In John’s gospel, the resurrection is…confusing. Everyone who encounters the risen Christ – Mary, Simon Peter, the rest of the disciples who are hiding behind locked doors, even, later, good old doubting Thomas – everyone who encounters the resurrected Jesus is confused about who and what he is.
And really, that’s no different than the rest of John’s gospel, is it? We’ve been walking with Jesus through this Gospel story for months, now, and we know that no matter how hard he tries to explain himself to his friends, his disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds…everyone pretty much responds with disbelief and confusion.
Resurrection does not make sense. There’s no logic to it. For those of us who operate in a world of observable phenomena, fact-based research, in a world where we are more and more on guard against fake news and propaganda, resurrection is…confusing. Just like those first friends of Jesus who encountered him alive after they had watched, with their very own eyes, as he was arrested, tried, crucified, killed and buried, we have trouble understanding how this story could ever be real.
It is, at the very least, confusing.
John’s gospel bears witness to that. Unlike many of our Easter hymns and celebrations – even our worship here at Peace Covenant – that moves speedily from the last supper and death at crucifixion straight to the inexpressible JOY of Easter Sunday, in the gospel and in our own lives resurrection takes a much more winding path. It is not something we jump to acceptance of, not something that *snap* changes our lives immediately.
Resurrection is confusing.
There is this random bush in the median of my apartment complex parking lot that has been captivating me this spring. It’s gigantic – wrapping around a tree – but fairly nondescript. If it hadn’t done this weird thing that I’m about to describe to you, I never would have noticed it. But this spring, as the trees started to bud out and the flowers began to bloom, this bush sort of…transformed.
It’s regular color is a deep, dark green with oval leaves – very bush-like. But as its new growth began to sprout, the new leaves were BRIGHT green – almost yellow – and not quite as oval as the old ones. I don’t know a lot about plants, but I assume that the new growth was appearing in relation to the exposure to sunshine that it got, so that the side of the bush that was exposed only to weak morning sun took longer to sprout new growth than the other side that got full-on afternoon level vitamin C sunshine.
What ended up happening is that the old bush looks like this: as if it is being overrun, consumed, engulfed, devoured by new life. The new bush is something altogether different than the old one.
I was so compelled by this random parking lot bush that I asked around about what kind of plant it might be. I shared a photo on Facebook and asked people who are better with plants than I am. No one could quite believe that it was a single species: surely that new growth was a foreign vine overtaking an old plant. There was no way, my friends said, that it could be the same, since the new leaves were SO different in color and even in shape than the old ones. I conceded that I, knowing next to nothing about plants, must have misconstrued the situation and resolved to believe my more experienced friends. Two plants, one taking over the other.
Fran and I walk by this bush every day, though, and it won’t stop captivating me. I stopped in the office to ask the groundskeeper what kind of bush it is, but he didn’t know either. I walk by every day, and stop and marvel at what is happening. I’ve inspected more closely, too. I think my gardening friends are wrong – I think their confusion is warranted, but I think they are wrong.
Those new, yellow leaves are sprouting on the same vines where the old dark green growth is living. This is one single plant, being taken over by new life.
I think resurrection is like this nondescript parking lot median bush (which is called, ironically, given its quiet and unassuming presence most of the year, a “burning bush.”). I think resurrection is confusing and unexpected and something that is really, really hard to explain: even when you consult the experts.
When Jesus appeared to Mary at the tomb, she thought he was the gardener. She didn’t recognize him because resurrection is, as Karoline Lewis says, nothing short of re-creation.
Even after Mary ran to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord, the disciples huddled together in a room and locked the door behind them, unable to believe what she was telling them and sure that there was no way that this person Mary had seen could in fact be the same one they had known and followed. It took Jesus appearing *inside* the locked door and showing them his nail-scarred hands and sword-pierced side for them to believe it was really him.
The stories of Jesus’ first resurrection appearances make me wonder how often we refuse to see or believe in resurrection in our own lives. It makes me think about the disciples, about Mary, about how experiencing the resurrected Jesus changed them…or didn’t.
For Mary, experiencing resurrection must have led to a different kind of life. She’d been so close to Jesus – she loved him so deeply, followed him and argued theology with him and yelled at him when he didn’t show up soon enough to keep her brother from dying, knelt and anointed his feet with perfume and her hair.
Mary loved Jesus deeply. When he died, she wept…and wept, and wept and wept. She showed up to the tomb weeping. She answered the angels who appeared there through tears. When Jesus, who she assumed to be the gardener, asked why she was weeping, she wept even more. Mary loved Jesus. She was one of his best friends. What would it have meant to her to lose him?
What would it have meant to her to find him again?
I wonder what happened to Mary after she witnessed the resurrection. She runs to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and with that, she becomes the very first preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I wonder if Mary was able to live into that new identity: a disciple of Jesus Christ, a preacher of his good gospel. I wonder if, in her experience of resurrection, she discovered that she herself had been re-created. I wonder how her life changed, whether she would even recognize her old self when all the newness of resurrection descended over her.
When Mary realizes who Jesus is, after he has called her by name, she shouts, “Teacher!” and runs to him, grabbing on, holding on, trying to prevent him from ever leaving her again. But Jesus speaks kindly to her: “Do not hold on to me. I still have to ascend to my Father.”
That moment of resurrection, of re-creation, of experiencing the risen Christ doesn’t last forever. In resurrection, in being re-created, we are asked to let go of things: the old bodies, the old growth, the old way of understanding the world. If we are to be created anew, if we are to participate in resurrection ourselves, Jesus tells us gently, too: “do not hold on. There’s more to come.”
Resurrection is confusing because Jesus asks us to let go. Resurrection doesn’t make sense to us because we think the world should operate with logic and observable patterns. But resurrection is also confusing because we do not want to let go of the ways we understand the world. Resurrection is confusing because it threatens us, the old us, the conventional wisdom and the ways we’ve always done things.
We look for other explanations – any other explanation – that the new creation is really another thing altogether, that the man in the garden is just the gardener, that if we lock the door and huddle together then we’ll escape the transformation awaiting us in encountering the risen Christ.
But Jesus calls us into encounter, into belief. Jesus has been offering himself to us, over and over, showing up in the unexpected places of our lives, reminding us that God is with us and that God is for us. The resurrection teaches us that God’s love is unending, unstoppable, bent on transforming our old growth into new creation, stronger even than our disbelief, stronger even than death.
Resurrection is confusing. But we need not be afraid of that – confusion is natural. Just like Mary’s weeping at the tomb was a natural, human expression of her love for Jesus, our confusion at what resurrection is, what it means, how it could possibly happen or continue happening is to be expected.
But Jesus does not leave us in fear and confusion. Jesus will not allow us to remain in grief or shut up behind locked doors. Jesus arrives in our midst, and brings greetings of peace.
“Peace be with you,” he tells us. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” You are confused now, yes. You are wondering what all this could mean, yes. You are struggling to process all that has happened and all that is about to happen, but I have a job for you. This is not the end of the story. You’ve experienced resurrection and now your job is to go tell about it.
I know you are scared, Jesus says. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. But there is something deep inside you that understands, that longs for this truth, that is celebrating this victory, this illogical resurrection and unbelievable re-creation. And, he says, you are not alone.
Just like he did with those first terrified disciples, Jesus breathes into us and says, “receive the Holy Spirit,” the comforter, the companion, the one who will intercede when you cannot find the words and the one who will guide you in your work and witness.
Resurrection is confusing. But we are not alone, we are not abandoned, and even death cannot overcome the truth of the gospel:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
May it be so. Amen.