Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Jesus, the rabbi of Nazareth, died on the Cross but has come back to life. Despite everything we know about death, God raised him to life again. On the Cross, Jesus willingly sacrifices himself for sins he was innocent of. Because of this forgiveness, the cosmic death sentence is taken away from us. We can take joy in and celebrate new life today and new life in the world to come.
One question that terrifies Christians about this story is: “So what?”
This message can sound like mythology, cosmic transactions between God the Father and God the Son. The story, though maybe attractive or lovely, seems remote. I have heard a friend tell me, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that Jesus died for my sins and all that. Sure, I can believe that.” The problem for him isn’t doubt or unbelief but rather that the whole thing doesn’t seem much to matter. “So what?” Should it really mean that my life could somehow be different than it was before? Should it really be much different than the lives of people who don’t follow Jesus?
It’s a question that should terrify Christians: “so what?” Christians have failed in their job if all we can say is that this Easter day, this day of Christ’s resurrection means nothing more than an express ticket to heaven when you die. If that’s all we have, then our message can’t go much deeper than Blue Oyster Cult: “Don’t fear the reaper.” We might have “a fever that only more church bell can cure,” but we sure don’t have a faith that can make a difference in how we live or can make a difference in the world outside these church walls.
Can this Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection point us to a deeper, more meaningful life?
When we read through the resurrection story as John tells it, the character of Mary Magdalene starts to point toward an answer. Mary visits the tomb where Jesus was buried and finds it open and empty. She mistakenly thinks that someone has taken Jesus’ body away, who knows where. As she worries over the possibilities, she hears a voice behind her. She turns and sees Jesus. She doesn’t recognize him as Jesus, but mistakes him for the gardener. She should have known Jesus immediately once she turned around. Mary was close to touch him, but had no idea who he was.
Who knows why she can’t recognize him. For now, I’m not going to worry about the “why” of Mary’s mistake. The simple fact of it is a clue enough for us to dig deeper.
How could she forget walking for days and days all over Israel together? His simple, impoverished lifestyle? His constant preaching of a glorious vision of the kingship of God?
Mary probably heard his message of the Kingdom hundreds of times. In his most popular sermon, he said the Kingdom was supposed be like this: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. The birds neither sow nor labor, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! Can you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Why do you worry about the rest? The lilies grow without toil; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. So do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. Sell your possessions, and give alms. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (See Luke 12)
How could she mistake Jesus, his message and his lifestyle for the cemetery gardener?
Her mistaking Jesus for someone else is exactly the problem that Christians have. We call ourselves followers of Jesus, but the Jesus we talk about bears little resemblance to the Jesus who wandered across Palestine to proclaim this new Kingdom lifestyle. Surely, like Mary Magdalene, we haven’t recognized this resurrected Jesus or what his message means for us.
Jesus’ constant message was, “Do not worry. Do not fear.” But do we ever. A consumer culture pressures us to buy more, more, more even though our jobs and our economy stretch out paychecks to the breaking point. Facebook shows us an instant gallery of how everyone you know is happier and doing better than you. Our political leaders seek to divide and polarize with fearful messages about the worrisome future the other guys will bring you.
Jesus’ homeless and poor lifestyle reflected his knowledge that “God will provide.” Yet so many of us are working more and more hours so that we can provide, as though all our success depended on us alone. We drink caffeine by the gallon to force our bodies back to jobs that don’t satisfy us. During the day we scarf down fast food meals while commuting. Many depend on that beer or glass of wine at night so that they can unwind and put their bodies to sleep on schedule so that we can repeat the deadly cycle all over again.
