Susan Brecht Jesus Lives
April 1, 2018 Luke 23: 50-56; 24: 1-12
The Burial of Jesus
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
The Resurrection of Jesus
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Years ago, the week after Easter, I was sitting in the chancel of the church where I was doing my seminary internship, surrounded by little ones waiting for my children’s message. “What is a disciple?” I asked. Aaron, the four year old sitting next to me blurted out “A friend of Jesus!” “Good answer Aaron.” But there was more. Aaron was destined to become a preacher. His little hand pumped the air with the words: “and, and, and.” “Yes Aaron.” “Remember last week when they went to see Jesus in that cave? - and he wasn’t there! He had just skipped town!”
Well, that’s one way of putting it. His parents later told me they had no idea where that came from. It’s one of those teaching moments you never forget.
Over the centuries Romans, church officials, scholars and archeologists have unearthed various sites where they believe Jesus’ body may have been laid, the most famous being where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was built, but no one knows for certain where it went in those three days before Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James came with their spices to anoint it. Yes, Aaron, Jesus seemed to have just skipped town.
But if he had, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. His disciples would have huddled in fear for a period of time until the Romans no longer appeared a threat. Then they would have re-emerged and gone back to fishing, which is what they did in other gospels.
There are those, even today, who believe his body eventually “was carried up into heaven,” as it is told at the end of Luke’s gospel. So far modern technology and space travel haven’t located him anywhere out there.
But for many of us, our faith doesn’t hinge on an empty tomb, or a missing body. For me the resurrection is not about the resuscitation of a corpse. It’s about where he showed up after he skipped town.
His body may have disappeared, but his spirit, freed of his body, continued to show up in various forms. Each of the four gospel writers had their own resurrection stories. They all agreed there was an empty tomb, but that’s about all they agreed on. Mark’s story ends with the women fleeing the empty tomb terrified and telling no one. That’s it - the end! As one of my favorite preachers, Fred Craddick exclaims, “This is no way to run a resurrection!” Later, scholars agreed, and tacked on new endings.
Today, in Lukes’ account, the women start out perplexed by their discovery, then fearful. Then they begin to put it all together with something Jesus told them before, and they run to tell the others who are hiding out. But the disciples treat the women’s story as an idle tale. That expression carried a far different connotation back then. The Greek word for ‘idle tale’ was used by medical writers to describe the babbling of a fevered and insane mind. No wonder no one believed them.
Peter did run to check out the tomb, and we’re told he returned home “amazed at what had happened.” Still, not much of a resurrection story. Matthew and John built on these stories, changing characters, one adding an earthquake. This is not quite the way we write history today, is it?
For me, the importance of these stories does not lie in the conflicting details, but in their meaning. You may believe what you want about what actually happened, but an empty tomb without meaning ascribed leaves us, like those eye witnesses, alternately perplexed, terrified, doubting and amazed. Left with the story of an empty tomb, I doubt if the story of Jesus would have reached our ears today.
What we believe is what we experience. And it is what Jesus’ followers experienced in the days and months and years after the empty tomb was found, that gave meaning to the Easter event. Decades later each evangelist wrote his own unique version based on the resurrection stories that had been passed down. Unlike many of the stories of Jesus, none of these stories appears more than once.
Luke has Jesus appearing unrecognized to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. Later, in the breaking of bread together, they realize who they’ve invited to dinner, just in time for him to disappear. In the gospel of John, Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener - until he speaks her name. One minute Jesus is walking through walls, and the next he is eating fish, and a doubting Thomas is touching his wounds. What are we to make of this? It doesn’t sound like events we could capture on our smart phones for posterity.
But within these stories, be they fact or legend, or a little of both, lies the meaning of the Easter event: “Jesus lives”! He is no longer confined to a body. He continues to be experienced after his death, in radically new ways. He is not among the dead, but among the living, continuing to guide and support us. That affirmation we sing in so many of our Easter hymns is grounded in the experiences of Christians throughout the centuries.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are gathered with the risen Christ on the top of a mountain in Galilee, where he instructs them “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This was a message they needed, to move them from despair to hope after the horrific events of those past days.
