One of my very favorite moments at the monastery of Grandchamp in Switzerland happens on a Sunday morning – every Sunday morning. It is the moment during the liturgy when it is the time to celebrate the risen Christ. You see, at Grandchamp, every single day, and every week, is observed as a kind of micro-liturgical year. Every week, you could say, is holy week – and every Sunday a joyous celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. The sisters wear white habits and during the sung liturgy that finally comes a moment, at this point when we are all gathered in a circle still from having taken communion together just a little while before, when the Priest raises his hands and says “Christ is Risen!” or, more accurately, “Le Christ est ressuscité!” and 60-odd nuns, young and old, as well as the many community members who worship in the huge converted barned used as a chapel, all say together “En verité! Il est resuscité!” “He is risen, indeed!” Only it doesn’t end there, because the practice is to repeat the declaration together in the mother tongue of every person in attendance. With an international sisterhood and being in Swtizerland itself, with four official languages, this is not a small commitment! “Christus is opgenstaan, Je hij is waaarlik opgenstaan!” “Kristus sampun wungu! Tuhu sampun wungu!” “Hristos diril-di! Hakikaten diril-di!” While I speak no other Javanese, if I’m in Indonesia and someone shouts “Christ is risen!’ I have repeated countless times “Tuhu sampun wungu!” and I’ll be all set for the moment. There is something profound about hearing the resurrection proclaimed not once, but usually around 10-12 times, over and over, in a chorus of voices – the majority of whom, mine included, are mispronouncing most of the words, but doing so with love and joy at the – a palpable joy – that Christ is risen, indeed, indeed.
I was raised with a strong sense that Christ died for our sins. In fact, those words could perhaps sum up the faith of my childhood. And it was an earnest faith. I remember, in fact, a Good Friday service when I was perhaps around 11 or 12. There was some kind of large wooden cross up on the raised platform in the church where I grew up, Meadowood Baptist, and very dramatic lighting as only the lights for the Baptistry were on, casting everyone in the pews into darkness and only illuminating this cross. I don’t remember just what the pastor said that night, but I remember a splitting feeling through my body as I graphically imagined the suffering of Jesus – the sweat, and screams, and blood – blood everywhere. I remember sitting on the pew nearest the back of the church and sobbing. I did this to him, I thought. Jesus died because of ME. It’s a vivid memory for me, one of my earlier emotional religious experiences. I had similar experiences on various Good Fridays and during summer camp altar calls – always with the same theological weight: Jesus died for our sins. It wasn’t until I was at Grandchamp, on a not-Easter-Sunday, hearing a swelling of affirmations of Christ being risen in Swedish and German and Lingala, that I had a similar emotional experience around the resurrection – Easter.
For so long, while I loved Easter candy!!!!, Easter and the Resurrection itself felt a bit – well – like an afterthought. A kind of ta-da magic trick. I was taught that the resurrection is how we know that Jesus really was God’s son and his death truly atoned for our sins. I was confused about that – doesn’t Jesus himself say: Blessed are those who believe without seeing? Why did we need a proof? This isn’t Euclidian Geometry! And if the resurrection was primarily a demonstration, then – to my mind – it didn’t really do anything did it? “Jesus died for our sins” isn’t that the heart of Christianity? But what does the resurrection actually accomplish?
Our text today comes from John 20. It’s not exactly that kind of resurrection narrative we might expect if the resurrection is a proof and demonstration of God’s power. No one actually sees Jesus resurrected! There’s not really an “UP From The Grave he AROSE!” Situation here! We witness the resurrection in John not as a narrative where we see some dramatic stirring of Jesus in his graveclothes, whipping off the shroud of Turin or otherwise from his face, and walking out of the tomb is a glowing triumphant light – the kind of picture in so many children’s Bibles. Instead, we witness the Resurrection through the eyes of grieving and rather perplexed disciples, and in particular through the eyes of Mary Magdalene – I’ll call her Mary M, since there are just a few Mary’s in the Bible, kind of like our Mary C, Mary W, and Mary H here at GMC! I like to think we are very Biblical in that regard.
Many sermons have been preached about Jesus first appearing in John to a woman, and to one who at least in history hasn’t had the most wholesome reputation at that. This isn’t the sermon on my heart – but I do want to emphasize – there is an incredible beauty and significance to Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene fully and revealing himself to her before even “the beloved disciple” – John the writer himself. And there is a profound affirmation of the role of women as bearers of God’s message and holders to spiritual power in that.
