I’ve been confronted by people who want to argue about whether or not the Resurrection is truth. But the Gospels don’t present arguments about the resurrection of Jesus. They simply report it – by telling stories that focus on people who saw the risen Christ, people to whom He appeared. And how do we know? Because they were so amazed that they told everybody about it. Even us.
And it’s not simply that Christ is risen. It’s not just that the crucified Jesus Christ rose from the dead; it’s that Christ rose to us, appeared to us, keeps appearing to us. [Alleluia]
Each year we listen to these stories of the first Easter, and three things stand out.
First, the Gospels present the resurrection as a series of unexpected, unexplainable [remember those words] appearances in which the crucified Jesus appears to his disciples as the resurrected Christ.
Easter isn’t something somebody just dreamed up. Easter is the result of a God who comes to us and appears to us out of God’s loving determination to be with us.
Sometimes we take a look at the world we live in, and at evil that makes us shudder, and we wonder – why does, why would God so resolutely desire to be with us? Well, we are God’s children, are we not? God cares for us because God created us – God creates us. God cares for us as parents care deeply for their children. Even when our children mess up, we still care. We grieve, we help, and we resolutely love them. No matter how much they mess up, we love them just the same. Sometimes resolutely, stubbornly, but we love them.
The second thing that stands out: Jesus was not only raised, but, of all things, he appeared to the wrong people! How odd of the risen Christ to spend the first day of his resurrection in Galilee – a kind of sorry, insignificant place. That’s what the angel told the women: He’s not here at the tomb; he has gone to Galilee. What the risen Christ doesn’t do is appear to Pontius Pilate up at the White House. He instead, quietly, shows himself to Mary, Peter, and Thomas out in the – dingleberries – back in Galilee. He doesn’t make a big public deal out of it. It doesn’t make CNN or CBS or PBS Jerusalem.
It’s not just that Jesus was raised. It’s not just that he reappears, but that he appears to the disciples with whom he had shared his last meal before his execution, the disciples who had denied him, deserted him, walked away from the whole thing.
Jesus had told them that he would rise on the third day. But most of them didn’t wait around to see. The women who stayed expected merely to carry out the appropriate rites performed after a death. So – why is this so important? Because of the solid, absolutely unbreakable link it forges between resurrection and forgiveness. Jesus’s reappearance to them is a compassionate act of forgiveness. To be encountered by the crucified Jesus as resurrected and present to sinners like the disciples and like us is to discover God as embodying forgiving love. Jesus does not simply rise from the dead. He rises from the dead to sinners. To us.
Third point – Resurrection is not only the basis of the Christian faith, but it’s also the engine that drives the proclamation of the Gospel. Talk begins when God shows up. The angel doesn’t say to the women, “Jesus is raised and now you shall have everlasting life amen.” Instead the angel tells them, “Go. Tell the men the good news: Jesus is raised!” When it comes down to it, this is the basis of the whole Gospel – death and evil have been defeated by a God who is determined not to let evil and death have the last word. The words “Christ is risen” are words that signal a great, divine victory.
Isn’t it interesting that the Gospels present the resurrection of Jesus as a series of those unexpected, unexplainable appearances to the powerless, to the marginalized, to the very ones who had deserted him. Which points to the observation that what happened among Jesus’s first disciples, among the women and men to whom Jesus appeared, has also happened among us. Continues to happen to us.
I realize that some people may come to believe in the truth of the resurrection from listening to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s appearances, but not all of them continue to believe in the resurrection solely on the basis of the Gospel narratives, however well the stories may be told.
I think that we are here celebrating Easter, believing in the triumph of God in the resurrection mainly because in some way or another, Christ has shown up to us. Or because in some way or another we are looking for Christ to show up to us. In certain inexplicable, often subtle but undeniable ways, Christ appears to us, speaks to us, calls our names, just as he called Mary’s name that first Easter.
