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“I am amazed that Jesus would be willing to return…”: Easter Sunday

Sunday, April 9, 2023

“I am amazed that Jesus would be willing to return,” writes John Dear (the Jesuit peace activist, not the tractor). “He has been betrayed, denied, abandoned, and executed; all his friends left him alone to die. How would we feel about such friends after such rejection? We would be angry, hurt, resentful; we would probably have nothing to do with our friends ever again. Yet, here comes Jesus, forgiving us, calling us to be his community, intimately inviting us to touch his wounds and giving us God’s own peace. Jesus keeps coming back, forever making peace with humanity.”*

Maybe we can understand Jesus coming back to one of his closest companions, Mary Magdalene. (And here, also, to Mary, mother of James and Joses.) Their devotion expressed in how they show up. They had been among the group of women, “Many women… looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.”

Showed up, and ministered, when the disciples fled. Or in Peter’s case, worse. And in Judas’s case, much worse. And yet what does Jesus do? He entrusts the women not only with this message of good news, but reveals that he hasn’t given up on the people who had given up on him. “Go and tell [them] to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Years ago it was written, in a popular Anglican book about theology: “There is no more convincing argument for belief in the resurrection than…” NOT the empty tomb, NOT the Shroud of Turin, NOT the written word in scripture or from historians. “There is no more convincing argument… than the existence of the Christian Church. It is not on Calvary that we find Jesus’ disciples.”** Because the Cross’ approach leads to his betrayal. Leads another to deny him. And the others run away. And yet somehow, despite this failure, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. The Marys bring the message, and the Church is born, as a community founded on the surprising experience of hope. And so convinced will they be, that they persevere in spreading this hope to others, often in situations of great peril. We don’t have any video recordings of the resurrection; our Gospels don’t describe the actual moment… But what we do have is the example of a community that was constituted (or, re-constituted) because of their hope, and their complete trust that the Cross was not the end of the story. And we have the writings that flowed and evolved out of the worship, recollections, and reflection of this community.

I appreciate something bishop and author N.T. Wright has said: “look at Jesus…. until you’re not just a spectator, but you’re actually part of the drama which has him as the central character.” So my suggestion is that if you or if we are looking for something in the drama of today’s Easter gospel and Easter service, and the drama of the readings and liturgies of the past week, then we are approaching them not just as interesting literature, but as somehow having the ability to reveal to us the wonder and the reality of Jesus’s ongoing power and presence with us, and in the world. It doesn’t mean hearing or reading these stories uncritically. Nor does it mean worshipping the Bible. But it does mean hearing and receiving and processing them in community — and each of us bringing something unique to the table. It means hearing them not just as spectators; but more as the urgent and amazed message of people like the Marys who brought the message of Easter hope to the other disciples. Someone once said: ‘approach the scriptures with the same attention that you do when you receive a handwritten letter from a friend.’ Because you’re not just a spectator, but a conversation partner.

So who are some of the other characters we’ve met and journeyed alongside these last days, in the Gospels of Matthew and John, and maybe if we’ve dipped into our Bibles at home, in the other two books? We’ve encountered people who truly stepped up at difficult times. Alongside the Marys, there were the other women who were part of Jesus’s movement, and were witness to his death, and watched as he was placed in the tomb. There, too, were Joseph and Nicodemus, who lovingly cared for Jesus’s body after his death.

There were characters involved in moments of great intimacy: the unknown woman and Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus with costly oil, before his death. The women of Jerusalem who meet Jesus on his way to Golgotha, and weep over him. The disciple whom Jesus loved, standing at the foot of the Cross, alongside Jesus’s mother. And through that experience, they form a new family together.

And there were bystanders: people suddenly, by circumstance, caught up in the action: Simon of Cyrene, pulled in to carry the Cross. The slave in the garden who loses an ear. The criminals crucified beside Jesus. Barabbas (whose name, ironically, means “Son of the father”), who is released instead of Jesus — I wonder how he felt in that moment? And the police and soldiers, ‘just doing their job.’ Or the centurions, more cruelly, arguing over Jesus’s possessions.

We met the chief priests and elders who ‘conspire’ with malice. There’s Judas, who for money, or because he lost faith in Jesus’s way, came to conspire with them. And then false witnesses, and people who jeer at Jesus as he hangs on the Cross.

People who held great power: Caiaphas; Annas; and Pilate. The anonymous crowds echo chambers gathered millennia before the advent of social media: the crowds looking for help, and change, and power on Palm Sunday. The crowd with torches and clubs at Jesus’s arrest. The screaming crowds at the trial, and at the Cross.

And as I’ve mentioned, Peter, so confident and yet so quick to deny Jesus. The other disciples who scatter like lost sheep. But also the people who remain something of a mystery: the young person, following the action, who barely escapes being captured, shedding his cloak in the process, and running away naked. The people who saw the disciples taking the donkey and colt in Jerusalem, who, Jesus told his friends, would know what to do. And the ‘certain person’ encountered by the disciples in Jerusalem, whom Jesus says will provide them with the room to celebrate their last supper together.

And then today: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. An angel, “like lightning,” matching perhaps the brightness of the star that marked Jesus’s birth. And the guards, who became, ironically, “like dead men” at this sight, and at the news of Jesus’s renewed life.

Do you — can you — find yourself, somewhere amongst these different groups of people? Do we find insights about human, especially group behaviour? Do we find truth about what lies within the human heart? Do we locate ourselves amongst the innocent, and guilty bystanders? Or amidst the anonymity of the crowd? Are we heartened by the example of those who, at great danger, follow Jesus through the dark valley of the shadow of death?

But more than that: do we find ourselves in the Easter story? We hear these stories as individuals, but also as Church, as gathered community. And today we heard of good, great news. As that one person said, “I am amazed that Jesus would be willing to return.”* But return he does. He returns to the group of disciples who fled, who scattered, who denied him. Real, flawed, limited people. So there is hope for you. There is hope for us. Eternal life is a long process, reaching into the here-and-now. And we’re still in the beginning stages, 2000+ years of birth pangs, toward something different, something transformed.

And the message that we, as community have heard and received in this particular story today is quite simple:

    Do not be afraid.
    Jesus is not done, not gone.
    Go be with others who are caught up in the person and message of Jesus.
    Jesus will go ahead of you, and meet you in your gathering with others.
    There may still be fear. But it’s an excited fear. Not the constricting fear of the guards at the tomb.
    And as you go, you’ll find that Jesus will meet you — meet us — on the way.

Through the courage and faithfulness of the two Marys we heard of today we, like the disciples, are recipients of this message of good news of great joy. Into a world that can be so cruel; into lives that can be both beautiful and broken; and into a community that comes from this reality, but is not destined to be limited and defined by it: Jesus came. And Jesus came back. Amazing, isn’t it? “Yet, here comes Jesus, forgiving us, calling us to be his community, intimately inviting us to touch his wounds and giving us God’s own peace. Jesus keeps coming back, forever making peace with humanity.”* Now let us go and do likewise. For we will find that he will meet us on the way. Amen.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Jesus the Rebel: Bearer of God’s Peace and Justice (Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 176.

** James Pike and Norman Pittenger, The Faith of the Church, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1951, 1961), 99-100.