An Easter Reflection

Mary Magdalene tells her story:

Woman, Old, Senior, Desperation, Grief, Female, PersonWe spent the Sabbath, weeping and mourning and praying. There was nothing left for us to do. We wondered why God had abandoned Jesus and why God had abandoned us. We were all together comforting each other. After the Sabbath, I went with Joanna, Mary who is the mother of James and some other women to Jesus’ tomb. We hadn’t had time before the Sabbath to prepare him for burial. It was just one more indignity that he had to endure. Now we just needed to perform the proper rituals for him.

When we got to the tomb…the stone was gone. Suddenly, there were two men. They were dazzling and light glowed from them. We were terrified. There were too many strange things happening. How could it be that the stone was gone? Who were these men and why were they surrounded by bright light? They spoke to us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That doesn’t even make sense. Jesus is dead. We saw him die. This is the place where you look for dead people and Jesus is dead. “He is not here, but has risen.” Wait….what…risen? risen? Wait… risen…raised to life? How is that possible?

We ran away in fear—not understanding what had happened. Distressed at another insult. Distressed at something else we couldn’t explain. We found the others. We tried to explain but our words just tumbled out in a jumble making no sense. It made no sense because our grief was too raw and too huge to understand, to share or explain. This new event just added to our confusion, our grief and outrage.


Rock, Outlook, Landscape, Holiday, Nature, Rocky, ViewThe Easter story is a story many of us know well. it is one that we read or hear year after year. I want to offer some cultural background about death which might put a different spin on our reflections about Easter. This information is taken from the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina . In Jesus’ culture, the original culture of Easter, there was a different understanding of death. We think that there is a moment where life stops…breath stops, the heart stops beating, the brain stops transmitting. For us, this is the moment of death…This is the moment we grieve as life changes to something else.

But in Jesus time, after death, the body would be placed on a shelf in a tomb. Family and friends would mourn for a whole year while the body decomposed. As the body decomposed, any evil deeds would fall away. It was believed that the bones contained the personality and were necessary for a resurrection. At the end of the year, the bones were collected and placed in a box to wait for resurrection.

In the case of capital punishment or crucifixion the body was held by the Sanhedrin (which functioned like a court) for the full year. When the flesh was gone from the body the sentence was complete and the bones prepared for resurrection.

For the women arriving at the tomb on Easter morning, they arrive to participate in a ritual that is part of the mourning process. But there is nothing there to mourn. Without the bones there is no hope of resurrection. We think of Easter as a happy and joyful occasion but the first witnesses would have been more distressed by an empty tomb. Their hope of resurrection is now gone.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make two points that I think challenge our theological perspective of the resurrection. They suggest that Jesus’ resurrection (the disappearance of the body), could go directly to God because there were no evil deeds that needed to rot away. This leads to another important point. Jesus death was wrong and in taking Jesus directly after death, God overturns the judgement of the earthly condemnation.

I like this twist because rather than suggest that God sent Jesus to die, it affirms that the death of Jesus, like so many other deaths, is unjust and wrong. It speaks to us in our moments of despair and confusion and grief and reminds us that God’s love and compassion overcomes the evil and violence in our world.

Maybe after they thought about it for a bit. Maybe after they had cried until they could cry no more, Mary and the other women at the tomb might hear the words of the two men at the tomb differently. With the bones gone, the only way to find hope was to believe that God had overturned the conviction and proclaimed Jesus innocent. The only way to find hope was to believe that Jesus was already resurrected.

As we look around the world and see violence and hatred and injustice the Easter story reminds us that this violence is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new story. It is an opportunity for new ways of seeing the world. It is a chance for hope to blossom and create new life in places of violence and pain.

What thing in your life or in the world is painful, confusing, grief-filled? What can the Easter story teach you about finding new life within this situation?

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Welcome to Easter

the-empty-tomb-george-richardson

http://www.fromthepulpitofmylife.
com/2015/04/empty-tomb/

A reflection based on Mark 16:1-8.

