Resurrection: past, present, future

Resurrection: past, present, future

a sermon from Easter 2011, on Jeremiah 31:1-6 and John 20:1-18


lleluia! Christ is risen! After the forty days of Lent, after telling the hard stories of Holy Week, after observing the story of the passion here on Good Friday, the doors have been thrown open and we can again proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

It isn’t proclaimed as a two thousand year old event that ended well, like a fairy tale or a myth that delivers a satisfying conclusion with a strong moral lesson, or a movie that includes a great surprise ending that people can talk about on the way back to the car. No, the resurrection of Christ is proclaimed as a past event that is also a present reality, and it will do its culminating work in our common future.

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We stand in a biblical tradition that has a deep sense of the flow of past into present toward the future, which is why we heard from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah for our first reading. Jeremiah is writing to a people in exile, to an Israel in captivity to a ruthless regime in a country far from home. They have no good reason to hope in anything, what with the desolation of their home country and the destruction of their beloved temple. Jeremiah, in fact, has written chapter after chapter after chapter of material warning them in the direst of terms that Israel as they had known it was an utterly failed project; that whatever faith they had once had in the security of nation, king and temple was pretty much worthless. Yet for all of the crankiness of his tone and the uncompromising character of his political, social and religious critique, midway through the collection of his writings he begins to sing a different song. Return is possible… not just possible, but inevitable. He writes of them now as a people “who survived the sword” and “found grace in the wilderness.” And now, the same Lord who brought grace to them in the wilderness of Babylonian prison ghettos is again on the move, to bring about a whole new thing.

Jeremiah never once reneges on his claim that Israel as they had known it was a failed project. It is just that the Israel God will now form from the ashes of their defeat will be a whole new thing; it will remember its past, it will be forged in the present, and it will be opened up to a brand new future. If they didn’t have the deep stories of where they’d been, they’d hardly recognize themselves in the mirror.

At the heart of the biblical story is this steady insistence that when carried in the hands of God what looks to be only defeat, loss and death is never merely that. Yes, there are real losses and real failures, and yes there is real death. But it will not have the final word.

As a Jewish woman and a student of rabbi Jesus, no matter how much of this she carried in her soul when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that Sunday morning she could hardly have been prepared for what she saw. The stone had been rolled away from the tomb, and so when she ran to find the disciples her message was one of fear and concern: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.”  It isn’t a message of hope, but rather of an appalled fear. This is the ultimate indignity… we’ll never know where he is buried.

As John tells the story, Peter and the other disciple—“the one whom Jesus loved,” which is usually taken to mean John himself—run to the tomb, and discover that not only is the body gone but the burial wrappings are still there, lying as if discarded. Scratching their heads, the two disciples return to where they had been staying, while Mary Magdalene stays put, weeping and locked in her grief. When she does summon the courage to look inside the tomb, she is met by two figures—angels, messengers—who ask her why she is weeping. Her head spins, none of this fits, they’ve stolen his body. She turns and sees yet another figure, who she assumes is the gardener, but then her head spins again as she recognizes him as Jesus. “Rabbouni” she cries, “Teacher!” You can almost imagine her leaping to embrace him, and to hold on to him like never before. He’s alive!

And then Jesus says a most remarkable thing. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” I used to think this a bit of a cold and emotionless response on his part; a kind of a denial of her need to take hold of him in the flood of emotions she must have been feeling. But I think there is something far more significant contained in that statement. Don’t try to lock me in to this moment, don’t try to freeze the story here. The story is still on the move, and there is more to be told. Now, go tell the others that the new chapter is being written right now, and that you are all to be a part of it.

“Do not hold on to me,” which I believe means that to try to lock things in at this one moment of apparent triumph is to turn discipleship and “The Way” into a mere religion. It is to take the story of the resurrection and to lock it into the context of that morning, that garden and those people. It is to treat it merely as something that happened two thousand years ago; a great ending to a hard story. It is to strip it of its present reality and of its unfolding future.

When Paul writes that “death no longer has dominion,” he doesn’t mean that death was conquered for Jesus alone. He means that death no longer has the final say in any of our lives, which means that not only is our own mortality recast—we just don’t have to live in fear of the fact that all of us are dying—but it also means that all of the losses and all of the struggles and all of the disasters of this life no longer define who we are.

When Paul writes of the resurrection of Jesus in terms of his being “the first fruits of those who have been raised from the dead,” he is essentially saying that when the stone was rolled from the door of the tomb, human life and human death was redefined for all of us and for all time. The doorway to the life which God has intended for us all along has been kicked open, and in the fullness of time we will stream through it in the most glorious, rag-tag parade imaginable. The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth some 2000 years ago has forever and is right now redefining the very nature of human life. And we live within the horizon of that promise.

Don’t hold on to me, Mary, because what you are bearing witness to is part of the long story of a people lost and refound. Don’t hold on to me, Mary, because as much as you’d love to have this moment cast in bronze and held forever in this garden, it isn’t going to be like that. Don’t hold on to me Mary, because now you too have to be a part of weaving the new story; run, tell the others. It is only beginning.

And so for us. When we proclaim with delight, “Christ is risen,” we can’t lock the story in the past, as a triumphant religious story that gets us past the somber tone of Good Friday. Don’t hold on to him in that way, but instead embrace the truth that we too are meant to be a part of the weaving of the new story. Run, tell the others. It is only beginning.


Jamie Howison

One Response to Resurrection: past, present, future

  1. Byron says:

    A fine sermon Jamie. Run …tell the others.

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