Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Victim Unbound: Easter Day 2017

She wasted no time in making known what had happened.  She didn’t rush off to consult the ancient texts to affirm or disprove what she saw.  She didn’t make excuses about why anybody other than her would be a better first witness.  Mary Magdalene simply went.  “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” If I was her, I would have begged and pleaded to stay right there…to keep clinging to him in spite of his protests. After all, that would have been the sensible thing to do.  Jesus of Nazareth was as dead as dead could be.  She saw him die, and she knew precisely where his body had been placed in the tomb.  But then, she saw him.  She saw her Master and Lord…saw the sealed tomb broken open by the unfathomable power of God to bring forth life amidst the ruins of the grave.  The One who was claimed by the powers of death, hell, and the grave now stood before her as the conqueror all the dominions and powers of evil.  It would have made perfect sense to have collapsed at his feet and remain there in prayer and thanksgiving.

But Jesus didn’t break the bonds of death, hell, and the grave just to have a sentimental encounter with Mary Magdalene.  He came back from the grave with a mission, a mission to turn the world upside down, a mission to empower those who seemed lost in their misery, a mission to set the world ablaze with his fiery, unquenchable love. And he needed Mary to be not just a spectator, but a witness.  “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” He entrusted the proclamation of his resurrection not to the angels sitting in the tomb, but first to a feeble and failure prone human being. He entrusted her to take the message of his resurrection to the place where the disciples had gathered to mourn his death…to the place where they were trapped in their own tombs of suffering and horror, for, as John says, “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” And though they eventually did see their Lord face to face, they first heard about it from someone else.

To an extent, our present reality is not unlike that space between the event of the Resurrection and the moment the other disciples first heard about it.  They were gathered in mourning, still crushed by the horror they witnessed, still suffering from the reality-shattering events they bore witness to.  So too our world sits in mourning, sits with the unbearable heaviness that comes when you long for release and redemption yet still encounter pain and suffering.  Our world is a liminal world…a world that exists between two poles…between the first moment of creation and the final consummation and redemption of all things.  We see and encounter such beauty, people and events full of hope and promise…yet we also encounter horrifying brutality, moments that threaten to strip us of our hope. St. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, speaks to this transitional reality: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Creation is groaning…groaning for release, groaning in labor pains, groaning for the total rebirth and restoration of all things.  And while it’s a beautiful future to imagine, and to dream about…it is precisely that: something in the future, something we do not see, something for which we hope.

But St. Paul also said something else, to the burgeoning congregation of disciples at Colossae: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” To the people in the past, and to those of us today, St. Paul is giving us a charge.  In a world still broken by suffering and pain, resist the impulses to give into the crushing tidal waves of darkness.  And rather than just resisting the waves, digging in your heels as a test of endurance…act.  Push back against the darkness.  Set your minds on the things above, that your life below, your life here, will be formed more by the hopefulness of Jesus Christ than the darkness of a world groaning for release.  Push back the darkness.  Beat it back.  And when it begins to recede, chase it down, keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing! For Jesus Christ’s resurrection is proof that the darkness can indeed be beaten back.

Not only was the resurrection of Our Lord from the tomb an act of resistance against all of the evil and ugliness of the world, so too was that first Easter proclamation from Mary Magdalene.  She carried the message of hope and resurrection on her lips, in her lungs, deep down in her bones.  It was like the prophet Jeremiah says, “Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Mary was no fool.  She knew that dead men don’t normally come back to life.  But she bore witness to such an event, and she could not hold this truth within her, simply clinging to Jesus as an act of personal piety.  She had to preach.  She had to proclaim with a loud voice, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

What about us? We’ve come here, in our Sunday best, to celebrate the great and glorious overturning of death’s power over God’s anointed.  But what about when we leave…when the high of Easter festivities calms down…when we no longer have trumpeters in our presence…when the beauty of these lilies fade away? What, then, are we going to do? Are we going to be the Mary who first desired to cling to Jesus, sitting with him outside of the tomb? Or are we going to be the Mary who took the life-changing truth of Jesus’ Resurrection out into the world, preaching and proclaiming that death has been put on notice…that suffering, brutality, and horror don’t have to be the final word on this world? For the truth, my brothers and sisters, is that those of you washed in the waters of baptism, and nourished by Jesus’ body and blood…you are quite literally the reconstituted body of the Resurrected Christ in this present age.  God is counting on you to preach and proclaim to the world that death’s sting has been broken.  The world needs you.  The world needs the hope, the love, the passion residing deep in your spirit.  The world needs the hope that drove you to come here on Easter morning…that hope that says, “Even in the face of absolute horror and death, new life is possible.” The world desperately needs the love that you felt once before, or maybe that you feel everyday…that love that whispers sweetly in your ear, “You are beautiful, and wonderful, and I am pleased with you.” The world needs the passion that inspires you to work for a better world…the passion that says to all the desperate powers of evil, “Your time is up!” The world needs you, the vessels of divine power that you are.  So go out, preach Christ crucified and resurrected, and change the world!

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