Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Acts 10: 34
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
1 Corinthians 15:10-11
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 removed from the tomb.
Given all that you are holding in your heart right now and all that is happening in our world, it might help to know, or remember, that resurrection is a process, not an event, and it begins while it is still dark.
The first stirrings of new life, of hope and possibility in the wake of loss, are hidden from us, like the first sprouts from a seed that haven’t yet broken through the soil, or the healing that’s taking place deep inside while we’re still in pain. We may not feel anything at first. Think of Mary rising early that morning, if she slept at all, and walking toward Jesus’ tomb with no expectation that there would be anything other than the somber work of grief waiting for her there.That’s how resurrection begins, below the surface of our awareness.
We often speak of Mary as the first witness to the resurrection, which she was. But she was more than a witness. Walking toward the empty tomb while it was still dark, Mary was as much a part of the first resurrection as Jesus rising from the dead. Mary was rising too.
Rest assured that God will summon us as well, wake us up in the middle of the night if need be, and propel us forward before we realize that anything has changed, so that we don’t miss the opportunity to choose life again.
Movement is key in resurrection. Sometimes our bodies know what to do before our minds can take in what’s happening. Remember that Jesus and Mary were moving forward. “Don’t hold onto me, Mary,” he said when they met in the garden. There was no looking back for him, no standing still–only moving forward. A friend said to me recently, “I will go anywhere as long as it’s forward.” That is the stirring of resurrection.
In the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says that we can only speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. If we are to speak of resurrection, we need to experience it.
So I’ve been thinking all week about what I can say, from experience, about resurrection. This is still a work in progress, but here goes.
First let me say what I can about the context, our human condition:
We live in a world of profound contradictions–intense beauty and harsh, unforgiving natural phenomenon; a seemingly natural order of things and mind-boggling chaos. Within myself and every other person I know, there lies the full range of human possibility–our highest aspirations and our most base behavior, not to mention, as Ann Ulanov once said, “all that is mediocre and merely boring.”
As human beings, we are capable of the most exquisite artistic expressions, scientific discovery, physical accomplishment, and of petty mean-spiritedness, unspeakable cruelty, and acts of war. We are both self-centered and altruistic, stingy and generous, anxious and brave. We like to think of ourselves as agents of our own destiny, yet we are suspeciptle to forces of sophisticated manipulation that prey on our insecurities and move us to crowd behaviour that later bring us shame. We are, in spiritual terms, both sinner and saint; we can be hopelessly lost and miraculously found.
There is more suffering in this world than any heart should hold. None of us is spared suffering, some of which we bring on ourselves, and far too much that we inflict on others through personal and systemic patterns of what Scripture calls sin–all the ways we fail one another, ourselves, and God.
Into this wondrous, confusing, beautiful and broken world God comes to us. To those called to follow Him, God comes in the person of Jesus. Just as he came a human being over 2000 years ago who, as the author of Acts describes him, “went around doing good,” he comes to us now, as the Risen Christ. He comes in solidarity and judgment. He comes with forgiveness, exhortation, unconditional love, bringing gifts of resilience and mercy.
Jesus doesn’t take away our suffering. I wish he did, but he doesn’t. Instead he holds it with us, and goes down with us, when we are forced down, even to the point of death–our physical death, yes, but also all the other deaths we experience as we live.
But then, while it is still dark, we find ourselves rising up and moving.
We may not realize what’s happening at first, but gradually it dawns on us that something is different, something is happening. It’s as if we’re being carried for a time, or led, or invited to walk through a door that we didn’t know was there. It feels disorienting and unfamiliar at first. Sometimes we hold back and even resist because we’ve grown accustomed to the dark. But whatever it is that’s stirring in us beckons us on and we go. There is some sorrow involved and a part of us doesn’t want to, for a whole host of reasons. But there’s this energy propelling us forward on a new road. It’s not an easy road, because life is never easy. But it’s life, there for us to choose and to live.
My first experiences of what theologians call this ‘cruciform” reality of death and resurrection were small and deeply personal. Like all of you, I’ve known the death of a dream, the death of relationships, the loss of some physical capabilities that I treasured, and losses of other kinds. Once in the midst of devastating grief, I stumbled into a church at Easter and heard a sermon on little deaths and little resurrections, which the preacher described as practice for the ultimate resurrection that awaits us all. It was all rather corny, truth be told, but for the first time in months, I found myself willing to believe that I could live again. Amazingly so, a new life slowly emerged and I found myself moving slowly toward it.
It wasn’t the first time I had experienced a kind of resurrection, nor the last. You’d think it would get easier with experience, but each loss is a fresh one, and each journey through the dark is just as dark as the last. But it does become familiar. More than that–it becomes a way of life and of looking at the world–through the lens of the cross and resurrection.
This pattern of cross and resurrection as a way of life is important for us to hold onto now, when we are on the precipice of so much societal stirring and suffering all around. For resurrection is not an individual journey; it is communal. As important as our individual resurrection experiences are, resurrection’s goal is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God and what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community–a world aligned with Gods’ dream, God’s love, God’s justice for all humankind.
Just as we have a part to play in our own rising, we do in bringing about the Kingdom of God and creating Beloved Community. We realize this whenever we find or place ourselves, like Jesus, in situations of sorrow and suffering, of brokenness and injustice, and when we accept that suffering as the cost of love and societal transformation.
Resurrection flows through us when we show up in places that seem beyond hope, where it’s still dark and we cannot see. Resurrection occurs when, stirred by a power that is not ours, we find ourselves walking toward a new horizon alongside other people, toward the dream God has for us all.
No one knew the promise of communal suffering and resurrection better than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated 53 years ago today, April 4, 1968. What a poignant contrast to have our Easter celebration on the same day of that searing memory, and a fitting one after a year of so much loss. I can’t stop thinking about King and the last week of his life that began in this pulpit and ended with a bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.
King believed in the power of what he called “redemptive suffering,” suffering, like that of Jesus, for love and justice. He walked in faith toward the dream not only given to him but all who long for freedom, human decency, and the opportunity to realize their God-given potential. He continued toward that dream when darkness returned again and again, which it did with particular vengeance in the last year of his life. He wasn’t a perfect man, we know that, but he never seemed to veer from the path of sacrificial love and redemptive suffering. He believed in it for himself, for his own people, and incredibly enough, in his generous heart, for everyone else. He never gave up on love.
King’s faith, while communal, was also deeply personal. One of the last requests he made before he died was for singer Mahalia Jackson to sing his favorite song at that night’s prayer meeting:
Precious, Lord, take my hand.
Lead me on. Help me stand.
I am weak, I am tired, I am worn.
Through the dark, through the night.
Lead me on, to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
God calls each one of us to walk toward the dawn, while it’s still dark, trusting that it will not always be night. God beckons us to rise for ourselves and for others, in fulfillment of God’s dream. As followers of Jesus, we are called to his way, a life of sacrificial, healing love.
So take heart this Easter morning, no matter where you are on the resurrection road. Christ is Risen and so have you. God is God, and by the grace of God you are who you are, called by Jesus to walk toward the light even while it’s still dark.
Listen now to the song that brought such hope and reassurance to Dr. King, and let them speak for you. Let the Risen Lord take your hand and lead you on.