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Dying and Rising with Christ

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“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!

Foolishness
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!

Journeying in Resurrection Power

May 26th, 2011 No comments

We were asked to do a sort of emergency fill-in for Bethel College’s chapel on April 27. This is what we did, largely similar to the sermon from May 8.

“Journeying in Resurrection Power” (Luke 24:13-35)
by Katherine and Peter Goerzen
April 27, 2011, Bethel College Chapel

Katherine: These past weeks, as we have followed Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem, we have stepped with Jesus into the minefields of temptation and felt the Spirit’s presence to give us strength and courage. Our journey has led us into the crossroads of judgment, and we have heard him inviting us to repent, to come home. We have taken our ropes and lanterns to follow Jesus into the dark and frightening caves of our own brokenness, sin, and pain, and to find hidden there the treasure, healing and hope in God’s loving embrace.

Peter: And this past week, as we have followed Jesus on the journey to the cross, we have cheered his upside-down entry, we have struggled to choose the way of Jesus, we have passed the final loaf of bread and partaken of the final cup. We have watched and fallen asleep, we have lashed out in frustration and shouted our denial in fear, as the forces of darkness have descended upon our Lord.

Katherine: Our journey has sent us spinning before temple guards, religious manipulation, corrupt and frenzied governors. We have witnessed and endured mockery and torture. Our hearts have wept as the crowds forsook Truth incarnate, the way of peace, and God’s reign, for deceit, rebellion, and the kingdom of the world. We have watched in horror from a distance, as the hymn put it, as “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.”1 The body that once bore the hope of the world was wrapped and sealed in the tomb.

Peter: And that is where we arrive on the first day to find these two companions on the Emmaus Road, I believe. Their Messiah, the “bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises of old,”2 the very revelation and incarnation of God, their hope for the redemption of Israel, has been publicly shamed and cruelly executed. The hope and truth once pulsing strong within his heart has been finally beaten out by the corrupt powers of the world. So as they journey along, they no are no doubt discussing the cross, this “monument to the sadness they felt in the soul, a confirmation of the cruel truth”3 that death finally has the last word over everything good and true and beautiful.

Katherine: They were walking, as the Psalmist once put it, “through the valley of the shadow of death.” In that valley, Jesus draws near and journeys with them, yet in the valley’s shadows, they cannot even recognize Jesus, and there they stop with their faces downcast. There they tell their grief-filled story of how Jesus of Nazareth, the great prophet, their hope for the redemption of Israel, was condemned by the fearful and crucified by the mighty.

Peter: Even the report of the empty tomb and the message that Jesus is alive are not enough to deliver them from Friday’s valley of shadows. It is merely a report. And in a world, as preacher Thomas Long put it, “where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another, and people hatch murderous plots. . . [and] dead people stay dead,”4 reports alone cannot redeem any downcast soul from the valley of shadows. The secondhand faith of others’ reports leaves one hungry. Not even the revelation of the scriptures, it seems, can raise these two companions to walk in newness of life by resurrection power.

Katherine: The world had said “no” to Jesus; the empire despised his gospel; the religious system feared his way; the domination machine could not tolerate his liberating and prophetic truth, and lashed out with its final weapon. And every Caesar, every Pilate and Herod, every corrupt leader throughout history has said in so many words, “I do not permit the dead to be raised,” and have ordered the tomb sealed

Peter: As far as anyone of any significance was concerned, the coroner had properly declared Jesus dead, the death certificate signed, the body wrapped in cloths and sealed securely in the tomb. . . But what these two, Cleopas and his companion, for all their discussing, could not yet see, was the life-changing, creation-restoring, reality-altering story that can only be internalized through experience – that the tomb couldn’t hold the Lord of Life.

Katherine: For God has said “Yes” to Jesus and his gospel and his way. God has said “yes” to the healing and wholeness embodied by Jesus, yes to the forgiveness and mercy offered by Jesus, yes to compassion and care for the vulnerable modeled by Jesus, yes to the grace, welcome, and hospitality practiced by Jesus, yes to the gospel of peace proclaimed by Jesus, and God has ordered the tomb unsealed and has raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Peter: Jesus was not to be found among the dead, for he had already conquered death. He had descended into the lower parts, as it is written; trampled down death by death,5 breaking death’s shackles, proclaiming the gospel of peace into death’s rebellion, wrapping his hands around the chains that used to bind creation to sin and death and pulling it with him as he rose victorious from the grave! The tomb had been sealed, but it could not hold the Lord, for truth has risen from the grave, love has broken the power of hate, salvation has triumphed over corruption!

Katherine: Yet for Cleopas and his companion and all of us travelers of the Emmaus road, Friday’s deathly valley continues to overshadow Sunday’s gardens of hope. What’s a report about some empty tomb worth in a world of tactical nuclear warheads, homes and lives fractured by the violence sin does, multi-billion-dollar international corporations, grinding injustice, and global disregard for God’s good creation? Our eyes behold no hope emerging on this world’s horizon, no new creation rising from the deep oceans of chaos. We see no “risen conqu’ring Son.”

