeing the unusual prominence of women in all the versions of the story. It’s important to remember that if the evangelists were constructing resurrection stories for common acceptance they absolutely would not have chosen women as the first witnesses.


 

The Easter story seems strangely out of touch with what we suppose reality to be. Is it so far removed from our understanding of how the world works that we dismiss it out of hand? One person described the Resurrection as “a prodigious transgression of natural laws.” But I want to tell you that it is more than a miracle. This event is the spectacular proclamation of the invasion into our lives of a creative intention supremely superior to all the hatred, violence and destructiveness of our world.

 

Maybe it’s a man thing. Susan will ask me to bring her something and I’ll go and look where she has told me I’d find it and then holler back – “I can’t find it.” And you can guess the rest of that story, she comes and lays her hands right on it. Maybe that’s the reason God sent the women to the tomb first. As we read in the Easter story, Peter, James and John looked but were not able to see what was quite evident to Mary of Magdala.   Maybe because it is a familiar story, we tend to look at it casually. As a result there are things that we easily miss, like seeing the unusual prominence of women in all the versions of the story. It’s important to remember that if the evangelists were constructing resurrection stories for common acceptance they absolutely would not have chosen women as the first witnesses.

 

 

John’s telling of the Easter story seems focused on Mary’s inquiry into the whereabouts of Jesus. It doesn’t harmonize easily with the story as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And there are substantial differences among them as well.

 

According to John it is Mary of Magdala who alone, before day break, comes to the tomb. She notices the stone that sealed the tomb has been taken away. Panic stricken she runs to tell Peter and John that some unknown party has removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. Accompanied by the two men she runs back to the tomb. John, the faster, stops just outside the tomb, looks in, and makes note of the linen burial wrappings that were lying there. Peter, evidently a bit slower, runs directly into the open tomb. In addition to the linen wrappings, he notices that the napkin that would have been on Jesus’ head wasn’t with the rest of the wrappings. After they looked they went home. That was it for them. Jesus’ body is missing, they have no clue about the resurrection and they just go home. Now there is an example of looking without seeing. In their defense John tells us that they did not yet know the scriptures that would later be used to support Jesus’ resurrection.  

 

Mary, in tears, is left alone just outside the tomb. When she looks in instead of a tomb empty except for discarded funeral wrappings she sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. They ask her why she was weeping. She tells them what she had earlier told Peter and John, that some unknown “they” had moved Jesus’ body to a place she did not know. When she turned around, there stood Jesus. She mistakes him for a gardener. He asked her what the angels had asked, why was she weeping? Then he asked her whom she was seeking. She asks him that if he was the one who has taken the body away and begs him to tell her where it was. That’s when Jesus speaks her name. She replies “Master”. Jesus instructs her to not cling to him but go and tell his brothers that he was going to ascend to God.

 

That Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener raises a new perspective on the implications of the resurrection story. Easter is the dawning of the New Creation. On Thursday night Jesus had told his disciples something that has been a serious and unanswered challenge to the church ever since, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father”. In other words he tells Mary — and us — to stop clinging to him and to get to work. We, along with Mary and others who believe in Jesus, are commissioned to carry on his work in the world. Does this suggest that caring for creation, our stewardship of the earth, is actually rooted in the story of Easter? If so, we need to begin to think about life and this world in a wholly new way, from God’s perspective. Our usual way of thinking is always shadowed by our fear of death. Despite Jesus telling us otherwise we persist in our notion of a death wielding god. The Living God to which Jesus’ resurrection witnesses teaches us to shift from being held hostage to a god of violence and death and finally see the God who is wholly and completely about life.

 

The Easter story in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels are similar to John’s but with some notable differences. For instance, Luke initially identifies by name none of the women who at early dawn brought spices to the tomb. Matthew says it was just beginning to dawn when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the sepulcher. Mark tells us that when the sun was risen three women, Mary Magdalene, James’ mother Mary and Salome, come to the tomb.

 

Like John, Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that the stone that sealed the tomb was already rolled back when the women arrived. Matthew’s world view required an earthquake to announce the coming of the angel who rolled the stone away.

 

In Matthew, that same angel tells the women to not be afraid, and announces “He is not here; for he is risen…” Then the angel instructs them to go quickly and tell the disciples not only that “He is risen from the dead but that he would see them in Galilee”. And in fear and great joy they ran to tell the disciples.

