Resurrection of the Lord, Year A
9 April 2023
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
The musician Nick Cave recently released a book, consisting of interviews he gave during the pandemic. The book was preceded by his blog1 where Cave regularly speaks with people about life and loss, and the things that have the capacity to hold us and to keep us sane.
A recent interview took place at the church in London where Cave attends when he is in London. The article finishes with these sentences,
“As we say farewell and head towards the cloisters, the verger says: “See you Sunday, Nick.”
“Yeah, Sunday,” he replies, “And then I’m on tour.”2
In another interview he speaks about his younger self as a half-formed person, something the older ones among us may also say about ourselves. The change Cave is speaking of is not a conversion experience but the experience of tragedy, and he says that somehow the experience of tragedy ‘completed him as a human being, and allowed him to turn around and see the world and see everyone in it as suffering individuals, as broken individuals, and understand the perilous nature of life and the value of life.’
And a little while later he says, “Well, I’m certainly sceptical of my beliefs – put it that way. I like going to church because church seems to be an ordered place that allows me not to believe, as much as it allows me to believe. I have both of these things going on inside me.”3
It is his ability to hold belief and scepticism together that, for me, makes what he has to say so valuable. There is no glossing over of death and pain, no quick escape to the resurrection and the afterlife. And in this, Cave is thoroughly biblical even if that may not be what he intends. There is no resurrection without first dying. We cannot rise to life without having experienced death. Christians believe that our salvation was wrought on the cross, not the empty grave, even though the empty grave is important and it is what we came to hear about today.
Some of us were raised in the church, some were not, and sometimes those of us who were not raised in the church will hear a reading differently, because we don’t assume we already know what it means. When I come to today’s Gospel reading I hear resurrection loud and clear. I hear alleluias, I see divine messengers, and I hear Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, the music of the hymn we will sing at the end of the service.
But the truth is that except for divine messengers, there is none of that. What we encounter instead is confusion and disorientation. Mary Magdalene had not expected to find the stone rolled away, and for all her faithfulness, she had not expected the resurrection. In fact, when she cannot find the body of Jesus her grief is multiplied. As to Peter and the other disciples, we are told that they had not yet understood the scriptures.
Despite our Easter joy we notice that the report of Jesus’ resurrection is subdued. This helps us see two things. We see that had John and the other evangelists wanted to convince us of the resurrection, they would have written a different account. We see that there is no manipulation going on in these texts. All they do is share the experience of Jesus’ friends on Easter morning, which was not all joy, and they invite us to join in, maybe a little like Nick Cave who experiences the church as a place to explore life and faith amidst of human limitations and suffering.
That the report is subdued also makes sense because there is no resurrection without death. Dying can happen in many different ways. In that wonderful passage4 in which St Paul says that ‘we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,’ Paul speaks of having died to sin. There are ways of life we can die to. And every time we experience loss we experience death, and in acknowledging this there is the opportunity to rely on God in Christ, rather than on self or our own expectations, because our own expectations will only get us this far.
I hope that all this does not disappoint you. In case that you are undecided, let me assure you that I believe in Christ’s resurrection from the dead and that I believe in the resurrection of the body as we confess in the creeds. But the road to resurrection leads through death in the way that for Jesus it led to the cross.
A couple of weeks ago we encountered the story of the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. His sisters Mary and Martha had called for Jesus but Jesus arrives late, Lazarus has already been dead for four days. Martha meets Jesus as he is approaching their town. She says to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (…) 23Jesus says to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha says to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’5
Rising on the last day is good and fine, but it does little to take away her grief now. And so our question about the resurrection is not only one for after we have died a physical death, but it is a question for today.
That question is answered in the Lazarus story when Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” Here the question is no longer only about the afterlife but it is about today, about now.
You see, I am not certain that I would be a follower of Jesus if following Jesus was only about being rewarded after I died. Maybe I would be, but that would seem too much like a lottery. I am a follower of Jesus because Jesus redeems my deaths now and Jesus leads me into life today.
We who live on this side of death are like Martha. We know little about the resurrection, except that we may or may not believe in it. But like Martha, her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus, we can be in the presence of Jesus who is life and who gives life. Remember that the One who died on the cross is the One through whom all things came into being. The presence of God is what we seek. The presence of God is what will give us life amidst the deaths we face, all of them.
On Friday we read the story of the passion. Pilate was the Roman governor ultimately responsible for Jesus’ murder. After the soldiers have flogged Jesus, and mocked him with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, Jesus again appears before Pilate and the people. And Pilate says, “Behold the man.” The word used here, is not the gendered word for man, but it is the word for human, Mensh in Yiddish.
When God created the world and all that is in it, God created us in God’s own image. Yet the fall marred God’s image in us. When Pilate says, “Behold the man,” he is not saying ‘look at this man,’ but the evangelist John has Pilate say that here at last creation has been completed. Here at last is the perfect image of God.
Because we know that Jesus is human and divine, we know that to live with Jesus in the community of the church means not only that in Jesus we become truly human, but we know that with Jesus we also become divine. This is what the church father Irenaeus meant when he said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.
This invitation into the life of God allows for conversations between faith and scepticism. It has room for our scepticism, because Jesus is God’s invitation to become human and divine, to become whole even in a world of pain and death. It is this Jesus who says to his disciples, “In the cosmos you have suffering; but take heart – I have conquered the cosmos.”6
Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
4 Romans 6
5 John 11
6 John 16:33 in the translation of David Bentley Hart, The New Testament – A Translation, Yale University Press, 2017 New Haven, Ct