When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8
Lately, there is a pretty hearty focus in “churchy” circles on being hospitable and accessible to all, especially including the way we communicate or the language that we use. Christians do well to realize that our faith practice is like anything else that a person grows into over time — at a certain point we forget what it was like to be new to it, or an outsider, and even unconsciously we don’t do as well at relating to those who don’t share our experience. There are things that we take for granted which are utterly foreign to the beginner or outsider. The great example lifted up lately is acronyms. You know, a group of letters that shortens a longer title. So, for instance, Methodists have always had MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship), UMW (United Methodist Women), PPRC (Pastor-Parish Relations Committee), and BYOB (j/k).
It’s should be an ongoing priority to speak in the language of others rather than insisting that they come in an learn ours. We are the ones who already feel at home and safe; the visitor or newbie is making an effort just to show up in a foreign, sometimes formidable environment. That is especially on my mind with Easter Sunday. When it rolls around every year, I think a good bit about those who might worship with us but who normally don’t. Families or extended families follow different traditions that usually include church-going, so it’s a big day, we know. So I’m trying to think through so much of the strangeness that must confront these folks on this one day, particularly if it’s their only day to get a feel for Christian worship. And the big thing that keeps coming up for me, on Easter Sunday, is that of all Sundays this is the one when we proclaim and celebrate one of the harder parts of our faith — that Jesus is alive and we, too, can live forever in him.
Yes, it’s the absolute central part of our faith, but it ain’t easy, folks. A visitor walks in and some 50 to several hundred people are standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down — singing, closing their eyes, lifting their hands, chanting in unison (creed), sitting to listen to someone read and teach from an ancient book, giving kids tootsie pops after a little chat, and so on. There are strange symbols and candles and robes and golden ornaments. And the overarching message throughout is that there was a Jewish man a long time ago, who was really God, who was killed and then brought back to life. It’s a great hope, and I love it (and am fervently pledged to it). But for someone who hasn’t totally bought in yet, or even heard much any of it before, it seems like it would be hard for this to be your one church day a year. I believe in God’s Spirit working through worship, and the witness of others who are worshiping with stout hearts, so yes I trust good things happen; but it seems hard.
Really, once again, I want to emphasize how very okay that is. The resurrection is NOT easy, or easy to understand, or easy to believe in some ways. Just because our culture has been predominantly Christian for a long time doesn’t mean we should take the resurrection for granted. That’s true whether you’re new to all this or not. The best example is the behavior of the ladies who first found out that Jesus’ body was gone, here in Mark 16. And I think it makes even more sense if we use the image, one more time after our “Holy Walkabout,” of wilderness survival.
So, imagine that you and me and your closest family and friends find ourselves stranded in the wild. Call it a plane crash on a deserted island. Very soon we see that the seas are far too rough for us ever to consider escape; they’re shark-infested waters and it’s just not happening. But given the size of our group and the resources of the land, we can do well enough here. Right away we get about the work of living, and eventually have shelter, food/water supplies, etc. Nothing extravagant, but enough. Really, even enough that it’s a pretty comfortable life. Let’s say that there’s a “Professor” type on our little Gilligan’s Island so that we have everything from coconut radios to bamboo TVs (it’s a fantasy, deal with it). Years and years pass. And then one day a stranger appears in the midst of our group; he’s as scraggily and cast-away looking as us, and fits right in, but when we get to asking him his origins he’ll just say, “I’m not from this island.” On pressing him, he reveals more and more. He lets us know that he knows we’re not from here, either. And he stirs that passion for “home” in us again; for the people and places that we love dearly, and that define us, where life is waiting. Finally, he makes clear that he’s come there to get us out; he knows a way off the island (don’t get too Lost with this). It’s not an easy one, actually pretty difficult/painful, but it will get us back home. And, so, the decision is before us.
Clearly, that is the background to Jesus’ story and mission. And see if you agree that there are great similarities between us crash survivors and the women at the tomb. Particularly when it comes to how we handle the resurrection.
