Lesson: John 20:1-18
A million years ago in 1984, everybody was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig. A dear friend said it was his favorite book; I should read it and it would change my life. I did; it didn’t; and I don’t remember much about it. But I was reminded this week that Persig introduced the Buddhist concept of “mu,” m-u, which means “un-ask.” If someone asks a question that limits the way you can look at things, or that can only produce an unhelpful answer, you can answer, “mu,” which says there may be a better question.
The celebration of the resurrection tends to raise the kind of questions that make me want to answer, “Mu.” Did the resurrection really happen? Do you “believe” in the resurrection? Do you need to believe in a literal, bodily resurrection in order to be a good Christian, or in order to be any kind of Christian? At the risk of sounding like the Easter cow instead of the Easter bunny, “Mu, mu, mu.”
People have obsessed about these questions for centuries. A cynical eighteenth-century German historian wrote, “The disciples discovered that there was a better living to be made preaching than in fishing. Therefore, when Jesus died, they invented the story of his resurrection to keep themselves in their new, more lucrative line of business.” What the good professor forgot to mention was that this “lucrative line of work” not only wasn’t very lucrative, it was far more dangerous than fishing. Most of them died as a result of it. If the professor were right, you’d think that maybe at the last moment, just before the Romans sent the lions into the arena, the disciples might have said something like, “Okay, okay, it isn’t true. We just made it all up.”
They did not say this. Still, you don’t need to cook up a story about “more lucrative work” to have reason to doubt the resurrection. Even the four gospels tell the story four different ways. How many women went to the tomb: one, two or three? How many angels? Did the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee or Jerusalem or both? All of which is glorious affirmation that neither the precise facts about the resurrection nor the truth it reveals depends on what you and I believe. Easter isn’t like the musical “Peter Pan,” where the audience is asked to clap if they believe in fairies in order to save Tinkerbell’s life. We don’t change anything by our belief, our unbelief, or, apparently, by telling the story with conflicting details.
But there’s another, more important reason I won’t ask you to clap if you believe the resurrection actually happened. Author Frederick Buechner pointed out that “…even if somebody had been there with a television camera and taken a picture of Jesus walking out of the tomb, what would that be except, for many people, an interesting historical fact, just as it’s interesting to know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? But what difference does that make to me? So what if a Jew in the year 30 A.D. was brought back from the dead? In other words, what’s important is not so much what happened in the half-light of daybreak on that day in 30 A.D., but what happens now. What matters is not what happened on Easter Sunday, but what happens in my life. Is there any sense that, for you and for me, Jesus exists, or the power that was in Jesus, the power that led people to see him as kind of transparency to holiness itself, to the mystery itself? If that is alive, that’s all that matters, and what happened on that day is of little consequence except in a minor historical way.”
We tell this enigmatic story with conflicting details today not because today is the anniversary of something that happened 2,000 years ago. Easter is not over. It is ongoing. John’s Easter story communicates this in a handful of ways. It’s Sunday morning, so early it’s still dark. Mary Magdalene goes to tomb where she knows the body of the crucified Jesus was laid to rest on Friday. She sees the tomb is empty and concludes the obvious. Someone has stolen the body. She runs to tell Peter and the other disciple, and they run to the tomb to confirm what Mary told them. The unnamed disciple “believes,” but we aren’t told what he believes. The disciples don’t yet understand the scripture; in any event, they turn around and head home.
Mary remains there, weeping. She sees a man she thinks is the gardener. He calls her by name, and something illogical, something impossible happens. The One who was certified dead greets her. Stunned, she can only say, “Rabbouni!” – something like “Teacher.” She reaches for him. A tearful hug is in order, right? But Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me,” or “Don’t cling to me.” Now, this seems harsh, but rather than a rebuke, try imagining it as a teaching moment. “Mary, you can’t cling to ‘Rabbouni,’ to what I was on Friday. You can’t hold on to what is dead and gone.” Jesus refers to “your father and my father; your God and my God.” He’s describing a new horizontal relationship, a new union with God that means new life. The point of Easter is not to believe something about the past, but to awaken to the gift of new life here. God is making us new, here, and now.
