Alleluia, He is risen! The gospel accounts tell it. The creeds affirm it. Religious art depicts it. Hymns proclaim it. The liturgy denotes it. Countless lives past and present affirm it. But many don’t get it.
Most of us know the Easter story. We have been to the empty tomb before – a few as pilgrims to the Holy Land and the rest of us in the worship and proclamation that goes on year after year in the faith community. The Easter account is the bed rock of faith for every Christian. To gather today in this place with fellow believers from all over the world brings us face to face with the awesome news of the Resurrection; the wondrous mystery of the Risen Christ come into our midst; and joy beyond description in knowing that death has been conquered. Ah, but we have been here before haven’t we? “Been there – done that” as the saying goes. Hearing the Easter story is one thing. Living it is another. The challenge is to get from the empty tomb to a life changing encounter with the Risen Christ.
The Risen Christ calls us to move from observer to participant because the resurrection has the power to transform just as much today as on the first Easter. Authentic words in music, in proclamation, and in worship tell what experience has revealed. We revisit the gospel account again and again so past experience can inform the present journey. Each of us is invited to see and to believe in faith in order to live out our own account of the power of Jesus Christ in our lives.
Those who have gone before us can be our guides. So we can ask, “What was it like for Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and John on that first Easter? What was it like for them for the rest of their lives?” As I pondered those questions, the biblical account and a recent experience came togther. I was in South Africa several weeks ago having last visited in 1995. While much has been accomplished in the past few years, healing must continue. The impact of generations of violence; denial of education; lack of respect for human dignity; emnity; guilt and suspicion have left deep scars on human souls. It was a system of death. Yet Christ has risen into that situation to bring new life. As Archbishop Tutu said from this pulpit, “no nation on earth has been more prayed for than South Africa.” The astounding result is that the former pariah nation has become a witness to truth and reconciliation.
While there, I visited one of the townships to which black families had been exiled and left to survive as best they could. The intent had been to demean, to deny and crush the spirit of the oppressed. Many died from the lack of decent shelter, adequate food, medical care or sanitation. The miracle is that death could never triumph over faith and hope. Today the social problems are still monumental, but I found people sustained by their faith, quick to offer hospitality and with grace evident in their lives. I saw an image of Jesus in the lay minister who held things together in the little chapel folks had built. The eight women I met praying and sharing on a Saturday afternoon in that chapel made me think of the disciples we read about in scripture. I experienced the open arms of Jesus through people who welcomed me, a total stranger, into their homes. In the midst of poverty, people have found ways to create beauty. I could imagine Jesus of Nazareth teaching and healing in Galilean villages not much different than the township I visited.
So we read, “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 rolled away.” The words spoke to me through my township visit in South Africa. The burden on Mary Magdalene’s heart when she went to the tomb on the first Easter would be familiar to many in this world in 1999. What abject sorrow and bitter grief she must have experienced as she approached the tomb. What a sense of loss she must have had. Jesus of Nazareth had healed the sick. He opened God’s embrace to all people not a select few. By his words and in his love he revealed a new creation come into the old. He gave dignity to the outcasts and marginalized. He showed the common folk a vision of hope. As much as anyone, Mary Magdalene saw in Jesus God’s call as Messiah, the anointed one, for she was being led from brokenness toward wholeness. In turn, she had committed herself, body and soul, to the messianic mission. Now Jesus was gone. He had been arrested, condemned in a mock trial, crucified, and buried in a borrowed tomb. Mary’s future died with Jesus. Better never to have hoped than to have hoped in vain.
Now in your mind’s eye think of that fleeting moment when in the dim light of dawn Mary saw that the stone had been rolled away and that the tomb was empty – the shock, the dread, the final blow …or… maybe, possibly, could it be that death had in some way been vanquished? You know the rest of the story. Peter and John arrived. Scripture accords them a measure of belief, but then says simply …”they returned to their homes.” Indeed, the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel – probably the oldest account- end at that point leaving us standing before an empty tomb. It was left to the evangelists and believers to tell the rest of the good news. If there was only the empty tomb, even if we somehow knew Jesus had risen from this world, we would be spiritually abandoned. Oh yes, on the second Easter some of the disciples would have revisited the tomb to preserve the memory. Anglicans know that two commemorations make a tradition. By the third Easter I am sure there was a proper procession and service but new life does not come from processions to an empty tomb.
Mary Magdalene stayed when the others left. She gets to tell the rest of the story news. As she stood weeping and looked into the tomb, Mary Magdalene saw an angelic presence and then turned to encounter the Christ Risen into this world. She was not abandoned. Therefore we are not abandoned. She did not recognize him at first but we can understand. We, too, have been in the presence of the Risen Christ showing forth from another person or through an event and failed to comprehend. Or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Many have entertained angels unaware.” When Mary turned to encounter the Risen Christ she met new life set loose in a world of death. She came face to face with her call to ministry. Mortal that she was, Mary could only have understood in part but she was faithful to what she could comprehend. Her ministry was to bring life and hope where there was death and despair.