First, back on our little cast-away island, if this man Jesus has just promised to get us back home, some of us are going to have a hard time because we have become so attached to our routine. After all, we’ve learned to survive on our little island with minimal resources by having everybody work together, every single day, on the tasks that keep us all alive. Go get water at dawn, fish for an hour in the morning, change the baby’s palm-leaf diaper, burn the trash, weed the garden, and so on. The routine keeps us alive. It also keeps us sane. If you’ve seen or read Treasure Island, do you remember Ben Gunn? He was a crazy little dude because he had been marooned for too long, by himself. Experts will tell you that the key to not going loo-loo in that kind of situation is to get busy and stay busy. Routine helps us to cope. So, imagine how we feel when Jesus on our island says, “I can get you home, but you’re going to have to put down what you’re doing and follow me this way.” We’ll have to leave behind our relative comfort, and what’s become home, and the tasks that have kept us going all along, to walk towards who knows what.
It reminds me of the women at the tomb who maybe weren’t prepared to deal with “resurrection” out of the blue like this because it wasn’t in their universe at the time; it wasn’t a possibility, and it was outside their routine. They had one thing to do that morning: care for a beloved dead man’s body. Like us today, they had cultural tools to help them with their grief. As much as visitation and a funeral for us, these ladies’ treatment of Jesus’ body was the normal, earthy way to start working through the emotions of loss, and to pay him respect. It did another important thing, too: it kept them busy. But in the midst of routine, they were near totally unprepared for the tomb to be empty. What could it mean? In a way, it would’ve been far easier to deal with if Jesus’ body had just stayed put.
The second struggle, going back to the island again, would hit most of us because of how very little information this guy was giving us. All we could see is that he’s different from us other cast-aways, claims to be from elsewhere, and claims to be able to lead us home if we give up everything we’ve come to know and rely on. What promise do we have? “Come with me,” he says. But there’s no way off the island! How does it work? How can he do it? What will it feel like (didn’t he mention it could be painful)? What guarantee of success do we have? “Just come with me, I’ll get you home,” he responds to our bombardment. It’s not enough for plenty of us. We are rational, intelligent people who prefer concrete reality and a burden of proof to be met.
So, too, in Mark 16, the women are face to face with an angel who has nothing much to say but what they can see for themselves, “he was crucified…he’s not here…that’s where he was laid.” THANK YOU, angel, for nothing! WHERE is he? HOW is he not here? WHAT DO YOU MEAN he was raised? HOW ON EARTH can he meet anybody in Galilee? WHAT is going on? The angel’s response, basically: “Go, and tell everybody…you’ll see…just like Jesus told you.” It feels like not enough. But that’s what they get. Resurrection is looking difficult to grapple with.
And then, last, is the heart of the issue. Not only are we attached to life as we know it on our island, and occupied by our routines, and not so sure that we have enough info/proof in order to trust this guy…but what he is ultimately hitting us with is an unavoidable choice. By showing up at all, and inviting us like this, we are going to have to deal with it. We are going to have to either put him off for a fool and cling to this little island home, or take a massive and blind step towards the possibility of getting back to our real home.
The women on Easter morning met an empty tomb and the vision of an angel who gave them the truth. There was no third option there that morning; there were unavoidable facts facing them, along with major uncertainties. Either they were bonkers, and it was time to go back home and go about the day’s regular business as if nothing had happened, or this was reality and Jesus was alive. The choice was to run and tell everybody, or not. We see their struggle, because right away they fled and told no one. But we know that didn’t last for long.
So, yes, here is a gospel that has baffled the ages. It has united many hearts, and caused great divisions among others, like Jesus predicted. In this moment in Mark 16, with the grave unoccupied, we see how the first humans reacted. And it’s the same way many of us do, probably especially our visitors, or beginners, on Easter Sunday mornings every year. In our human survival nature, as stranded wilderness people far from home, we are so good at carving out for ourselves a second-home as comfortable and safe as possible. We are so good at routine, at getting and staying busy, that the possibility of resurrection and being able to return to our real land is a stark dilemma. Even more, it’s such a tough thing to take without some better assurance, without evidence, and without more explanation. And confronted with the decision, for by nature we must choose, how much easier is it to choose the rough-hewn home in the wild that we see with our eyes and touch with our hands, over the possibility of our deep home of homes?
But for those who have heard the gospel of Christ Jesus, a choice must be made. Whether a life-long church-goer or having been to a one-hour service once, ever. As Jesus essentially says, “I know where you are truly from, and it’s not here. I’ve been to your home, and I’ve come so that you can follow me there. The way isn’t easy, but we will get there. Come on.”