Peter: Seeing with open eyes is an odd thing. Sometimes it means catching sight of the eternal in the ordinary. For the two companions, it was the breaking of bread around the table that revealed the Risen Lord. They knew it was Jesus because breaking bread in table fellowship was what Jesus did. The resurrection becomes more than a report about an empty tomb when the life and actions of Jesus continue in the present time.

Katherine: The breaking of bread is for us, of course, a sign of communion, the Lord’s Supper, something we do in remembrance of Jesus as we together become the physical manifestation of the body of the Crucified-and-Risen Christ in the world. It’s a sign that we are being joined to one another and to the Risen Lord, that we no longer live, but Christ lives within us, or as Menno Simons liked to put it, that we are “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” As those who break bread with the Risen Lord – as those who are joined to him as his very own body through the baptism of his death and the power of his resurrection, we can do no other than to live as he lived and to make our journey with him “by the power of the resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (Php. 3:10).

Peter: We greet the Risen Lord when the gospel story becomes enacted in our lives as his body. Because God has said yes to Jesus, the resurrection calls us to live and die for what Jesus lived and died for. The resurrection calls upon us to decide to care about the things Jesus cared about, for the stories he told to find their home in our voices, for his Way to guide our feet. The resurrection calls upon us to join the mission Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord – not just because it’s the right thing to do in God’s eyes, but also because the empty tomb reminds us that therein lies true power and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5).

Katherine: And when we see that happening, then friends, we know that we have seen none other than the Risen Lord himself.

Peter: Every time we say, “Christ is risen,” we bear witness to the hope that we live in a world where the violent, the powerful, and the rich do not have the last word after all, where the myth of redemptive violence is only a myth, where love rises victorious from hate’s tomb, where the dawn of peace is breaking upon rebellion’s long, dark night, where sin and death are cast down, where God really is making all things new. And we testify that we live in a world where not even the threat of death can be wielded against the onslaught of Christ’s cross-and-resurrection life and love.

Katherine: And every time we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” we also say “no” to the powers of the world that crucified him. We say no to their deceit, their rebellion and sin, their fear, and their violence; and we say “yes” to Jesus. We say yes to following his Way even unto a death like his; we say yes to his love, even of enemies; we say yes to repentance, yes to forgiveness, yes to truth, yes to the goodness of God’s creation; and even when the cave of despair is closing around us and the stones of suffering are sealing us in, we say yes to hope, because God already has.

Peter: This doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain or walk through the valley of the shadow of death, doesn’t mean we don’t still find ourselves in hospital beds and waiting rooms, doesn’t mean we don’t still gather at the graveside in the pain of death, doesn’t mean we don’t have long nights of suffering, just as Jesus himself did, but on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the tomb was empty. The risen Jesus has drawn near to journey with us, to raise us to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection. He has been made known to us in the breaking of bread and wherever his life and love finds its beautiful expression in the community of God’s children. Truly Jesus lives, for

Both: We have seen the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1 “How shallow former shadows” by Carl P. Daw, Jr.
2 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, 111.
3 Thomas Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion, 322.
4 Ibid., 322.
5 Hence eliminating any triumphalism on our part, even as we celebrate his triumph.

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Journeying with the Risen Lord

May 26th, 2011 No comments

“Journeying with the Risen Lord” (Luke 24:13-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 8, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This Week’s News
I watched and read this week, as I’m sure all of you did, with great interest as news and details of the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden unfolded. As the headlines pressed on so relentlessly all week long, I found myself grappling with many different emotions and thoughts and reflections about the significance of this news.

I felt at times a sense of relief that this particular chapter can now be closed; I grieved the tens of thousands who have lost their lives and the thousands more who will yet lose their lives or live in perpetual fear. I was frustrated at such vulgar celebration of death.

I was impressed with the precision with which the operation was executed and moved to a newfound sense of admiration and respect for those who train so diligently and serve what they believe in with such courage, conviction, and commitment, and I wondered, with Ronald Sider in his 1984 address to Mennonite World Conference, why I have not mustered such courage for the sake of my convictions.

But mostly, this past week, I have been saddened. I’ve been saddened by the casual use of the word “justice,” whose biblical demands go far beyond retribution and punishment, or “security,” which as Isaiah once cried, cannot be found in chariots or horsemen, nor tanks or planes, but only in God.

I have been saddened that though Jesus Christ has destroyed the power of death by dying on the cross (2 Tim. 1:10)1, it continues to find employment by the powers of this world. I was saddened that people celebrated and congratulated death in a season of Easter, which delights in new life.

I was saddened by reports of those promising revenge, perpetually playing the tired game of vengeance and retaliation. And I was saddened by those daily killings, molestations, oppressions, and starvations that will never grab the world’s collective attention. And I was saddened to think that I can only make such a tiny difference in this world.