God wants us to enjoy this Kingdom message: “Do not fear, do not worry, do not toil and spin. I will provide.” We have replaced that wonderful Christian lifestyle with lives that are over-tired, over-anxious and over-stuffed with all the wrong things. As Christians we should be the first people who can model, as St. Paul puts it, “a more excellent way.” Instead we reduce Jesus’ message into a cosmic transaction but that leaves us so vulnerable to the “so what?” The fault isn’t some secular bogeyman, but rather “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Christians like you and me have misrepresented the Gospel message. Like Mary Magdalene, non-Christians legitimately could wonder whether or not we have recognized the resurrected Jesus at all or if we have mistaken him for the cemetery gardener. Thankfully, as Gospel stories always go, we get a second chance.
John writes that when Mary didn’t recognize her Lord, he simply called her name, “Mary.” She turns a second time and recognizes just who it is she is looking at. (John says she “turned” but she was already facing him, so her “turning” was more about her recognition than a physical movement.)
In looking a second time, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus. She was looking for his dead body but instead found him standing, talking right there, close enough to touch! He is risen, he is alive! In recognizing Jesus, I don’t think Mary had her mind filled with orthodox doctrine of a substitutionary atonement or with “evidence that demands a verdict” about how she could badger others into accepting her story.
Rather, in seeing Jesus raised to new life, Mary Magdalene is filled with awe and wonder, realizing that Jesus’ message of a Kingdom lifestyle was resurrected along with him. In overcoming death, God has said “no” to all those “spiritual forces” that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Not forces like voting for the wrong party, not made-up sins like smoking and cussing. God has said “no” to the soul-damaging forces of political and religious division, bigotry, fear, over-consumption, over-work, over-worry.
God spoke a loud and resounding “yes” to Jesus, his message and his lifestyle: seek less and not more, give the extra away, where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
For us the question is not something like, “Can we acknowledge that Jesus’ tomb really was empty on that first Easter Sunday?” Rather, the question is, can we, like Mary Magdalene, take a second look at the living Jesus who is front of us right now? Can we agree with God that this bodily resurrection of Jesus means more than assent and agreement on a millennia-old historical event? Can we believe that when God raised Jesus’ body that God also raised up the life-giving message of freedom from anxiety, worry, sleepless nights and soul-destroying jobs?
Let’s look again at Jesus. Let’s look a second time at his message, “The birds neither sow nor labor, and yet God feeds them. The lilies grow without toil. Of how much more value are you than the birds or the lilies! Can you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Why do you worry about the rest?” Could we find ways to live more simply by Jesus’ word to “Get rid of what you have, and give to the poor. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Let’s look again at our own lives. Four out of five American adults say they live simple lives already. Maybe I’m the fifth American adult in the room and you all are already doing it. I suspect that among those four-out-of-five, they aren’t really living very simply. It just doesn’t stand up to the stories I hear from so many families. It’s rather like how every American thinks they are an above-average driver, when that’s not only statistically impossible, but it doesn’t stand up to my experience of all those jerks on the highway.
Like Mary Magdalene, Jesus may be calling you by name to this new kind of lifestyle. Maybe you can’t quite believe in the resurrection. Maybe you do believe it, but can’t accept that it really is God’s joyful pleasure to give us a new way of living. If we believe the Christian message is about God saying, “No! No! No!” like we are naughty toddlers, then we are, like St. Paul says, “most to be pitied.” The Christian message, is that God has said “no” to the soul-crushing burdens of life by raising Jesus from the dead. But remember the positive side, that God says, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to the life that Jesus lived of simplicity, honesty, love, peace and goodness, set free from anxiety and worry. God, with that “yes,” calls you by name like Mary to take a second look at this Jesus and all that he has to offer you.
Bishop Tom Wright says that “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection if we don’t throw our hats into the air? Is it any wonder that the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?”
So let’s celebrate! Let’s sing as loud as we can, enjoy the chocolate and the candy and the ham and the lamb. Let’s start celebrating like children who can’t wait to open their baskets and plastic eggs. Let’s not stop this joy, today, tomorrow, for fifty days or even for our whole lives, so that the whole world might see and knew that the resurrection of Jesus invites all people to the joy of this Kingdom life, which is God’s great pleasure to give to you.