Through the Lens of Resurrection by Gary Jewell (Reflections on the resurrection narrative of the gospels)

Reading of Mark 16: 1- 8

My sermon this morning begins with one fact – human beings have been gifted by God (and/or by nature) with this wonderful instrument that rests above our two eyes….. the brain.  Specifically we have this large region called the cerebral cortex…. the part of our brain that thinks, analyzes, and imagines.  It is the place where stories are formed.  This gift of the imaginative storytelling is both a blessing and a curse….depending upon what stories we choose to cultivate.  We either create stories that give life, or we gravitate to stories that lead to death.   In fact, my thesis this morning suggests that we live and die by the stories we tell ourselves.

Theologians call these stories “metanarratives”.  Big stories.   Archetypal stories.   Stories that shape and inform us in how we view the world and thus respond within the context of our own unique “small” stories.  These archetypal stories map out how we imagine the world and in return guide us in how we behave and act in this world.

All religious traditions have metanarratives around which they organize. The central metanarrative around which the Christian faith is formed is the narrative of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  To clarify, let me say that the term resurrection from a Christian perspective is the idea that Jesus, after being tried, convicted, crucified, and laid to rest in a tomb, was, after three days dead, raised to a new life and appeared physically to his disciples and others before being taken up to heaven.  (A matter of legend, or history – you decide.)   Whatever was made of the event of Jesus life, the story of the resurrection is told in all four gospels … Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  (And when a story is repeated in all four gospel versions, it says something was central about this story that requires our attention.  Something extraordinary occurred.  And the fact that all four gospels tell the story in basically the same way, yet with recollection of differing details is further evidence of the story’s authenticity).

Mark, the oldest of the gospels, in the earliest intact manuscripts ends abruptly with vs. 8 where it says, the women who discovered the empty tomb “were afraid, and told no one.”  I like this earliest version because it leaves the story open-ended, as if to say, “now you (the listener) go and finish the story.”  “You take ownership and run with it.  Continue it on into your world.”

Matthew gives us the post-resurrection marching orders where Jesus’ last words on this earth are, “go out into the world and make disciples throughout the world, teaching them all I have commanded you.”

Luke tells of how the resurrected Jesus opened the minds of his disciples in the breaking of the bread while on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus is seen and known in the coming together of conversation and the breaking of the bread.

John seems to want us to know that the resurrection was physical.  The physicality of post-crucified Jesus is important to John’s telling.  In John’s gospel the disciple Thomas, upon hearing that Jesus is alive must first touch the wounds before he can believe.  Later in John’s gospel Jesus appears on the lake shore and sits down to eat fish with his friends, as if to say to us, “mere ghosts or spiritual concepts do not eat fish and break bread.”

Every Easter Sunday I preach on this central resurrection narrative of the Christian tradition.  And every Easter Sunday I recognize that my audience consists of a broad spectrum of beliefs regarding this story.  To some the story is purely metaphorical.  To others, including the apostle Paul, it makes no sense unless it historically and literally happened.  In saying this I am recognize the fact that people come out in different places in how they relate to the Jesus story.   I am fond of a poem written by the poet Denise Levertov.  The poem is entitled “On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus”

“It is for all, “literalist of the imagination,” poets or not, that miracle is possible, possible and essential.  Are some intricate minds nourished on concept, as epiphytes flourish high in the canopy?  Can they subsist on the light, on the half of metaphor that’s not grounded in dust, grit, heavy carnal clay?  Do signs contain and utter for them all the reality that they need?  Resurrection, for them, an internal power, but not a matter of flesh?  For others, of whom I am one, miracles (ultimate need, bread of life) are miracles just because people so tuned to the humdrum laws: gravity, mortality – can’t open to symbol’s power unless convinced of its ground, its roots in bone and blood.  We must feel the pulse in the wound to believe that ‘with God all things are possible,’  taste bread at Emmaus that warm hands broke and blessed.”

 For myself I choose (on most days) be in Levertov’s camp.  But whether one believes in Resurrection as metaphor, or as historical reality that points to metaphor, the issue still is always one of meaning.  The Big Cosmic…So What!  Regardless of where one falls on the question of literal historicity, one is still required ask the question “So what?  What does it mean?  How does Jesus rising from death make a difference to me?”

I suppose I state the absurdly obvious when I say that all of us are here this morning because we are alive. That said, many of us have aches and pains and challenges we suffer with.  And I know some of you have had close brushes with death through circumstances of illness and accident.  When I too experienced one of those near death experiences, I had the opportunity to consider in a new way the story of Christ’s resurrection.  At Sacred Heart, a Catholic hospital in Spokane, in every room is an icon of the resurrected Jesus transcendently resurrected upon the cross. (Not crucified… but resurrected).  As a Christian I’ve always valued this image – the ultimate victory of life over death.  The message….Jesus, alive!  Death is powerless before the power of Life.  To me the message is clear …. God is not mocked and life is not defeated by any cruelty we humans may cast upon others.

But none of this translated to me as I lay in the hospital.  The central symbol of my faith did not speak to me when you might think it would speak the loudest.  But then everything else was pretty flat and speechless too.  I had little to no interest in food.  People brought me books to read or would read to me, but I had no interest.  Everything on T.V. was absurd…..every other channel was some story involving a gun, or explosion, or fear, tension and conflict.   Or there would be channels dedicated to some silly “reality” show where people were constantly competing or squabbling, or some family of hillbillies who sell duck calls were discussing the best way to blow up a beaver dam.  All of this seemed so empty and absurd.