What does “new” look like? To the disciples, it looked like an uprising of hope. I imagine their conversation: “Do you realize what this means? Jesus was right after all! Everything he stood for has been vindicated!” “Not only that, but we never have to fear death again. And if that’s true, we never need to fear Caesar again.” “That means we can stand tall and speak the truth, just like Jesus did.” We can see this awakening realization in all the post-resurrection accounts. Everything had changed. It’s not just that Jesus was resurrected. It felt as though they’d arisen, too. They’d been in a tomb of defeat and despair. But they were truly alive again, and a force to be reckoned with. But a force of hope, not hate. An uprising armed with love, not weapons. An uprising that shouts joyful promise of life and peace, not angry threats of hostility and death. An uprising of outstretched hands, not clenched fists.
“New” is for us, as well, but it doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage not to mention I was right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming – never even hoped for – but ends up being what we needed all along.”
You may have heard of the friendship between Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson. Derek Black was raised to be a white nationalist. His godfather is David Duke, and his father still manages one of the first Internet hate websites. When Derek went to college, word got around. Fellow student Matthew Stevenson saw others on campus trying to make Derek’s life as miserable as possible. Matthew hosted a Shabbat dinner every Friday evening in his dorm room – that’s the meal and celebration that begins the Jewish Sabbath. Matthew figured Derek probably didn’t know anybody from a background that his ideology despised, so he decided to invite Derek to a Shabbat dinner. Derek accepted. The two young men became friends; “legitimate friends” says Matthew. And for two years, Derek continued to host a white nationalist radio show while attending the Shabbat dinner every Friday night. Two years of coming to dinner, says Matthew, without any indication that Derek had changed.
The conversations at dinner were not about white nationalism. Matthew told his friends that Shabbat dinner was not “ambush Derek time.” He didn’t want to put Derek on the defensive. Krista Tippett, who interviewed the young men, noted, “We forget in this country that no one has ever changed because someone else told them how stupid they are.” Derek was prepared for Matthew and his friends to grill him. He had solid facts – or what he believed were solid facts, anyway – to support his beliefs. He was more uncomfortable to find himself enjoying the company of people he wasn’t supposed to enjoy. Eventually, he had to come to grips with the fact that his ideology was anti-Semitic. Over time, he says, piece after piece after piece was removed. He was friends with Jews and people of color, and he recognized he had nothing legitimate to support his ideology – that it was, in fact, hateful. New life.
For his part, Matthew risked being seen as approving of Derek’s ideology. Some people stopped coming to the Shabbat dinners. But he believes that no one forfeits a right to human dignity for his or her beliefs. And in the end, both Matthew and Derek were transformed by empathy. Derek says he really didn’t think he was doing anything bad to people outside his group, but he didn’t empathize with them; he could not take their perspective. 
You may have noticed that this resurrection story isn’t about Christians. Matthew, of course, is Jewish. Derek is an atheist. The God who is love, who so loved the whole world, as John’s gospel put it, does not limit new life to people who can recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing their fingers. “Do not cling to me,” said Jesus. God is free, and can’t be held down; in fact, God is on the loose, and “new” includes recognizing the ways we may have persuaded ourselves that God can be controlled by our own rules and religious practices; our own dos and don’ts; our own list of insiders and outsiders. John’s first witness to the resurrection was a woman. It’s hard for us, now, to appreciate how radical that is, but it affirms everything Jesus did in his earthly ministry to cross barriers and include outsiders. So not only can we no longer think of God as Protestant or a Catholic, or white, black or brown; we can no longer think God is more like nice middle class folk, or imagine that God prefers Christians to Muslims or vice versa. “New” means waking up to the fact that God is not on “our” side any more than God is on “their” side.
Easter – new life – is God’s ongoing work. It is not just once a year and it isn’t in or about church. But the church is the fellowship of Easter people. In the fourth century, Augustine summed up the Christian faith in these words: “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” When Jesus sent Mary to go tell the disciples, in the Greek it says, “Continue to tell them.” Her never-ending mission – and ours – is to share her Easter experience and the things he taught – to share the Alleluia! So while we do not corner the market on new life, we are the people who look for, celebrate and point to signs of resurrection; signs that, as Desmond Tutu put it, goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. When we gather together, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again.
Scott Clark reminded me this morning that the Prayer of St. Patrick begins with the affirmation: “I rise today with a mighty strength.” That is what we do, as Easter people. We rise today with a mighty strength: the power of resurrection in our one whole life, because Easter is not over. It is ongoing. We do not proclaim today, “Christ was risen.” We proclaim, “Christ is risen!”
Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Amen, and alleluia.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 William Placher, quoting Herman Samuel Reimarus, in Jesus the Savior (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), 166.