Not so long ago I was puzzling over the fact that while I’ve had many goose bumpy encounters with the Lord, I don’t recall ever feeling that it was Jesus himself in the body, speaking to me or directing me or calling me. Every experience I can think of, and thanks be to God there area quite a few, felt more like the Holy Spirit. But then, they’re one and the same, aren’t they?
There was a time at Van Tuyl’s corner – that’s a curve on 101 between South Bend and Bay Center – on a dark and stormy November night (forgive me if you’ve heard this one before) when I was driving back from Eastern Washington with my two kids asleep in the back seat. It was maybe one or two in the morning, and, although I didn’t know it, there had been a pretty impressive hail storm that had left the highway just around that corner covered with hailstones. Just before I got to that corner, my dash lights flickered. Weird, I thought. And then I thought – maybe it was God trying to tell me something. So I slowed way down. And rounded Van Tuyl’s corner and got into that ice – driving very slowly.
Had that been Jesus literally sitting beside me, maybe reaching under the dash to jiggle wires and fuses to make the lights flicker? That wouldn’t have been very comfortable for him what with my purse and coat and snacks for the kids cluttering up the seat. But once I got through the slick spot and started to breathe again, the goose bumps took over, not from fear of what could have happened, but from that “whooa” feeling that I hadn’t been alone in the driver’s seat.
Not all encounters are that subtle, of course. I tell the story of my younger sister (and you may take a brief nap if you’ve already heard this one). She lives on the Russian River in Northern California. One hot, sunny summer day she and her then eleven-year-old and a friend of his were down at the river where there is a lot of shallow water to play and even swim in. But there is deep water too, and a current. Boys being boys, Robert and his friend horsed around, until the friend, a non-swimmer, found himself in the deep water, inexorably moving on down with the current. Of course Robert tried to help him, but he wasn’t a very strong swimmer. So they were now both floundering – and continuing to move downstream. Ellen to the rescue! She reached them, managed to hold their heads out of the water, but she couldn’t manage to get them to either bank. So here they were, all three of then merrily floating down the river. Well, not so merrily. Not being able to think of anything else to do, Ellen says that she prayed. I wonder now if the outcome would have been any different if she hadn’t appealed to God for help. Anyway, the answer was instant. It came in the form of a very loud voice that said, “Grab the branch, stupid!” Now you have to understand that my younger sister is the absolutely most stubborn of the six of siblings. Had the voice suggested politely that she reach up and grasp an overhanging branch, she might not have listened. But the “hit-‘er-over-the-head-with-a-2x4” approach worked. She followed the, dare I say rude-sounding commsnd, and they were all saved.
The voice? There was no one around. Was it Jesus? God the Father? The Holy Spirit? I’ll opt for Jesus because of the audible voice. But does it really matter? Does Jesus not appear to us in whatever form is best for us?
Do you ever notice that when the resurrected Jesus appears, he doesn’t hang around? Maybe that’s why Ellen never found how who had hollered at her to grab the branch. At the tomb: don’t cling to my feet. Go and tell! How about Paul at Damascus? A bolt out of the blue, and a voice. Wham! Now get up off the ground, repent, and get busy. You have work to do. Go be my voice to the gentiles.
The encounters we have with Jesus today are certainly reappearances that don’t last long. A flash of light, or a flicker of lights, or a voice, some experience that leaves us with goose flesh, that makes us shake our heads and ask, “Did that really happen?
I wonder. When we have an experience like that, when somehow Jesus reappears to us, should we hug it to ourselves and not tell anyone else? Or are those reappearances for more than just us? What happens if we share such an experience with someone else? That’s what the Gospel of John suggests. Mary is told to run (not walk) and tell. And she does. And we are still telling today. Christ it risen!
As a priest and a preacher, I kind of hesitate to say this, but in spite of the face that I have here __ pages of sermon, there is really only one one-line sermon for the church to preach. And this is it: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia