Our Hope is in Community 04/01/2018
Sojourn Easter Sermon – John 20:1-18
In Greeley, we meet in a little chapel at the back of a UCC church. It’s a wonderful little space, and in order to get back to it, you have to walk past the ossuary. Now, we started meeting there in late December, and we meeting on Monday evenings. For most of the time that we’ve been meeting there, it’s been dark outside. Normally, when I’m setting up, the ossuary is dark. I can see into through the glass windows. But the last time we met there, which, was two weeks ago, I noticed that it was lit up. I assumed someone had just left the lights on, so I was going to turn them off. There’s a bay of light switches just outside, and I tried all the switches. None of them worked. So I went in, but I couldn’t find a light switch. Then I realized that there was a skylight. Natural light was filling the ossuary. I think a lot about the Celtic term “thin spaces,” where the barrier between heaven and earth is thin. This was kind of a thin space for me. Try as I might to turn the lights out, to recover the tomb with darkness, I couldn’t. And I thought of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”
This episode, I think, symbolizes one of the less desirable traits of my personality. I am the eternal pessimist. I’m skeptical of the mysterious. I’m doubtful of miracles. As is often the case, I’m Peter in this story.
Peter shows up and says nothing. When Mary tells the Disciple Jesus loved that the body has been taken, Peter goes to the tomb, he’s the first to enter, because he’s investigative. He looks around and sees that the body is gone, but unlike the beloved disciple, he does not believe. Neither does he stay to weep with Mary. If I can interpret Peter’s feelings from the little evidence we have here, I would say he is resigned. This is how things goes for first century Jewish presents. You get your hopes up, you follow the one you call the Messiah and the religious leaders and the political elite kill him, steal his body, and send you into hiding. The sense get from Peter is a feeling of confusion and hopelessness.
As a pastor, I know this is not how Easter sermons are supposed to begin. And, as a pastor, I know that Easter Sunday is not a day to admit your own hopelessness and confusion. I have to be honest with you all this morning, I really struggled to write this sermon for today.
I struggled because, for the past few weeks, my thinking has been much more preoccupied with the tombs that aren’t empty. The seventeen freshly covered graves in Parkland. The graves of the victims of the Austin city bombing. I’ve been thinking about the grave of Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man killed by police. I’ve been thinking about the graves of the hundreds of civilians killed in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus and of the sixteen Palestinian protestors killed by Israeli soldiers.
What does resurrection hope look like for them and their families? What is Easter morning for those whose loved one wont emerge from their tombs today?
See, the thing is, I think we lie to ourselves if we say that Easter offers an easy hope. It doesn’t. The great mystery and promise of the resurrection is contrasted by the fact it has been two thousand years, and no one else has come back. And the thing is, I find it terribly in adequate and inappropriate to try and comfort those who are grieving by offering the platitudes an easy resurrection hope supplies. Like Jesus is risen and so will we be. Or so will your loved ones be. You will meet again, they might say.
But such platitudes deny the real suffering and grief that people experience in the present. These are the kinds of thing we say to people in order to help them get over their grief, and as psychologists tell us more and more about grief, we know it’s not something people get over. Greif and pain and suffering work differently than that. These things we say may be theologically true, but I’m not sure they are helpful.
What I want to suggest to you this Easter morning, after what has been a terribly depressing introduction, is that if the resurrection is to offer us hope for this world, it cannot be an easy hope. Instead, it must be a robust kind of hope, that accounts for the suffering we experience in our own lives and the suffering that fills our world.
As I was doing research for today, I came across a wonderful reading of this narrative in a really obscure Irish theology and philosophy journal called the Downside Review. The article I found was written by a woman named Pauline Byrne, and in it, she argues that John 20 presents us with a rage of characters, each of which represent a rage of faith responses.
One of the characters is simply named, the other disciple. Now, throughout John, a disciple is referenced and he is just named the disciple that Jesus loved. We see this disciple reclining on the breast of Jesus at the last supper. It is generally assumed that this “other disciple” is the disciple Jesus loved. In John, this disciple is never named, and some scholars have come to believe that he is actually the author, but speculation is hardly fruitful.
From his first appearance in the scene, we get the feeling he’s on to something. Both he and Peter run to the tomb, but the Other Disciple outruns Peter and beats him to the tomb. As soon as this other disciple enters the tomb he believes.
In many ways, Byrne depicts this other disciple as the exemplar of faith. Although he does not actually see Jesus, he believes. There are still things that he doesn’t understand. John tells us that neither he nor Peter understood the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Despite all this, the other disciple believes when he enters the tomb and sees the burial linens discarded.
The next character is Peter. And as I’ve already mentioned, the text doesn’t present him believing right away. Instead, as Byrne notes, John presents him as almost ambivalent. Yes, he runs to the tomb, but he says nothing, does not come to believe, and leaves without understanding. This is kind of a characteristic feature of Peter throughout the Gospel. Yes, he names Jesus as the Messiah, but he also denies him three times and takes up a sword in order to protect Jesus. Peter is lacking in ability to come to faith just yet.
