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:

Recognizing a Voice

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:1-10

Sheep are usually trusting creatures.

Goats 2 017Sheep, goats, cattle, all of them recognize the people who care for them, and they recognize the ones who do not. They know the voice that they trust. Animals may have a deeper wisdom than we, an older wisdom.

My dog is wiser than I. He sleeps more often than I, and better. He enjoys his food and the sunlight and the joy of a friendly touch much more than I. And he knows my voice, though he sometimes chooses not to listen to it.

Jesus says that he is a shepherd, that his own will know his voice. He also says that he is the gate for the sheep, mixing the elements of the analogy.

Word pictures for God—John’s gospel gives us plenty of these. At different points, Jesus is described (or is portrayed describing himself) as light, bread, water, a man, the way, the gate, the shepherd, a vine, a servant, a fisherman, a king, other things. All of these images are true, of course. None of them is complete. If we take any one of these images, however beautiful and true it may be, and hold it to the exclusion of the others, we do not take away a true understanding of Jesus. The same is true of the other people in our lives. They are more, and sometimes less, than the way we think of them.

Take another example, the explanation of the crucifixion. In the gospels we hear what Jesus did, what was done to him, told in story form. Elsewhere in scripture, there are references, surprisingly brief descriptions of the crucifixion, comparing it variously to a sacrifice, or a ransom, or to a judicial penalty, among other things. Outside of scripture on the other hand, entire books have been written to explain what happened on the cross (often minimizing everything else), and Christianity has divided itself into camps based at least in part on one or another of these explanations, as though the others are untrue.

It is like trying to understand a home only by what we see on the outside, or the life of the deepest ocean by watching from the shore. Much may be learned that is true, as far as it goes, but we know that the rest remains a mystery.

It must be the same for sheep and goats. Their shepherds guide them, feed them, keep them safe, and so the animals know much about their shepherd. They know when the shepherd comes, what the shepherd does, and they know the shepherd’s voice. The rest remains unknown to them, but the sheep do not seem to dwell on it or let it displace their faith. They respect the boundaries of mystery.

If a sheep were to sit and to write a detailed explanation of the other aspects of the shepherd’s life, explaining the motives and reasons that the shepherd does what a shepherd does, it would make interesting reading. Other sheep may find themselves agreeing or disagreeing. Focusing on the explanations might even be enough to distract a sheep so that it does not hear the shepherd’s voice.

That is a problem with being immersed in religion. We become so distracted, and content, explaining God that we do not even perceive God’s presence. We exchange our faith in God for a collection of ideas about God. Christianity does not promise that we are saved by means of our understanding. The promise is that we are saved through the love of God, saved by means deeper and more mysterious than we can comprehend, and saved from and to something perhaps more profound than we know.

Jesus went to the crucifixion like a sheep to slaughter. As we have said, animals have a deeper wisdom than we. Even though the sheep’s trust may be misplaced, it remains more noble and more whole for trusting than does the person who betrays it. There is a mysterious power in trust and in submission, even when proven wrong, and how much more power when the trust is fulfilled.

Perhaps this Easter season is a good time to remember one of the oldest confessions of faith in Christianity. The Nicene Creed, named for the place where early church leaders met in the fourth century, doesn’t explain much. It does assert a great deal, but by way of sharing the story and preserving the mystery. We learn as much from the way it is told as from what it contains.

The Nicene Creed ª
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

ª This translation is from The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. You can find the online version here:

Walking to Emmaus

Third Sunday of Easter  |  Luke 24:13-35

Nobody seems to know who Cleopas is. He is just another man walking down the road, and as for his friend, well, we don’t know his name. We don’t even know that the second person was a man—perhaps it was a woman, perhaps Cleopas’ wife?

Sun Through Trees 4x6 015All of the famous (and at least named) disciples are huddled together, trying to make sense of reports that Jesus is alive, and these two people leave and start walking away. Oddly, Jesus takes the afternoon to walk down the road with them. They talk about prophecy and scripture, the sort of religious things that they were likely taught from the time they were children, and the unexpected life and death of the man they had believed was the Messiah. And we are told that they were kept from recognizing Jesus until the very end of their time with him.

We don’t know them. We don’t even have the name of one of them, but they were important to God.

We might remember someone else who did not warrant having his name recorded in scripture—the Pharaoh of the exodus story. He was ruler of all of Egypt, and we don’t even get his name. We are told that his heart was hardened so that he wouldn’t understand and yield to what God was doing. In the end, he is a symbol for every despot and tyrant in history, every person and thing that would try to enslave us.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are also symbols, this time representing us. We, like they, walk along unseeing, thinking that we understand more than other people. These two even chide Jesus, saying, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”

When they finally realize what they did not know, they turn around and go back to where they started, perhaps to begin again. When Cleopas and his companion return to Jerusalem, they find that Jesus has also appeared to the other followers gathered there, just as he appeared to them.

All our lives we are travelers. It is impossible to remain in one place, even if we sit perfectly still. Time moves the horizon, and our landscape and our traveling companions change around us. We may think we are on the road to a destination of our choosing, but sometimes we need to go back to share what we found or to find what we left. Sometimes we find ourselves lost, as in a forest, our only light filtered through the leaves of the trees above us.

In the end, our names will not matter. We ourselves may forget them, given enough time. What matters is whether we open our eyes to see who is beside us. Just because we do not recognize God does not mean that God is not here.

What We Need To See

Second Sunday in Easter  |  John 20:19-31

Several days after he dies, Jesus appears in a locked room full of witnesses including a doubting disciple named Thomas. The wounds on Jesus’ body—the nail holes in his hands, the spear wound in his side—are still there.

Does that bother anyone else?

Almighty God chooses to become incarnate in a human form, performs amazing miracles, dies horribly on a cross, returns to life, and yet somehow fails to heal the wounds on this body? What sort of body is this resurrected one anyway? According to the gospel accounts, something certainly happened to the one that was laid in the tomb—when Mary Magdalene looked inside, no body was there. The implication is that Jesus occupies the same body as before his death, with the same wounds, but now he passes through closed doors, appears and disappears, things Jesus never was reported to have done previously.

What is different about this resurrected body, and why are the wounds still there? The answer must be, at least in part, that God shows us what we need to see.

Thomas, the gospel records plainly, needs Jesus to show himself, needs Jesus to let Thomas see those wounds and touch him. And so Jesus does.

On Canoe PointingThe implication is that God shows us what we need to see. It may not always make sense, not to a rational world view that does not take non-empirical matters into account. It may not even make sense to those people who do embrace matters of mysticism and of faith.

We hold that there are truths that we cannot measure, realities that we cannot measure or even touch and that we often fail to understand or to notice.

The question is whether we see what God shows us. It is different for everyone. A man standing at a bus stop sees a raindrop land on a bench, and to him it is only a raindrop, while the child beside him sees the whole world reflected in the eye of God.

God shows us what we need to see. Are we seeing what God shows us?

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.