What I was most struck by as I read this passage though, was that it isn’t to the disciples by any means the story we tell today: and on the third day he rose again. This so-called resurrection narrative is really a narrative of visiting tombs, and of looking into tombs. Jesus didn’t go and find the disciples where they were at in this narrative, that comes later. Instead the disciples have to go to where they believe he is: in a tomb. Mary went to the tomb before dawn. I was thinking about that this morning, driving in my little Prius – whose name is Ermantrude by the way – to Houston Meadow to meet with the wonderful group of folks who walked today. There’s something particular in that time, in the smell of the air, a kind of anticipation but also an anxiety – what will this day hold. Before Dawn, Mary went to see Jesus in the tomb. After she ran and got the two disciples, they too peered into the tomb. And only after they left and Mary looked yet again into the tomb was when the angels appeared. This is our resurrection narrative, and yet it's really a narrative of looking into tombs.
And oh have we known much of looking into tombs this year. For any of us this is no metaphor of illustrative image. Our tombs this year weren’t all caves or crypts, but something logging into yet another zoom funeral, or for our healthcare providers watching another mobile morgue pull up to the hospital because space has run out, or boxes, horrifyingly small, holding but ash and bone. We have known so much of tombs. In fact, I wonder when was the last time that the entire world became so conscious and consumed by death and it’s possibility and horrors as these past 13 months? In this year, as the constancy and weariness of tombs and their possibility have consumed us, it would be really easy for me to preach a sermon on Good Friday. They say, actually, that all preachers really only have one sermon they repeat over and over in different ways. Mine – spoiler alert – is something like this: life is indeed far far more replete with tombs, death, loss, and unmaking and undoing of ourselves spiritually than we could have imagined or thought possible. So much so that we sometimes begin to question God’s goodness, our purpose, or whether it's all worth it – and yet it is only from that unmaking that we can have the possibility of being renewed and re-made, Threatened with Resurrection – so to speak.
I’ll be honest though – it’s easier for me to preach the first half of that sermon. After so many years as a hospital chaplain – for a while I started saying “Yes, life is so so so full of tombs, and hurt, and loss – and yet I believe there is something more”. But I’m not entirely sure I always know how to articulate what that something is….
A year ago we found a monarch caterpillar in our garden, so we brought her inside and named her Eric, and we watched her grow and one day she curled up attached to a twig and the next day she was inside a chrysalis. About the same time my parents also found a monarch caterpillar and my Dad named them Bob – clearly I come by quite a few of my quirks honestly – and set up a camera to capture a full timelapse of Bob’s development and emergence as a butterfly. That video got set to music in a both moving and slightly hilarious tribute to my Dad’s love for his caterpillar / butterfly and got sent around to all our family and friends. A combination of retirement and pandemic has left a few of us doing silly but fun things! My parents included! What’s incredible watching the video is that you can almost see the complete dissolving of the caterpillar inside the chrysalis. Because that’s what happens: the beautiful yellow and black caterpillar turns COMPLETELY to goo. Goop. Muck. The body dissolves. Talk about the experience of being unmade. There is essentially nothing left – just dead goopy cells. The chrysalis is in many ways a tomb. There is nothing except a few special cells that scientists, clearly for the benefit of future preachers needing a sermon illustration – named “Imaginal Cells”. These stem cells, these “Imaginal Cells” can only become activated when everything around them is dissolved and dead. Then they can begin to gather and replicate and multiply and from a few tiny cells who have the full imprint of the butterfly written inside of them, a monarch emerges. If that isn’t the image of resurrection – I’m not sure what is. I think many of us can resonate with a sense of our lives going to goop this year. Or at least something in our lives, a wedding we desperately hoped to attend or get married at!, a grandchild we thought we would see more of, a job we thought was sure…goop. And yet I have to say I find it interesting this has also been a year with a record number of new small businesses being established. It’s like there’s something very tiny, tiny and imaginal yet in our lives amidst the goop, ready to start multiplying…reforming…
It was a few years before I first stood in that barn-chapel at Grandchamp that I first heard Denny Weave, a long time theology professor at Bluffton, teach a Sunday School class at Madison Mennonite on his primary work – called the Nonviolent Atonement. In it he addresses a paradox for Anabaptists committed to Nonviolence, that while we believe so strongly that the WAY Jesus taught us to live is that of nonresistance and non-violence, the horrifically violent death of Jesus – if we assign it as planned by God’s grand design for our atonement and redemption – ultimately paints an image then of GOD that is violent, relying on violent means, a kind of “divine child abuse” to bring about God’s purposes. So instead of emphasizing that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, he emphasizes that GODs action was simply and only the resurrection – and Jesus was resurrected for our own redemption and resurrection. Finally! A theology where the resurrection isn’t an afterthought but even the main event! Jesus’ death, in a version of Weaver’s theology, I want to admit is something I’m remembering 10 years later, Jesus’ death is simply a tragedy of state sponsored violence. It was not planned. Was not necessary. That was the interpretation – perhaps wrong – of the later writers. But instead it was simply horrible, and yet God could bring something incredible out of it: resurrection and redemption. Jesus wasn’t meant to die, but to teach us how to LIVE. Jesus’ death doesn’t necessarily substitute for ours, but his resurrection opens up the truth and possibility that God can and does and IS transforming and resurrecting ALL.
