“In our midst” is the theme of all the resurrection stories in the Gospel of John. We see that theme in the account of Mary at the tomb when the Risen Christ appears to her and calls her by name and in the story of the disciples huddled at night behind locked doors astonished at the Risen Christ suddenly in their midst. Later the Risen Christ appears before “doubting Thomas and invites him to put his fingers and hand in his wounds. And we see it in the scene where Peter has returned to his nets and vocation as a fisherman. At dawn the Risen Christ stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with breakfast already prepared to mark the beginning of what the Church Fathers called “the eighth day of creation.”
The Easter stories tell us the Good News of God, and that is as it should be. We must hear the Good News of Easter even if it seems too good to be true. I fear that much of the problem facing Christianity today is that we are confronted in the resurrection of Jesus with such Good News that we can’t bear to hear it, feel it, or take hold of it as our own. And what is that Good News we so desperately need to hear, long to feel, and yet at the same time are afraid to believe? What was being said in the garden by the tomb, in the upper room, to doubting Thomas, to Peter casting his nets, trying to recover from the dark devastation of Friday and the darker truth of his unfaithfulness?
I. First the resurrection says something about this world we live in–the one God entered through Jesus–the one in which you and I live and hope and suffer and laugh and cry–the one in which Jesus labored, taught, and gave. The resurrection says that this world is God’s world and that it is a world in which there can be life, love, peace, joy, compassion, and sacrificial commitment. The resurrection affirms this world as the arena of God’s presence and redemption. As the great preacher David Buttrick said, “The resurrection affirms that this world is not the kind of place where you can finish off the Sermon on the Mount with a hammer and nails.” The resurrection affirms that this world need not be a stage on which life is no more than a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. signifying nothing.” The resurrection was God’s yes to love and no to hate; God’s yes to peace and no to violence; God’s yes to life and no to death. The resurrection is God’s eternal yes to all that is good about this world and God’s eternal no to all that would destroy that good.
Do you remember the question asked at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Reading the newspaper and listening to the evening news, sometimes we may feel the more honest question is, “Can anything good come out of this world?” The resurrection shouts heaven’s answer of YES! And we need to hear that and affirm with God the goodness of 1ife. As Buttrick emphasized, “We need to be reminded day by day that by the grace and presence of God we live in a world where Christmas comes out of a stable, the Son of God out of an impoverished village, and twenty centuries of Christianity out of an empty tomb!” The resurrection affirms not just something beyond death; It affirms life and this world as God’s world—a world in which love, peace, compassion, and justice can be fleshed out not only in the life of Jesus but now, by the power of his resurrection, in our lives as well.
II. And that leads us to a further thought—the resurrection also affirms the followers of Jesus. It confirms the faith Jesus had in Peter, James, John, Thomas, Mary, Levi, and all those others who made up the motley crew he called to be God’s alternative community to the greed and violence of this world. Centuries ago, in Italy there was a block of marble mined but left abandoned for 40 years because it was marred. It was passed over by many artists and sculptors who could see no potential in such a defective piece of rock. But one day a sculptor saw in it a beauty, strength, and wondrous presence just waiting to be released. And from this marred and abandoned stone Michelangelo sculpted the famous statue of David which adorns Florence, Italy to this day.
Jesus saw in Peter and Mary and Thomas and Zacchaeus, and he sees in you and me more potential for goodness, love, and courage than we or anyone else could ever detect. If Jesus and his early followers were in a typical church today, my guess is that Jesus would ask doubting Thomas to teach a course on Christian doctrines. Perhaps Mary, with her troubled past would be asked to teach a class of teenage girls. Zacchaeus the crooked tax collector might be appointed treasurer. And the big mouth braggart Peter might be chosen as the congregation’s minister.
Jesus sees in us potential that seems to be contradicted by the testimony of our past, the evidence of our present, and the possibilities of our future. Jesus knew that none of us should ever be treated as less than we are or as less than we can become by God’s grace. He recognized in each man and woman a hunger and a thirst as well as an eternal destiny which dignifies every life and sanctifies every moment.
If the cross had been the last word, then all those gallant promises and ambitious exhortations Jesus gave his followers would have been so much cheap talk and high sounding rhetoric with no anchor in reality. If the cross had been the end of Jesus, then it would also have been the end of all the hopes, dreams, and longings he had called forth from the forgotten graves of our souls. It would have been a mockery of Jesus’ claims that through a trust in God as Abba we can in this world, here and now, love our enemies, share our lives and possessions, embrace our days with joy, treat others with compassion, make peace among the nations, and be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
Easter affirms those claims, and Easter affirms his choice of us. He stood in their midst and looking into their eyes and into their hearts said “Yes.” And their past fears didn’t matter anymore, neither did their running away nor their poor showing when the going got rough. All that mattered was the Risen Christ in their midst and his affirmation of them, his belief that they were as great as they had ever dreamed and perhaps even greater than they would like to find out.
Easter signifies great expectations for us and this world. It will not let us hide behind false humility, feigned weakness, past failures, or demoralizing sin. All of that has been washed away and, in its place, stands the Risen Christ, beckoning us on to the new life made possible by his love and God’s faithfulness.
Easter ends with these words: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Easter ends with the Risen Christ giving us the same mission God had given him! Talk about affirmation! This was the lesson Simon Peter had to learn on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had been wallowing in self-pity and deep remorse. Three times he had denied Jesus. And now three times the Risen Christ asks him, “Do you 1ove me?” And Peter, in spite of all he had done, dares to offer his tentative yes. And Jesus responds, “Then feed my sheep.” Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is turning Peter from his past failures to his future mission, from his despair to his glorious potential. He is saying, “Peter, I was right those many months ago. You are the Rock, and upon faith like yours I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
This morning will you look with me at that first Easter? Levi the tax collector and the formerly demon-possessed Mary haunted by their pasts—James and John, ambitious men always scheming to get ahead of the others—Doubting Thomas who must have been from the Missouri of the ancient Near East–Peter dejectedly casting his nets, trying to forget that awful night when he cried out, “I swear to God I never knew the man.” Figure out their chances, and then set them by yours–and as you do, remember, remember who is in our midst!
In a poem entitled “The Widow in the Bye Street,” John Masefield tells of a young man who was about to be executed for crimes against the state. In the crowd gathered to witness his death stood his widowed mother. When the trap door opened and the rope had done its work, this pathetic soul crumbled to the ground and began to sob uncontrollably. Those closest to her heard her say something about “broken things, too broke to mend.” Those words contained her anguish over her child’s troubled life, now tragically ended as well as her sense of hopelessness as she was left alone. “Broken things, too broke to mend.” That is the feeling many have about so many things in our world today.
But the resurrection of Jesus challenges this despair about our world and ourselves. A body beaten cruelly with whips studded with metal–a body nailed to wood with 4 1/2″ spikes–a body torn and stretched on a vertical rack–a body dehydrated and subjected to the elements–a body pierced with a spear–a body dead, buried, and left to rot. Certainly, such a body is “too broke to mend.” And yet the power of God raised and transformed that body into glory. And with that transformation we have an inkling of what God can do with anything and anybody the world may judge as “too broke to mend.” Easter forever changes the way we are allowed to use words like “possible” and “impossible” when it comes to all our sisters and brothers in this world.
Before these sacred elements of bread and wine we are reminded of that which was broken and that which God raised from the dead. And because he is in our midst, we know that nothing and no one can be “too broke to mend.”
John 20:1-21 (NRSV)
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to looka into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,b “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”