Sharon R. Graff
Good morning! Yes, I can see by the looks on your faces that it must be very difficult for you to know what to believe about the resurrection of Jesus. You have four different accounts of the story. Each varies in the details and the sequence of events. None of them agree on which persons were present at the garden tomb. The two readings we have heard again today disagree on many details: one says that I went to the tomb with the other Mary; the other has me going alone. One includes a single angel messenger; the other has two angels sitting inside the tomb. One barely mentions the empty tomb at all; while the other has a detailed description of the grave cloths and the position of the angels. In one story the angel delivers the resurrection message, and in the other it is Jesus himself. One story is permeated by fear -- the guards were afraid, the angel said to not fear, we women are characterized as being filled with fear and Jesus is quoted as telling us to not be afraid. Much fear there is in Matthew’s version of the story. By contrast, John’s version seems layered with love -- the disciple whom Jesus loved, the look in Jesus’ eye when he calls me by my name, the word rabboni I used to respond to Jesus doesn’t just mean teacher, but it means my teacher, my teacher whom I love -- each of these descriptions point to the grace of resurrection. Yes, with all these inconsistencies, it must be difficult for you to know what to believe about the resurrection of Jesus.
I can assure you, it was not easy for me either to know what to believe -- and I was there at the tomb that morning.
I was there, along with Joanna, Salome, Mary the mother of Jesus and James, and the other women who had arrived in
just one week earlier. My name is Mary and I am a disciple of Jesus. I was born and raised in the small town of
on the northwest shore of the
Sea of Galilee
-- so I am sometimes called the “Magdalene,” referring to my place of birth.
Some months before our arrival in
, I had been healed by Jesus as he traveled through our territory up north. Wanting to show my deep gratitude for my new health, I joined the group of followers and supported them with my own money. While traveling with the group, I learned from Jesus right along with the other disciples; I healed, I taught, I went out with them, two by two, to spread the message of God’s love.
By the way, since I have the opportunity to speak with you this morning, I want to take a moment to dispel one unfortunate myth about myself. You may have heard somewhere along the way that I was a prostitute, an unclean woman whom Jesus allowed to touch him. When I first heard that rumor, which was concocted centuries after my life and death, I admit I was a bit peeved. Now I just laugh! No, I was never a prostitute, although apparently that rumor was created because I was a threat to the dominant culture! My extensive financial reserves were honestly acquired. However, both in my life and after, many people had difficulty with my closeness to Jesus. They just could not accept that Jesus accepted all, they refused to see that Jesus included all in his ministry, they feared a community of faith in which God’s radically inclusive love was the rule. Yes, it was a different time back then... I imagine that you no longer have that problem of people living their lives in fear and making their decisions based in fear!
Yet, as I ponder the events of that resurrection morning, it is apparent to me that I, too, lived in some fear. Yes, I was afraid when the earth shook under our feet. Yes, I was afraid to see angel visitors. Yes, I was afraid to see an open and empty tomb. Yes, I was even afraid to see my teacher, my beloved teacher Jesus. I must admit, it was my fear more than my joy that kept me running away from the tomb that early morning. My fear of being discovered... My fear of being locked up as a crazy rebel... My fear of leading the religious or political authorities to the group of fugitive disciples... My fear of innocently jeopardizing the future. To be honest, I was running scared from that tomb. Fear is powerful, and I felt penetrating fear that morning as powerfully as any earthquake.
But embedded in the stories we’ve heard again today, is the antidote to fear -- whether it be mine or yours. Entombed with the risen Jesus, entwined with his words to us, was a flicker of hope, a single image of future. Go to
, he said. Go to
: a punctuated, abbreviated way of saying to us and to you: Do not remain at the tomb, arguing questions of how many angels it took to roll away the stone. Do not remain at the tomb counting grave cloths. Do not remain at the tomb as if it alone holds the meaning to your own future. Look forward... Move forward. Do not remain at the tomb awaiting Jesus there. He is not there! He is risen and he will meet you, just as he promised. He will meet you, first in
, 100 miles or more from that tomb of death. So get going. Leave the tomb behind, where it belongs. Leave behind the fear; leave the tomb in peace, and move on in hope.
I have heard that, for people who are deeply fearful, the antidote for their fear lies in being able to first imagine a future. Perhaps that future is limited to the next minute, or the next hour, or even the next day or week. But it is an image of future that begins to invite hope to return. “Go to
” was, for us, such an image. With those simple directions, we could imagine a future even after the horror and finality of the crucifixion. With those words, “Go to
,” we could begin creating that future and working in that future, one step at a time, one mile at a time.
And, just as hope returns in your own life, so it did in mine. One step at a time, as I lived into that image of future, my fear began to be replaced by hope. The initial image of future embedded in the direction to go to
gave birth to other images of future, and they built, one upon the other, until we were no longer just a band of 20 or so disciples. We were and are a worldwide movement of the Spirit of God’s love -- permeating fears as large as death and transforming all fear into hope.