Traveling the Emmaus Road
We all make that saddened journey to Emmaus, don’t we – at least sometimes? Don’t we all – at least sometimes – get so surrounded with sadness and pessimism that we find the report of the empty tomb difficult to square with how we experience the world?

Don’t we live in a world “where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another, and people hatch murderous plots, and dead people stay dead”?2

We believe there was an empty tomb some two thousand years ago – that’s the easy part to believe despite all the hoopla of skeptics, but do we really believe the tomb is still empty today? Deep down, do we really believe in our heart that Christ is still vindicated? That his way really still is the way today?

Isn’t it a big waste of time to bother feeding the hungry, relieving the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and visiting the prisoners, when there just keep being more hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned people? What difference does it make?

Isn’t it just plain silly and naïve to resist evil with love? Isn’t it frankly ridiculous to pretend that Christ’s armor of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and word of God is any match for the evil of this world? Seriously, who wants to sleep with the sword of the Spirit under your pillow when the intruder’s got an actual gun?! Who fights bullets by quoting Scripture? Only those who are still foolish enough to believe that the tomb is still empty, that Jesus is still alive, and that his Way is still vindicated for his followers.

Unlikely Reports
Of course, Cleopas and his companion cannot yet believe it either as they travel along the Emmaus road. Their Messiah, the “bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises of old,”3 the very revelation and incarnation of God, their hope for the redemption of Israel, has been publicly shamed and cruelly executed. The hope and truth once pulsing strong within his heart has been finally beaten out by the corrupt powers of the world. So as they journey along, they no are no doubt discussing the cross, this “monument to the sadness they felt in the soul, a confirmation of the cruel truth”4 that death finally has the last word over everything good and true and beautiful.

They were walking, as the Psalmist once put it, “through the valley of the shadow of death.” In that valley, Jesus draws near and journeys with them, yet in the valley’s shadows, they cannot even recognize Jesus, and there they stop with their faces downcast. There they tell their grief-filled story of how Jesus of Nazareth, the great prophet, their hope for the redemption of Israel, was condemned by the fearful and crucified by the mighty.

Even the report of the empty tomb and the message that Jesus is alive are not enough to deliver them from Friday’s valley of shadows. It is merely a report. And in a world of relentless plotting and dashed hopes, reports alone cannot redeem any downcast soul from the valley of shadows. The secondhand faith of others’ reports leaves one hungry. Not even the revelation of the scriptures, it seems, can raise these two companions to walk in newness of life by resurrection power

God’s “Yes”
The world had said “no” to Jesus; the empire despised his gospel; the religious system feared his way; the domination machine could not tolerate his liberating and prophetic truth, and lashed out with its final weapon. As far as anyone of any significance was concerned, the coroner had properly declared Jesus dead, the death certificate signed, the body wrapped in cloths and sealed securely in the tomb. . .

But what these two, Cleopas and his companion, for all their discussing, could not yet see, was the life-changing, creation-restoring, reality-altering story that can only be truly known through experience – that the tomb couldn’t hold the Lord of Life.

For God has said “Yes” to Jesus and his gospel and his way. God has said “yes” to the healing and wholeness embodied by Jesus, yes to the forgiveness and mercy offered by Jesus, yes to compassion and care for the vulnerable modeled by Jesus, yes to the grace, welcome, and hospitality practiced by Jesus, yes to the gospel of peace proclaimed by Jesus, and God has ordered the tomb unsealed and has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The tomb had been sealed, but it could not hold the Lord, for truth has risen from the grave, love has broken the power of hate, salvation has triumphed over corruption!

Yet for Cleopas and his companion and all of us travelers of the Emmaus road, Friday’s deathly valley continues to overshadow Sunday’s gardens of hope. What’s a report about some empty tomb worth in a world of tactical nuclear warheads, terrorist plots, homes and lives fractured by the violence sin does, multi-billion-dollar international corporations, grinding injustice, and global disregard for God’s good creation? Our eyes behold no hope emerging on this world’s horizon, no new creation rising from the deep oceans of chaos. We see no “risen conq’ring Son.”

Joined to the Risen Lord
But seeing with open eyes is an odd thing. Sometimes it means catching sight of the eternal in the ordinary. For the two companions, there were no bolts of lightning or burning bushes. There was just a fellow journeyer along the road, a study of the Scriptures, and it was finally the breaking of bread around the table that revealed the Risen Lord.

These two disciples surely picked up on that same cadence that catches our ears: Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. They knew it was Jesus because breaking bread in table fellowship was what Jesus did from the early days in Galilee to the last supper in Jerusalem. The resurrection becomes more than a report about an empty tomb when the life and actions of Jesus continue in the present time.

The breaking of bread is for us, of course, a sign of communion, the Lord’s Supper, something we do in remembrance of Jesus as we together become the physical manifestation of the body of the Crucified-and-Risen Christ in the world. It’s a sign that we are being joined to one another and to the Risen Lord, that we no longer live, but Christ lives within us, or as Menno Simons liked to put it, that we are “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.”

