Ideas on the Way to Resurrection

Easter — Resurrection of the Lord  |  John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Ideas on the Way to Resurrection

What if we don’t buy into this whole story about Jesus coming back to life? What if people made it up? Or what if we only believe it because of our upbringing, or fear of dying, or simply habit?

We wouldn’t be alone. There is plenty of precedent, maybe even including the original, odd, abrupt ending¹ of the first and oldest gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Women come to the tomb to add spices and perfumes to the body of Jesus, an embalming, only to find the tomb empty except for a stranger who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and the women flee in fear and ecstasy. That’s it. No elaboration. No explanation.

IM000871.JPGYet the early Christians (they called it the Way² — still a better name, I think, after all the centuries) flourished. They did it without a systematic theology or chocolate bunnies. They didn’t know that we would call this celebration Easter, the celebration of the story that Jesus died, was laid in a tomb, and rose again.

No painted eggs. No fake grass. No Easter egg hunt.

But what if we still can’t quite believe such a thing happened? What does God do with us, if there is a God?

God starts with us where we are, I think. Actually, if God is unbounded by the space-time fetters that define us, perhaps God starts with us where we are, where we have been, and where we will be, all at once.

And if we can’t quite accept that Jesus was resurrected, how about we just start with the idea of resurrection? It’s a pretty good idea — life where there was none, a new beginning, a fresh breath. Genesis.

What if we think of Christianity (the Way, if you like,) as faith in the idea of resurrection, a celebration of the notion that lives can begin again. Broken things can be mended. Lost things can be restored. New life can begin, and we don’t have to spend our lives shut away in some dark place, no matter whether we got there ourselves or were carried against our will.

Resurrection. That is something worth believing in, an idea worth holding onto. It’s reason enough to follow the Way.

And what of these astonishing claims that God was expressed in human form in this man Jesus, that this God-man allowed himself to die a cruel death at the hands of people like us, that afterward he rose from the dead? Surely if this happened, nothing stranger ever has?

Wormhole, digital art by Les Bossinas, via
Wormhole, digital art by Les Bossinas, via

It is interesting, the things we believe. Take Sea-Monkeys, dessicated brine shrimp that somehow return to life after being dried to dust. We watch them return to life, swimming in little plastic aquariums we order from comic books, and marvel. For fishing bait, my grandfather collected Catalpa worms (we called them Catawba worms, but they are the larvae of the moth Ceratomia catalpae.) He kept them in a box in the freezer. You could take them out later, let them thaw, and sometimes the things would begin to move again. It was peculiar, and amazing, and creepy.

Consider black holes in space, points of such dense gravity that even light itself is pulled inside. Unbelievable. Then there is the idea of a wormhole. Nothing to do with fishing, the Einstein-Rosen bridge kind of wormhole forms a tunnel through space-time. Conceptually, they are out there, though hard to locate — sort of like Easter eggs in space. We hear of such notions and nod, marveling.

God, though? Resurrection? We find those things hard to believe in, but embracing science doesn’t mean we have to let go of the mystical — they serve two different purposes, two differing pursuits, two ways of trying to understand the universe, what it is, what it means.

Maybe for this Easter, even if we are not quite far enough along the Way to embrace such possibilities, we can at least look with wonder at notions of grace scattered like Easter eggs along our path. Redemption. Renewal. Resurrection. This Jesus who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Those are thoughts worth finding.



¹ The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 16:8 — “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.”

² See Acts 9:2

Flesh and Bones

Third Sunday in Easter | Luke 24:36b-48

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Resurrection is such an odd business. Each of us imagines it differently, from shining ghosts to the walking dead.

Many of us imagine Jesus resurrected in some spirit form–how else did he later rise, disappearing from everyone’s sight, right? The four Gospels, particularly this passage from Luke, go out of the way to insist on a bodily resurrection. There is surely a spiritual significance, but the Gospels insist that Jesus was encountered in a very human form, eating and touching and walking and speaking, days after his public crucifixion. He was flesh and bones.

So much for explaining Christianity as a purely spiritual path.

