Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Imagine Mary on this morning after—grief stricken and alone, headed to the tomb. The huge stone has been rolled away from the tomb where Jesus had been laid. Frightened she runs back to tell Peter and the others. They run back to the tomb but they leave as quickly and Mary is left. Then the unbelievable—Jesus speaks to her. It’s one of those “hard to get your head around” moments. Think it’s hard for us? Imagine being a first century reader—the first person Jesus speaks to is a woman. A woman is given the responsibility to go and tell. Mary represents the thread of hope that runs through scriptures: God’s trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones whom God trusts and lifts up.
But what does it all mean—this resurrected Jesus? For me it means that God has not given up on this world—that life is affirmed, this life and the next. It is hope and new life. Each one of us hears it differently and needs something different on this day. Each Easter we will hear the story according to the circumstances of our life. What it means changes with our need for resurrection in our lives.
In March 1994, the children’s choir at Goshen UMC in Piedmont, Alabama, was singing for the Palm Sunday service. As they sang, a massive tornado hit the church, killing nineteen people and injuring eighty-six others. Among the dead was Pastor Kelly Clem’s four-year-old daughter, Hannah. Over the next few days, Kelly performed one funeral after another, including one for her daughter. Toward the end of that awful week, Kelly began receiving phone calls from members of the congregation. Given the death of the pastor’s daughter and the destruction of their sanctuary, they asked, “Reverend Clem, are we having Easter this year?”
How could they have Easter we wonder? How could Mary and the disciples go on without Jesus? As a pastor and a mother, I can hardly imagine the enormous grief.
The day after the tornado, a reporter asked Reverend Clem if the disaster had shattered her faith. She replied: “It has not shattered my faith. I’m holding on to my faith. It’s holding me. All of the people of Goshen are holding on to one another, along with the hope that they will be able to rebuild.” Then Kelly said to the reporter, “Easter is coming.”
That Sunday morning at the Easter sunrise service, two hundred people gathered in the front yard of the destroyed facilities at Goshen UMC. With a bandage on her head, her shoulder in a brace, and her heart breaking with grief, Rev. Kelly made her way to the makeshift pulpit. She opened her Bible, looked into the faces of her traumatized congregation, and then read these words from Romans 8, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Kelly and the people of Goshen UMC learned what they needed to know about resurrection in that awful, tragic moment: that God has power beyond all human understanding, that life is stronger than death, that none of us can ever say for sure that everything is over for us. If God can raise the dead—and, just as important, if we believe God can raise the dead—then our despair will be temporary and our hope invincible, not because we know how to keep it alive but because God has never forgotten how to breathe life into piles of dust.
We do not know what resurrection will mean for us in the end. We cannot know how it will feel or work or look. But we do have evidence it is so. God has woven resurrection into our daily lives so that we can learn the shape of it and perhaps learn to trust the strength of it when our own times come.
A teacher was fired from his job six months short of his retirement after twenty-five years. It was a nasty piece of work on the part of his superiors. They wanted to punish him for challenging them, and to make him an example for anyone else thinking about trying the same thing. They called it early retirement and gave him a party he suffered through. “I've been to my own funeral,” he said weeks later, recounting the pain of it. “I lost my students, my program, my livelihood, my pride. But you know what? There really is life after death. I'm doing things I always wanted to do but never had time. I'm spending time with my wife. I'm finding energy I thought I had lost forever. Getting crucified turned out better than I thought.”
A woman diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in her fifties surprised everyone around her by growing more and more alive as she died. Her nervous system quit on her, inch by inch. After she lost her ability to speak, she took up water coloring. She made everyone who visited her watercolor too, and she posted the creations on her kitchen wall as though they were masterpieces of the world. She continued team-teaching weekend workshops on faith in life although she could communicate only by writing on the board. When she died, surrounded by her friends, she was as alive as anyone ever known.
These are not resurrection stories, because nobody knows about that but God. And yet they are true stories about the raising of the dead—people who are laid low and by all rights should never rise again who suddenly sit up in their ashes, brush themselves off, and go on to live more than they ever lived before.
What we do with this life matters. So dare to love. Dare to wonder. Dare to be amazed, bewildered, flabbergasted, and even stunned by the power of God to create a new heaven and a new earth out of this old world. Know that it doesn’t depend on us. God will solve. God will resurrect. God will redeem. We are free to live. We are free to make a difference and do the loving thing. We are free to imagine the new world that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Dare to dream and then live as if our dreams matter. May God breathe life into the piles of dust—you and me and all creation.