What an awful few days. First, Jesus was arrested and they took him away. All because of Judas, his friend who betrayed him—turned him in. The Peter denies knowing Jesus—denies having ever met him, let alone being one of his followers. Then I watched in horror as they beat him. They took him out of the city and made him carry his own cross for as long as he could. And then they crucified him like a common criminal. All he had ever done was love everyone. How is that a crime? And now everything is even worse. I went with Mary and Salome to his tomb. We didn’t even have a chance to prepare his body for a proper burial because it was the Sabbath. Now we can’t because he is gone. The man in the tomb said that Jesus had risen and would meet us in Galilee. How can this be true? Where did they put his body? We saw him die.

While he was dying someone taunted him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”

Perhaps the most difficult thing in life is to believe something that seems almost impossible. I want so badly for what I heard in the tomb to be true but I don’t know if I can believe it after everything that’s happened. I don’t know if I can trust the significance of this miraculous event. I want it to be true. I want to believe that death doesn’t have the last word in a world of violence and hatred and poverty. I want to trust that there is something beyond this horrible death and that the death means something.

Even if I believe what I saw and what I heard, why should anyone else believe my story, my experience on this first Easter morning? Would you believe my story? Would you believe that it’s real?

Mary of Magdela

What an awful few days. First, Jesus was arrested and they took him away–all because of Judas, his friend who betrayed him—turned him in. Then Peter denies knowing Jesus—denies having ever met him, let alone being one of his followers. Then I watched in horror as they beat him. They took him out of the city and made him carry his own cross for as long as he could. And then they crucified him like a common criminal. All he had ever done was love everyone. How is that a crime? And now everything is even worse. I went with Mary and Salome to his tomb. We didn’t even have a chance to prepare his body for a proper burial because it was the Sabbath. Now we can’t because he is gone. The man in the tomb said that Jesus had risen and would meet us in Galilee. How can this be true? Where did they put his body? We saw him die.

While he was dying someone taunted him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”

Perhaps the most difficult thing in life is to believe something that seems almost impossible. I want so badly for what I heard in the tomb to be true but I don’t know if I can believe it after everything that’s happened. I don’t know if I can trust the significance of this miraculous event. I want it to be true. I want to believe that death doesn’t have the last word in a world of violence and hatred and poverty. I want to trust that there is something beyond this horrible death and that the death means something.

Even if I believe what I saw and what I heard, why should anyone else believe my story, my experience on this first Easter morning? Would you believe my story? Would you believe that it’s real?

Easter Creates Doubt

The story of doubting Thomas is full of–you guessed it–doubt. The disciples doubt that they are safe and so lock the doors of the home where they have gathered. The disciples doubt that Jesus is alive and among them. The disciples doubt that there is any purpose in their carrying on the Jesus mission. The story continues with Thomas doubting the word of the other disciples and even doubting his own eyes until he can actually touch Jesus.

Doubt is a tricky thing. Doubt can make us cautious. If I told you I could sell you some ocean front property in Saskatchewan I hope you would doubt my word. Hesitancy and caution are forms of doubt which might protect us from making bad choices. Doubt is a good thing. When we bring doubt into our faith, it creates room for questions, for debate and for discussion. I believe that doubt is an essential part of our faith and allows us to struggle with God in our lives. It forces us to ask questions of the scripture and of the theology that has been passed to us. Some of these questions might be put aside as trivial. Some of these questions might lead us into a place of turmoil where we remain for years as we wrestle with whatever the question is. Sometimes our doubt may lead us away from the faith that we have been taught.

One of the things I love about the United Church is the ways in which we are encouraged to question, to doubt and to wrestle with what our faith means for us personally and what it means for the world in which we find ourselves. The question of doubt and its role in the disciples’ lives is central in this story.

Sometime after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples have gathered in a home. They have huddled inside, locked the doors, and pulled the curtains. They have gathered and yet they are afraid to gather. They doubt that they are safe.