As those who break bread with the Risen Lord with opened eyes – as those who are joined to him as his very own body through the baptism of his death and the power of his resurrection, we can do no other than to live as he lived and to make our journey with him by the power of the resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.

We greet the Risen Lord when the gospel story becomes enacted in our lives as his body. Because God has said yes to Jesus, the resurrection calls us to live and die for what Jesus lived and died for. The resurrection calls upon us to decide to care about the things Jesus cared about, for the stories he told to find their home in our voices, for his Way to guide our feet.

The resurrection calls upon us to join the mission Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord – not just because it’s the right thing to do in God’s eyes, but also because the empty tomb reminds us that therein lies true power and wisdom.

And when we see that happening, then friends, we know that we have seen none other than the Risen Lord himself.

Christ has Risen! Christ is Risen!”
Then our eyes are opened; then we remember and give voice to that which burns within us as we encounter Jesus in our ancient scriptures. “The early communities of Jesus’ followers never thought they were simply remembering a Jesus of the past, however important his memory was to them. They believed Jesus to be alive—now! More, they believed him to be present with them through the Spirit, that is, through the living presence of God in their midst.”5

And we simply cannot keep the presence of the Risen Lord to ourselves. Our hearts burn to share what we ourselves have seen. Just as the disciples all gathered together to share what had happened, so our witness and confession of the good news begins with one another. For without our gathering together for worship and Sunday School and service, the empty tomb remains just a report.

And this is a confession we share with the whole world – perhaps the church’s oldest confession – “Christ has risen!” “We have seen the Lord!”

Every time we say, “Christ is risen,” we aren’t just making a historical statement. We bear witness to the hope that we live in a world where the violent, the powerful, and the rich do not have the last word after all, where the myth of redemptive violence is only a myth, where love rises victorious from hate’s tomb, where the dawn of peace is breaking upon rebellion’s long, dark night, where sin and death are cast down, where God really is making all things new. And we testify that we live in a world where not even the threat of death can be wielded against the onslaught of Christ’s cross-and-resurrection life and love.

And every time we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” we aren’t just quoting scripture. In a world where Caesar is the only Lord, this is a dangerous pledge of allegiance. It is a decision to repent and turn to Jesus, to obey his command and follow him in life and in death. And we also say “no” to the powers of the world that crucified him. We say no to their deceit, their rebellion and sin, their fear, and their violence; and we say “yes” to Jesus. We say yes to following his Way even unto a death like his; we say yes to his love, even of enemies; we say yes to repentance, yes to forgiveness, yes to truth, yes to the goodness of God’s creation; and even when the cave of despair is closing around us and the stones of suffering are sealing us in, we say yes to hope, because God already has.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t feel pain or walk through the valley of the shadow of death; doesn’t mean that we don’t have long nights of suffering, just as Jesus himself did, but the Risen Jesus has drawn near to journey with us in the land of shadows, to raise us to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection. He has been made known to us in the breaking of bread and wherever his life and love finds its beautiful expression in the community of God’s children.

And because he lives, we know, we trust, we believe that he really is Lord of all of life, that his way really is the way, and his gospel is power to save. I close with one of my favorite stories of the surprising power of the way of the Risen Lord, so much different from the stories we hear of the ways of the world:6

Welcoming the Enemy
Sarah Corson was a missionary to South America who helped to establish churches and technology centers in local villages. Elections in the country had just been held, but the military who had just come to power did not agree with the results. They suspected Americans living in the country of tampering with the results. There were many disappearances and outright deaths.

One evening about thirty soldiers rushed the missionary team’s house. Sarah was very afraid, but she prayed for faith and courage, that she would trust in God, and she suddenly sensed God with her. She raised her voice and said, “You’re all welcome. Everyone is welcome in this house.” At that, the commander put his gun to her stomach as his men searched the house for weapons.

Turning on her, he said, “What are you Americans doing here? You must be trying to stop our revolution.” Sarah responded that her team was there to teach self-help projects to the local women and to teach the Bible.

The commander looked perplexed, saying that he had never read the Bible. Sarah picked up a Spanish Bible and opened it to the Sermon on the Mount. “We teach about Jesus Christ,” she said, “God’s Son who came into the world to save us. He also taught us a better way than fighting. He taught us the way of love. Because of him I can tell you that even though you kill me, I will die loving you because God loves you. To follow him, I have to love you too.”

The commanding soldier read the paragraph captions: “Jesus teaches love your enemies,” and “return good for evil.”

“That’s impossible,” he burst out. “True, sir,” Sarah answered. “It isn’t humanly possible, but with God’s help it is possible.”

“I don’t believe it,” he said.

“You can prove it,” Sarah said. “I know you came here to kill us. If you do, we will die praying for you because God loves you, and we love you too.”

The soldier lowered his gun. “I could have fought any amount of guns you might have had,” he said, “but there is something here I cannot understand. I cannot fight it.”

