Mark 16:1-8; John 20:1-18; Luke 24:1-12
Did you notice something interesting as you listened to the Easter readings this morning? We have heard them so often, it is easy for them to lose their edge, and for us to forget how unexpected and unbelievable the resurrection story is. The readings proclaim that something amazing happened that first Easter. Jesus, the crucified lives on. The tomb is empty, the future is open, and death – even death on a cross – has been defeated.
But, did you notice something else? All of the stories are different in peculiar ways – in one case, there is an earthquake and an angel and thunderstruck guards at the tomb; in another account, the tomb is empty and Jesus is simply gone. Depending on the account, the women who come to the tomb differ – while Mary Magdalene is always present, each story notes different companions; the time of day the women go to the tomb differs; there might be an angel and there might not be; and in John’s gospel, Jesus appears only to Mary Magdalene in the garden, at first disguised, and then recognized when he calls her by name.
Didn’t someone tell the early church to get its stories straight? Didn’t the early church try to produce one story everyone could agree on? But, alas, we get many resurrection stories, in part because they were passed on by word of mouth from person to person and community to community for decades before they were finally written down.
To the skeptic, the differing stories prove that we are dealing with a legend constructed to fit the early church’s needs, with no basis in an actual event. In today’s parlance, the skeptic would call them “spin” or “false news.”
But, I think there is another way to understand the contrasting Easter stories – their differences are proof that they are true and point to something amazing, unheard of, and yet real that changed lives then and changes lives today.
Law enforcement officers tell us that if several stories match completely, there’s likely an intentional coverup. But, if observers differ as to whether the dress was brown or black; the shirt was light blue or white; the man was 50 or 60, or six feet or five foot ten, then it is likely that the account points to an actual person described as best as possible by bystanders.
Perception is always personal and perspectival. We see real things, but we describe them in terms of our experience, location, and history. The same is true for our spiritual experiences. While faith is nurtured in communities, faith is also profoundly personal. While the first Christians affirmed that Christ is risen from the dead, they understood this event as personal, as addressing the deepest needs of every believer, as well as an actual event reflecting God’s power to bring life out of death.
The resurrection stories reveal the personal nature of God’s coming to us at our point of need. In Mark’s gospel, the women are trudging to the tomb, hoping to anoint Jesus’ body. They want to share one final act of love, but are stymied by the image of a gigantic stone sealing the tomb. Bringing Jesus back, restoring the dead to life, and even giving their last respects is an impossibility. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” they plead.
We know how these women felt. We deal with all sorts of impossibilities. There are stones in the way of our future – stones of illness, regret, guilt, and shame. There are stones of grief and stones of hopelessness that we can make a difference in the world, that the future will be any different from the past, that we can turn back the clock on mistakes, heal broken relationships, or that we can rescue our planet from environmental destruction or insure that hungry children are fed.
And yet, the impossible happens: the stone is rolled away, and we can move from fear to hope and passivity to action…we can share good news…For God makes a way for us when there is no way.
And then, in John’s resurrection story, there is Mary Magdalene – and women are at center stage in the Easter stories – she too is hopeless, so hopeless that she is blind to what is right in front of her. She pleads with an unnamed gardener to help her find Jesus, and then the gardener calls her name, “Mary” and recognizing that it’s Jesus, her dead spirit is revived. Jesus speaks her name and she born is again, hope lives on, and life defeats death.
On Easter and every day, Christ’s coming to us is always personal, but never individualistic. Christ comes to us in the way we need. He calls us by our true name. And then when we hear our name and recognize him, Jesus tells us not to hold on to our previous images of him, not to restrict him to one encounter, but to expect that others will experience him in their personal own way. He assures us that tomorrow he may come to us in an entirely different way; the way we’ll need to find our way forward.
This is good news; God’s personal call to each of us. It challenges us to look deeply at our own emotional and spiritual yearnings. It counsels us to listen for ways that God gives us wisdom and new life. It invites us to see resurrection, Easter, as happening right now – today…in this very moment to you and me in our own unique joys and challenges.
It’s easy to give up hope; it’s easy to see only the stone in our pathway; it’s easy to think that the powers of evil have the upper hand; and that sickness, addiction, death, war, and destruction have the final word. But, I’m here to say that Christ the Lord is Risen today! And, he comes to us personally just as we are, calling us by name and giving us what we need, right here in Centerville, right here in your life.
Love wins, life triumphs, and God is with us making a way forward when we see no way ahead, rolling away every stone standing in our way and giving us courage to face whatever lies ahead because we know that Christ is alive and walks beside us on our way. Christ the Lord is risen today!