4-1-18 “Tombs & Cocoons,” First in the series, "Emerge!"
The image for our new series, Emerge, is that of a butterfly, its metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly long a symbol of resurrection in Christianity. The cocoon in which the caterpillar encloses itself like the tomb in which Jesus of Nazareth was laid; the emergence from the cocoon of a brilliantly beautiful creature with colors, characteristics, and abilities unknown to the caterpillar reflecting the Risen Christ of the resurrection, so much more to the world than the prophetic preacher, teacher, and healer who entered three days before. Resurrection is an act of God that, like metamorphosis, results in a totally new life on the other side. And there were two resurrections on that first Easter Sunday. But before we get into that, let’s watch this:
“Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” John writes. Still dark. The sun has not yet risen above the horizon but Mary has gone to the tomb. Darkness and light are key themes within John’s Gospel: Nicodemus goes to Jesus in the dark of night; Jesus’ claim to be “the light of the world.” The world is still dark when Mary comes. She didn’t come to anoint his body with the women as in the other gospels, she comes to mourn. She comes alone.
The world was without light, as was Mary. Everything Jesus’ followers thought would happen, everything they hoped for, died for them on the cross. She was lost and grieving, perhaps sleeplessness had her up in the pre-dawn hours. Only a week ago everything was so good! People praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, wanting to make him king, palm branches and cloaks spread on the ground to honor him; how had it spiraled so quickly out of control?
As she approached the tomb, shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!” still echoing in her disbelieving ears, she sees that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She doesn’t enter the burial space. She doesn’t shout “He is Risen!” She doesn’t assume resurrection - she assumes the worst - his body has been taken! So she runs. She runs, we’re told, to Peter and John, and breathlessly tells them what she has seen.
The disciples race to the tomb to see for themselves. Arriving at the tomb, John bends down to look into the open tomb and sees the linen burial cloths lying there. Peter enters and sees the same thing, noticing that the cloth used to cover the face was rolled up separately and placed apart from the other pieces.
Why this detail about the placement of grave clothes? John Chrysostom, an early church father, says the reason is clear: “If anyone had removed the body, he would not have stripped it first; nor would he have taken the trouble to remove and roll up the [face cloth] and put it in a place by itself.” No, John is telling us that more is going on than a mere invasion of the body snatchers.
And the story continues and says that “the other disciple,” meaning John, “also went inside,” and that “He saw and believed.” But believed what? Don’t be too quick to assume that he believed Jesus had risen, because the very next sentence says, “They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.”
So, even as now both the celestial sun and the Son of God have risen, those in our story remain immersed in a deep darkness. And we know this darkness don’t we? Mary’s darkness is our darkness: the death of a spouse or a loved one, the end of a relationship, a tragic or traumatic event in our lives or in our world, leaves us, like Mary, disoriented, surrounded by gloom, uncertain of what happened to the joy and happiness that was just there, so close that we can almost touch it…almost.
As the other disciples return to where they were staying, Mary returns to the tomb, crying as she steps into the dank emptiness. Where once lay folded grave clothes are now seated two angels, one at the head and one at the foot - a detail only John provides that points to something he wants us to understand.
In the first Jewish temple, the lid of the ark of the covenant, which held the tablets of the Law, was the mercy seat of God, the symbolic throne of God.
It was there that the priests would go once a year to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed lamb to atone for the sin of the people. And carved at each end of that seat were angels, one at the head and one at the foot.
John is saying that the place where Jesus was laid has become the mercy seat of God, that Jesus’ death now atones for the sin of the people. It’s a powerful message and image easily missed without context.
The angels ask Mary, “Woman, why are you crying?” Too shaken even to be frightened by the sight of angels, who at every other appearance in scripture have felt compelled to tell those they encounter “fear not,” she simply answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
This exchange is shaped by more than grief though.
As Paul Simpson Duke tells us, she understands that “the absence of his body is catastrophic. There is nothing even residual of him, no touchstone of remembrance… The powers of darkness have not only killed him, they have wiped out all trace of him. His tomb is gutted. Its horribly open mouth taunts Mary with news not just of death but of nothingness. The evidence is that the claims and promises of Jesus were, like his tomb, empty.”
But no sooner does this realization occur, than she’s confronted with the very same question. “Woman, why are you crying?” And then, “Who are you looking for?”
She turns and sees Jesus standing there, but doesn’t recognize him as Jesus, assuming he’s the gardener. John, which begins with “In the beginning,” recalling the Creation stories of Genesis, is the only Gospel that places the tomb in a garden; another powerful image. The Creation myths begin in a garden and it’s there that paradise was lost. In Revelation, the story ends in a garden with paradise restored. Now in John, the most significant redemption event in the New Testament occurs in a garden. What once was lost, now is found, in a garden. The damage unleashed in Eden is undone here. Jesus, the new Adam, imagined as a gardener, has come to restore Creation. Powerful imagery.
But Mary pleads to this gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus had taught a gardening lesson of sorts only a week before, remember?
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24) A teaching comes to life, which she doesn’t yet see.
“Mary,” he says to her. Only her name, nothing more. Remember Jesus’ earlier words: “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name…they know his voice.” (Jn 10:3,4). She didn’t recognize his voice before, but in hearing him call her name, suddenly, amazingly, resurrection becomes real to her. In an instant Mary is transformed. “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light!” Mary suddenly sees, like Paul with scales falling from his eyes, she sees who it is who stands before her, who calls her by name.
