by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 24:1-12
Let’s get any Hollywood version of the resurrection right out of our heads. There was no trumpet fanfare as the risen Christ, a la Houdini, burst the bonds of death to appear before his followers. In Luke’s version, not even an angel greeted those discovering the empty tomb that dawn. Instead two men, albeit in “dazzling clothes,” confirmed that Jesus was no longer there, but they did not report when his resurrection occurred. Moments before? At midnight? When “the women”—considered unreliable witnesses—told the other disciples the grave was empty, they were not believed. But according to Luke, Peter was curious enough to race back to find only the discarded graveclothes in the tomb. We have many details around the discovery that the tomb was empty. But no Gospel account says that someone witnessed the actual resurrection.
So the odd question that has dogged me this Holy Week is this: Was Jesus’s resurrection something that happened in a very precise moment in time, or did his resurrection happen over time. I am not trying to explain a literal, medical, physical phenomenon. I’m “leaning to” (1) a broader meaning of Jesus’s resurrection. And if resurrection is a process rather than an instantaneous moment of magic or medicine—what might Christ’s resurrection say to us about how we can develop capacities for and habits of resurrection?
Recall the Theodore Roethke poem with which we began our service. Consider the way in which life-out-of-death happens mainly below the surface of things and in incremental ways. Like the dry cutting from the plant Roethke describes coming to life, Jesus’s life perhaps sprouted again from the dry stick of his abused body in such an unobservably slow process that it was impossible to point to the precise moment it came to life again.
Interestingly, the gospel writers do name an exact moment in time during the crucifixion when the daylight was overcome by darkness and when Jesus died on the cross. The synoptic Gospels all specify that at noon, as Jesus hung on the cross, “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33, Lk.23:44) and then at 3:00 the curtain in the temple was torn in two and Jesus “breathed his last” (Lk. 23:46). So unusually precise is this detail that I’m imagining some soldier near the cross looking at his anachronistic watch and calling out, “Time of death: 1500 hours, Jerusalem Standard Time.”
Luke also reports that Joseph of Arimathea received permission to place Jesus’s body in a tomb as “the women” followed to see where he was buried and then they left. But the Gospel writers did not name a specific time when life returned to the body of Jesus in that tomb. With no human witness, Luke in effect quietly draws the curtain on the scene in which Jesus is raised to life, so the moment of resurrection, the climax of Christian story and theology, in unknown. At the point in which today’s Gospel lection begins, the timekeeper has returned to the narration, but resurrection has already happened: “On the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Lk. 24:1) the women found the stone rolled from the tomb and the body gone. The Gospel writers seem interested in the precise time Jesus died and, later, in the timing of his appearances to others. But they are all silent about the moment God brought life out of death. Something happened. Something extraordinary. But perhaps resurrection did not/does not occur in a specific, reportable instant or even within our notion of Time itself.
What matters is not when but THAT hope was rekindled. What is undeniable is that Jesus’s followers were also, in a sense, re-animated to re-engage in the Resurrected One’s name. Maybe resurrection is not a discrete event but a liminal and ongoing process unbounded by time. Clearly, Jesus followers derived meaning from the resurrection.
At a precise place and time, I was baptized into Christ’s church at the age that Hayes is now. But I’ve experienced most of life as one complex event blending subtly into the next without a clear demarcation between the end of one phase and the beginning of another. For most of my life I’ve been a follower of Jesus and lover of God without any singularity to mark precisely when I have crossed over into a distinctively new stage in my faith journey. For instance, I can’t tell you that on one specific morning long ago I woke up and decided to stop reading the Bible in a literalist way. Nor can I tell you that there was a specific moment years ago when I recognized and repented my homophobia. I’ve experienced gradual spiritual evolution, an often subtle and sometimes erratic process. With hindsight, I can see that I once named as spiritual high points some stages in my life that now seem marked by pretty immature understandings and behaviors. There were times I felt too proud of my way of following Jesus or I elevated a small and personalized God, a mere totem I’d constructed and carried to reinforce my sense of control. And God knows I remain a flawed follower of Jesus trying to “lean to” his Way.
If you are waiting for a specific moment for Christianity to crystalize for you, or for your own selfish self to reform, or for your faith community to be perfected, or for your God to give you some unambiguous sign that he/she/it/they is/are truly in charge of every corner of this universe and you have nothing to fear . . . you may wait a long time. Instead, jump into the fullness of God and “lean to beginnings”—to use Roethke’s metaphor —and let’s journey together into God’s eternity.
If Borg and Crossan (in our current DVD series) are correct in contrasting John the Baptist’s ministry as a monopoly to Jesus’s ministry as a franchise, we as Jesus followers must regularly ask ourselves, “And how can I/how can we as a church do that Jesus-y thing in this day and age?” In other words, how do we, as part of the Jesus franchise, continue reproducing what he started and which includes the work of resurrection?
I’m going to name one specific way we can assist God’s resurrection aims and proclivities. As we’ve noted, Christ’s resurrection occurred on that Saturday: the Jewish sabbath, the day after Jesus was crucified, the day before his empty tomb was discovered at dawn. So in a sense, Jesus “rested” on that sabbath in keeping with his tradition. Maybe a countercultural observance of Sabbath is just what we need to revive our tired or dispirited or ineffectual selves. I’m speaking here out of my own need rather than my own example. Simple rest can contribute to better mental and physical and spiritual health. Science says that as we sleep, our brains are doing important restoration of our memory. By simply sleeping well and resting as needed—-a sabbath rest—-our bodies and spiritual selves get rebooted in a nightly resurrection.
What happens here on our own Sabbath mornings may seem unproductive by this world’s standards. We are not earning money this morning or producing goods and services. Instead, we are restoring our spirits by singing and praying and practicing gratitude and developing meaningful relationships and reflecting on the things of God. Time for worship may seem like time lost when you need to be adulting, but worship is at least one place where real and vital inner work happens and where public work for justice develops. Like the struggling cuttings that appear as dry sticks in Roethke’s poem, our lives can, when rooted in sabbath work, sprout greenly as we “lean to beginnings.”
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the two men ask the women visiting Jesus’s tomb. Why do you and I look for life amidst the things that sap our energy. You know what those things are for you. I know what they are for me. We can see daily evidences of both death and resurrection. If we cannot experience resurrection power for ourselves and our world, then Jesus’s iconic resurrection is void of meaning. His resurrection would not hold its power if we did not see in myriad ways evidences of ongoing resurrection.
So why does the Church itself keep looking for the living Christ in the tomb of moribund theology? We know there is a more bracing and healthier Christian theology that connects us to a gracious and compassionate God. Let us be witnesses to that good news!
And because resurrection has to be expressed poetically, and because our Lenten theme this year was care for the earth, here’s one last poem for Easter Sunday: a celebration of sabbath, of creation, of resurrection: “Another Sunday Morning Comes” by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir. (I’m providing a link to another blogger’s use of this profound poem. I don’t have permission to copy it.)
PRAYER: Resurrecting God, help us enter into the way of resurrection, where we yield the old to the new, where we turn loose of deathly affections and move toward life-giving actions. Give us a love of sabbath practices to un-jangle our nerves and connect us to one another and direct us in the path of Jesus and bring us back to life. Amen
(1) “Cuttings (later)” by Theodore Roethke https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/cuttings-later/
(2) “Another Sunday Morning Comes” by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir. http://meditativemeanderings.blogspot.com/2010/08/another-sunday-morning-comes.html