Don’t miss the Resurrection!
It is possible to do that, you know. Like poking around in high grass for creatively hidden Easter eggs, hunting for what really happened on that Sunday morning long ago is bound not to turn up much. That is no way to find the Resurrection. In fact, it might even be the best way to miss it.
Like many things that we puzzle over, stand in awe of, find ourselves totally overwhelmed by—things that defy easy belief and yet also persist beyond easy dismissal—Jesus’ resurrection is not so much complex as it is totally at odds with anything we would ordinarily expect. We can understand the physics of tsunamis and appreciate the behavior of sub-atomic particles. We can document the appearances of ghosts and the occasional resuscitation of a corpse. But the resurrection is one of a kind. Ghosts do not eat and drink. And resuscitated corpses do not pass in and out of rooms at will. So all of our stories about the resurrection of Jesus point to its uniqueness. Little wonder that we often don’t know quite what to do with it. And even less wonder that in trying to make sense of it we are likely to ask the wrong questions and look in the wrong places for answers.
To make matters more interesting, we have not one or two but four—count them—accounts, not to mention what you might call a very personal account that we owe to the Apostle Paul. Each account is different, though quite clearly they stem from traditions more ancient than the gospels themselves. The story we hear today is from the pen of the Fourth Evangelist. It is in some ways the most detailed. Its account of the encounter between the grieving Mary Magdalene and the Risen Jesus is among the loveliest stories of all, simply as story. We can almost feel the early morning darkness, imagine the sounds of Mary weeping, sense her shock and surprise when she hears him call her name, picture her reach for him and his drawing back saying, “Do not hold me.” The scene is, in fact, so clear and the story so artfully told that for a minute or two, we can put aside our hunt for the meaning of the resurrection and simply relish the scene.
But our scene comes from John the Evangelist, not John the novelist or John the producer. His aim is to evoke the response of faith—belief—not to garner a Pulitzer Prize or an Oscar. And for John, “belief” is not just intellectual agreement that a resurrection took place and all that goes with it, but a giving of heart and soul to Jesus. Belief for John is the key to connecting with the Risen Lord. John has in mind that other disciple, the Beloved Disciple, the one who, though not the first to go itno the tomb, is the first to see and believe: he is the model for you and me.
We are beginning to get close to what the Resurrection is all about. Notice that the people to whom Jesus appears (like Mary Magdalene) and the people who have not yet seen him (Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and the other nine) are Jesus’ community. That is key. The Risen Lord does not waste time, so to say, appearing to those who never believed in him in the first place. No episodes recount an appearance to Pontius Pilate, to the Sanhedrin, to the Roman soldiers who a chapter ago mocked him with purple robe and crown of thorns. The resurrection is not about proving anything, still less about validating Jesus’ life and miracles. It is about the creation of a community that—to borrow a phrase from St. Paul—will be his body in the world. “By this all shall know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says during his last supper, “that you love one another. As I have loved you, you are to love one another.” And the point of that, of course, is not that the community of disciples simply be a little fraternity enjoying their own special bonding rituals, but to become an ever-widening circle of believers that lay down their lives for the world, who follow Jesus to the cross, who risk all to live the paradox that letting go of their safety and security will assure their lives, while clinging to the familiar is a sure way to lose them.
The Resurrection that draws us here to celebrate today is less about what happened to Jesus than it is about what happens to us through Jesus. The surest way to miss the Resurrection is to confine it to stained glass and lock it up in tabernacles thinking that somehow we honor Jesus by according him a status so special that he could not possibly be emulated, so far from us that we could not possibly follow him let alone catch up with him. The Fourth Gospel is quite clear that Jesus’ entire ministry, the point of his death, the thrust of his glorification was to become the source of life to his community. Jesus prayed, “As you, Abba, are in me and I am in you, may they [the community of believers] also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one,…”
And why does the community exist? So that the world may believe. And if the world believes, truly believes, then the boundary between community and world gradually disappears. The goal of the community is to draw the whole world into itself, just as Jesus, when he was lifted high upon the cross, did exactly that: he drew the whole world to himself. So the circle gets wider and wider as more and more people are drawn into the community of Beloved Disciples. The community that mirrors Jesus’ self-giving love becomes nuanced enough that it is no more bound by definitions of “church” or “institution” than the Body of the Risen Lord is confined by locked doors. The community, empowered by the Spirit breathed into it by the Risen Lord, becomes as courageous as its Lord on his way to glory, carrying his own cross, confident to the last of what he was doing and where he was going. It is ready to get down on its knees and wash the smelly feet of adolescent boys and the lame feet of old diabetic women. It understands more and more that its purpose is not to get to heaven but to proclaim that heaven is here and now because the Eternal God is here and now, having broken into human life by blasting open the tomb of the buried Word and raising him to New Life.