White Azalea

That’s the good news. It means that Christianity is not just a someday thing, not just a future to be hoped for, though that hope is not nothing. It means resurrection is also a here and now thing. Resurrection is part of everyday life, practical theology.

Ok, so maybe it’s not the raise you from the dead kind of practical. We don’t get a do-over after walking out in front of a bus. We don’t get a free pass to fix everything. We do get something we can use, something that we don’t have to wait until the afterlife to apply. We get that mistakes can be redeemed. Failures can be transformed. We can awaken to a life that is better, closer to the way we thought it ought to be when we were children.

Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant Bee on Azaleanever taste of death but once.” [Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2] There aren’t many valiant folk, at least not much past the age of twelve. Most of us die many times, of mistakes and of fear, of the tiny cuts of thousands of slights and failings, some real and many more imagined. The Gospel idea of resurrection gives us more than a future hope; it gives us a present hope of redemption, of new chances, of mourning becoming memory, of failures feathering away our hardness and harsh judgments. Resurrection means we are still alive, even if we seem sometimes to have forgotten.

We cherish the stories that help us understand our world. We remember the tale of the genie in the bottle because on some level we understand that it describes our lives. We are all genies, with amazing if untapped power, trapped in the bottles of the lives we have accepted. Some of the walls that surround us were built by other people or by circumstance. Many of us are hemmed in by walls that we have built for ourselves, walls we made out of ideas that we were given or with limitations that we believed were real.

We do not see that the resurrection story also describes our lives. Just as the genie was placed in the bottle and Jesus was placed in the tomb, we also find ourselves enclosed in our lives, mystified as to how it came to be so.

Resurrection is the power of God pulling out the stopper, breaking down our walls, or giving us the tools to do it for ourselves. We can roll away some of the stones in our path. We can fold away some of the thoughts that bind us. The genie is out of the bottle. The Lord has left the tomb.

That is the message of Easter.

Bee climb


Second Sunday of Easter  |  John 20:19-31

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

There are stories of fire that fell from the sky onto the heads of the faithful. It was not a fire that burned them, not as one would think of it, not as some of the onlookers might have hoped. (Religious differences bring out the worst in people.) This fire was the Spirit of God, or so it is claimed in the book of Acts—but that will be the lectionary passage for the observance of Pentecost, May 24 of this year.

Fire that only burned within and did not scorch the skin—it sounds like a metaphor.

John tells a different story. In this Gospel a small group of believers gathered in a house, behind closed doors. Jesus, the same one who was crucified, comes to them somehow and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit of God. He points out the marks of his torture to remove any doubts of his identity, such as the doubts of Thomas who had the good sense to want to see this living Jesus for himself.

Jesus breathed on them, as only the living can. Air from his lungs, the Spirit of God—it sounds like another metaphor.

There is a greeting in parts of the world where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath. It may have nothing to do with this Jesus story. It does tell us something about the centrality of breathing. The beating of our hearts, the air we breathe, nothing about us continues without these things.

Like the bumper sticker says, just keep breathing.

Whichever version we read, John’s tale of Jesus breathing on his followers or the story in Acts with tongues of fire falling from the sky, the result is the same. Afterward something was different. These earliest Christians went out and began talking about what they knew of God, of this Jesus, of everything they had seen and heard and touched, to everyone they met, everywhere they went, so long as they drew breath.

Something had changed in them. Something drove them out of their rooms, their homes, their comforts, their habits.

Something.A galaxy on the edge

The scripture writers claim that it was the Spirit of God. Radically differing in appearance and path, by breath or by fire or by touch of hand or sight, the New Testament people spoke of experiencing and witnessing what they described as the Spirit of God entering into themselves and into the people around them. What they described was not possession by a greater power. It was not acquisition of some greater power. It was transcendence.

Their existence changed.

They became different. The power that they believed resurrected Jesus had also resurrected their lives, lifting them from the mundane into the extraordinary. The resurrection stories of Jesus often mention that it was difficult to recognize him, though there is little explanation as to why. Perhaps that is because little or no explanation was needed for people living such transformed lives that they no longer even recognized themselves.

