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A Resurrection Community

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Apr 01

Text: John 20:1-18

Today all the earth awakens and comes to life! The sun rises; we arrive in a parade of flowers; we sing, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We come together in joy, as new life dawns on Easter day. It feels especially good to sing out after the long winter we have had, and we welcome this newness, this joy.

But before dawn on Easter morning, before any alleluias form on the lips—John tells us—Easter begins with tears. It begins with loss, pain, and grief. In the pre-dawn hours, Mary Magdalene visits Jesus’ tomb and she weeps. We want so desperately to banish the pain of Holy Week, to put behind us the desertion, betrayal and cruelty of Good Friday, and awake to a bright new day. We want to skip ahead to the good news in this story we know so well.

But we begin with the tears of Mary Magdalene, who like so many sisters, mothers, and friends, has lost a loved one to state-sponsored violence and terror. Mary’s tears hold us for a long moment. She lingers at the tomb and the angels ask, “Why are you crying?” The angels may be perplexed, but we know why. Mary cries tears of grief, loss, bewilderment, terror.

In this world of sorrows, we shed so many tears for our children, siblings, friends. I think of my daughter’s High School friend who accidentally overdosed on fentanyl a few days ago and now lies in a medically-induced coma.

Or Jocelyn and her son, whose story we lifted up at our Good Friday service—Brazilian immigrants who fled their native country, to escape domestic violence and gang violence, and hoping to find asylum here in the U.S. Instead, as undocumented immigrants, they have been taken into custody and are being held in separate facilities hundreds of miles apart from each other. Jocelyn, at a detention center in Texas; her fourteen-year-old son, at a shelter in Chicago.

I think of Sequita Thompson, whose grandson Stephon Clark was shot dead in her own back yard in Sacramento. An unarmed black man, carrying nothing but a cell phone, shot in the back. Through her tears this week, Sequita Thompson said, “They didn’t have to kill him like that.” And in downtown Sacramento yesterday, hundreds gathered to remember Stephon Clark, to speak out, to decry his death, to rise up for justice.

Easter begins with tears. John’s gospel reminds us that Easter is visceral, emotional, immediate. The disciples and the women try to make sense of the empty tomb. What has happened? For Mary, Simon Peter, and the Beloved Disciple, the resurrection is astonishing, perplexing, awe-inspiring.

But for them, the resurrection is not a question of abstract belief. It has a sort of gut-punch urgency to it. Mary weeping, Simon-Peter and the Beloved Disciple running off to tell the others, Mary wanting to cling to Jesus, once she recognizes him. The resurrection stirs deep feeling and powerful connection. It is about touching, naming, and recognizing each other in the aftermath of trauma.

For folks like us who have never met Jesus face to face—who were not there that Easter morning—resurrection can become an abstraction, a philosophical conundrum. We wonder, “What actually happened that day? How do we make sense of something we have not seen with our own eyes? How can we trust in something that cannot be verified empirically? What do we believe? What is resurrection, anyway?”

Behind me is a banner—familiar to many of you—that says anastasis, the Greek word for resurrection. The literal meaning of anastasis is up-rising. Anastasis can be used as a simple, uncomplicated verb, as in “to rise up from a seated position.” (Ask someone to demonstrate.)

Anastasis has come to mean—quite specifically—the resurrection of Christ, which is why our Easter banner proclaims anastasis!

But the word anastasis has a second, rich theological meaning, rooted in beliefs about God’s redemption of all people at the end of time. Anastasis connotes the rising of all humanity at the end of this present age.

The fifth chapter of John’s gospel articulates this. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming and now is here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out…” (1)

Powerful words. Is the empty tomb on Easter morning such a moment—when all who are in their graves will hear the voice of Christ, and rise up? All who are lost, all who suffer, and all who mourn? Grieving families and whole communities dealing with injustice and complicated loss? Is the tomb open for us as well—to rise up from our sorrows? To rise to new hope and new life?

I think so. And in John’s gospel, it all hinges on Mary Magdalene, who moves from private tears to public proclamation. Mary, who recognizes the risen Christ and runs to tell the world, “I have seen the Lord!”

Through Mary’s witness, Mary’s voice, her words of truth, Jesus’ rising—alone, and in the dark—becomes the dawn of a bright new day for all.

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan and his wife Sarah Sexton Crossan have just published a new book called, Resurrecting Easter: How We Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision. Since 2002, the Crossans “have taken twenty trips across Eastern Christianity [they say] from Byzantine Tiber to Syriac Tigris, and from Russian Neva to Coptic Nile,” studying the iconography of the resurrection. (2)

They studied countless images of Christ’s resurrection, depicted in art, and here’s what they noticed. In Western iconography Christ rises “triumphantly and magnificently—but utterly alone.” (3) While in Eastern Orthodox iconography, Christ’s resurrection is depicted as an event for all humanity.

Here’s an illustrative example. In Cappadocia in central Turkey, is a small cathedral called the Dark Church, which was carved out of volcanic rock a millennium ago. Dating to 1050, the church’s walls are covered with frescoes illustrating the life of Christ, from annunciation to ascension.

These ancient paintings depict a resurrection scene largely unfamiliar to the Western church. As he ascends to heaven, Jesus simultaneously reaches down to Hades—the realm of the dead—and pulls all humanity with him, up from the grave.

In many frescoes, Jesus is shown grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve as he rises—bringing them up with him—from the realm of death. The Crossans conclude that in Eastern Christianity, resurrection is not an individual event—experienced solely by Christ—but rather, a communal event, shared by all humanity.

Even if these images are startling and fresh for us, they depict something we Western Christians already know deep within us. Jesus has opened for us a new way of being. The whole world is touched by his gentleness and mercy, his refusal to answer violence with violence, his insistence on being with us in our suffering. With Christ, we are never alone. In Christ, tears are never our last act.

Friends. What if resurrection is not a perplexing, mythic event from a distant, incomprehensible past? What if anastasis is real and immediate and present—Jesus rising up and opening a new way of being? What if we, too, rise? Can we allow ourselves to be grasped by the wrists and pulled from death into new life?

Will we live as resurrected people? Will we be a community, seized by new life and hope? Are we ready to go and tell that we have seen the risen Lord? Are we ready to go and tell the good news—that love is stronger than death, that violence can kill the body but it cannot kill the spirit. It cannot extinguish memory. It cannot diminish truth. It cannot destroy a movement?

The powers of empire have done their worst, and still we rise!

1) John 5:25, 28, 29a
2) John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “Rising up with Christ,” Christian Century, Jan. 19, 2018, p. 22.
3)Crossan and Crossan, p. 23.

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