“Dying and Rising with Christ” (John 19-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 22, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church
It is accomplished
Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the unnamed disciple whom he loved all stood near the Roman cross upon which their teacher and friend had been crucified. The taunts of the soldiers and religious authorities and crowds and even the insurrectionists crucified with him echoed in their ears with bitter precision:
“Hail, King of the Jews!” “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!” “He saved Lazarus; he cannot even save himself!” “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe!”
Their teacher, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, the fulfillment of God’s promises, the very revelation and incarnation of God, bows his head upon the cross upon which he has been so publicly shamed and so cruelly executed. The hope and truth once pulsing so strong in his flesh and bone have finally been beaten out by the corrupt powers of the world. These women and the other disciple watch in horror, as the hymn puts it, “the hands that formed us from the soil were nailed upon the cross; the word that gave us life and breath expired in utter loss.”
“It is accomplished,” Jesus says. And he gives up his spirit.
What a foolish thing to say at such a time: “It is accomplished.” Maybe when he turned the water into wine, or restored sight to the man born blind. Those were accomplishments. Or when he raised Lazarus from the dead. “It is accomplished!” Absolutely!
But from a Roman cross?! During Jesus’ boyhood years, Rome crucified en masse some 2000 Jewish insurrectionists who rebelled following king Herod’s death. What did they ever accomplish? The cross wasn’t some nice symbol to wear around one’s neck; not some ornate design to be affixed to buildings or inked onto bulging biceps. The cross was state-sponsored terrorism, plain and simple. What did terrorism ever accomplish, besides fear and foreboding and more terror?
Mark’s gospel records a more fitting final speech: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” Numbered with the violent, the transgressors. Thought by onlookers to be stricken by God. Mocked, abhorred, derided, deserted by friends, shamed, stripped, laughed at, beaten down and broken and dead. He gives and gives and gives until he is reduced to nothing but a sad spectacle of a world ruled by dominating, death-dealing powers with nothing to show for it, save a small cluster of weeping, heartbroken disciples, the few who are left, that is. What a foolish time to speak of accomplishment!
But that is precisely what Jesus and all his followers since have always been. Fools. Fools who bother to feed the hungry, to relieve the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and visit the prisoner, even when there just keep being more hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned people. Fools who are so bad at math they think last place is first place. Fools who resist evil with love and patience and hope. Fools who pretend that Christ’s armor of truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, word of God, and prayer are a match for the evils of this world. Fools who sleep with the sword of the Spirit under their pillow and think that’ll protect them from the evil lurking at the bedside. Fools who fight bullets and flames by quoting Scripture and praying and preaching peace. Fools who think that the only way to truly live is to die.
For a thousand years the church has tried to turn foolishness into reason, to turn scandal into sound logic, mystery into mechanics and models and plans and propositions. But there is no way around its foolishness, its utter nonsensicalness, its deep mystery. “You should become fools if you want to be wise” (1 Cor. 3:18). The New Testament describes what happened on the cross in scandalous words of utter nonsense:
“Through death God destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).
“He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness [the justice] of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“Through the cross, he killed enmity” (Eph. 2:16).
“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross” (Col. 2:15).
“Though he was in the form of God. . . he emptied himself. . . and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Php. 2:6-8)
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).
The very height of human sin: the complete, bald, unrepentant, intentional violent rejection of God and God’s ways becomes somehow – in the redemptive mercies and mysteries of God, in the grand and unsearchable depths of God’s justice and steadfast love – the destruction of sin itself, the freedom of those enslaved to sin’s power, the forgiveness of rebellious action in service to Sin for those who will turn from the world and return to God.
Jesus defaced ugliness. He held captivity captive. He bound bondage. He disarmed violence. He held dominion over domination. He killed enmity by loving it to death. He destroyed death itself.
In a telling moment, as Pilate taunts the chief priests, “shall I crucify your king,” the chief priests, who plotted to have Jesus killed for fear that Rome would destroy the nation because of Jesus’ fame, reply, “We have no king but the emperor.” These same priests would sing that very week at the Passover, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God. Beside you we have no king.”
In the cross, God destroyed the power of violence by refusing to be drawn into it, and exposed those who hide behind it as fraudulent. Rather than fight his enemies, Paul said, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son” (Rom. 5:10).
As the women and the other disciple gazed upon the cross, they beheld the worst of humankind’s rebellion, wickedness, plotting, violence, shame, domination, distortion, slavery and service to Sin, death, and evil all come to focus on God’s own son. But though they could not yet see it, they also beheld the accomplishment of God’s plan to finally deal with all of the above. In short, these witnesses beheld God-in-Christ triumphing over the cross and everything it represents through the Cross.