On rare occasions we hear stories of Jesus showing up in dramatic fashion, transforming lives today. One such story comes from Anne Lamott’s account in Traveling Mercies of her journey from the depths of despair to faith. It’s a resurrection story if ever there was one - a story of dying to and old way of being, and being reborn into a new one. It’s a story of Jesus walkin’ by her side on that long, difficult journey to wholeness.
Anne was a broke, alcoholic, drug addicted, bulimic, suicidal writer. That’s a lethal combination.
I was cracking up,” she writes. “It was like a cartoon where something gets hit, and one crack appears, with spider webs outward until the whole pane or vase is cracked and hangs suspended for a moment before falling into a pile of powder on the floor. I had not yet heard the Leonard Cohen song in which he sings, ‘There are cracks, cracks, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ I had the cracks but not the hope.”
She was living in a Good Friday world. There are a lot of people living in that world - overwhelmed, with dashed hopes, crushed beliefs, ready to give up. She still prayed, but was no longer sure anyone was listening.
“Then one afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me. I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose.”
She could no longer imagine how God could love her. It was at this lowest ebb that the light began to creep in. Out of nowhere (or so it seemed), it crossed her mind to call Bill Rankin, a priest that a family friend had told her about. Mind you, she wasn’t a Christian, and had no intention of becoming one. He listened to her story without judgement.
“He was about the first Christian I ever met whom I could stand to be in the same room with. Most Christians seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren’t… What did it mean to be saved?” she asked her new friend.
“I guess it’s like discovering you’re on a shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, ‘I’ll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.”
Anne went outside again, into the light, on long walks each week with Father Bill, and slowly, slowly, came back to life. But it would be years before she walked out of the Good Friday world into the light of a new dawn.
She used to spend Sunday mornings hung over at a flea market in Marin City. About 11 a.m. gospel music would come wafting out of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church across the street. It slowly pulled her in, at least to the doorway, where she would let the singing envelope her - songs she remembered as a child hearing with her grandparents.
“Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life. But I had to leave before the sermon.”
A little more light was seeping in - at least on these Sunday mornings. But it was during the nights that the darkness closed in. It was during one night … that her life began to turn around in ways she never could have imagined.
“I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink, or take a sleeping pill. … After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner … The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there - of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond
a doubt that it was Jesus. … And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant, hilarious, progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.
I felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squelched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with. Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze … But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen; you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hung over that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extra-terrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices, or something, was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling - and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said (expletive), ‘I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’”
This is what Easter is all about: opening the door of our hearts and inviting the Risen Christ in. She was now ready to start the journey out of the Good Friday world and into the full light of Easter. It would take time. With Christ’s help and the support of a loving church family, Father Bill and many friends by her side, Anne eventually poured that last bottle of pinot noir down the sink. A year after getting sober she was baptized, raised a son and taught Sunday school. A year after I graduated from seminary she delivered the commencement address at Pacific School of Religion, my alma-mater.
“Go, and make disciples, and remember, that I am with you.”
Jesus skipped town those many years ago, but he just keeps showing up. Easter came early for me this year. Jesus showed up as I stood with the multitudes the Saturday before Palm Sunday, a day we remember Jesus riding peacefully on a colt, followed by cheering crowds, as he came to confront the powers that be of his time.
He showed up during the March for Our Lives in the passionate voices of teens from Parkland and across the country - confronting the powers that be in our country - voices that mirror Jesus’ own - with a message that out of death can come life; that out of despair can come hope.
Out of profound grief Jesus’ followers started a movement. We call it Christianity. Out of profound grief, these teens have also started a movement, and I believe Jesus is walking alongside them - and us - the cheering crowds who are following their lead. I believe his spirit is in each one of us, no matter our religious beliefs, as we march to build the kingdom he spoke of so often, a world built on peace and love and justice.
For many of us standing among the thousands that day, we were filled with hope - that transformation is possible in our broken world, no matter the obstacles ahead, It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. As Susan Gast writes: “New life never comes easy.” Would you read with me her poem that is printed on the front of your bulletins:
Nothing is born without effort or pain.
Easter’s dawn is not the pastel water color of springtime’s return.
Easter breaks with thundering upheaval,
with the ocean’s weight and salty power
crashing over the bleak rockscape of our hiding places,
dissolving our fears with Holy Terror.
New life never comes easy.
Nothing is born without effort and pain.
This day we witness death itself
Giving way, giving birth, giving WIDE birth, To Life.”