The soldiers returned the following Sunday for worship. The congregation had lost many people to these soldiers, but with effort they welcomed them. One of the elders said, “Brother, we do not like what you have done in our village, but God loves you, and you are welcome here.”

Upon leaving, the soldier said, “I have fought many battles and killed many people. It was nothing to me. It was my job to exterminate them. But I never knew them. This is the first time I ever knew my enemy face to face, and I believe that if we knew each other, our guns would not be necessary.”

The story, I believe, would be no less amazing had the soldiers chosen their usual course of action. May it be so with us as well are we are join the journey of the Risen Lord. Amen.

Notes:
1 Also Rom. 6, 8; 1 Cor. 15:26, 54-57; Hebrews 2:14; Eph. 2:16; Revelation 20:14; 21:4
2 Thomas Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion Series, 322.
3 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, 111.
4 Thomas Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion, 322.
5 Thomas Yoder Neufeld, “Jesus and the Bible” in Jesus Matters, 53.
6 Adapted from Sarah Corson, “Welcoming the Enemy,” in What Would You Do?, 111-119.

My Lord and My God

May 24th, 2011 No comments

“My Lord and My God” (John 20:19-31)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
May 1, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Mary had seen the risen Lord! And she had been commissioned by Christ to go and tell Jesus’ other disciples as the first apostle sent by God to proclaim the good news. She ran to tell them of her encounter, and to relay to them all that she had seen and heard. And yet here we still find them in the upper room, behind closed doors. One wonders what thoughts were running through their heads. No doubt they were recounting all that had happened in the past week. It already seemed like ages ago that Jesus had come triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey, then the breaking of bread in the upper room, Jesus’ words of love and peace in the garden, and Jesus’ promise of another Advocate, followed by his betrayal and arrest and trial, all leading up to the worst day… the tragedy to end all tragedies, when time seemed to stand still, and the sun’s very light failed, and it seemed as though God’s command, “Let there be light” would never be true again. For it seemed to them as though the light, the true light, that had come into the world, had finally been extinguished by the powers of darkness and shadow.

So that night on the first day of the week they hid in the dark, behind closed doors in the upper room, trembling in fear. So many of them had fled on the night that he was arrested out of fear that they too would have to suffer and be painfully executed alongside the One they had followed all this time. Perhaps they had watched from a distance weeping as Jesus breathed his last and yet secretly grateful that they themselves were still alive. Yet would the Jewish authorities finally catch up with them? Would the same horrific end that befell their teacher and master, the painful fate they had hoped to avoid, now befall them? Thus they huddled together, terrified, in the darkness and descending shadows of the upper room.

And yet… now there was a glimmer of hope, a faint light at the end of the darkened tunnel, for this very day Mary told them she had seen the risen Lord. Could it be true, they wondered? Could they believe this incredible testimony? Would the light once again shine in the darkness?

And thus the find themselves not knowing what to believe, caught between their crippling fear and their desire that Mary’s words could some how, miraculously, be true.

And this is precisely where the risen Lord meets them, in their deep fear and confusion and pain. And before they can even wonder to themselves, “How angry will he be with us for falling away?” Jesus comes and speaks words, not of frustration, not of anger, not of scolding, but words of comfort, words of hope, words of deep love. “Peace be with you.” At a time of their deepest despair, Jesus comes and stands in their midst and speaks peace into their fear and their pain.

And lest there be any doubt yet, he shows them his hands and his side for the risen Lord still bears the marks of what the world has done to him; and they see it is indeed the very same One who they had walked alongside and who had taught them. The One who was dead is now alive again; death no longer holds him captive; death has lost its sting. And now with the resurrected Messiah standing in their midst, the disciples can rejoice in what God has done and they no longer have to be afraid. The light still shines in the darkness for the darkness has not overcome it! The world had lashed out with its final and ultimate weapon but God was the One who has triumphed! God is the One with the final victory! Not even the threat of death can make them afraid any longer for God had conquered even death itself!

And once again Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you;” words of comfort, words of hope, words of love, words to banish any possible remaining trace of unbelief, darkness, and fear. And it is then, after Jesus has extinguished their fears and their unbelief, that the true Light commissions them to go and for they themselves to be light to the world. Just as God has sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples. The disciples are sent out into the world that God so loves to seek for the light which enlightens everyone1, the inner light that shines within each person, whether it be a flickering candle or a blazing fire, and to witness to that inner light in Spirit and in truth so that all may come to know and believe that Jesus is Lord of all.

And just as Jesus had promised to them, they are given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, to be with them forever, which will be with them and will be within them wherever they go. This is the Spirit of Truth that will remind them of all that Jesus has told to them, and who will give them words to speak when no words come to mind, and who will intercede for them with sighs to deep for words.

Jesus gives the Holy Spirit when he breathes upon them, just as the One who was in the beginning breathed life into the very first human created from the dust of the earth. The disciples have become a new creation. Not only have they been sent, but they have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, transformed by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. Those who are in Christ have become a new creation! A new creation sent to proclaim the good news of the resurrected Messiah, a new creation commanded to love as God has so loved us, a new creation empowered to forgive, a new creation called to be light in the darkness.