The breath of God. Many would dismiss such a concept as delusional. Perhaps Jesus was a good man, they say, but leave God out of it. There is no proof of God, they say, nothing to demonstrate that we did not create the idea of God out of our own need. There is no argument that can totally refute such thinking, no logic that can overwhelm such rational doubt.

Scientists tell us that when we breathe we take in elements that have come, as everything within us has, from the stars. The oxygen that sustains us may contain atoms that sustained Marilyn Monroe or George Washington or Jesus or the Buddha. In every breath we touch on something eternal.

We are miraculous. We are ordinary. We are living stardust. We are imbued with the breath of God.

At the end of the lectionary passage for this week’s reading, there is a confession, a reason given as to why this Gospel of John was written down at all: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

That we might believe, that we may have life, is the whole purpose of the Gospel. You might say we were already alive without hearing it.

Tennyson wrote, As though to breathe were life! There is more to living than existence. That, too, is the message of John’s Gospel. Feel the wind and know it for more than weather—for you it is the breath of God. See the stars and know them for more than engines of the expanding universe—for you they are the sparks of life.

Do more than remember to breathe. Remember to live.



Easter Sunday – Resurrection of the Lord | John 20:1-18

Lectionary Project

They did not go to his tomb out of faith. They went for other reasons.

They went to Jesus’ tomb out of obligation. Duty. Resignation. Perhaps love. Or perhaps to confirm for themselves the reality of his death, to wrap their minds around what they had seen, what they did not want to believe.

We do that, deny reality, over and over. We deny the reality of the world around us when it refuses to match our inward expectations. A sacrament is sometimes called the outward sign of inward grace. If so, denial is the outward sign of unmet expectations. Inner dissonance.

For many reasons, they went to the tomb early in the morning on the day after the sabbath. They did not go to be witnesses to a resurrection. Who would? It’s a ludicrous idea, a childish denial of the workings of the universe.

Things break down. Things fall apart. People die. We die. We have to accept that, or go through life with an unrealistic and unreconciled perception of our world.

Resurrection, there’s a concept. Christianity clings to it, insisting that people who were dead somehow lived again. The faith-minded call it miraculous. Others, the ones who do not reject the idea out of hand, might say that it could have been something we do not understand, some imposition of energy, returning a person to a prior state of greater order. Such ideas are more science fiction than science, rejected by logical minds as perfect examples of denial dressed up as something more.

IM000102.JPGStill, resurrection is one amazing idea. Maybe we just need a different way to think about it.

Take the stories told by the ancient Greeks, like the minotaur in the labyrinth. Few people today believe that there was a labyrinth, even fewer that there was a real monster roaming in it, eating whoever stumbled into its path. Still, it’s a great story, and we continue to tell it, because on some level we all get it—life is a labyrinth, and we don’t know what waits around the next corner. We need courage and cleverness to deal with our monsters.

Like those first disciples, the women at the tomb, we don’t all come to these Jesus stories out of faith. Some of us listen to them out of obligation or duty. Resignation. Perhaps love for the familiarity of religion or for the family and friends who participate. Maybe we listen to the stories about the resurrection of Jesus because we are trying to decide whether we might believe them, or not, trying to wrap our minds around something we have never seen.

Like the story of the labyrinth, we might come to understand resurrection in new ways. Who hasn’t needed a reset button from time to time, some energy returning us to a prior state of order?

The resurrection offers a word of grace, that here is a way back, or forward, a way to make sense of the crooked path we’ve taken through our labyrinth, a way to redeem our wasted moments, our ill-made choices.IM000874.JPG

We might take another look at the resurrection stories, not with the blind acceptance of mere religion (it’s not the same thing as faith, is it?), and not with the blindness of those who have rejected religion, regardless the reasons, and who then refuse to listen. A closed mind is a weak mind.

Stories matter. These resurrection stories matter. They help us make sense of who we are.

