Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church,
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciple,
“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20)
The truth of the matter is, the Resurrection is no big deal—not biblically speaking. In the Bible, people rise from the dead all the time. Jesus himself raised Lazarus (the brother of Mary and Martha), and he also raised the daughter of a man named Jairus. Even in the Old Testament, Elijah the prophet raised a widow’s son. No, rising from the dead was no big deal.
I had never realized that, until one day at Morning Prayer it hit me over the head, as we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death. There it says that when Jesus died, “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs … they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Mt. 27:52-3). There were dead people walking around everywhere!
Yet not much is made in scripture of all these other resurrections—maybe that’s why we overlook them. Once Lazarus comes out of the tomb, for instance, we hear nothing more about him. Jairus’ daughter is likewise forgotten, and even all those saints wandering around Jerusalem simply drop out of the story. So simply being raised from the dead wasn’t enough to attract much attention—not at least, in the biblical mindset. Perhaps it was a bit like those near-death experiences we hear of from time to time in our own day: they are modestly interesting to us, but not really life-changing.
So we are left with the question: what was it about Jesus’ resurrection that made such an intense impression on the disciples, so much so that—well, so that we are here today still celebrating it after all this time? There must have been something very different in his case from all those other resurrections!
We read today from the gospel of John, leaving off at the point where Mary Magdalene announces to the disciples that she has seen the Lord. If we had pushed on and read a bit further, we would have come to the account of the disciples’ own encounter with the risen Jesus. They are in a room together, behind locked doors, huddling in fear because of all that has happened. And suddenly, Jesus comes among them, and as his first words to them he says, “Peace. Peace be with you.”
The staging of this scene gives us unmistakable clues about what’s going on: the last time the disciples were together was in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. There, Jesus had given them a new commandment: that they should love one another, as he loved them. Yet from that moment, the disciples fall further and further away: they gradually scatter as Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. So now, gathered together again after his death, they have every reason to be bitter, angry at themselves, and afraid of seeing him. But suddenly, here is Jesus standing among them, and rather than rebuking them, he begins to reknit the fellowship that he had begun to create among them in that Upper Room. “Peace be with you.”
Over time, the disciples come to realize that what the risen Jesus offered to them was a new vision of what human life can be. In his peaceableness, his forgiveness, his love, they catch a glimpse of how they too might live. They realize that in following him, they can be better people than they ever imagined possible. No longer trapped in the violent, manipulative patterns of corrupt society, they discover that they are capable of living honestly, forthrightly, lovingly. They find that they can live not for themselves, but for others; that they can craft their life around a pattern of self-giving, rather than self-interest. So it was not just Jesus who was resurrected, but also the community of love which he had called into being through his life, and which had itself also become a casualty of the cross.
Up there, in the icon banner, you see an image of what this new creation means. There is the resurrected Jesus, reaching down into the place of the dead to draw from it none other than Adam and Eve, our mythical progenitors. Having lost the first creation through their own fault, Jesus now invites them—no, pulls them really—into the new creation. It is as if he says to them (to quote an ancient 4th century write),
O sleeper, awake! I did not create you to be held a prisoner by death. Come, rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. [We are the new creation.]
What you seen happening in that picture says to us that the bedrock meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is nothing less than the remaking of humanity itself. The same Spirit that hovered over the deep and brought life out of nothing in the first creation, now hovers over us, bringing new life out of our spiritual death. Looking at that icon, we are encouraged to see that the way things happen to be now, is not the way they have to be—there is in Christ a new opportunity. That’s why (as one theologian put it), “Christians go on being rather tiresome, constantly saying, ‘It could be that human beings can live into a bigger space, a higher vocation, a greater glory’” (Rowan Williams, The Sign and the Sacrifice). Perhaps that’s why the fire at Notre Dame this week touched many people so deeply: it was an architectural emblem of God’s vision of how much more noble human life can be than we often allow it to be. Losing the cathedral, we also lost something of our confidence in ourselves.
But Jesus doesn’t just pull Adam and Eve up into this new creation, only to leave them once again to their own devices. John’s gospel records that on that first Easter day, having extended his peace to the disciples, Jesus also breathed on them his Spirit, empowering them to live the new life he was offering to them. Over time, the disciples came to realize that whenever they lived life following his ways, they felt strangely strengthened to do so, sustained by this Spirit, far beyond what their own capacities might be.
They discovered, in other words, that the experience of living the life in Christ is indeed as if one had been made new, recreated. And so they remembered that on the night before he died, Jesus had promised that whenever they broke bread together in his name, and to remember what he had said and done, he would be there at table to encourage and inspire them—which is of course exactly what we are doing here today, and what we do every Sunday of the year. It is the experience, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, of God “eastering in us,” shaping us into a new way of being.
So look around you. Look at the community gathered in this room. Here is the community that is the true fruit and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Here in this room, and wherever Christians are gathered on this holy day, is the community that is his risen life. So here, too, is our true human destiny as God’s new creation. Amen.