Processing Resurrection (AKA The Eighth Day of Creation)
John 20, Luke 24, Matthew 28, Mark 16
March 27, 2016 (Easter)
John’s story of what we now call Easter morning begins simply with Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb while it was still dark. Not a group of women as in the other stories. No spices or ointments to finish the work on the corpse the Sabbath had interrupted, hence no need to figure out how the stone was going to be rolled away. It seems she was just going there to be at the tomb, and wanted to get there as quickly as the Sabbath regulations would permit. Anyone who has ever buried a loved one knows why she would do that. But this turned out to be like no other trip ever to the cemetery. The stone was rolled away. The tomb was empty except, as we soon learn, for some neatly folded slightly used grave clothes.
She went running to find Peter and the others and told them, not that Jesus is Risen, but that his body had been snatched. Though, when you think about it, body snatchers don’t tend to leave the linens behind in a neat pile. The story says that Peter and the ‘other disciple’ went racing to the tomb, with the other disciple entering the tomb, believing and then going back home with Peter.
Mary went back to the tomb, as well. But she didn’t go back home with the other two. She remained there, her grief compounded by the missing body. But then a gardener came by and so she accused him of stealing the body. She didn’t realize it was Jesus until he spoke her name. That, of course, changed everything. She went their trying to process his death, and left trying to process his life.
The details of the story differ in the gospels. But they all have some things in common. One is that it’s a woman or women who go to the tomb early in the morning. Mary Magdalene is the only one mentioned in all four stories. That might, just as an aside, be an indication that she held a much more prominent place in the life of the early church then we have been allowed to know. Another common element in all the stories is absolutely nobody expected the tomb to be empty. And in all of the stories there is a messenger or messengers that talk with the women.
Another thing that all the stories have in common, is that the disciples, and I mean the women as well as the men, were all trying to process what on earth had just happened. All the women ended up believing that Jesus had been raised. The other disciples, i.e. most of the men, either dismissed such a thought out of hand, or like Peter were just perplexed by the whole thing.
There was joy, there was doubt, there was fear, there was confusion, but they were trying to process this thing, figure it out. You see it in that story in Luke’s gospel about the two followers who, later on that first Easter, had decided to go home. As they were walking on the road back to Emmaus and talking to each other about all that had happened, they encountered a stranger on the road. Well, they thought he was a stranger until they realized he was Jesus.
We pick up in the story at the point where Jesus first encounters them. “What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?”
They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend. Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?”
19-24 He said, “What has happened?”
They said, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn’t find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn’t see Jesus.”
They were processing all that had happened. Their disappointed hopes. The treachery of the rulers. The reports of the women.
The resurrection of Jesus is not an easy thing to process right on the spot. And it’s not gotten any easier for us all these centuries later. But it is obvious, as you read about what happened to the followers of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament that after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples were different people. It turns out that resurrection changes everything, at least it did for the disciples. And by everything, I mean a lot.
If you trace their story through the Book of Acts, you realize that one of the things those women and men began to realize about the resurrection of Jesus was that it means more than there is life after death. I think the disciples were catching on to something that is spoken about in the Epistle of Barnabas, from the second century, talking about why the church celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday morning rather than Friday night. Further, [God] says to them, “… I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. [http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1581]
As astounding as the idea of the resurrection of Jesus is, for the disciples it became to signal something even more astounding, something you could call the eighth day of creation, the beginning of a whole new world. One of the lectionary readings for today is from the end of Isaiah 65 where we read this
“Pay close attention now:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:
All that time with Jesus and you see the Apostles never catching on to what Jesus was about. But as they processed the resurrection they realized they were being called away from that old world to something new. And by fits and starts this new thing God was doing began to unfold in the early church.
When the new first church formed in Jerusalem they lived communally and shared their possessions. In Acts 6 we read about the Greek speaking widows coming to the Apostles to complain that their needs were not being met while those of the Hebrew speaking widows were. The Apostles set up a panel to resolve the issue and everyone on the panel was from the Greek speaking community. They let the folk who were being discriminated against come up with the solution. You remember reading about the Apostles in the Gospels. Who would have ever imagined they would be this clever.
We read Peter’s story in Acts 10 where he crossed the greatest barrier of his day when he, a Jew, entered the house of a Gentile and they prayed together. Peter told Cornelius the story of Jesus, his life, his death, and his resurrection. I think Peter surprised everyone including himself. Here is how that part of the story goes. Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as God says, the door is open. The Message God sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, it turns out God’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.
This was a whole new way of looking at the world for Peter. It was no longer us vs. them. Everybody is us. This is the eighth day of creation; the new thing God is doing with the resurrection of Jesus.
Even the resurrection stories themselves point to this new world. In all the stories of the resurrection it’s the women the Messengers from God and Jesus appear to first. It’s women who are first to believe, first to proclaim that Jesus is alive.
Back several centuries ago people were starting to notice this fact and ask questions about why only men were allowed to have leadership in the church when women had been the first ones charged with delivering the message of the resurrection. So the church leaders came up with this new doctrine that the women were only announcing it to the men, so the men could become the messengers to everybody else. They missed or, perhaps, refused to acknowledge that we are now living in the eighth day of creation, in this new world ushered in with the resurrection of Jesus. And it’s the women who are leading us there. This is indeed a new world where, as the Apostle Paul says it, “there is no longer Greek or Jew, men or women, slave or free, but all are one in Christ.” People’s jaws had to drop open when they first read that. It challenged everything about how they thought the world was supposed to run.
It’s not just those first followers of Jesus who get to process the resurrection. We all do. We all come with the same doubts, joys, fears, hopes, trust that they did. And as we process this day of resurrection, I hope it leads us to bringing resurrection into many, many more days. We get to help build this new world that started when Jesus left death behind and rose to the eighth day of creation.
All that death the first followers of Jesus struggled to leave behind; the divisions, the prejudices, the self-righteousness, all that violence and oppression that is in our own headlines and in the lives of too many people. All that old stuff of the pre resurrection world is ours to struggle with as well. But God, it turns out, continues to do the unexpected, like empty a tomb. And God creates this new world with the most unexpected of people, including the likes of us.
The reason the disciples and all of us process the resurrection is because it is a process. The disciples didn’t get it all at once, and we don’t either. There is too much to it. It’s not just that Jesus is alive again in spite of all the horror. The way he lived and called us to live is vindicated. Death has been undone and we are called to come alive in Jesus. It becomes a virtuous circle. The more we grab hold of the resurrection, the more it grabs hold of us.
We first experience the resurrection of Jesus while the darkness is still close, just beginning to give way to the dawn. It’s just the beginning of the new day. We start living into the resurrection, the eighth day of creation. The day grows lighter and lighter until we see that everything, indeed, is becoming new. This is not only a different day, but a different world that dawned on Easter morning. We celebrate the eighth day of creation every Sunday when we gather, but we live it every day. We are always processing it.
And like the first followers we will all process the resurrection of Jesus in our own ways. But our stories are built on the same constants. It was the women. And they said He is alive. And like all of them we will walk into this eighth day of creation, this new thing that God is doing, in fits and starts. But we start from an empty tomb and with the testimony of those women. We get to create a new world with the Risen Jesus, live in and into the eighth day of creation. That is a lot to process.