Below is a re-telling of another resurrection, the raising of Lazarus seen from the point of view of the disciple John. Maybe hearing it can help us to hear the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe it will at least help us find a way through our labyrinth. If we still do not find faith that we ourselves will one day be resurrected, we may at least carry away faith that our present lives can be resurrected, that something more is possible, here and now. That is a start on the gospel way.

Resurrection. Redemption. Restoration. Those are good words for an Easter Sunday.


“I am the resurrection,” Jesus said. “I am the life.” Later the words would be famous, and we would think we understood them. This day the words seemed odd, out of place. He asked her, “Do you believe me?”

Martha glanced at me then looked back into Jesus’ eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I believe you. You are the Messiah.”

Messiah. That is who he is, I thought. I had thought many things before that day, but for some reason I had never thought of that word. I wasn’t sure that I understood it. I wasn’t sure that she did.

She turned and walked away, going quickly back toward their house. Jesus stood still for a few minutes and watched her walking away. The mourners followed her, but they looked back over their shoulders at Jesus. I could tell they were wondering about what they had heard, wondering if they had heard correctly, wondering if we were all crazy. If they hated us before this, I thought, they are going to try to kill us now.

Jesus began walking again down the path into the village, toward the house of Lazarus. Their parents were dead, and Lazarus had been left with two unwed sisters and the property. They were comfortable enough, had some standing in the community. All in all, they were a few rungs up the ladder from fisherman like most of us. When we reached the center of the village we found everyone gathered at the house to mourn.

Then Mary, Martha’s sister, came outside, with a crowd of people who had been gathered in the house. They were all crying, some honestly. Mary came walking straight to Jesus who stood still once more waiting. She walked up to him with the same indictment as her sister and said, “If you had been here, he would not have died.”

Once more, I didn’t know whether she would slap him or not. Everyone knew how much time had passed since the return of the servant who brought that slip of papyrus. All of them knew we had made no great haste to get there. Nevertheless Mary just fell at Jesus’ feet, tears pouring down her face. Martha came back out of the house sobbing. I looked around, and even Peter had tears in his eyes.

Then Jesus started crying himself. There were tears on his cheeks, rolling silently into his beard. It was such a strange sight, Jesus crying. Most of the people were crying, making a general wail throughout the open space. I heard someone say that Jesus could have healed Lazarus if he had come in time.

Jesus took Martha by the arm and raised her up, then he started walking toward the edge of the village where there were tombs cut into the hillside. Martha walked with him, and Mary, and all of us followed along with the mourners from the house. Eventually, Martha pointed at one of the tombs, Lazarus’ tomb, and she put her face in her hands and wept.

Jesus was staring at the tomb. I was suddenly afraid, slightly nauseated, as I contemplated what he might be about to try. Surely not, I thought. Surely he will not try this thing.

“Take away the stone,” he said. I put my hand to my mouth, horrified. Martha sniffed, her tears slowing with the shock of hearing the words.

“Take away the stone,” he said again.

Martha looked around at the stone, back at Jesus. “My Lord, we cannot, not now, it has been four days. The smell…”

People near enough to hear what they were saying began to murmur. I looked around to see if anyone was picking up a rock.

“If you believe, you will see the power of God,” Jesus said. “Take away the stone.”

It was like one of those dreams where everything gets slowly worse, but you cannot wake up. I wanted to walk away, go anywhere, but my legs would not move. They would stone us, I thought. The Romans would not have to do anything. Our fellow Jews were going to kill us right here in this village. I looked around at Peter, who was holding his stomach with both hands. Peter, I knew, did not care for bodies. The dead unnerved him. It made no difference, I thought, soon we would all be dead.

Martha turned and looked at some men in the crowd and nodded to them. They did not move, but just looked at her as though they did not understand. She pointed at the stone rolled in front of the small cave that formed the tomb. I thought I could already smell the body.

The men looked at one another, but Martha pointed again and they rolled away the stone. Then they backed away, watching Jesus. Martha swayed a little and caught herself. Mary joined her and they stood with their arms around one another.

It was so quiet that all I could hear was an occasional foot shifting on the stones, a bird chirping in the distance.

