Living Christ

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd        April 21, 2019          John 20:1-18

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Over two millennia ago, something happened in the Garden of Gethsemane that profoundly altered the world. We have differing first-hand accounts and are left with many questions. How is it that Jesus’ tomb came to be empty? Mary initially assumed that grave-robbers stole Jesus’ body. Others propose that Jesus was resuscitated—he didn’t actually die. Most Christians acknowledge Jesus’ death and that he was resurrected in some way. But even these biblical resurrection accounts leave us with questions. If Jesus’ body was resurrected, how is it that the resurrected Christ could walk through locked doors and walls? Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes that our scripture gives us “painfully untidy stories” of the resurrection.

And so, we might be better off by joining Mary in turning our attention away from the how of the empty tomb to our lived experience of the transformative power of the risen Christ. It was not the sight of Jesus, but the hearing of her name that helped Mary recognize the risen Christ. When she ran to hold him, he withdrew saying, “No—don’t hang on to me. I have called you by name to go to others and give them the good news. For you are now my body. You are my hands and feet.”

That was the transformative moment for Mary. She would never see him again, but she could live him. He would give her courage to speak the good news of his resurrection to the other disciples. The risen Christ would give her comfort and strength that she could then give to others. For she now bore his body.

Rather than trying to argue and rationalize the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we might be better off simply trying to live it, although it is no simple matter. Tom Long writes, “A Christ whose resurrection occurs only in our minds has no right to call us to put our bodies on the line for justice.”

Orthodox icons of the resurrection usually show the risen Christ with others, taking their hands and pulling them out of their tombs. George Herbert, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest of the early 17th century wrote these words:

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise.[1]

 

And in another poem:

Arise, sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.[2]

 

What keeps us entombed and prevents us from taking hold of the out-stretched hands of the risen Christ? What shackles us down and keeps us from living the transformative power of the risen Christ?

Brokenness and heartache, fear and worries, frustration and anger, self-doubt and self-obsession—there are so many different shackles and tombs that keep us hanging down. Their rasping voices seem to be increasing in volume as they incite fear and violence in our world.

More than ever, we need to hear the counter-voices of life and love that can overcome hate and death. We need to hear the song that Mary first gave to the world in the words of George Herbert:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

such a way as gives us breath,

such a truth as ends all strife,

such a life as killeth death. [3]

 

It is ironic that it sometimes takes death to find life. More than once, I have heard someone say that it wasn’t until they received a terminal diagnosis that they began to fully live. And yet, as Craig Barnes writes, we’re all terminal[4]—it just happens a little more prematurely for some.

A terminal diagnosis can certainly turn our lives upside down and shake us into a new way of living. But so can Christ, who rose from death. There is such an incredible, transformative power that Christ is offering us, which can give us courage and strength, words and action to face death itself and live Christ’s love in the world.

There is a growing divide in our world and in our country with the rise of extremism. Even this morning, on Easter Sunday morning, we have just heard that coordinated bombs killed over 200 people in Sri Lankan churches and hotels. They are attributing these terrorist attacks to an extremist Buddhist group, but it doesn’t matter the religion. Extremists come in all shapes and sizes. I have recently read that the number of white supremacist groups in Canada has tripled in the last few years. We have seen an alarming rise in the level of violence directed towards our own Jewish community in Winnipeg.

I am deeply concerned about these seemingly impassable divides and beg us to do everything we can to lay cross of Christ over these chasms. With Christ’s compassion, let us listen deeply to one another. With Christ’s courage, let us have difficult conversations. As the body of Christ, we have the responsibility and the power to transform fear and hate with love and compassion.

Just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fear loomed large throughout the world and particularly throughout the United States. Americans were putting up their flag on buildings all over their country. One man drove by his church and noticed that it did not have an American flag, so he went to a store, bought the last one in stock and returned to his church with drill in hand. As he was installing it on the church sign, the minister drove up and asked what he was doing. “Well—I noticed that there was no flag at our church, of all places, so I’m taking care of it.” The minister responded in dismay, saying that the church should never be aligned with the state. That is what happened in Nazi-Germany. They entered a heated argument. The man noted that two of his children were in active military service and that if he could not pray for them in his church, then he was leaving. The minister replied that of course they would pray for his children, along with all those who served in the military, but that did not mean they would fly the flag and the minister removed it. The man stormed inside the church and sat in a front pew, repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over until he stopped shaking. He heard someone slip into a pew behind him, but didn’t turn around as he knew who it would be. They both sat together in silence, looking ahead at the cross. Finally, the minister’s voice, low and broken, said, “What are your children’s names? If you tell me, then I promise to pray for them every day until they come home.” The man later said that it was the only fight he ever won by losing. The minister “might have said the same thing,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “for in one fell swoop the cross vanquished both their foes.”[5]

As the body of the risen Christ, may we have the courage and compassion to reach out of our shackled tombs, lay the cross over those impassable divides and live Christ.

 

Come, my Joy, my Love, my heart:

such a joy as none can move,

such a love as none can part,

such a heart as joys in love.[6]

 

[1] George Herbert, from “Easter”

[2] George Herbert, from “The Dawning”.

[3] George Herbert, from “The Temple,” as arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Voices United 628, vs. 1.

[4] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2004-04/we-re-all-terminal

[5] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2001-12/true-victory

[6] George Herbert, from “The Temple,” as arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Voices United 628, vs. 3.