A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 4, 2010.
Most people of mature age—meaning most people of whatever age they happen to be when this kind of thing begins to happen—know what it feels like to encounter someone they think they know, someone they should know, and someone they might have known, but be unable to recognize them. Perhaps we recognize their features but cannot recall their name. Sometimes we mistakenly identify them to be someone they are not.
Sometimes we do not recognize them at all. My most memorable—but not most embarrassing—situation like this occurred on January 20, 2009 while I stood in line waiting to join other family members to watch the inauguration of President Obama. For at least ten minutes I stood beside a fellow and engaged in idle conversation. Martyn, our elder son, told me later that I was talking with Herbie Hancock, the wonderfully gifted jazz musician. I did not recognize Hancock. I have recordings by Hancock. I introduced our sons to jazz and was standing beside Herbie Hancock, but didn’t recognize him.
Like Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb and found it empty, like Peter and John who ran to the tomb after they learned from the women it was empty, and like Mary Magdalene who remained near the tomb, we approach the resurrection of Jesus on ground that is paradoxical. Resurrection Sunday is the highest holiday in the Christian calendar. We are familiar with the Biblical account that God raised Jesus from death. We are familiar with the empty tomb. So we gather at customary places to read familiar resurrection passages and sing familiar resurrection songs. But do we recognize the resurrected Jesus? Do we recognize the power of God at work in new ways? Do we recognize new life from what we are accustomed to think of as dead? Is it possible to come to Easter and not recognize Jesus? Is it possible to be involved with religion and not recognize life?
Mary Magdalene’s experience says that it is. When she found the stone moved from the entrance of the tomb where Jesus had been buried, she ran to notify Peter and John, saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and John believed that the body had been moved after they found the tomb empty. They returned to their homes, leaving Mary Magdalene to weep near the empty tomb. When two angels asked her why she wept, she told them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Even when she turned and saw Jesus standing before her, Mary Magdalene did not recognize him. This suggests several issues for you and me.
Resurrection happens whether we recognize it or not. God does not depend on us to recognize His power to do wonderful things before doing them. Were that the case, God might not get much done. God is not limited by what we can imagine, or what we can perceive. God is always doing something new. God is always moving in ways we have not planned. God is always working in places we think unlikely. And because God is God, resurrection happens whenever and wherever and however God works it, even if we cannot recognize it.
Mary Magdalene may not have recognized the resurrected Jesus because she was not expecting to encounter Jesus. She went to the tomb to find a corpse. She went to the tomb to mourn. She went to the tomb to pay her respects to her beloved fallen rabbi. When she found the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene grieved the loss of a body, so her attention focused on finding the body. She never imagined that she would be confronted with a living Jesus.
That happens more often that we admit. We often become accustomed to death-like situations in our families, at work, school, in our communities, in society, and even in religious life. We often define living in terms of punching the clock, paying the bills, doing the homework, taking care of chores, and following a routine. Mary Magdalene was following the routine of grief and death. She did not expect to encounter a living Jesus. She expected a sealed tomb. She expected a bound corpse. She expected a dead Jesus.
What are you expecting? Are you going through the motions because you don’t expect the routine of your life to change? Are you going through the motions of family life, work, school, retirement, citizenship, and church, but not really expecting things to change that much? Careful now, how often have you been asked about your life and responded that not much was happening? How often have you said, “Nothing new, just the same soup warmed over”?
But God raised Jesus! So life is not the same soup warmed over. God raised Jesus! So we are intended for something more profound that tomb-tending. God raised Jesus! Our situations are not intractable. Our defeats do not determine our destiny. Because God raised Jesus, our lives and living can change.
And one glaring truth of the resurrection of Jesus is that even when God presents change and new life and new opportunity directly before us we can fail to recognize it. How do we know this? Every morning is new and fresh with potential for change, yet so many of us fail to recognize every day as a new opportunity to live and grow. God is in the creation and resurrection business, so God does not need our permission to do a new thing. God is always doing a new thing. God is always making resurrections and presenting resurrection opportunities and invitations to us. We simply do not recognize them. Perhaps that is because we do not expect God to do very much.
Resurrection happens whether we like it or not. Instead, we fuss about God moving our cheese. That is what Mary Magdalene did. When she turned from the tomb and was encountered by someone she thought was the cemetery attendant, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Mary Magdalene expected to claim a body, not be claimed by a risen life. So standing before the One who is the Resurrection and the Life, she requested a corpse.
We see the same behavior working whenever a new idea is presented and people complain about change. New life always involves change, but that we prefer the familiar, even the familiar we don’t like. Notice that Mary Magdalene did not like the idea that Jesus had died, but she was more concerned about finding the Jesus who died than she was prepared to recognize the living Jesus.
We may not see God’s life working and moving before us because we prefer seeing and living with the familiar—even when it is bad—and are not prepared to accept God’s new. We prefer our familiar ways, familiar habits, familiar patterns, familiar thoughts, and old stuff—even when God offers so much more.
· In the resurrection, God confronts our familiar ways.
· In the resurrection, God’ confronts our familiar thinking.
· In the resurrection, God confronts our familiar systems of religion, social policy, and power.
· In the resurrection, God declares and shows that our preference for the familiar does not, cannot, and will not define His life.
· In the resurrection, God shows that we can actually complain about him daring to be new, vibrant, and different from what we have known or expected.
· And in the resurrection, God shows us that He will not be held captive by the familiarity of death just because we are not prepared for life.
Resurrection leads to commissioning, not merely reunion. When Mary Magdalene realized that it was Jesus who stood before her, she wanted to hold him. She wanted to embrace and celebrate the reunion. That was understandable. Notice, however, that it was not what Jesus sought. Jesus was not satisfied merely to have Mary Magdalene recognize him and celebrate the reunion. Jesus wanted Mary Magdalene to publicize that God raised him from death. Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene—excuse me while I dare to say that he ordained her—to be the apostle of resurrection to the other followers.
Yes, Jesus commissioned her to be the apostle of resurrection to the other followers, not to people who were not following. The first thing we evangelical Christians often talk about is spreading the message of God’s resurrection life to non-Christians. But Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to the people who had been to the tomb, seen it empty, yet somehow failed to remember that he predicted that he would be raised from death. Until the resurrected Jesus is recognized by the followers, the followers will not live in the power of resurrection before others.
Instead, we will keep hanging around the tomb. We will keep clinging to Jesus rather than living in the power of God’s new life. We will keep demanding that people who are not followers of Jesus “accept” Jesus as resurrected when all we do and say shows we are still doing “Christian” based on our dead and deadly notions of what is familiar.
Yes, God has raised Jesus! Yes, God has shown us that there is new life for us in Him. Yes, God has dared to confront us with new possibilities, new opportunities, and new power. But God has not done this so we can cling to the new life, but to commission us to declare that new life. That declaration—that preaching if you will—must begin with we who follow Jesus. Otherwise, we will follow Jesus based on notions of familiarity rather than God’s wonderful power in resurrection.
God has called us to live anew with a power that only God can provide. Don’t hang around the cemetery. Start living that life within the fellowship of followers. Then live the new life before those who are trapped in old systems. Live the new life because Jesus lives. Live it because God has given us life. Don’t ask to have the corpse back. Don’t expect God to give you the old familiar.
God raised Jesus. All things are new. All things are possible. Recognize the Life! Accept it. Tell it. Show it. Love it. Hope it. Live!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a retired state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.