Whom are you looking for? It’s the question Jesus asks Mary Magdalene as she stands weeping in the garden… Whom are you looking for? The last voice she expected to hear that morning, the last living person she expected to see standing in front of her was Jesus, alive and asking questions.
She came to the tomb expecting to prepare his corpse for its long, final rest. When she found the tomb empty, she assumed that someone had moved his body. Peter and the other disciple who came rushing to the empty tomb went right back home again to figure out what this all meant. Yes, Jesus had told them that he would rise from the dead—in rather veiled terms sometimes—but they hadn’t really understood him. They clearly didn’t expect to see it happen.
Whom are you looking for this morning? What do you expect to find as you stare into this empty tomb, this “hole in all assumptions” at the heart of all our history?
Did you come to see a mythic metaphor for springtime, for the perpetual renewing and rebirth of life in this new season of the year? Well, certainly that is at work here. But then what do you do with the formerly dead person who so many earnest, intelligent people claim to have encountered? What do you do with all of those people who have put their lives on the line throughout history because they claim to have encountered a risen Jesus? Springtime alone does not inspire that kind of faith, that kind of fervor, that kind of determination. Springtime and metaphors of renewal don’t give one the courage to face martyrdom.
Maybe, like some contemporary scholars, you want to frame this day, this celebration, in terms of a “Resurrection Event”—a kind of scholarly shorthand which says that there was no actual physical resurrection, but that after the disciples recovered from the devastating shock of Jesus’ crucifixion, they began to have visionary experiences as they remembered his teaching in powerful new ways, that he became alive for them in their hearts and minds and inspired them to spread his message of God’s overwhelming love as expressed in the alternative social and political reality he had called the kingdom of God.
Well certainly that Jesus is alive, too. Certainly Jesus is alive in the hearts and minds of those who follow him, those who proudly wear his name, those who seek to follow his teaching and do his will to the best of their understanding and look for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And yes, even today some people do have visionary experiences of Jesus. That’s no small thing. But is it the complete picture? Is it the resurrection described in the gospels?
What do you do with all these troubling physical things that keep insinuating themselves into the resurrection story? What do you do with the disciples on the road to Emmaus who share a meal with Jesus and watch him break the bread in that singular, customary way of his? What do you do with the Jesus who asks his shocked disciples for a piece of fish to eat? Who insists on showing his very physical wounds to them? What do you do with the writers of the gospels who wanted to make it absolutely clear that his disciples and others testified to a tangible, physical Jesus who stood before them against all hope and possibility?
Maybe you are seeking Jesus of the re-animated body. Maybe you are seeking in the resurrection of Jesus a validation that your own body will be raised to new life. And certainly that Jesus is here, too. But you’ll notice that there’s something very different about his resurrected body. Yes, the wounds are still there. Yes, he eats with his disciples. But there is something almost ethereal about his physicality. He tells Mary not to hold on to him, as if too long a connection between his resurrected physical nature and her ordinary physical nature might set off sparks or open a hole in the universe. He appears suddenly behind closed and locked doors. When people see him, it takes them a moment to recognize him—in fact they often don’t recognize him until he speaks or breaks bread or reveals himself through some other personal habit or mannerism.
Whom do you seek? Do you seek the Jesus who will validate your politics? That’s fair. In spite of what some people think, Jesus was very political. He was crucified at the intersection of politics and religion. But is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead just a validation of his political stance on the side of the poor and oppressed? Or is there a message in this empty tomb about a power that transcends both politics and religion? Does it stand there in the vortex of history as an open invitation for us to enter a new kind of life altogether, a life that transcends power and manipulation?
Do you seek a Jesus who will endorse your sense of morality? Well certainly Jesus is moral–– the most moral person who has ever lived. But Jesus does morality differently than most of us. Jesus made it clear that the heart of our morality and ethics must be a deep and abiding love for all God’s people and all God’s creation, and not merely a mindless adherence to law or shifting cultural standards of propriety. Don’t forget that it was the guardians of morality, propriety and law who literally nailed him because he challenged their standards. And it was the God of righteousness who raised him to life out of love.
Whom do you seek? Be careful that you don’t settle for a partial Christ, because it is the whole Christ who is risen. It is the whole Jesus, physical, spiritual, mythical, mysterious, emotional, intelligent, rational, divine and human–– it is the whole Christ who has endured the ugliest, most vicious violence that humanity can dish out and has been raised above it to show us the depths of God’s love and God’s commitment to a new way of being in the world.
Christ is alive. Alive now. More alive than you or I have ever been. Alive in the mystery of the Trinity and alive in the body. Alive in the world. Alive for you and me and for each and every human created in the image of God. Alive so that we, too, can experience new life as whole human beings. Alive to transform us, to change us, to move us, to inspire us, and to help us. Alive to make us fully human, when all our lives we’ve mostly settled for being something a little less than fully human. Alive to free us from the fear of death. Alive to resurrect us out of the thousand little deaths we die over and over again. Alive to roll away the stones that seal us in shadowy tombs of despair and grief and anxiety and loss and pain. Alive to pull us out of whatever personal death or darkness we’re enduring and lift us into life in all its fullness.
In spite of the odds, in spite of all human experience to the contrary, Christ is risen. Jesus is alive.
I know that not everybody believes in the resurrection of Jesus. I know that even some Christians have their doubts. Some very devoted followers of Jesus look for ways to reframe the resurrection language of the gospels. I don’t judge them. I’ve had moments of doubt, too.
Saint Paul devoted a whole chapter of 1 Corinthians to addressing our very understandable doubts. Apparently there were some skeptics even in the congregation that he, himself, had founded. In chapter 15 he gives us the earliest account of the resurrection, written long before the gospels, and he focuses on speaking to those who had doubts. Here’s what he had to say as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
“Now, let me ask you something profound yet troubling. If you became believers because you trusted the proclamation that Christ is alive, risen from the dead, how can you let people say that there is no such thing as a resurrection? If there’s no resurrection, there’s no living Christ. And face it—if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. Not only that, but we would be guilty of telling a string of barefaced lies about God, all these affidavits we passed on to you verifying that God raised up Christ—sheer fabrications, if there’s no resurrection.
If corpses can’t be raised, then Christ wasn’t, because he was indeed dead. And if Christ wasn’t raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever. It’s even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they’re already in their graves. If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. (1 Cor 15:12-19)
We are not “a pretty sorry lot.” Christ is alive. The whole Christ, the entire Jesus, is walking this earth in unexpected guises, waiting to encounter each and every one of us to give us the power to become Children of God.
Child of God, may the God who raised Jesus from the dead resurrect all that is dead or dying in you. May the risen Jesus restore your sense of wonder and beauty and hope and joy in life. May the risen Christ open your eyes to understand the immense and eternal value of Life in every life you encounter. May Christ be risen and alive in your mind, in your heart, in your soul. But more than that, may you see the risen, living Christ who stands beside you and invites you to walk into the world with him.
Christ is risen!
Painting: The Resurrected Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene, by Alexander Ivanov (1835)