New Life After Loss (John 21:1-12)

This is a portion of the message that I gave on resurrection Sunday, April 5, 2015

We have been reflecting on the theme of transformation this year, because as the elders spent time praying for the coming year, we knew God was inviting into deeper transformations as a community.

A lot has been said, and there is plenty more to say about our theme, but today is the day that the church worldwide stops and remembers that the kind of transformation we are talking about – both spiritually and societally – has resurrection as a necessary part of the process.

With every loss and every death there is always the possibility of new life.

There is a story arc to our lives and to this world that is directed towards new life. From the seasonal changes, to the ecological cycle you can observe in compost, to the fireweed that grows on Mount St. Helen, there is an arc that points to the possibility of new life emerging out of the old.

Just like the arc of every “hero’s journey,” there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and that, at least in the Christian narrative of things, the end is itself another beginning.

And that’s what we celebrate and remember on the day the world calls Easter.

Consider the Gospel accounts.

There is a trajectory of Jesus’ life. He has a pretty good career as a minister, there are certainly some setbacks and failures, but overall, he doesn’t do to bad in his three years as a traveling prophet and pastor.

But then he sticks his neck out one too many times, and finally he pays the price for his rabble-rousing and is honored with the death that was gifted to thieves and insurrectionists.

Not really something that looks all that great on a resume.

But then, showing us that death is not the final stone to be upturned, Jesus’ resurrection reveals to us in perfect dramatic fashion, that there is always the possibility of new life embedded within what at first appears to be a hopeless situation.

Let’s consider how the disciples we read about this morning must have felt, and let’s enter into this text from John 20 and feel the pain, the disappointment and the hurt that Mary and the two other disciples were feeling.

It’s like the climax of the Jesus story ended chapters ago and his life, from their perspective looking at this empty tomb, just sort of crashed and burned. Here was the one who they believed, they trusted, was their leader, the one who was going to usher in a coming messianic age, and now not only was he treated as a criminal and killed by the state, but someone went and stole his body.

First Mary runs to the tomb to do the proper burial ceremonies with Jesus’ body. It says, “She saw that the stone had been removed.” She knows what this means. There’s no question in her mind that someone had acted with further hatred toward Jesus’ followers and stolen his body. So she goes and tells some of the men “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…” and brings them back to show them what had happened.

The men have this weird running match back and forth that I have no idea what it’s about and then upon reaching the tomb it says, “they saw and believed.”

Believed what? They believed that the body was gone.

So both Mary and the men “Saw” and believed.” But what they were seeing was based on false evidence, false assumptions. This is, what we called a number of weeks ago, known as the “Gettier problem.” That is where “Someone believes something for invalid reasons.”

It’s true Jesus’ body is gone. But it is not for the reasons they think because they still believe that death and loss are the end of all things.

This alone is probably enough to stand as a message for us today. Resurrection comes into our lives in ways that we often misrecognize, misunderstand or just miss altogether because we lack the hope to realize that the possibility of new life, of resurrection, is always present.

The focus of our story then shifts to Mary.

And I have to say that this section might just be one of my most favorite texts in all of scripture because it is so mysterious and intriguing.

Mary lingers. We don’t know why, but what we are told here is that she stays behind. Mary is clearly in a lot of pain. She is distraught, disappointed, probably hurt and quite afraid of what all this could mean, if death really is the end.

And yet, she does not withdraw.

Mary has the wherewithal to stand within the pain and the anxiety that comes with Jesus’ missing body. Too often in our own society, we try to lower the threshold of discomfort and pain, to the point that I think we really are unable to withstand the pain as Mary is capable of doing here. Her threshold for dealing with her own fear and discomfort is high enough that she remains in this difficult place.

Now it is in her lingering that she makes a critical shift: she shifts from a place where she (mis)believes and so she sees accordingly. But in her ability to withstand the fear and the discomfort and remain in that place, she is taken to a new place where she sees experientially and then believes in a new way.

This is the kind of transformative belief that literally “turns” her around.

Let me put this another way.

In my time here I have watched many of you work to move from seeing as believing to believing because we see. It is easy to say we believe. It is much hard to really see. And I believe the resurrection is about seeing with our own eyes. Resurrection is about doing with our lives. It is about embodiment. Resurrection isn’t something you believe in, resurrection is something you go and do. It is something you act out as a community.

In fact, I would be so bold as to say I am less concerned about you believing in resurrection and more interested in you seeing it, and living it out where we are at.

Resurrection is something that radically transforms the very inner core of your being. When you see and experience resurrection you cannot go back. When you meet the holy Gardner, your life, like Mary’s, is turned.

And so at first Mary believes but for the wrong reasons. Then over time, as she is able to confront her own pain and loss, the resurrection of Jesus works in her in such a way that she experiences for herself the Risen Christ, the picture comes into focus, the gardener becomes the teacher.

And she sees that there is always the possibility of new life after loss. There will always be the fireweed that comes after death to help break up the ground and make new life possible.

I can’t help but think that this might be why Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.” But here we see the focus shift from Jesus the Leader to the memory and spirit of Jesus embedded in the community.

So often we want to hold onto God in ways that keep God within our control. We do not want someone to challenge our views of God. We do not want someone to tell us the Bible could mean something different from what we’ve always believed. We want to “hold onto Jesus” and keep him as our own.

To this Jesus challenges Mary to “let go” and to “go and say to them…”

Mary becomes the first apostle. She is the first messenger of good news because she was able to withstand the anxiety and the pain, she remains connected long enough to experience resurrection for herself.

She is the first apostle because she moves from a belief that is based on faulty understandings, to seeing that resurrection embodied before her.

She is the first apostle because she is also able then to “let go” and move out into the world and say, “I have seen the Lord.”

Closing

This church is always working its way from being like the men who run off when things are hard to being like Mary who is able to withstand the pain of the unknown. There’s no shame in this. I think it is the trajectory of spiritual growth. It is easy enough to want to dodge out when things get hard. Withdrawal comes second nature – it is core to fight or flight. But the call I am going to issue to all of you right here and right now is that now is the time to trust on Jesus who is present among us. He is risen…He is here to guide us and comfort us and will send us out, like Mary, into the unknown.

And I have met that gardner here, in each of you. I have experienced resurrection in so many ways and in so many hard and celebratory times as your pastor. Many of us have learned how to remain connected and committed despite the hard things, and we have see the fruit of that labor. And because of this, many of us are able to say with the deepest of conviction, “I have seen the Lord.”

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.