Jesus began praying, out loud, thanking God for hearing him. Everyone could hear him right then, I thought. Everyone except Lazarus.

Then Jesus stopped praying, and there was silence. I could not even hear the birds anymore. Then he yelled, “Lazarus! Come out!”

I started praying, silently, hoping this was, in fact a dream. I prayed to be somewhere else, that all of this was not happening. There was no way out, the tombs being at the end of a path, and we were surrounded by a crowd who were certainly going to kill us very soon.

Then I heard something moving in the tomb. We all heard it. There was a shuffling sound, like someone’s feet sliding against the stone floor of the cave. I glanced around to make sure other people were hearing what I was hearing. Peter was staring into the tomb, his mouth hanging open like a dead man with no head cloth.

There was a sudden gasp, everyone in the crowd breathing in at once, then the murmurs, and finally a woman screaming until she fainted, falling onto the ground. No one had the presence of mind to catch her. We were all watching Lazarus walk out of the tomb.

He was wrapped in the burial shroud, shuffling his way into the light.

“Let him go,” Jesus was saying. “Take those things off of him.”

Mary ran to her brother and began loosening the same cloths that she had helped to tie around him four days earlier. Martha was crying, hysterical. Two men turned and ran down the pathway, back toward the village and Jerusalem, yelling that Lazarus was alive.

Somehow I knew that none of this was going to turn out well. Lazarus had never been one of my favorite people. Now that he was shuffling his way out of the tomb, he gave me the creeps. He still did.

Nevertheless, I had seen the power of God. Jesus had raised a man from the dead. He couldn’t be the Messiah, could he?

This was an excerpt from the novel I,John. You can find out more about it here:

Hearing Voices

Easter  |  John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, the last place she had encountered Jesus, and she cannot find him.
Dogwood flowers 011God is dead, in her heart, in what she has seen—Jesus beaten, wounded, dead on a cross, his body placed in a tomb hurriedly sealed with a stone. Now, as she returns to the tomb, she can not even find the body of the man in whom she has learned to see God. Her loss is so disorienting, so crushing, that she does not comprehend that she is speaking with angels and with a resurrected God among us, Jesus alive once more.

Early sources do not deny that the tomb was empty. Even those groups antagonistic to the new Christian faith did not deny that the tomb was empty. Instead, the question was how—what had these followers of Jesus done with his body?

It is odd that the gospels make no attempt to describe the process of resurrection. In each case, the story skips instead from God-incarnate-dead-in-the-tomb to God-incarnate-alive-once-more. Arguably the most powerful moment in the gospel, the moment in which Jesus returns to life, is never described. They left out the special effects.

There is much in John’s resurrection narrative (and in those of the other gospel writers, and in the references in Acts and in the letters of Paul) to cause us to wonder.

When Lazarus was called from his tomb, everyone recognized him, and not simply because the tomb was marked. When the resurrected Jesus appears, the stories include the difficulty of recognizing him. It is only when Jesus calls Mary’s name that she knows who he is.

Why upon rising from the dead does Jesus not parade through the streets of Jerusalem to demonstrate the power of God?

Why were the first witnesses of the resurrection, in all four gospels, women? In the extraordinarily male-dominated first century world, would not men have made more convincing witnesses? And out of all of the women available, why always Mary Magdalene?

I find myself seeking reason and certainty when it comes to God and the resurrection. I wonder why it is that God did not, does not, proclaim God with all of the convincing power of God. Why are we left with only these odd gospel stories and these strange brief passages describing the post resurrection appearances of Jesus?

It is strange, this way of God. The Almighty, creator of heaven and of earth, choosing the path that leads to crucifixion and death. God slipping quietly from death and the tomb to speak to Mary Magdalene. Almighty God, able to catch the attention of all creation in a flash, choosing to leave us pondering stories.

I want answers. God gives us questions.

I want certainty. God offers us faith.

Faith cannot be mapped. It cannot be measured, or even understood, and it is often characterized more by our doubts than our beliefs.

We want answers. God must want something different for us, something that we might not even recognize when we see it. We may only recognize it when we hear God call our names.