And thus sent, with the Holy Spirit going with them, they go and proclaim the good news of the risen Lord to Thomas, who for whatever reason was not with them when Jesus came and stood in their midst. Yet he did not believe based upon the testimony of his fellow disciples; he still found himself locked behind the doors of his own fear, his own anguish, his own pain; and his fear had blinded him. And he responded saying that he could not believe that this One had been raised from the dead unless he put his fingers in the nail prints and his hand in his pierced side. And for this unbelief, he has been labeled as “Doubting Thomas” and has been cast in a negative light by Christian commentators throughout the centuries. Yet one wonders if we have been a little too harsh on Thomas. After after all, they were claiming that a man had been raised from the dead in a world where it was clear that the dead stayed dead. And was he being so unreasonable to ask for proof that such a miracle had happened? Everyone else who believed had seen the risen Lord. Mary had seen the stone rolled away. Peter and the beloved disciple had seen the linen wrappings lying there and the empty tomb and they believed after they saw these things. Mary had seen two angels in white and she heard the risen Lord speak her name and she believed. Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, and showed them his hands and his side, almost as if they themselves needed proof that it was indeed the One who was crucified who now stood before them, and after they had seen these things they rejoiced. Why was it expected that Thomas would need anything less?

And 8 days later, Jesus does show himself to Thomas, for this is still one whom he loves, even in his unbelief; just as Jesus still loved the other disciples, even though most of them had fallen away. And Jesus meets Thomas where he is in the midst of his unbelief, by saying the words that he needs to hear and showing him the things that he needs to see; just as he met the other disciples where they were when he came and stood in the midst of their fear and pain, and in the surrounding darkness.

We do not know if Thomas ever touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands or whether he placed his hand in his pierced side, for the text doesn’t say. But we do know that when he saw the risen Lord standing before him, when he encountered the presence of the resurrected Messiah, just as the other disciples had, he believed; where once there was doubt, there is now faith in the resurrected Lord. And it is Thomas who makes the most climactic statement about who Jesus is when he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” For it is only in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection that one can see him for who he truly is: the One who was in the beginning with God is also God himself.

And the ones who have seen the risen Lord know this, but blessed also are those who have not seen and yet believe that Jesus is Lord. No doubt this was recorded for those who did not see firsthand the signs performed by Jesus, for those who did not hear firsthand the words that he spoke, for those who did not see the empty tomb or who did not hear the risen Lord speak their name. It was recorded for all who still find themselves locked behind doors of their own fear or doubt or hopelessness or pain. It is recorded for all of us who believe even though we have not seen.

And yet… the ironic thing is that we do see the power of the risen Lord, even though perhaps our eyes are sometimes clouded by our own fear and doubt. For the power of the resurrection is not just a one time event, but one that continues to break into the world that God so loves. We see this whenever we see anyone say Yes to Jesus’ way of love, hope, and peace and No to the violent and hate-filled ways of the powers of this world that crucified him, whenever we see anyone pray for the ones who have persecuted them, whenever anyone loves as Jesus has loved, even in laying down their lives for another. The power of the resurrected Lord is still at work in the world if we only have eyes to see. Where have you experienced this power in your own life? Where have you felt Jesus’ presence in your midst?

May we watch for the risen Christ among us so that we may continue to believe. For “Belief” in the Gospel of John is always a verb, it is always active, it is always continual. It is not something we have, but something we do, something that shapes us and shapes our actions, it is something that enables our ears to hear and our eyes to see.

And even when we find ourselves locked behind the doors of our own fear and unbelief and pain and hopelessness, Jesus comes and stands in our midst and speaks peace to us and breathes new life into our midst. For we, like Jesus’ first disciples, have also been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the One who goes with us. We too, like Jesus’ first disciples, have been transformed into a new creation for Jesus continues to breathe new life into our midst to transform us. We too, like Jesus’ first disciples have been sent to proclaim the good news of the risen Lord.

May we, like Mary, run to tell others of all that we have seen and heard. May we, like Thomas proclaim, “My Lord and my God” whenever we see the power of the risen Lord at work in our lives and in the world around us. May we, who have the Spirit within us, go and be light in the world that God so loves, each of us as a “holy and brilliant flame, each in our own way, breathing love and peace… in the midst of fear and pain and hopelessness.”2 For just as God sent Jesus, so God sends us this day and every day, with the Holy Spirit going with us, empowering us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. Alleluia! Amen.

Notes:
1 John 1:9.
2 Kathryn Huey, SAMUEL.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

First Light (Resurrection)

February 16th, 2011 No comments

“First Light (Resurrection)” (John 20:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
November 28, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

“It was still dark”

It was still dark that morning when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, John says. A real, deep, persistent darkness surrounded her. If there was one word you could use to describe those three days, it would have to be “dark.”