Transformation can be both disorienting as well as reorienting.
“Mary,” Jesus says, penetrating the grief that enshrouded her, grasping hold of her and drawing her into a whole new world, a new reality, a new life.
It’s hard to imagine all the emotions that must have coursed through her in that moment; and yet, we can imagine that after just a heartbeat she responded at first with a shy smile, wiping away the tears that flooded her eyes and choked off her voice, and then broke into a grin of recognition and delight, breathing “my teacher.”
Mary’s reaction, understandably, is to reach out to embrace her Teacher and Friend. Jesus’ response to her is not a rebuff though; her embrace cannot deter or disturb whatever lies ahead for Jesus. No, it’s more an invitation to experience him in a new way, to see him with new eyes – here and everywhere!
“Do not hold onto me, I’ve not ascended to my Father.” The resurrected Jesus is known by his wounds - remember Thomas won’t believe until he touches them - and it’s Jesus’ woundedness that joins him in solidarity with a suffering humankind everywhere - freed from the limitations of space and culture.
“Do not hold onto me” might be understood as “don’t hold onto your ideas of me.” We try to hold onto Jesus with our creeds and confessions, our dogmas, doctrines, and denominations. But Jesus won’t allow any group to possess him - he is universal - his declaration is that in his emergence he now belongs to everyone. The Jewish teacher and healer is now global in impact and scope, known in many ways in many cultural and ethnic contexts, becoming as diverse as the colors of the rainbow, creating a Rainbow Resurrection. Resurrection liberates our imaginations to experience God in the most surprising ways and places – in our enemies as well as ourselves!
Resurrection disorients and then re-orients, and is about experiencing miracles when we least expect them. Resurrection emerges from within our own deepest needs when, unpredictably, a burst of divine energy changes everything, making a way where there is no way, and triumphing, as Paul proclaims, over the forces of sin and death. When we least expect it, resurrection happens to us – just as it unexpectedly happened to Mary, then to Jesus’ skeptical first followers, and later, to the apostle Paul. The good news is that resurrection is not an anomaly: a one time event from long ago that has nothing to do with us. Jesus is risen and that is a glorious thing!
Christ is risen and we are transformed! But there’s more!
Bruce Epperley puts it this way, “We live in a world in which resurrections occur and are offered, often subtly in the midst of hopelessness and fear, each moment of our lives. Jesus’ resurrection is part of a deeper energetic…divine presence,” he says, and that we miss it because it is literally everywhere around us - the forest we don’t see while looking at the trees.
Epperley says, “God resurrects each dying moment and moves to heal each past trauma in a world where pain, tragedy, conflict, and death are all too real.
Jesus’ resurrection revealed a ‘deeper law of nature,’ a greater influx of energy, [consistent] with the energies of the universe that brought forth the births of galaxies and planets. Surely, this energy of life and love… [resided] in Jesus’ healing touch and words. Could it have been a burst of the [divine] energy that flowed from Jesus to the woman with the hemorrhage, [or that] that enabled Jesus to bring forth food for a multitude from a few loaves and fish? Could [this energy] have been a precursor to the dazzling light Paul felt on the way to Damascus? Still, even if resurrections are “natural” and [regular occurrences], they are never tame, predictable, controllable, or fully understandable.
Resurrections deconstruct in order to transform.”
The Kingdom of God, the promised eternal life, this suggests, is a life where resurrection happens every day in ways so common that we mostly overlook, misunderstand and misinterpret them. Resurrection as new life; emergence; conversion; healing; forgiveness; renewal; resurgence; metamorphosis; revitalization - every day occurrences of dying to our old way and being born anew, transformed to a new way of living, of hoping, of dreaming, of seeing.
But Jesus’ resurrection isn’t the end of our story. He tells Mary, “Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them…” A disciple is a follower. An apostle, on the other hand, is one who is sent. Mary Magdalene, only minutes before so engulfed in grief and loss that she couldn’t see clearly, is transformed. She emerges from the darkness of death, resurrected into the light of new life as the first apostle - the apostle to the apostles - going as John writes, and announcing to them, “I have seen the Lord!” Were it not for the resurrection of Mary, there would be no other apostles, no Christian faith. Without going and telling, our faith remains entombed.
So on this day of resurrections, let us be disoriented and deconstructed so that resurrection might break through whatever has us paralyzed, traumatized, confused, or bewildered. Whatever pain or sorrow we bring, whatever disillusion or depression we bear, let us open our eyes to God’s bursts of resurrection energy here and around the world, both personally and universally.
The good news of the Gospel is that the resurrected Christ calls you by name and reaches out to draw you to himself, pulling you out of whatever tomb you find yourself in and placing you into the cocoon of God’s love, that you might experience transformation, resurrection, and eternal life in him, and then go and tell. In Jesus’ resurrection, the forces of sin, death, disease, despair and evil no longer have the last word. Trust in him brings eternal life to us that we too, might overcome these things in how we live.
The risen Christ, at work in our world, calls each of us by name as Easter people to practice resurrection living, awakening to God’s energy deep within yet present everywhere, and opening our eyes to the wonders of new life offered to us in God’s love.
He is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.