And then there’s Mary Magdalene, perhaps the central figure of this story. Byrne says, “Mary’s relationship with Jesus is founded on love. Her presence at the crucifixion, obvious grief at his death/absence and her eagerness to be reunited with him suggests a closeness and intimacy similar to that of Martha and Mary and the Beloved disciple.” Mary’s grief is overwhelming. She is the first to go to the temple, before the sun rises, and the is the last to leave. Unlike the Other disciple, she does not believe immediately. Unlike Peter she doesn’t leave the tomb. Instead she remains at the tomb weeping, eagerly searching for the body of Jesus. She eventually does come to believe, but only after she encounters Jesus in the flesh. I would suggest that her lack of faith stems not from a lack of capacity, which I think is what Peter’s lack of faith stems from, but from the weight of her grief.
These are the characters and this is the range, from believing without seeing, to grief stricken belief only when we encounter Jesus. And these ranges allow us to be where we are in our own life and to empathize with each of the characters. Byrne concludes, “Whether it is Mary Magdalene who persists in seeking and finally moves from seeing with the eyes to recognizing with the heart; or Peter, there from the beginning and continually struggling to accept what goes against his limited understanding, or the beloved disciple whose love enables him to believe without seeing, we can identify with and learn from each of these models.”
For Byrne, the goal of presenting this range is to invite the reader to identify with one of the characters and to trace that character’s journey to faith. For those of us like Peter, for example, what does Peter’s journey to faith look like and how might that correspond to our own life.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that reading, but I think there’s an alternate conclusion to draw from this range of characters and responses, one that doesn’t necessarily conflict with Byrne’s, but one that I find more helpful. What I find so interesting about this text is all these different characters are present on the page at the same time. So too are all the different possible responses. What I think, this range represents is what it means to be the community of faith: we are all present together here, but I would guess that we are all in different places. Perhaps it is the case that this wide range of possible responses to the resurrection are present in this room. They certainly all present in the community of faith.
See, there are those of us who have experience resurrection in our own lives. There are people who’ve battle illness and come out on the other side. They’ve felt the presence of God’s saving love and their life, and for them, this morning is a celebration. Like the other disciple, they’ve come to this place and believed.
Other of us aren’t quite there. And I’m going to put myself in this category right now. I still kind of waiting. I’ve seen the empty tomb, I know something’s up, but I’m still kind of waiting. Where is God going to reveal God’s saving love to me in ways that enable me to articulate it in more profound ways. I think I lack understanding.
And there those of us who are deep in grief. Those of us who cannot leave the tomb yet, for we are still weeping. Who feel lost, forgotten, perhaps even forsaken, and who are not willing to stop seeking, but who are waiting for Jesus to show up. Perhaps you’re struggling with things and you’re not sure where your help will come from.
These three responses present in John 20 are our responses. And what I find helpful in this is fact that we all need each other. Those of us who are struggling need others to enter into our suffering with, and just as Jesus did, we need people not come with words of encouragement, but with words of presence. Jesus need only to speak Mary’s name and she knows he is present with her. Those of us in the middle need the exemplars, those who are have believed, to encourage us in our journey. And those who have believed need those who are still on their own journey in order to be continually seeing that God is at work in the world.
I can’t help but think of my friend Simon. Simon is a Ugandan orthodox priest. He has lived through fires, bus crashes, civil wars, poverty, and on and on, but he is a believing witness to the resurrection if there ever was one. He is the kind of person who encourages and continues to encourage, even in the face of great adversity. He is a great gift to people like me and the community of faith in general.
What this means is that the robust hope offered to us at the resurrection is the hope we find in community. Philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams says, “The Good News is that God created us for life together. In his human nature, Jesus modeled this friendship.” She goes on to say, “Jesus comes to invite people into a radical restructuring of personality.” One that is mirrored in the Trinitarian life of God, eternally mutually self-giving.
In other words, we are all in this together. Centered around the resurrection, those of us who are believing, those of us who are waiting, and those of us who are grieving are invited into life together, to find comfort and hope in the bonds of love the bring us together in community.
This is true for the local community, but is also true for the wider, global community. When I think about those tombs of which I spoke earlier, in Parkland, and Sacramento, Eastern Ghouta and Palestine, what word of resurrection hope can I offer. In truth, I have little to offer beyond my willingness to be in community. To advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and the assurance to be people of the resurrection means that we offer ourselves in service to others. And to celebrate the hard won victories of those who strive to see resurrection in their own communities.
What I find hopeful about the resurrection is not that it promises life after death, although it does, it’s that the resurrection enables us to live in new and hopeful ways now.