There are quite a few references to seeing or looking in the John resurrection day readings we have just heard – eight in fact.
In the dark Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away. The other disciple and Peter saw the strips of linen cloth and Peter entered the tomb and saw the cloth used to cover Jesus’ face. The other disciple then entered, and when he saw it, he believed. They made their way back to the other disciples but Mary stayed – she stood crying outside the tomb and then stooped down and saw two angels inside the tomb… after speaking to the angels she turned and saw Jesus standing there but she did not know who she was…
Jesus asked her, ‘Why are you crying? What are you looking for?’ It was only when he called her name ‘Mary’ that she recognised him… ‘Rabboni’ she said. Later she went back to the disciples and told them what she had seen.
But there was seeing and not seeing. What Mary and the disciples initially saw was only part of what had taken place. They saw the tomb stone rolled away and the cloths where the body had been, but that did not mean that they necessary understood resurrection. We are told that the other disciple saw and believed, but not what he believed. How hard it is to ‘see’ resurrection! Even Mary, looking at the resurrected Jesus did not really see him – she thought he was the gardener. It was when he called her name that she finally ‘saw’.
From this distance we can understand how hard it is to see and understand. How we wish that we could see – it would be easier to explain – well… maybe… but maybe not. Even when looking at him and talking to him Mary did not immediately recognise the resurrected Jesus… seeing doesn’t answer all the questions. This resurrection thing is tricky.
So tricky that some describe it as a myth. Kim Hill rolled out a Dawkins disciple yesterday on her radio show – a chap arguing for secularisation (I didn’t listen – I get so tired of the media’s headlines at Easter and Christmas). On Thursday The Press rolled out an article on the decline of Christianity in Christchurch with the headline ‘it seems that fewer people than ever may be celebrating the religious side of Easter this year’. How the writer made that conclusion was interesting… some census figures and a few interviews. What she didn’t research was the recent findings of church attendances in the greater Christchurch area that were compiled by surveying the 290 churches that meet in the city week by week. They indicated that over 35,000 people attend church on any given Sunday and that they, and the percentage who tend to make it to church more often than not, mean that one in seven people in Christchurch are regular attenders at worship. We can all see the decline in census figures, but it is when one looks closer that one sees that more is going on than meets the eye. There are, for instance, 4500 teenagers meeting this weekend at the Easter Camp at Spencer Park – 500 more than last year. More is going on than meets the eye.
One of the people quoted in The Press article said ‘Religion has never made any sense to me… it always seems a bit silly.’ Admittedly there are some aspects of religion that are rather silly. But it is a stretch, in my view, to argue that because something doesn’t make sense for you then it cannot possibly be true. She later admits that she has never been to a church youth group… she is looking at all of this from the outside, thus it is even harder to understand. It would be like me saying that because people speaking in Chinese sound as if they are speaking gibberish, that they must be being silly. When in fact it will only be as I involve myself in the life and culture of Chinese people that I will begin to understand what they are saying.
If Mary, who knew Jesus, was looking at him and talking to him and still not seeing the resurrected Jesus for who he was, it is hardly surprising that the young woman interviewed in The Press, or the writer of the article itself, are going to find resurrection and religion easy to see and understand from a distance.
But I don’t understand resurrection anyway. Do you? Nor can I explain it. It is tricky. It doesn’t fit our usual categories.
Some would conclude that it cannot be true precisely because it doesn’t fit our categories of knowing. I don’t understand that logic. Actually I find that way of thinking to be extremely silly. Are they suggesting that something cannot exist if they cannot yet get their heads around it? I would have thought that the story of human discovery over the centuries would have dispelled that myth. Like the imagination that led to the discovery that the world was not flat, or that the sun did not orbit around the earth, and that heavy objects with engines can fly through the sky for more than a few hundred metres, and that back holes can exist in space even if we cannot see them (because they are black), and that human hearts can be transplanted… the list is rather long. If some people want to conclude that the physical resurrection of Jesus is impossible because they cannot get the mathematics to it, I say that they are taking themselves and their capabilities far too seriously.
