Our story takes place in a garden. There’s a woman and a man in a garden. Genesis begins with a woman and a man in a garden and it leads to death. John’s gospel, refashioning creation, has a woman and a man in a garden, but this time life triumphs over death. Resurrection power is creation power; creation power is resurrection power. In beginning God created the heavens and the earth. On Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead. Same God. Same power. Welcome to Easter![i]
So it was that Mary didn’t come to the garden expecting a resurrection. Like us she came expecting little, her mind cluttered with busy work, tending the grave, anointing the body, arranging the flowers. Mary is not an unbeliever; so far there’s nothing here to believe. Since Friday night, Mary has spent most of her time weeping uncontrollably. Whether she’s trying to eat dinner or just lying in the bed, she can’t stop crying. She has only left her room twice in the last three days – both times in the dark. She’s had so much trouble in her short life – she’s 22 years old – but since Friday night Mary estimates she’s been at least as desolate as any human south of Galilee except Jesus’ mother. Surely, Mary represents every woman whose life has been shattered by unspeakable violence. In the dark since Good Friday, Mary’s dreams had finally folded inside her in a tight knot riddled with pain.
Trying desperately to forget, hanging just as hard to her memories, Mary, inconsolable, approaches the tomb. What she sees jerks all breath from her lungs. The stone has been rolled away. Moving at a frantic, even more frightened pace, Mary leans down and peers into the cold tomb. Her face, as it enters the tomb, before her eyes can focus in the semi-darkness, hits sun-power warmth like she’s never felt before. Then, as if in a dream, she sees two messengers, clad from head to toe in white. No question about it. They are angels. “Woman why are you weeping?”
How odd she thinks. What’s with angels and men that they don’t get crying? Would we ask the widows and mothers of America, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Iraq – “Why are you weeping?” Would we ask the mothers of murdered children – “Why are you weeping?” Why is Mary weeping? Because they executed Jesus. She had watched it all; her eyes, opened wide as saucers, velcroed to the cross; her ears pierced by every word, taunt, cry of forsakenness. And now a pair of fancy angels. She backs away from the cave stammering that some ominous “they”, have taken away my Lord, and I do not know what they have done with his body. As she turns, she nearly trips over a man. Supposing the stranger to be the gardener, Mary mindlessly repeats her previous speech: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away!” The repetitiveness caused by grief shows how grief shuts off the oxygen to reason and will. Mindless repetition masks unbearable pain.
How many of us are stuck in the semi-darkness between death and Easter, between knowing and not knowing, between faith and something less? The longest journey in the world is that between not knowing and knowing. How many Christians naively assume that everyone just automatically believes in the resurrection as they do? How long will it take us to show compassion in these areas of belief that simply can’t be decided with pig-headed, dogmatic assertions? For many people, the resurrection seems too fantastic to believe. After all, we too have stumbled over Jesus, have even been attracted to him, maybe even joined his church, but it just hasn’t worked out so well. We can’t wrap our minds around the message of resurrection.
The resurrection produces a “conversion of the imagination” that causes us to understand everything else differently. Sarah Coakley claims that the resurrection of Jesus might bring about “a transformation of the believer’s actual epistemic apparatus.”[ii] I’m sure you didn’t get up this morning and come to Easter worship to hear me go on about “epistemic apparatus.” But go with it for a moment, because this phrase triggered the sermon for me. As an auditory learner, my mind and heart were energized as I walked around my office saying “actual epistemic apparatus.” It consists of everything that we have constructed in our mind and heart that helps us know what we know. It is the bundle of our intuitions, senses, reason, emotions, experiences, studies, dreams, and hopes that we use to help us know what we believe is real and true.[iii]
Origen said that believing in the resurrection requires a process of change, an initial ‘turning-around’ morally, then practice in seeing the world differently, then only finally the full intimacy of ‘spiritual/sensual’ knowledge of Christ.” I find myself in agreement with Origen.
Something like this occurs in the appearance of Jesus to Mary. And it happens in a moment, as if time stood still while Mary grappled with what had never happened before. The resurrection purges the death-bound illusions that previously held us captive and sets us free to perceive the real world of God’s life-giving resurrection power. The ways of knowing in this world are illusions. Ask the rich man who thought that life meant building bigger and better barns, a higher standard of living, a bigger salary. Ask him about his illusion.
Mary’s point of view has no room for resurrection. “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” She has a restricted vocabulary, restricted by history, or more accurately a bad reading of history: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” As it turns out, this is exactly what the enemies of Jesus wanted everyone to think. After Jesus was dead and buried, the authorities put together their public relations campaign. We will spread the word that the body was stolen from the grave. The conspirators of injustice always use propaganda to nail us to their death –dealing ways. And Mary, unknowing, has accepted what the world has constructed as real and true. Can you at least grant the same skepticism to the powers and principalities, to their motives and illusions that you often bring to bear on the truth claims of the gospel? Shouldn’t we have a hermeneutic of suspicion about the ways of death? There’s no knockdown argument that disproves resurrection. What the world calls truth, God labels propaganda. What the world calls wisdom, God calls ignorance. What the world calls power, God calls weakness. And God does this in Jesus Christ – the wisdom and the power of God.
So what happens? A woman and a stranger in a garden. The stranger speaks: “Mary!” And no doubt – the voice is Jesus, no doubt on Earth. The voice that taught her to love and forgive. The voice that commanded demons to be silent. The voice that pulled Lazarus from the grave. The voice is Jesus – no doubt on Earth.
We, of course, can say that Jesus doesn’t call us by name. I suggest that we know the voice of Jesus through Scripture. “But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:21-22). “For as yet the disciples did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Jesus said to the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong” (Mark 12:18-23). When Jesus chastised the disciples on the Road to Emmaus for not believing in the resurrection, he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (Luke 24:25). Reading Scripture in the light of the resurrection produces an epistemological transformation, a new way of seeing the reality. Abraham tells a rich man: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Mary’s fear evaporates like fog on a coffin lid struck by sunlight. A sudden thought invades her mind, filling it to all four corners – Maybe he’s done what he said. Look closely and see her blue-depressed eyes turn brown. See her face alive again, the drawn lines of grief slowly fading to smooth skin and sheer joy, her heart opening like morning glory bathed in light.
Everything changes in this moment. Mary makes room for the reality of a dead man raised from the grave. Faith begins with the acceptance of the possibility of the new, the probability that life can come from death.
Whether quickly or gradually, I pray that this resurrection witness will be yours and that you will join your voices to the multitudes who have been transformed by the power of resurrection.
Dear friends, we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life. I call upon you, therefore, now that our Lenten observance has ended, to renew the solemn promises and vows of Holy Baptism, by which we once renounced Satan and all his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy Church.
[i] A word of background: Remember that John writes his gospel in a world that has no categories for resurrection. Remember that Paul proclaims resurrection to a skeptical world – his testimony before Agrippa is the most telling example: I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: “that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” Paul appeals to Agrippa to believe the gospel. Agrippa says, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul replies, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.” I believe that I belong to this apostolic succession of resurrection preachers and I pray that all who are listening might become believers in Jesus.
[ii] Sarah Coakley, “The Resurrection and the ‘Spiritual Senses: On Wittgenstein, Epistemology, and the Risen Christ.” Ellen Davis and Richard Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture.
[iii] It is not easy changing one’s world view, philosophy, conventional wisdom, way of looking at and perceiving reality. Michel Foucault used the term episteme in his work The Order of Things to mean the strategic apparatus which permits us to separate out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be true or false.