(Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18)
Not long ago I happened to read a magazine interview with an Australian geologist named Abigail Allwood. About fifteen years ago, when she was in her late twenties and doing her Ph. D dissertation, she discovered the earliest known evidence of life on earth. She had found fossils of microbes – microscopic organisms – in rock formations three and a half billion years old. That’s a billion years after the formation of the earth, and a time when the physical environment of this planet was not what you’d call hospitable to the creation of life. Dr. Allwood’s work caught the attention of NASA, which hired her to work on the Mars Rover, as one of the principal investigators in the search for life on other planets. In the interview, she said something that’s stayed with me: “There’s nothing fussy, reluctant, and unlikely about life. Give life half an opportunity, and it’ll run with it.”
When I read that, it felt to me like a shout of joy; and if there’s ever a day we can really bust loose with that shout, this is it. And we shout in praise of God, the Creator of all life: life out of nothing; life out of death; God who, like life, is neither fussy nor reluctant; but is very often unlikely: on this day, more than any other.
Today is the day of resurrection. When we say that – when we proclaim it - it’s important to remember a couple of things. First: in the Christian church, when we talk about resurrection, we’re not just talking about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on Easter morning, 2000 years ago. That was the mighty act of God that we celebrate today and throughout the season of Easter; but it isn’t a one-off, it’s not a superhero story, God is not a magician who takes a coin and makes it disappear right before your eyes, and then suddenly finds it behind your ear. And second: “resurrection” does not mean that a dead body suddenly pops back up on its feet and starts walking and talking again just like it did before. There’s more to the story.
In Christian faith we sometimes refer to ourselves as resurrected people. What does that mean? And why is it important? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean that we’re “better”, somehow (if anything, it should mean that we know we’re not.) It would be more accurate to say, we are called to be resurrected people. If we’re really paying attention, the resurrection of Jesus is an act that affects our lives, by showing that death is not the last word. That resurrection inspires us, in the literal sense of the word: gives us new life, puts fresh air into our lungs; gives us new eyes to see; and through us reverberates out into our world, infinitely, even to the Easter egg hunt we’re going to have in a little while.
So how does this happen?
One way to approach an answer to that question is by looking at something that a number of the gospel resurrection stories have in common. All four gospels have resurrection stories; all have more than one. They’re all different, to some extent or other. But in each of the gospels, in at least one of those stories, the resurrected Jesus looks different, some way: to the point that his own followers, his closest friends, don’t recognize him at first.
We just heard one of those stories, from the gospel of John. Mary Magdalene stands outside the tomb, weeping, because Jesus’ body is not there: somehow mysteriously gone. And at one point she turns and sees Jesus standing there, but, John tells us, she doesn’t know it’s Jesus. He speaks to her: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Two loaded questions, to which she’s about to find out the answers (and evidently also doesn’t recognize his voice either.) Since the tomb is in a garden, she thinks he must be the gardener, and says, Sir, if you’ve moved him somewhere, let me know, and I’ll go get him.
And Jesus responds simply by saying her name: “Mary!” And at that, she knows it’s Jesus. In speaking her name to her, he is saying, I know you. I know who you really are. This is the voice of God. God knows each of us, infinitely, through all eternity; and speaks to us. Mary knows just what it feels like to be known by God, in the person of Jesus. That’s when she realizes that this man in front of her is Jesus; forget what he looks like: that’s nothing compared to who he is. And she lets him know she knows him by acknowledging their relationship: she answers, “Rabbouni!” (“Teacher!”) Because he has just taught her something new.
And once this happens – now that she’s aware that she’s in conversation with Jesus, her teacher – the first thing he says to her is, “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Now, this is not a lesson in the biophysics of resurrected life. What Jesus is saying is, Don’t hold on to the old me. Don’t hold on to the me you knew, the me you want to still be here with you. I’m alive, but in a whole new way; a way that’s still being born. But stay with me as I am; because I am here.
That’s resurrection. And we see resurrected life in Mary at the end of the story: when she tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”, she’s not saying, I’ve seen our teacher Jesus, and he’s just fine. She’s saying, I have seen God. For the first time.
This is how we are part of resurrected life. This is how we are resurrected people. Resurrected life is changed life: because it’s lived in the knowledge that death is not the last word. It is larger life, evolved life: so, like Jesus in these stories, of course it’s not going to look the same. We’ve had a great example of resurrection in the aftermath of the fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris last week, and I’m not just talking about all the money that’s been raised to rebuild it. I’m talking about the wound that was instantly felt throughout a country that has become (on the surface, at least) the most secular in Europe; a wound that has created an occasion of self-examination: if Notre Dame is just a tourist attraction, or a historical curiosity, why is the wound so deep, and so universal? The baptism of Christian initiates, which has taken place on Holy Saturday in Notre Dame for 900 years, yesterday moved out to other churches in Paris.
This is resurrected life: life that has somehow been touched by God – in whatever way, to whatever degree - and is thereafter lived more fully in the awareness of God: of the truth of God’s presence, God’s love, God’s infinite creativity: unfussy, unreluctant, and utterly unlikely. Thanks be to God.