Resurrection is tricky, and our understanding and believing is going to have to rely on more than what we can see at first glance… “The people who have faith in me without seeing are the ones who are really blessed!” says Jesus to Thomas. [John 20:29]
As Mary and the disciples looked closer at who was standing before them their faith and understanding grew. That’s the biblical witness. For those following afterwards, including you and I, we have to be even better lookers than they were. We don’t have the luxury of having the Risen Jesus standing before us calling our names, we don’t have him standing there with his hands and feet bearing the scars of his crucifixion in order to fall to our knees and declare Jesus ‘my Lord and my God’ [John 20:28].
But do we have enough to go on?
We have the witness of those who did meet him – Mary, who didn’t recognise him, heard her name called and whatever it was that was preventing her from knowing who was before her was lifted from her. She saw and believed. Can we trust that witness?
One of the arguments that some of the resurrection doubters put up as to why the bodily resurrection of Jesus is impossible is that the stories of the early church are inconsistent. Jesus appears and disappears. He isn’t recognised until he speaks or breaks bread or bids his disciples to put the net over the over the other side of the boat… This vagueness, these doubters argue, makes it look as if they have cooked up a good story. I argue the opposite… if the early church was fabricating a story then they would have worked harder to tell the same story in the same way in order to make it look authentic. It is what people who have committed a crime do to try and get around the justice system – tell the story simply and consistently – don’t embellish it or depart from the script. It is when those seeking to cover something up depart from the script that what really went on can be prised out. The fact that there are inconsistencies between the post-resurrection encounters with Jesus as outlined by the four gospel writers indicates that there has not been collusion and cover up.
The risen Jesus appears but not within the categories of those who knew him closely, and neither in the ways that we would insist on with our 21st century lens on.
We have to be good lookers – the resurrection demands from us a deeper looking through the eyes of faith. It calls from us a new imagination.
What might that look like?
I offer a few recent experiences and observations.
At St Stephen’s we have a clothing shop on Saturday mornings. It started five years ago when, after a garage sale, a few of the St Stephen’s women offered to open a room up for a few weeks to sell the left-over clothing. Five years on, nearly every Saturday of the year, that shop has stayed open. We have never asked for clothing to restock it, but most Saturdays people from the community have rolled up and purchased many quality garments for a few dollars or less, and each week bags of clothes have been left at the door to replenish the stocks. It is like witnessing the feeding of the five thousand each week where it doesn’t seem to matter how many people were fed, still there were baskets of food left at the end. I see the hand of the Risen Lord in this, and I believe.
Almost two years ago Anne and I were sent $10,333,33 from the Highgate Parish in Dunedin to distribute where appropriate for earthquake relief. We decided to give the first 10% of that to some people in need on the eastside who we didn’t know so that we could, at least at the start, resist using it on this side of the city where we would be tempted to monitor and maybe control how it was used. One day some friends were talking about a young family including a baby, who were, months after the February quake, still living in a house without running water or working toilets. On a desolate Friday night we turned up at their house with a cheque. The young mother was overwhelmed that strangers from a church across the city would turn up with $1000 and not even pass on a spiel about Jesus. You know what happened next because many of you were part of it… I told the story in my blog and before long over $85,000 had been sent from around New Zealand and as far away as Scotland, and we walked out $200 supermarket vouchers into a neglected eastside suburb which has now been completely emptied of people. The ripples of hope that were sent out that day among us and the people we served are bigger than we will ever know. I see the hand of the Risen Lord in this, and I believe.
I think we are in the midst of another one of these resurrection adventures as our two parishes work on a future together. We are not looking to cement in concrete what we have had before, but to build on our collective strength to explore some new possibilities and frontiers in the mission of God’s love to the world in Jesus Christ. We will have to take some risks and resist some of our well-intentioned urges to hold on tightly to what we have had in the past, it is going to take imagination and tolerance, creativity, and a good deal of patience with one another… but I truly believe that the Risen Christ is calling us to a new way of seeing and doing because that is what the Risen Lord has always done. We are not defined by where we have been but by what will yet be. We are informed by the past but not constrained by it, for we are a resurrection people. I see the hand of the Risen Lord in this, and I believe.
Do you? Come good lookers all!