Mary Magdalene had been there, of course, on Golgotha, standing near the cross, when the sun was darkened, and darkness had covered the whole earth, as though every promise ever made had failed, as though hope was lost to the oblivion of sin and rebellion, as though everything that was had ceased to exist, as though everything that was made had been unmade, as though the world were completely formless and void and purposeless, as though the powers of darkness that so easily ensnare us had finally managed to undo everything that ever had been, finally canceling out the very last remnant of the promise in those very first words, “Let there be light,” as the Light of the World was finally snuffed out by the sins of the world. Darkness.

Yes, it was still a dark world indeed that early morning, that Sunday, that first day of the week, a world even as as dark and chaotic and empty and void as it was on that first first day, before the voice of the Almighty began in all, with the words, “Let there be light.” The seven demons who had made Mary the Magdalene a prisoner in her own body (cf. Luke 8:2) were no doubt still delighting in their victory over the great Healer, the Light of the World.

That morning, that dark morning, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and saw in the darkness with unseeing eyes that the stone had been removed.

Waking up to darkness

That’s the story we woke up to this morning, is it not? We stepped out into the world this morning, knowing the darkness that is still within us, our rebellion, our submission to sin, our suffering, our conceit and our fear. We got up this morning, and it was still a dark world.

When the alarm went off, we all woke up to a world where prisons are getting bigger and churches are getting smaller; where deceit is still more profitable than honesty; where retaliation is more politically persuasive than grace and forgiveness; where children still cry over the wounds inflicted on them by adults; where children are still malnourished and billionaires are still getting richer; where people still look to one another with murderous, vindictive hearts.

We all woke up this morning, reminded by the idealism of the Holiday season, of the darkness in our own homes and family systems; of decades-old arguments buried but never settled; of unjust expectations and disappointments; of resentment over things small and large; of cutoff and estrangement.

This morning, we got up to all this darkness, sealed into our tombs of despair. We came to church this very same morning, and we are supposed to join Mary Magdalene in believing our eyes when they tell us that the stone has actually been removed from the tomb.

Now I don’t think it’s out of negativity or ill will that even after seeing the empty tomb, we also turn away and follow Mary’s pathway of despair to Peter and to the other disciple, ironically worried about misplaced corpses.

It’s just so easy to get disoriented in all the darkness; it’s so easy to get preoccupied with chasing around dead bodies and broken relationships and declining numbers and frenzied lives and old wineskins that we forget to open our minds to the new possibilities and new ideas and ways of thinking; indeed, to new life.

We forget to open our minds to the possibility and promise of the open tomb and to look for the risen Lord, but instead, we run off with despair into this dark, dark world, in search of a corpse. Because when it comes right down to it, open tombs just don’t belong in the dark and jaded world we woke up to.

From one grave to the next

And isn’t that the problem with this story of salvation throughout the Bible that we’ve been telling? Remember how the story goes? God acts to save Noah from the flood, but Noah wakes up to a world that’s still dark the next morning, cast down in his own drunkenness and nakedness. God calls Abraham and Sarah out of a bleak future, but Abraham still wakes up to a dark world as he passes his wife off as his sister. God leads the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but the next day is darkened by idolatrous scheming.

That dark, early morning, Mary Magdalene finds herself in the most recent chapter of that story: God acts to save, but the next day people find themselves once again lost and wandering in the dark night. Light and hope may come into the world for a time, but it all just ends up in one grave or another eventually. Is the tomb ever really unsealed, or is it just an optical illusion, a temporary opiate that soon gives way to the way things really are?

Mary Magdalene, in her grief, she knew the story too well to be fooled this time; she knew that it was just a case of the corpse moving from one grave to the next. Not even worth bothering to look in the tomb. Each time you come to the open tomb, it just means someone has laid the corpse elsewhere. Any time there’s a ray of hope, we know that we have only but to wait for the other shoe to drop.

After all, in a world utterly devoid of light, in a world where empty tombs are just one false hope after another, believing is merely an exercise in vanity, a numb re-enactment of futile posturing. To paraphrase Paul, in a world where empty tombs are just road signs to find the dead elsewhere, our faith is in vain, and we are still in our sins, and we who believe are of all people most to be pitied for our naivete, our wasted Sunday mornings, our meaningless labor and empty sacrifice in a dark world that’s only getting darker.

First Light

And so Mary Magdalene, grieved and distraught and confused, did the only thing she could do: she dashed off into the night, hoping to find help. A footrace later finds Peter and the Beloved Disciple back at the tomb, peering into the tomb, and finally entering it.

Now if you’d have taken a break from all the commotion and chaos and urgent footraces that morning, if you’d have paused just to watch, you’d have noticed something else happen. Sometime that morning, twilight began to emerge, and then the first light of dawn scattered the chaotic darkness of the night sky. Sometime that morning, against every notion of plausibility; sometime that morning, contrary to the very last drop of the totality of the world’s wisdom; sometime that morning, the ancient words, “Let there be light,” once again graced the universe, and won a new day.

