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The Crisis of Easter

April 6, 2015

“The Crisis of Easter” John 20:1-18 © 4.5.15 Easter B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Mary stood outside the open tomb of Jesus, weeping. Someone else may have found hope in a crypt without a corpse, but for the young woman it proved nothing. The entrance to the sepulcher may as well have been the event horizon of a black hole that her dreams had entered, never to return. Not even the marvelous vision of angels or their reassuring words could convince her that thieves had not come during the night and taken the body of her Lord away. So deep was her sadness that when the One she sought approached her and spoke, she did not know it was he.

It’s only when Jesus speaks her name that Mary recognizes him. She knew that voice; it belonged to the source of her healing, the shepherd who knows and calls his sheep by name, who had led her to green pastures and still waters. This was no gardener, but the One who had banished the demons that split her into not one person, but seven. Thereafter she was utterly devoted to him, and now that they had been parted, she longed desperately to see him again.

Upon hearing her name, Mary greets Jesus excitedly with a title of deep respect. Then she hugs him tightly and won’t let go. He had been taken from her one time; she was not about to let him go again. The scene is reminiscent of one from Song of Songs: “All night on my bed I looked for the one whom my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one whom my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him. The watchmen found me as they made their rounds of the city. [I asked:] ‘Have you seen the one my heart loves?’ Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves. I held him and would not let him go….”

Mary was feeling the joy of reunion Jesus had promised. Her Lord and friend had returned, and now Mary wanted things to be as they had been. She and the other disciples would laugh and talk and dine with their beloved Master. They would sit at his feet and soak up his wonderful words as if they were the first rain on parched land after a long drought. And every time she looked at Jesus, Mary would remember the marvelous gift of wholeness he had given her.

But our Lord had other plans. Though he felt deep love for Mary, he asked her to break the embrace. It could never be the way it was. The disciples would never again have Jesus with them in any permanent physical way. He was going to the Father. His presence with his followers now would be in word and by the Spirit. They would still be bound in covenant love, but the way the relationship was lived out would be forever altered.

And that is the crisis of Easter. We rejoice in the great glad message of hope brought by this day. We exult in the triumph of God over the forces of death and hate. The words “he is risen” are among the most powerful in all of human history. But before that sentence comes “he is not here.”

The questions those first century disciples faced were very practical ones: If Jesus is not here, who is going to be our leader? Peter? Mary Magdalene? The one this gospel mysteriously calls “the other disciple”? Early documents show that at least there was some controversy between the first two named about their role. And the race to the tomb also implies some competition between Peter and his unnamed brother in faith. In addition to questions about leadership, the community had to ask about mission and the content of the message. What does it mean to proclaim and believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Before, it was Jesus who taught. Did this new relationship mean the Twelve and those around them now had to be teachers? Before, it was Jesus who healed. Who could or would do such a thing now? Before, Jesus had defied the power brokers and the cautious religionists. Would it now fall to frightened and insecure men and women to stand before the Jewish Council or the Roman governor and proclaim the Word? If they did so, would their fate be the same as their Lord’s? The renowned preacher Fred Craddock, who died last month, had this penetrating comment on our story: “Clearly the problem was not that his followers doubted the resurrection; on the contrary, believing it was the source of difficulty.” How would the disciples and all subsequent generations of believers live?

The crisis of Easter places us in the limbo of growing up. We are rather like the teenager who is discovering his or her own way of being and doing, and perhaps frequently runs afoul of parents’ wishes, values, and expectations. He or she wants to be free to explore, to dream, even to fail. Yet at the same time, the young person wants boundaries, needs to know he or she can come back into the refuge of home. So it is that we long for the freedom of spiritual adulthood, yet crave the safety of childlike, even infantile, dependency. There are a great many words to describe the feelings we have, the same the disciples must have experienced: lost, scared, orphaned, alone, incredulous, outraged.

It’s the challenge of this day to own those feelings as real, yet also to see in the words “he is not here” some good news. If our Lord refuses to let Mary cling to him, the reason is “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What that means is clarified by another comment of Jesus: “It is best for you that I go away; if I do not…the Spirit will not come; the Spirit will remain with you forever; greater works than I have done, you will do, because I go to the Father.” He is not here, because he has ascended and is seated at the place of honor in heaven. He is not here, but he has sent his Spirit, and we hear his word. He is not here, for he is where he has always been: out in the world, among the poor, the needy, the vulnerable, calling us to follow. He is risen, and he imparts his resurrection life to the community of faith and every believer. He is risen, and therefore he is not confined to one place and time, but lives in and through his people in every place and time. He is risen, and we are to be his body now.

Easter is a watershed experience for the Church, not only for the note of hope, triumph, and joy it sounds, but also for the summons to maturity it issues. We are to be the Church on our own, yet not on our own. The writer Robert Raines put it well: “God trusts us enough to leave us alone in this world, in the Spirit.” The Church lives without touching and clinging, yet believes Jesus’ word and has his Spirit. Because our Lord is risen, we can, and we must, grow up.

The Chinese word for “crisis,” so I have heard, is written by juxtaposing the character for “danger” with the one for “opportunity.” The idea is that if you are willing to risk the danger of the time, you will find that it turns into an opportunity. That’s wisdom from the East we can take to heart, in the crisis of Easter and every day of our pilgrimage.

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