I wonder if that is what the rather enigmatic part of our scripture today means. The two disciples who arrive at the tomb after Mary go inside (though only with some reluctance) and see the grave clothes. The writer of John – who may have been writing about himself here – notes that they “believed” when they saw this, but they “did not understand the scripture that he MUST rise from the dead.” In the cross-focused theology I was raised with it always felt like the point was that Jesus must die for us. But here, right in Scripture, it interprets it that Jesus MUST rise: the resurrection is the great accomplisher of God’s beautiful design for the earth.
Julia Esquivel, the writer of the poem John read today, a poem I think in many ways has come to be much of the theology of Easter that I espouse, lives in Guatemala during the horrific years of civil war. Julia was an activist and poet, speaking out openly against dictatorship, and her life was threatened. She applied for asylum in Switzerland, and ultimately was granted it and settled with a community of nuns there – the community of Grandchamp. I remember Julia. Though we never spoke much except a few shared words about laundry and kitchen needs, she always had a warm smile and a look of wonder on her face as she surveyed the beautiful pine trees surrounding the community. She never took vows at Grandchamp, that wasn’t her calling, but she became an integral part of the community, so much so that she voted on all manner of things with their professed sisters at their annual meetings, where I would see her a few of the summers I was there.
I like to think of Julia, conceiving this poem “Threatened with Resurrection” listening Sunday after Sunday to the cacophony of declarations, in French, Spanish if she was there, and many other languages: Christ is Risen indeed. Perhaps it was after one of those Sundays that she went back to her little apartment and penned these words.
“They have threatened us with Resurrection
Because they are more alive than ever before,
Because they transform our agonies
And fertilize our struggle.”
For Julia, and these days for me, the resurrection is so much more than a ta-da moment, more than a proof – there is power in it, a fundamental shifting in the universe. And it is not a one-time event, no, it is an invitation.
…so accompany us then on this vigil, and you will know what it is to dream, to live threatened with resurrection…
I was on a walk with a friend this week and remarked how hard writing an Easter sermon is for me. I have days when I’m still in that place of believing and hoping there’s something more – but maybe like the disciples at the tomb, believing and not understanding. With so so many tombs that feel piled up this year and these last years and a kind of inescapable engagement with death – it’s hard to say what I truly, deeply believe about resurrection. For that matter – I genuinely also believe in honoring the mystery and the unknowable in faith and spirituality – of looking at the scripture and theology less like a certainty and more like a prism that changes and shifts with each new angle.
But as I’ve thought about resurrection so much these last weeks, and wondered: is there anything on the subject I can say with certainty? I have come to this. I believe that despite all evidence to the contrary – and there is so much evidence to the contrary – that God is not a God of those tombs, but God is a God of resurrections – that all things, big and small, are in the process of being resurrected – certainly not in ways we could anticipate or imagine and not usually on a neat 3-day timeline. I believe that the poets usually get things a lot closer to right than I do, and yes, we are threatened with resurrection, beautifully and terrifyingly. I believe that “Jesus died for our sins” is not even CLOSE to the whole story, and the Good Friday wasn’t particularly Good and that Easter Sunday -- well th
at is SO SO SO Good. I believe that Jesus was resurrected because that is just who God is, imaginal, creative, redeeming, making all things new, and that is the kind of kin-dom we are invited to be a part of.
And so whether in Farsi, Swahili, Spanish, or Romanian: Christ is resurrected INDEED and we are welcomed into that renewal. Indeed, we are invited to
To keep watch asleep
To live yet while dying
And to know ourselves