Around the time of Jesus’ death, Caesar published an ordinance. We don’t know the exact date of this publication but it has to do with grave robberies and was discovered as an archeological artifact. The translation reads like this:

“Ordinance of Caesar: It is my pleasure that the graves and tombs—whoever has made them as a pious service for ancestors or children or members of their house—that these remain unmolested in perpetuity. But if any person lay information that another either has destroyed them, or has in any other way cast out the bodies which have been buried there, or with malicious deception has transferred them to other places, to the dishonor of those buried there or has removed the headstones or other stones, in such a case I command that a trial be instituted, protecting the pious services of mortals, just as if they were concerned with the gods. For beyond all else it shall be obligatory to honor those who have been buried. Let no one remove them for any reason. If anyone does so, however, it is my will that he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of tomb robbery.”[1]

The disciples doubt their own safety and their ability to protect themselves. We don’t know exactly what happened to Jesus’ body. Maybe the disciples knew. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe some of the disciples suspected others of removing the body. They are all potentially in a lot of trouble with the Romans. They might doubt the trustworthiness of the disciples they are now locked in a room with.

Their doubt might lead to panic. You can imagine the disciples being pretty frazzled by this point in the story. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples when he appears in the room with them is, “Peace be with you.” In other words: Don’t panic. Peace be with you is sometimes translated as keep the peace or be quiet. So when Jesus arrives he is giving the disciples some very practical advice. In the midst of fear and doubt don’t panic but pause and be quiet. In the quiet, listen for God. Breathe in the Holy Spirit. It was good advice that Jesus gave to the disciples and good advice for us too.

In those moments when the world seems like it will fall apart around us we can breathe, listen for God and move forward. Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples to be calm. He sends them back out into the world in the midst of their doubt. They are not allowed to hide because they are uncertain or because they don’t know what will happen next. Jesus expects that this little pause that fills them with the holy spirit will give them the strength and courage they need to continue his mission.

As the disciples try to figure out what happened on that first Easter morning and deal with their own disbelief they might be angry with each other about someone else’s response, something that someone said or did. They can hold onto that anger and hurt but Jesus is asking them to release it. The responsibility for a new way of living and for their response to these events lays with the disciples themselves and their treatment of each other. They cannot fulfil the Jesus mission if they are angry at each other and busy fighting amongst themselves. They must let go of the hurt that the others have caused them. But how do you forgive when you doubt someone else’s behavior, motives or opinions? Jesus is asking them to put some trust in the other disciples. Many of us know how difficult it is to trust people who have let us down in some way. We might doubt their ability to follow through on something or to behave appropriately. Doubt and trust are intimately linked in this story.

And then we come to Thomas. The other disciples had an experience of Jesus and they tried to explain to him what that experience was like. They asked him to trust that they had had an experience which was real. The experience might have been real for them but for Thomas, who had not been there, the experience was just a story—wishful thinking. The story wasn’t his own experience.

In the early church it was common for people to have visions, dreams and experiences that shaped their faith and their understanding of God. Having those types of experiences became the mark a mature faith. As time went on the church became more institutionalized and creeds developed. Faith came to mean affirming statements of faith rather than experiencing faith. Spiritual practices that allowed people to experience God on their own terms were discouraged and so faith became an intellectual practice rather than an experience.

The intellectualization of faith has meant that, in many cases, people who doubt and question no longer feel able to connect to the faith. I firmly believe that scripture and the stories of faith continue to speak to us but only if we are open to doubt. The doubt is the place where we can make meaning out of the stories and where our faith can come alive for us. Belief, only as an affirmation of creed or doctrine, sets walls around our faith and may actually limit our experience of the Holy as we try to fit God into particular images and structures.

Easter allows our faith to be expansive. It widens the realm of possibility. In the midst of a certainty that death is the end of life, Easter creates doubt. In the doubt is where we meet God. Our faith needs permission to doubt, to be cautious, to learn through our own experience. It is in the midst of our doubt that Jesus invites us to experience the risen Christ.

[1]. Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) pg 282.

No Risen Jesus on Easter Morning

As a teen and young adult, I never slept much between Good Friday and Easter. I spent a lot of time and energy wrestling with the story of Good Friday and Easter and the theology that I had absorbed surrounding it.

