Christian scriptures make a point of saying that Jesus appeared only to believers after his burial. They may not recognize him at first, such as Mary Magdalene supposing he was the gardener, or they may have doubts, such as the story of Thomas, or he may become known to them only after offering him hospitality, such as the travelers on the road to Emmaus.
A vision of Jesus is only possible with a willing “suspension of disbelief,” a participation in the story, a welcoming of “the anointed one” in our hearts and our minds and our lives, our church and our neighborhood and our world.
Last month, at a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, I picked up a book, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, and began using it in my morning prayers. I have found it uplifting because, while Pope John Paul II emphasized the repeated biblical phrase, “Be not afraid!”, Pope Francis finds the central message of scripture to be “that your joy may be full.”
His emphasis is on evangelization, bringing good news over doctrine and rules. To quote Francis, “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [Christians] should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction.’”
He points out that “there are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” later writing that in our preoccupation with the day-to-day business and preservation of the church, “a tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.”
This is what could have happened to those who followed Jesus had they dwelt on their absolute grief and dejection and disappointment. Mary Magdalene might have remained at the cemetery and the other disciples might have remained behind locked doors for fear of “the powers that be.”
But somehow, mysteriously, mystically, they recognized that Jesus was still with them, showing compassion as he did to Mary, breathing Holy Spirit upon his disciples. If only we could hear Jesus speak our name, as he spoke Mary’s, if only we could feel Jesus’ breath and take that breath as our own, infused with his Spirit.
Of course we can.
I gave this post the rather cheeky title, “Whose Resurrection Was It, Anyway?” because Christians often forget the resurrection is not all about us—it’s all about Jesus. We get caught up in our fears of death, and want the promise of living eternally, and the resurrection seems to fulfill that promise. But the first Christians were not concerned for their own longevity.
In Jesus, the first Christians had witnessed the kingdom of God in their midst. His words and his deeds, his love and his hope, were alive in them. It wasn’t their lives they were interested in preserving, not even the life of the church—as witnessed by countless martyrs to Christ’s cause—it was the life of Christ they wanted to take into themselves, a life that gave them an eternal perspective, a spacious and gracious perspective that could love and transform the world.
Jesus wasn’t about simply redeeming us. Jesus was about redeeming the world, reconciling the world to its maker, to its lover, to its inspiration. The followers of Jesus, the first Christians, “got” that, and that’s what we need to “get” as well. They saw themselves as the Body of Christ resurrected for the world.
Just as Jesus, they discerned we were all children of God. And just as Jesus, they had the “ah-hah” that we were all God’s beloved children—even before conversion, even without conversion, thus we could love our enemies, we could love those who persecute us, we could love even those who mocked and tormented and tortured and executed Jesus in the most painful and humiliating way: the cross.
“Forgive them for they know not what they do,” Jesus prayed to God from that cross. And to his disciples on Easter he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
If we plan on retaining anyone’s sins, we’d better be prepared to have our own sins unforgiven, because Jesus taught his followers “if you forgive others their trespasses, your God in heaven will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will God forgive your trespasses.”
Pope Francis calls the church “to be like the father of the prodigal son, who always keeps his door open so that when the son returns, he can readily pass through it.”
If people are going to see the resurrected Christ today, they’re going to have to see it in us. They’re going to have to see it in those who follow Jesus, sharing and showing and celebrating his compassion and mercy, not just personally and spiritually, but politically and incarnationally, economically and globally.
“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus urged Mary. Jesus can’t be confined, whether to a tomb, to a church, to a doctrine, or even to this world.
But Jesus can be located—in our hearts, in our midst, in our service to the community, in our work for justice and equality and peace. Jesus can be located in the stranger and in “the least of these.”
And with God’s help, Jesus may even be located in church.
This is taken from my Easter sermon for Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.
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