5 April 2015
Easter Day B (RCL)
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
If you’re like me, you have trouble believing on their face accounts of a resurrected body of Jesus appearing to the disciples the second day after his death. I had a professor in college who used to ask, “If you had been there with a video camera, what would it have recorded?” He himself believed it would have recorded the glorified body of Jesus emerging from the tomb. I was never so sure (beyond just the fictitious nature of the question – nowadays people would use their cell phone). I think John’s Gospel throws us a little hint in this passage. After the two disciples (Peter and the other disciple) get into a foot race to the tomb, and both take their turn looking into the tomb, John tells us, “for they did not yet understand the scriptures that he must rise from the dead.” Perceiving the resurrection is a matter of understanding the scriptures. Luke’s account of the Road to Emmaus (two disciples, one named one not, on foot) gives the same hint: Jesus opens their hearts to the scriptures and then they perceive him in the breaking of the bread. Jesus’ resurrection dawns on the disciples slowly.
Mary, on the other hand, perceives Jesus much more quickly than the disciples. Mary stays at the tomb grieving, and on entering the tomb, sees the two angels sitting, one where his head had been and where his feet had been. Notice that the grave clothes are neatly folded where the body had been, in contrast to Lazarus’ grave clothes. Rowan Williams has suggested that the two angels correspond to the cherubim who sat over the ark in the inner sanctum of the Temple. Jesus’ empty tomb has replaced the ark as the mercy seat, the throne of God. Mary has taken the place of the high priest, and Easter Day has replaced the Great Day of Atonement. When Mary comes out of the tomb, she encounters Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener. If the garden is an analog to the Garden of creation, then she is encountering God. She does not recognize Jesus until he calls her name, at which point she falls at his feet to worship him.
When Mary tries to hold Jesus, he tells her not to, because he has not yet ascended to the Father, but tells her to go and tell the disciples (us) that he is ascending to his Father and our Father, his God and our God. A number of aspects of John’s Gospel lead me to believe that he conceives of the Christian community as the renewed people of God on the desert way (Jesus as Passover, manna in the wilderness, and many mone, rest-stops in his Father’s house, among others). The journey is toward God, leaving the Temple behind, and replacing it with the empty tomb of Jesus. We are journeying toward the empty tomb.
John does not present this as a fait accompli, but as progress to be made. When he appears to his disciples later that first day, he breathes on them and tells them to receive holy breath, and that the sins of whoever they release are released. Again, this is the motif of the Day of Atonement, only now, the responsibility for that lives in the community of disciples. And then Jesus continues to appear to his disciples to help them navigate necessary shifts in their community life.
It is our life in community that constitutes our journey toward the resurrection. We are not resurrected in a flash, but make progress toward that by the hard work of living in community. We continue that journey until we arrive at the empty tomb.