But when I couldn’t conceive of the resurrection or when it did not bring me comfort as a theological / metanarrative image – it did come to me.  It came to me in the care and love of my family who were there in the most profound ways.  It came in the form of prayers, and gestures, and mindfulness of many, many friends.  Through them and their good thoughts and prayers God was there in profound and mysterious ways.  Resurrection came in the nurses, doctors, aids, technicians, chaplains, and other caring folks who focused their best skills and energy toward keeping this one privileged, middle aged white guy on this planet for another few decades (at best).

We don’t have to be in a medical or existential crisis to realize that the story of resurrection is a powerful narrative.  This narrative declares to the world that the very force of the cosmos is within, is before, is around, and is much bigger than us.  Yet it is a part of us.  Resurrection calls us out and calls us back again.  Resurrection never lets death and suffering have the last word.  Jesus lived it, Jesus taught it, and Jesus proved it.  Resurrection is a powerful thing, and that is why Jesus didn’t stay on the cross.  That is why the tomb was empty.  That is why the angel says, “Go and find him.  He has risen.”

Most summers I work with Mennonite youth at our Northwest Mennonite camps. (I especially enjoy working with the junior high levels).  At one of the campfire talks I shared how a number of years past at one of the camps, Roger, the camp manager, had a good quality telescope.  And with some help from his phone’s app Roger was able to zero in on two separate spiraling galaxies visible through the one lens.  Galaxies containing billions of stars and planets.  I reminded the kids that the nearest spiral galaxy (the Andromeda Galaxy) is over 3 million light years away.  Furthermore there are reported to be billions of these galaxies within the known universe.  Furthermore some cosmologists believe there are multiple dimensions of realities we cannot perceive.  As if this were not enough to grab our attention and strike our hearts with awe, it is said that only four percent of the matter in the universe is perceivable, leaving ninety-six percent to be labeled as something called “dark matter,” which cannot yet be directly perceived.

In light of these and other observations of science it would seem that the resurrection of Christ might not be so hard to consider.

My point of considering the vast and mysterious universe we live in, to the junior high kids at summer camp (as well as to you this morning), is to get us to believe and celebrate and find courage in the reality that we are part of a very, very, large and mysterious God-ruled, God-centered story.

The story (metanarrative) of the Christian tradition is one of mystery and the victorious power of love and life.  It is one of life over death.  It is one of hope and the embrace of a God who cannot be defeated and will not let go….ever.

And how, you may ask, can one judge whether one’s story / narrative is one of resurrection?  You may consider this…..  Resurrection stories are always about hope and never about fear.  Resurrection stories are about thriving and not just surviving.  They are about sharing as opposed to accumulating and consuming.  Resurrection stories are always about creativity and risk taking.  When you hear stories about cooperation, unity, compassion and tolerance you are hearing stories that point to resurrection.  Resurrection always defies the world’s tired old dysfunctional stories of win/lose; dog-eat-dog; us vs. them; and everyone for themselves.  When you read the Gospels through the lens of resurrection, you begin to see the world through the lens that God sees through..

I recently listened to someone I know and respect relay to me a story from her work.  She was working in a year- long volunteer program (kind of like the Service Adventure program) and was asking of her “employer” (with whom she was a volunteer) for a little flex time for one afternoon a week in order to do some more “hands on” work related to her vocational pursuits.  Her boss, who already had displayed little respect or appreciation in her management style, said in response to this modest request, “That’s not how things work in the real world.”

To that banal reply I say as one who believes in the truth of the resurrection….phooey!  Much of what we call “the real world” is a construct of our own making.  Resurrection says other worlds are possible. Other ways of relating to this world are possible.  Stories of the devil are often the ones that resign us to believe that “That’s just not the way it works in the real world!”

As one who identifies as a pastor, a husband, a father, and most fundamentally as a human being who has the privilege of taking up space on this planet for this momentary period of time, I’ll  tell you about the real world I live in…..  I live in a world of inconsistency, context, nuance, paradox, mystery, and yes, hypocrisy and sin.  And with none of these conditions should we rest easy — especially the sin and hypocrisy.  Nevertheless, this is the real world I live in, and the only effective and honest and humble way I can move through it is by trusting in the victory, power, and grace of the resurrection story.  There is no room for fear and pettiness in this story.  In God’s story, (the only one that ultimately counts) resurrection rules!

A friend of mine was facing a long engagement with cancer.  I’m sure many of you have had similar engagements. And you may have been given this poem (and I apologize if you have and it now seems a bit banal).  But to me it was powerful and it relates to my message.  Instead of using the word “cancer” I will insert the word crucifixion.

Crucifixion is so limited…. It cannot cripple love, It cannot shatter hope, It cannot corrode faith, It cannot destroy peace, It cannot kill friendship, It cannot suppress memories, It cannot invade the soul, It cannot steal eternal life, It cannot conquer the Spirit.  Crucifixion is so limited.

If there is any message to be taken away when we consider this story of the resurrection, may it be a message that informs us that death, be it spiritual death or literal death, is never the last word.  Life is!


This message was delivered by Gary Jewell at Spokane Friends Church on March 10, 2019

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