I had learned—like many of us—that Jesus was sent by God to die for our sins. As a teenager, it didn’t make sense that Jesus died so that I would believe in God. Jesus being sacrificed on the cross didn’t have any personal connection to my life but I had learned from evangelical friends that I needed to be saved in order for to establish my permanent place in God’s love.

My United Church didn’t have a lot to say about Good Friday. Jesus died but there wasn’t an emphasis on personal salvation but there also wasn’t any other explanation for the death. We often skipped over Good Friday. Who wants to spend time dwelling on death? And why do we call it “good” when someone has died?

And then there’s the resurrection itself. There’s the whole question of whether Jesus really was raised from the dead. Was it a physical resurrection or a spiritual resurrection? Maybe someone just moved the body and the whole thing is a big hoax. What does this story have to do with anything in my own life?

You can see why I didn’t sleep much over Easter weekend. Every year I would wrestle with these same questions or variations on them. And the gospel of Mark that we heard this morning doesn’t actually help answer the questions except to leave us with more questions.

The earliest manuscripts that we have of Mark’s gospel end after eight verses. We have a group of women going to the tomb. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance. Someone speaks to them and tells them that Jesus is raised. The women are afraid and run away and tell no one about what happened. End of story.

In this version, the raised Jesus does not appear to anyone. And the women who went to the tomb are so terrified that they will not speak. Is this because of the awe of the moment or fear that the Romans may want an explanation and having been at the tomb the women will be the first suspects?

The story ends and leaves us with questions: Who rolled away the stone? What happened to Jesus? If the women didn’t say anything, how do we even have this story? The story doesn’t try to prove that Jesus was raised to life.

But later writers weren’t satisfied. Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written. So as the other gospels are being written, someone else decided that Mark needed a better ending. So over the next 200 years there were additions made to Mark.

The second ending is short but it does tell us that the women overcame their fear at least enough to tell Peter and that Jesus appeared and gave the disciples a task. This is a bit more satisfying. Some loose ends are being tied up. The women followed through. Jesus was sighted and therefore alive and we are given a reason to believe the story.

The third ending is longer and embellishes the story even more. This later addition to the gospel is where we begin to see the theology that surrounds the resurrection being developed. In this version, there is no fear and angst on Easter morning. Jesus appears right away to Mary Magdalene. And Jesus appears to the disciples and here he supposedly offers salvation in baptism and gives super powers to the disciples. Then Jesus goes to heaven with God. So much of our understanding of that first Easter comes from these later additions to this gospel and the other gospels.

But the original writer of Mark didn’t try to prove the story. It was enough to affirm that Jesus died—we have the witnesses who were at the cross—and the tomb was empty on Easter morning. It isn’t important whether Jesus was actually raised or how he was raised but how the story has meaning for us. I can only tell you what this story means for me. Part of the wonder of the story is that it has a slightly different meaning for each person. What is central and what most Christians can agree on is that there is something powerful and transformational in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

You may have already guessed that personal salvation in the sense of believing in Jesus so I will have eternal life in heaven isn’t central to my theology. I do believe that we have a spirit that continues after our bodies die but I don’t know what form that takes or what that experience will be like. For me the transformation comes in allowing parts of myself that are unhealthy, that prevent me from thriving, to die so there is space for new life to be created. I also believe that Easter has far reaching implications for the world. The transformational power of Easter doesn’t stop with individuals. Jesus’ ministry was about changing this world. Mark particularly focuses on the political aspects of his ministry. Mark places Jesus in direct conflict with the Roman and religious authorities.

We might argue that empire existed in Jesus’ day and that there has always been poverty, violence and oppression. We might argue that there is nothing we can do to change these things. But if there’s nothing to be done, then what was the purpose of Jesus’ life and death? Jesus died for a cause that had no hope of succeeding. But it is in the resurrection that the meaning becomes more clear: Jesus stood against the authorities, against violence and while it appears that the evil won out, the resurrection asserts that good does overcome evil, that life does overcome death. Thanks be to God for this story of  hope.