Easter is full of promises but with every promise there is a cost. We stand between the tomb and the Risen Christ. Choose death or choose life. Remain in the grip of death or begin our own resurrection. In reality it is not so simple. Despite good intentions at any moment our motives are not always pure. Our reasoning can be tainted by sin. Compassion and self-interest cannot always be neatly separated. We look to Mary Magdalene, Peter, James and the others as our spiritual forebearers but let’s not forget the crowd. On Palm Sunday they enthusiastically welcomed Jesus with messianic affirmation. “Hosanna, blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!” By Friday they chanted, ” Crucify him!” We have to confess there is some of the crowd in us. That is part of the struggle between life and death. Jesus Christ is risen into that struggle. With open arms he says, “Come, follow me and find new life.”
The Easter hope of resurrection is not limited to personal conversions. Consider the current hot spot – Kosovo. For months we have demanded of our leaders, “Do something!” Those called to the ministry of diplomacy worked hard to find resolution, resolve, and hopefully reconciliation. But we, the crowd, grew impatient. We began to see patient, persistent peacemaking as a sign of weakness. Mounting atrocities added to the crisis. “Do something”, we demanded, “Crucify them!” So today we are in a shooting war. How fickle this crowd can be. “Do something, stop the war but don’t inconvenience our lives.” There is a cost to the good news of the resurrection. It is that we all are called to live out the ministry that began with Jesus of Nazareth. What can we do about Kosovo? Remember that most prayed for nation, South Africa. Many said political transformation could not come without a blood bath but Christ rose into the situation. It can happen again. Prayer, consistent demands for justice, coupled with compassionate outreach have defeated more than one army. Alleluia, Christ is risen in us and we have a call to vanquish death with new life.
Death takes many forms beyond the process of aging common to all humanity that will, in due season, bring us to the end of our days. Death is in the emnity that creates a Kosovo, that demeans others by forcing them into townships, or that tolerates ghettos in Washington, DC. Something dies in both the oppressed and the oppressors when we create scapegoats. Death can lurk in the seductive life of money and power when we are too busy to consider our soul’s health. Here inside the Beltway the incessant grind of billable hours or the relentless demands of leadership which takes no holidays can separate us from Jesus the Christ who offers us new life. Affluence cannot insulate us from the specter of hopelessness – death in one of its crueler guises. We see it in the faces of the homeless who beg from us. We see it in the pictures of refugees from war, in the elderly who have outlived their means in a costly society, in children whose only inheritance is their mother’s crack habit.
Let’s get our priorities straight this Easter. The emphasis is this day not on what happened to some Palestinian peasants 2000 years ago. It is on what we can do to make a difference and not on what we can get out of God. Every baptized person is called to be an agent of new life. The Risen Christ is just as present this day in some storefront church, or among desolate survivors of ethnic cleansing as in this great cathedral. I suspect Jesus would be more at home in peasants garb than in my bishop’s vestments. Let’s not forget the drama of the first Easter began at a borrowed tomb in an impoverished, occupied land at the downside of a pagan empire. Not a single public figure was present. God choose ordinary folks to carry the gospel message into a hostile world.
More important than geography is the news that God in Christ rose into the commonplace and the mundane. Scripture is the journey account of people like you and me seeking to find the way from death to life. Our story is the most recent chapter. Along the way there have been some watershed events for humankind. There were have been notable witnesses whose names are recorded among the saints. But in between those extraordinary events and great individuals, most of God’s revelation has been in and through the ordinary. Nameless seekers with the usual mix of doubt and faith have provided the continuity.
Yes, even in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection, there is the predictable if only because it comes around every year. Mary Magdalene met the Risen Lord but she was home by noon. She had things to do. John tells us Magdalene left the tomb and began to tell the story of the resurrection. She spoke what she knew in her heart, “I have seen the Lord.” Some believed her and some did not, but she was faithful to the message.
We take our cue from Mary Magdalene. An Easter message, if confined to a cathedral, isn’t much help to a world that is looking for life and hope. Healing, reconciliation and life come when ordinary people take the message of Jesus Christ to everyday places. It is not about getting perfect but about being faithful with what we have. Read the scriptures because the stories are about you and me. Not everyone can be a soloist in the choir of prayer but we all can all hum along with the chorus of saints. So say your prayers daily even when you feel uninspired because, at the least, you will help consecrate the day. Worship regularly with the people of God because the body of Christ is incomplete without you. Reach out to others to comfort in Christ’s name. It is like the sign in front of a nearby church that reads “Come in we are open between Christmas and Easter”. Finally, know it is OK to go back to the tomb again and again to seek the Risen Christ. As T.S. Eliot put it on one of his poems,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Once again, we have returned to the tomb. May each of us encounter Jesus Christ anew in our life today and may you be surprised by God. Ame