It is complete foolishness. It is ultimate mystery. It is justice beyond what is just. It is grace upon grace, wonder upon wonder, amazingly, suprisingly good news, and the only response befitting those who may gaze upon it is awe, gratitude, wonder, repentance, and joining with the heavenly host in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”
The cycle of vengeance, of domination, of plotting, of sin, is now broken. The body of Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the Sin of the world, was laid in a tomb nearby the place. And early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene ventured back to the place. While the other disciples were seeking their safety behind locked doors, she had ventured out into the dark shadows, and had returned to this place of death and decay.
Weeping with Mary
Mary had come again to this place where the King of Love had been broken by the Princes of Fear and hatred, where the forces of darkness had finally extinguished the Light of the World, where all that is chaotic and void had finally canceled out the very last remnant of the grand promise of those very first words, “Let there be light.”
Mary had come to this garden hidden in Golgotha’s penetrating shadows. Mary Magdalene stood by the tomb, and she wept. Had she come to perform the burial rites of spices and ointments, only to find no body to care for? Had she come to grieve the death of Jesus, since there could be no funeral for a man executed for treason? Had she come in the secrecy of the night’s shadows to say goodbye, only to find no one to bid farewell?
Had she come to this place because in the depth of darkness, the true light, which enlightens everyone had sparked something in her soul and had driven her to come back to this place where all was lost, but all was accomplished at the same time to find something, some hope?
But she found nothing. The stone was rolled away, and she feared the worst. And she wept. Mary’s tears find themselves again and again in our own eyes and in the countless eyes of God’s weeping children. We weep Mary Magdalene’s tears of grief when we lose a dearly loved one. We weep Mary’s helpless and hopeless tears over a broken and shadowy world seemingly devoid of light, when we consider the persistent callous resignation and indifference we show to the vulnerable and powerless, or the countless acts of outright gruesome violence we do to one another.
The tears of Mary’s broken heart flow from our eyes when we are confronted with humankind’s service to the powers of sin and death, defacing what is beautiful, staining what is pure, robbing the innocent.
We weep for the widows and orphans of hatred and violence, for the bereaved parents of manipulators of power, for the beautiful children dwelling in the long shadows of abuse from which we know they may never escape. We weep with the injured and the brokenhearted, who courageously seek out empty tomb after tomb, but never find hope.
We weep because the world seems spiraling back into chaos and void darkness. We weep because whatever hope there is always seems to suffer under whichever Pontius Pilate is holding the Beast’s reigns. We weep because what is good and true and beautiful in the world gets called treasonous by the Powers of this age.
We weep because we have so little power in a world of 7 billion to bring light into a land of shadows and sickness. We weep because it’s just so hard to risk hope, for fear that hope will get crucified yet again and dash our hopes. Mary Magdalene’s tears must surely be found in our own eyes as we follow the Crucified Savior in this present age of shadows and darkness.
Found in the Valley
And yet, as she wept, there in the shadow of Golgotha where Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene bent over to look into the tomb, and through her tears, she saw that the tomb was empty. There in the shadow of Golgotha, through her tears of grief, of loss, of helplessness and hopelessness, through those tears she beheld the empty tomb, and with those tear-soaked eyes she would see the Risen Lord.
Maybe that’s the best way to behold the empty tomb – through tear-soaked eyes. Maybe that’s the best way to understand what the empty tomb means. Maybe that’s the best way to understand why the Risen Lord still bears the wounds of Calvary. Maybe it’s when we’ve lost all else, when we’ve lost the world, that we can bend over, look into the empty tomb, and see. Maybe it’s then that we can hear those gracious, compassionate words, “Why do you weep?” and be transformed.
Mary Magdalene turns back from the empty tomb and sees Jesus, though she doesn’t know it is he just yet. He greets her with the same question as the angels in the tomb, “Woman, why do you weep?” Jesus doesn’t chide Mary for her helplessness and hopelessness; he doesn’t chastise her for her despair, or for struggling to understand. Instead he tells her to name her grief, to look into that empty tomb inside herself, to enter the darkest valley where he is waiting for her, and says to her, “Mary!” “Mary.”