Don’t miss the Resurrection, because it is going to happen twice more in this liturgy this morning. First it will happen when we encircle the font and bring into the New Community of Beloved Disciples two sisters and one brother who will share in the death of Christ by being buried in the depths of baptismal water. They will proclaim Christ’s resurrection by learning to live the life of love so well that somebody and maybe more than one or two will say, “I see in them Jesus Christ, and I believe.” The Resurrection will happen a second time when we encircle the altar to receive what to us tastes like bread and wine but which to our God and Lord feel like flesh and blood. It means the same thing as baptism. One is a bathing and the other is a feeding, but the meal is more than food just as the bath is more than water. They are outpourings of Spirit to make us—what? To make us one—one with each other and one in him. That is the Resurrection you don’t want to miss!
Every one of you, and dozens and hundreds more have a place in our circle at font and altar. We will not cease until every possible soul that we could embrace knows—knows—that he or she has come into a community where there is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good, and mercies for the hurting, and healing through the Blood that makes us new and makes us one. Our home, this building, will keep opening its doors the way we open our arms, bidding all to a great banquet where things as varied as square dancing and working for justice, hip-hop and tutoring, demonstrating against torture and chowing down on different ethnic foods, listening to Shakespeare and honoring the art of neighborhood children, singing Bach chorales and Negro spirituals and Latino love songs will be as natural here as picking up a hymnal or opening a prayer book.
You might notice that all of those things are happening now. Yes, they are, because the circle has been widening for some time. Back in the 1950’s when St. Stephen’s was a lily-white congregation, the neighborhood began changing as white people fled to the suburbs after court-ordered desegregation of the schools. Into the neighborhood went Father Stuart Gast, inviting new African-American neighbors to come into the circle. Three years after 1954, St. Stephen’s had remained here, the church declared itself integrated, and the circle was wider. A dozen years later when the nation was torn by the Viet Nam War, protestors and peace advocates found a place to sleep in St. Stephen’s. The circle grew wider. It grew wider still when a woman ordained priest celebrated at our altar for the first time ever in The Episcopal Church. It grew yet wider when gay and lesbian couples and later transgender and other sexual minorities were embraced. It grew wider five years ago when Misa Alegría was born, our Spanish-speaking congregation which has grown to about 15 times the size of the original seed group.
Today, after months of conversation, thought, and prayer, we choose the Day of Resurrection as the time to share with you the direction of St. Stephen and the Incarnation. It is called “Widening the Circle,” because the circle must and will become wider still. We know where we believe God is leading us in the next few years—and what we together have decided we need to do together to widen the circle. But we have no clue as to where the Spirit may lead us beyond that or as a result of our attempts to widen it. But we know that God’s Life is real Resurrection, and we are ready to run to strange places where death is said to be, knowing that resurrection happens most frequently there. We know that any resurrection worth going to is an event that will test our patience and probably find us saying from time to time, “I miss my Lord. By God they have taken him away and I don’t know where they have laid him.” We know that there will be moments when, despite our best efforts, all will seem useless and we will know all over again just what the Magdalene felt like standing there in the chill, sorry and probably angry. And we know, as surely as anything, that when we least expect it, we will hear a familiar voice, calling our name, and we can wonder how we ever have thought he wouldn’t show up as we exclaim, “Rabbouni!” which means, “My Master.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011