Easter Sunrise in the rain
At oh-dark-thirty we huddled together to keep warm and dry, wishing for the sun and the Son to rise. We read the traditional early morning scene from John 20:1-23, including Jesus's charge to the disciples: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Resurrection with an agenda. Here we go.
Mary Magdalene, it could be said, is ready to be disappointed, because her whole life has been a disappointment. Whatever bad business she got into before she met Jesus, she wasn’t exactly winning in the game of life. I imagine her as an abused or neglected child, the adults who were supposed to be taking care of her falling down disastrously on the job, so that she had to figure out a way to make her own living no matter the risks, no matter the hurt, no matter the indignity. Until Jesus, her life has been pitifully short of kindness or even basic respect. And now that he’s gone, she’s ready for the world to lose its color again. Everything is gray for her this morning; the sun is not shining in her world no matter what’s happening in the sky above.
So she has come to say her last goodbye, to deliver a monologue she’s been rehearsing in her mind to a cold corpse, to say the thanks she should have said in the garden a couple of nights ago if she’d had the guts to break through the brotherhood’s endless mansplaining – and if he hadn’t seemed so preoccupied. But when she gets here and finds the stone rolled back and his tomb empty, she’s not even really surprised – it’s another insult, another slap in the face, another disappointment. The tears she thought had dried up from the endless crying of the last couple of days are back, and Mary can’t move. She’s rooted to the spot like a wilting plant in this new and hateful garden, where the grave of her friend has been desecrated by someone who wants his followers to get the ugly message: they’re done. It’s over. Rome’s arm is long, and it never takes a Sabbath rest.
But then he is standing beside her, a man who looks for all the world like the immigrants who cut the lawns of suburban Americans all summer long. Mary mistakes him for one of these yard guys, with a worker’s red neck and calloused hands, and pleads with him to tell her if he’s seen anything concerning the disappearance of her friend’s body. But when he speaks to her, saying only her name, she knows immediately that this man IS her friend, the one she would follow anywhere, from Galilee to Jerusalem to the grave in this garden to wherever he’s going next. She is overcome with joy and throws her arms around his stiff frame, perhaps still brittle from its recent transformation.
So he does not return her embrace, and strangely, he seems to have little time for affectionate displays. Instead, untangling himself from her arms, he charges Mary with a task: “Go, tell my brothers I’m here. Tell them to clear their schedules. We’ve got things to do. Go on, pick up your feet. Go.”
So Mary goes. And when Jesus next appears a few hours later, in that rented upper room his brothers have converted into a bunker, doors locked, curtains drawn, he first tells them to settle down. “Peace be with you,” he says. And then a little louder: “Peace, I said!” He gives them a minute to gawk at his scars, but like with Mary before them, he is business-like. This is a man with a plan.
“As the Father has sent me,” he says, recalling the agenda of his last several years of perpetual road tripping as an itinerant healer-preacher-teacher-prophet-provocateur, “so I send you.” And just like that, the followers of Jesus are now the leaders of the expedition. The realization dawns: they’re not going home to their spouses and their boats, their tax booths and their families, when all the hubbub in Jerusalem dies down and they feel like it’s safe to sneak out of their hidey-hole and back to their villages. Suddenly it’s clear that their adventure has just begun. Jesus is alive, yes, but there’s hardly time to scratch one’s head about that before he has charged with them with a task. No, he has charged them with a life project. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” They’re going to have to leave the building. They’re going to have to get out in the open. They’re going to have talk about what they’ve seen and heard, what they know and believe. They’ll be his agents in the world.
Specifically, Jesus says, it’s a mission of forgiveness they’re on now. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. God and I are trusting you to figure that out. Because if you don’t forgive, if you let their ugliness stand, well, we won’t intervene. We’ve done all we can to make forgiveness possible for everyone who needs it. Which is, you know, everyone. In the world. So get out there, boys, and get it done. Forget about the boats. This is your work now.”
So this is a thing about resurrection that tends to get lost in the all the Easter egg-stravaganza. The way Jesus does it, resurrection is not resurrection for resurrection’s sake. I mean, it’s great that death has been defeated and all, and the grave has lost its sting. I’m all for that, because Lord knows it hurts like hell when it’s happening to you or someone you love. We need something to hold onto in the face of the terrorism of mortality.
But the way Jesus does it, resurrection is purposeful. It has an agenda, a checklist, work that wasn’t finished before he died and for the completion of which he requires a cadre of willing assistants. As he was sent by the Father, so now he sends those who have witnessed the empty tomb and are ready to believe that death does not have the last word. He sends us. And our task is clear: forgiveness, the extension of mercy he died to replenish, a never-ending supply of grace that only has to be distributed, offered into the lives of those who can only imagine that God has it in for them for the things they’ve done, maybe even because of the things that have been done to them. Like Mary Magdalene, there are lot of people out there who are ready to be disappointed every time they turn around.
But remember, Jesus spent one of his precious last breaths on the cross pleading the case of his executioners, “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they’re doing.” And now it seems he’ll use his newly re-inflated lungs to say much the same thing. “There’s a lot of forgiving to do out there, friends, and this is your work to do. As the Father sent me, so now I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
If I were among those first disciples, with a brand-new job description, I suppose the first thing I would do is make a list. Sent by Jesus into the world to forgive, where would I start?
Close to home, I imagine. “So he is sending me to forgive the family members who have treated me like I’m an imbecile for staying this close to him. Check.”
“So he is sending me to forgive the employers who have used me like I’m a cog in their money-making machine. Check.”
“So he is sending me to forgive the friends who have stabbed me in the back and then pretended nothing happened. Check.”
“So he is sending me to forgive those who have done me real harm, on purpose or by sheer neglect, leaving me to limp through this world with the scars they gave me throbbing with every step. Check.”
And eventually, if my list were long enough, it would go beyond my personal résumé of insult and injury.
“So he is sending us to trust the people whose every other sentence is a lie.”
“He is sending us to like people who are unlikable because they cannot see themselves as we can clearly see them.”
“He is sending us to assume that even the nastiest people we encounter each day are, deep down, trying their best in adversarial circumstances we can’t always see.”
“He is sending us to resurrect love and hopeful friendship with the scoundrels and the scabs, the liars and the cheats, the homophobes and the haters, because it is for them, too, that he died and has been raised.”
“He is sending us to understand that anger, rage, and even violence are very often secondary to fear and despair. He is sending us to sow peace, to water liberally with mercy, to shine the light of love where there has been only darkness, so that something else can grow in the worst places in this world. In Syria. In Kenya. In Missouri. In Indiana. In the Texas legislature. In all the sketchy corners of this planet which is not, after all, Godforsaken. It turns out, the world is God-saturated, so long as we honor the sending of our risen Lord.”
I don’t know why you got up so early this morning, friends. But because we did, we are among the first to hear on this day that Christ is risen – He is risen indeed! – and that the risen Lord is busy, handing out assignments, making sure we know where to go next and what to do when we get there. Go, and forgive. This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.