The Syrian refugee who has lost all; survivors mourning the dead and injured and captive in a mass shooting in Kenya; the grief of a parent burying a child; the shock and horror of those who suffer abuse; the persistent pains of the hungry child continents away or in our own neighborhood; the body broken by pain; the spirit crippled by despair; the aged looking on a life of regret and estrangement; the young ostracized by peers and family. All who cry out in heartache, in abandonment, in despair, do not rend their spirits before Almighty God in isolation and solitude, but there is one who has cried in solidarity with the brokenhearted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”
There is one who has gone ahead, who has braved the valley of the shadow of death, who has met the abandonment, the sin, the hatred, the betrayal and brokenness of this world head-on. And it is he. It is the Christ who weeps with us.
The one who has endured the full brunt of the darkness of the world is the one who is able to find us in the darkness as well, is the one who is able to say, “Mary,” to call us also by name, to turn us around, to enable us to see the world as it really is – not as a place utterly devoid of hope and light, not as a place dominated by the deathly powers of sin and self-aggrandizement and relentless “progress,” nor by exploitation and violence and neglect and abuse, but rather as a place that is God’s beloved creation even now becoming new in resurrection power.
God’s New World
You see, maybe Mary Magdalene’s perception wasn’t so far off when she mistook Jesus for the gardener. For there, that morning, in that garden, on that first day, the Light of the world who was in the beginning, who was in the Garden with God, once again scattered the darkness and chaos. There, in that timeless garden in the shadow of Golgotha, she was no longer east of Eden, for through her tear-soaked eyes, she beheld the Master Gardener face-to-face.
At the empty garden tomb, we see through tearful eyes that that the one through whom all things came into being in the very beginning, has now met us in our greatest darkness, has forgiven us and healed us, and is now creating again, making all things new. Paul once jubilantly proclaimed, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)
Mary, in that garden, was entering that new world, a world where the powers of sin and death have been vanquished, where all things are now under Christ’s feet. Mary Magdalene had come to a cold and foreboding place of suffering, of rebellion, of violence, of great scandal and grief, and there she encountered life. It is by following Jesus, our Lord and King, our Savior, directly into the shadow of death that we find the most dazzling light. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). It is through tears that we perceive the Risen Lord most clearly, for he wears not the badges and medallions of pomp and circumstance, but his wounds reveal his rank as King of King and Lord of Lords.
He did not enter into glory through the power of wealth, nor the force of weapons wrought by human hands, nor through careful courtship of those who hold the reigns of the beast, but rather through suffering, through self-emptying self-humbling love, and through unwavering obedience to death, even death on the cross. It was costly obedience to his mission to let the light shine in the darkness and upon those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He entered his glory through tears and suffering, through obedience unto death, even death on the cross.
That is the mind that is to be in us, Paul said (Php. 2:5). The mind that looks first to others. The mind that is willing to give all even for one’s enemies, and whose very same love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The very mind of God.
“Go,” Jesus says to Mary. “Go from this garden, from this place of promise and hope; go back into the old order.” Having led Mary to place one foot firmly in the new garden, Jesus places her other foot back in the old order, the dark valley.
She was to be one on whom, as Paul put it, “the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11), an ambassador for Christ. Anchored in the new age, dead to sin and made alive in Christ, and joining God’s mission to bring healing, hope, and welcome to the old age.
We are sent into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world. The message, the invitation of the cross is not, “I died so that you don’t have to,” but “Die with me so that you might rise with me.” That is the pattern of our life in this world: dying to sin, to self, to this world, and rising with Christ.
“Do you not know,” Paul wrote, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. . . So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God” (Rom. 6:3-11).
“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! And the life now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Php. 3:10)
When we respond to the Holy Spirit by accepting Christ and declaring our allegiance to him, we are joined with Christ in the cross, we yield to the Holy Spirit as it cleanses us and puts to death our slavery to sin, we let go the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.
We all together are the community of the resurrection, the Body of Christ in the world. If we, like Jesus, are willing to accept the risks of our baptism, then we too may brave the valley of the shadow of death. We too may walk through the storms of life and tread the raging waters. We too may cry out to God in urgent and fervent prayer. We too may proclaim, may demonstrate, may embody a kingdom that is not of this world. And we too shall know the fullness of resurrection life in the coming age.
Today the tears we shed focus the light of Christ into the tombs of the world. Today we are all lenses – magnifying glasses of the Light of Christ – the light that has gone through the deepest darkness to win the new day, the light that burst forth from the tomb on Easter morning declaring the victory of love over fear, sharing the conquest of forgiveness over sin, proclaiming the triumph of life over death, preaching the good news of peace above the racket of violence, announcing good news to the helpless and the hopeless and calling all who weep this day by name.
For Jesus Christ is highly exalted with the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. For we have seen the Lord! And death is swallowed up in victory! It is, truly and awesomely, accomplished.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Alleluia! Amen! Alleluia! Amen!