The transformation of my fear into hope was only the first of several life-changing changes brought about by the resurrection. Another was my own transformation of doubt into faith. Perhaps a more precise way of describing my transformation would be to say that the resurrection changed my limited ability to believe into a nearly limitless cauldron of faith. The change happened in a rather surprising way, for as I arrived at the tomb that morning, I expected to see an occupied place of death. I expected to see Jesus, dead, wrapped and lying in that tomb, an image of death in all its stark reality. But as you know, I did not see a tomb occupied by death, but rather one filled with heavenly life. I did not see a dead human body, but rather two very alive messengers. “What could have happened?” I wondered. “What can I believe about all this?” I cried inside. While I was painfully conscious of my own doubts that morning, it was not until years later that I realized the presence that morning of a growing and powerful faith as well. We saw what others failed to see. I experienced life... the life of my beloved teacher who had been dead. Even that morning, when I stood at the entrance of the tomb, I knew that Jesus lived, although I could not for the life of me tell you exactly how it had happened. Somehow Jesus was present and we saw him. Somehow Jesus appeared and I talked with him. Somehow his message of a future was transmitted to us women, and we ran to tell the other disciples who could not or did not or refused to see and to hear.
Resurrection Faith rested on me that morning... now I know that without question. What I also know is that my resurrection faith did not exist in merely believing that a dead body came back to life, or that the tomb was empty on Easter morning. Resurrection faith is not identical with affirming the historical facts of any of the distinctive resurrection stories. Resurrection faith does not arise, nor does it grow, on the basis of cold, hard evidence. Resurrection faith was born in me, and is birthed in each of us, on the basis of our experience of the presence of the risen Christ. One moment of certainty, one unforgettable experience, in a lifetime will suffice.
To be sure, resurrection faith can expand in us through the testimony of those to whom Jesus appeared -- so reading these resurrection stories is important and necessary. And resurrection faith continues, even 2,000 years later, by Christ’s own continuing presence among the disciples, through Jesus’ continuing direction within the community of faith. Resurrection faith offered us, just as it offers you, the joy that is necessary to sustain any movement of God’s Spirit of love. I have learned that resurrection faith makes possible listening to the doubts without judgment -- even when they are within our own spirit -- and gently, compassionately, transforms them into a wellspring of faith that knows life is God’s gift that never ends.
Hope in a future, resurrection faith that transforms doubt... these paved the way for me as I traveled from the empty tomb to the ministry that needed us. It was a ministry of love, a ministry formed and shaped and given life by the love Jesus expressed to each person he met. We had seen it. We had been changed by that love, and I imagine that you have as well. We knew, from having walked and talked with Jesus of Nazareth, that God’s love in action was the strongest force in the world. Stronger than any army, mightier than any empire, more compelling than any dictator -- elected or otherwise -- we knew that the love of God was, in fact, the only force that could transform apathy into justice and compassion... only love, the embodied love of God, could motivate a person to move beyond themselves and to work for the good of all.
When Jesus met me near the tomb that morning, and lovingly looked into my tearful eyes, his gaze changed the seed of apathy within me into a tree of loving-kindness that could barely be contained! I knew I was loved, and in that moment of recognition when I heard Jesus call me by my name, I abandoned apathy, I left behind fear, I resisted doubt, and I turned toward my teacher with loving expectancy. This moment of pure joy, of intimate love, was not the end of my story. No, it was for me a new beginning... a resurrection that extended from the tomb, a resurrection that embraced me in the garden, a resurrection that also invites you into its grasp. Such love knows no fear. Such love meets any apathy you can dish out -- it provides you and me with the energy to be part of a relevant movement of God’s love -- meeting apathy as vacant as the Easter tomb and transforming it into love that never fails.
So, do not remain at the tomb -- either physically or spiritually -- as if the tomb itself was a museum worthy of frequent visits. It is not. The tomb is nothing more than an empty container, no longer necessary. The tomb has served its purpose, and now it is time for you and I to move on. Yes, we gather today to celebrate and to remember and perhaps even to question and to ponder. But if we remain there, embroiled in our questions about what happened in that tomb, then fear and doubt and apathy will have won the victory. The risen Jesus, the living Christ calls us into a different future... a future not of fear but of hope, a future not of doubt but of faith, and a future not of apathy but of love... a future that is NOW... a future with a place on a map... a future into which the Risen One accompanies us.
Years later, the apostle Paul and my friend and partner in the ministry of Jesus, would write of the resurrection experience. “Faith, hope, love... ” he wrote to the Corinthians, “... there are these three gifts given us by God... and the greatest of these is love.”
I say to you this morning, my new friends in Christ, from the tomb of death, we are called to move on with purpose, we are called to travel with hope, we are called to journey in faith, and we are called to do all we do in and because of love. So go now, leave the tomb, Christ beckons you and travels with you to