 

In Luke the women were so frightened at seeing two men in dazzling white apparel that they bowed down their faces to the earth. The two men in white ask them why they were seeking the living among the dead. “He is not here” the two men told them, “but is risen as he said”. The angel reminds them that when Jesus was in Galilee he told them that the Son of man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and the third day rise again. The women recall Jesus’ words and return from the tomb to tell of their encounter to the eleven and all the rest. Later Luke amends his story and tells us that when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and some other women told the apostles of their encounter with the risen Christ the apostles thought it was nonsense and didn’t believe them.

 

Mark reports a young man arrayed in white telling the women to not be amazed, that Jesus, the Nazarene who had been crucified is risen and was not here. He invites them to “look at the place where they laid him”. This young man gives them the same instructions, “go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus goes before them into Galilee and there they would see him”. But in Marks telling the women, trembling and astonished, flee the tomb and tell no one.

How do we make sense of these seeming blemishes in the resurrection narrative? Fredrick F. Bruce optimistically defended the Biblical text: “The earliest preachers of the gospels knew the value of… first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and time again. ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ was their constant and confident assertion.” He wrote that “The original apostolic teaching is a confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, ‘We are witnesses of these things’ but also, ‘As you yourselves know’ (Acts 2:22).

Bruce’s argument is comforting and understand it because we see how in a very similar way juries and decision-makers today place great reliance on the reports of eyewitnesses. However, recently reliance on the reports of eyewitnesses has become suspect, especially in communities where people have gone to jail for crimes that they did not commit. Most of those exonerated by DNA testing had been wrongly convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony. We’ve learned that once a witness states facts in a particular way or identifies a particular person as the perpetrator, they become unwilling or maybe unable to reconsider their initial understanding. Psychologists and criminologists have known about this problem of false memories long before DNA testing proved them. From as early as Deuteronomy 19, eyewitness testimony has been considered suspect and had to be corroborated by one or two others. This piece of Jewish law plays a significant role in the story of Jesus’ trials.

 

As Fredrick Bruce said, our Bible relies heavily on eyewitness accounts to construct its narratives. Which means that each of these tellings of the Easter story are quite subjective. Each evangelist, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John writes to his own particular audience. Rarely do you tell a story or recount an event without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener. I shouldn’t expect you to listen to every detail of my recent six thousand mile drive around the country, so I edit out everything but what I think would be of particular interest to you.

 

That’s why I think it is important to acknowledge this difference between looking at something and seeing something. When we look at something, we are at most observers and as we look away our lives have not been changed. But, when we come to the narrative and truly see, the change in us is inevitable and indelible. The reason the four evangelists tell this story is so that it will have the effect of changing us. Like the women who visited the tomb on that first Easter, I want us to see what is not as we might it expect in the story, to see beyond just looking at the text so that we might see what is being revealed in the stories of the empty tomb.  

 

One thing easily missed In these resurrection stories is that the Hebrew scriptures are strangely silent. In all the Gospels, but especially in Matthew’s and John’s, the Hebrew scriptures are referenced all the time. But in this case, while there are mentions of the resurrection “fulfilling scripture” no scripture is actually ever cited. There aren’t any quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures because this event was unprecedented. It had never happened before.

 

In our attempt to understand how these stories belong in the early Christian scheme of things, it is strange indeed that no where do they mention the future hope of the Christian. I know this is counter to everything we think we know of our western Christian training, Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal. Thousands of hymns, millions of sermons, not to mention poems, icons, liturgies and aids to meditation, have so focused on ‘life after death’ as the issue which drives everything else we’ve simply assumed that the real point of the Easter story is to show that there is indeed a ‘life after death’ and that those who belong to Jesus will eventually share it. ‘Going to heaven when you die’, ‘life after death’, ‘eternal life’, not even ‘the resurrection of all Christ’s people’, is so much as mentioned in the four canonical resurrection stories.

 

What we have Instead is an open-ended commission within the present world: ‘Jesus is risen, therefore you have work ahead of you.’ This is made clear by Matthew, Luke and John. Even in Mark, the women are given an immediate assignment, (though he tells us they didn’t do it) and the angel’s message through them to the disciples, especially to Peter, implies that they are going to be given things to do, that is “the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”.

 

What got Jesus in the tomb in the first place was his refusal to compromise his love for God and God’s creatures. He refused to negotiate away to the desires of the immoral authorities of his day this love, especially for the most vulnerable. And his followers, that’s us today, are commissioned to continue his work in the world. What we see in the resurrection story points each of us to ways in which we may live into Easter Joy. To discover our own ways of loving what is Holy, of seeing the sacred in all that embraces us in nature and our neighbors, in our friends and our family. We live the Easter story by continuing Jesus work to serve others with kindness, forgiving deeply and making peace in our own place and in our world. Yes, Christ lives. Christ lives in you and in me.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Pastor's Page. Bookmark the permalink.