In the light of the new day of the new first week, to their surprise, Peter and the other disciple saw the burial cloths rolled up. “They saw nothing but a vacant tomb with two piles of clothes in it. They saw nothing but emptiness and absence, in other words, and on that basis, at least one of them believed, although neither of them understood.”1 However feeble, light had broken the darkness.

Found in the dark

As the two leave, we once again join Mary standing, weeping, still outside the tomb. Yet this time as she stooped to peer into the tomb, she was not greeted again by despair and cold darkness, but two angels in white.

The question that comes from the angels is, strangely, not the expected triumphal proclamation of Easter morning skits, “He is not here, but has arisen!” It is, rather, the simple question, the same question with which Jesus himself greets her, “Why do you weep?”

I’ve heard it said that the best preaching and teaching is that which helps listeners discover what the Spirit has been saying to them all along. The question leads Mary Magdalene straight into the heart of her darkness: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

I do not know.” At that confession, she turned backward and saw Jesus standing there. There at the tomb, there in the heart of all the darkness, there at the depth of her own grief and darkness, that was where she turned backward to see Jesus.

The one who 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,2 to enable us to see the world as it really is – not an endless string of false hopes, crucifixions, and graves, but as God’s beloved creation even now becoming new in resurrection power.

New Creation: Meeting the Master Gardener

You see, maybe Mary Magdalene’s perception wasn’t actually so far off when she mistook Jesus for the gardener. For there, that morning, on that first day, as the Light of the world who was in the beginning, in the Garden with God once again scattered the darkness and chaos, there, in that timeless garden, she was no longer east of Eden, for she was face-to-face with the Master Gardener.

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 under Christ’s feet, where there is healing and hope and joy, where the long, dark night is finally broken by the dawn from on high.

Mary Magdalene was standing in the dominion of the long-expected Messiah, the hopes and dreams of the prophets, the realization of God’s promises of old. On this, the first day of the new week of the new world, Mary Magdalene had finally entered “the moment of sunrise after the long night. . . It was the beginning of the new creation.”3

In this season of awaiting and celebrating the birth of the Christ-child, we also celebrate the birth of God’s new world, which burst upon the old order as Jesus emerged triumphant from the grave. In the old wordplay (and fitting for this season), the tomb became a womb, giving birth to God’s glorious new creation of justice, forgiveness, relationship, hope, and peace. Even as we await the birth of the Christ-child, so also do we await the full realization of God’s new creation, which has already burst upon the world.

Hang onto Friday or choose Sunday?

But what of the darkness? Will we not, with Mary Magdalene, wake to it tomorrow. Will the promise of the garden not be erased by the darkness of tomorrow’s grave? Well, as you remember, when Mary heard her name, she turned and said to Jesus, “Teacher!”

Here Mary has finally discovered the truth of Jesus, here she finally really does see, here she finds her friend from Friday, here she finally recognizes the old Jesus she had known. Yet as she moves to embrace him, Jesus brushes her aside. “Do not hold on to me,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

“Teacher,” you see, was Jesus’ Friday name, but now it is Sunday; now the old has passed away; now a new age has begun; now creation is being renewed. Yet Mary Magdalene was still holding on to what had been.

How much do we hold on to the familiar, how much do we hold on to the darkness of Friday instead of risking the uncertainty of Sunday’s dazzling light? How often do we choose to hold on to the old, the dark, the grave, instead of embracing the new thing that God is doing? How often do we choose to keep digging more graves?

Friday is just so much easier to choose – so much easier to continue choosing resentment over reconciliation, so much easier to to choose the tools of violence over the the peace of the cross, so much easier to choose to submit to sin instead of new life. But however much easier it is to choose, Friday nevertheless always ends the same way.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t being harsh and rude. Maybe he wasn’t ignoring Mary Magdalene’s grief. Maybe Jesus was breaking the old cycles, where each empty tomb just leads to another grave; maybe he was breaking that old cycle by not enabling this new creation to become tomorrow’s grave. Maybe the darkness was finally unable to overcome the light.

Called into the marvelous light

Were the story to end here, it would be enough. God has finally won the victory over sin, death, and the power of evil at work in the world. Jesus has been raised from the dead, that our sins may be forgiven, and we may be justified. God’s new order has been birthed into this world, a down-payment, stamp, seal, and guarantee of its ultimate completion. Jesus has met Mary in the grave and given her resurrection power to break the deathly cycle and to live a new life for him.

Yet the story does not end here.

“Go,” Jesus says. “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.

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.

So here is Mary Magdalene, and here are we as well, at the end of John’s gospel, dead to the power of sin and death, buried with Christ, yet also made alive by his resurrection power to live a new life, called out of the darkness and into the marvelous light, sent into the world this Advent to declare the gospel of the Risen Lord. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Notes:
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape from the Tomb,” in Christian Century (April 1, 1998), 339. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=640.
2 An image of repentance/return in the Scriptures.
3 N.T. Wright in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, co-authored by Marcus Borg and N.T Wright, 126.

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