(P) We‘ve just heard two different accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, haven’t we?! (Mark 16.1-8 and John 20.1-18) So what we do make of that – and all the other resurrection accounts which cannot be simply conflated? More importantly, what does Resurrection mean to us – to you, to me, to all of us together? That is not a question which can be answered in a few minutes of Reflection. Jo and I have therefore decided to open up a dialogue, which we hope will encourage us all to share in the days ahead. For one thing which is absolutely clear about Jesus’ resurrection of is that it is related through a multiplicity of stories and symbols. These come from different people and biblical outlooks and they thereby also invite us to share our own experiences and insights into Resurrection. For Resurrection is an extraordinary reality we celebrate today. Yet it is not a simple ‘fact’, is it Jo? Isn’t it rather an invitation to see, and travel into, deeper experience, deeper love, and deeper mystery?…
(P) Of course, details of history, and the immediate events after Jesus’ death are important to explore. Yet, as with other aspects of Christian Faith, we should be clear that the Gospels invite us into journeys of exploration rather than declaring definitive answers. After all, the heart of Resurrection is the extraordinary affirmation of the reality of the possibilities of new life, which are also really quite unfathomable. And surely that is why we have so many different biblical stories about resurrection. The fact that we have so many, and they cannot be reconciled together in their details, seems to me pretty good evidence they were not simply cooked up later. Rather they spoke, far beyond historical or scientific detail, of that deep experience, deep love and deep mystery which is the Resurrection life into which we are called.
(J) So Penny, what do you think of the two accounts of Jesus’ resurrection we have heard today? Which would you choose if you could only pick one? And why?
(P) Well Jo - tomorrow might be different. - but, put on the spot, today I think I’m going to go with the reading from Mark. It is so challenging, and even shocking. I love the way it ends so abruptly - with the women at a loss for words. The original Greek version of course even ends in mid-sentence, with a preposition. No wonder later Christians have tried to give it new endings! But I think the Gospel writer may have intended to leave the ending open, refusing to have us make Jesus’ resurrection a tidy, or simplistic, thing to understand. What about you?
(J) Today Penny, I’d say that John passage. I think the second half in particular, is really beautiful and really significant. Not least they include its setting in a garden, which is a deliberately symbolic complement to the garden of Eden: representing the renewed ‘first day,’ or the new ‘eighth day’ of divine new Creation. I also love the centrality of the woman Mary of Magdala, and the half-glimpsed nature of the mystery of new life.
(P) Yes, I can see that. That is why John’s account also shows Mary mistaking Jesus for the gardener, isn’t it? It’s a reminder that, spiritually speaking, we always have to look deeper to find God. Faith is so often about discovering after getting lost, glimpsing rather than seeing everything. John’s account thus also returns us strikingly to the here and now, to the present possibilities of divine life breaking out right where we are. However I do think that Mark’s account shakes us up even more about that. It also leaves more room for imagination. For me, it rings truer to the likely initial experiences, reflecting Mark as the earliest Gospel. Some of the other resurrection accounts seem to me to be later developed truths. My sense, and I think the best biblical scholarship, suggests the first disciples took much longer to work things out. That would likely not have been in Jerusalem, but much later, as Mark suggests, in Galilee. For they would have been afraid: indeed, petrified, grief stricken, and not at all sure of what was going on.
(J) That makes sense to me too. I wonder what others here feel? In some ways, both Gospel accounts are in that way preferable to Matthew’s – which can often appear a melodramatic, comic strip version of resurrection. Luke’s stories of resurrection can also sometimes feel a little too tidy, though the story of the Emmaus Road is also particularly gorgeous. All of the accounts are however just ways of understanding the reality of Resurrection which always escapes our grasp, particularly when we try to pin it down. Yet they ring true to the deepest levels of our experience, when we open our eyes and hearts afresh, trust and walk on. Then life and light and joy will break through, even though it may be with continuing scars and struggle.
(P) Yes. That is why we have seven gold circles of resurrection on the table. They are counterparts to the seven circles of suffering we explored here on Good Friday. For they represent the way in which, though some suffering remains with us, and some can never be wholly transfigured in this life, love can still conquer all. This we see in our own lives and bodies, as much as in the lives and bodies of those who we hear about in the scriptures. The Gospel writers wrote to proclaim this power of new life in their lives and bodies, and in those about whom they wrote. For we are truly Resurrection people. As we look around and share today, we are the best living witness to Resurrection, for it happens among us: as we trust in the possibilities of new life, beyond the suffering of our selves, our families, our close relationships, our communities, our nation, our world, and our planet.
(J) What resurrection stories do we have to tell from out of that suffering? They are all around, and in us too. Our friend Peter Millar for example wrote recently to share some of his story – of how, struggling with cancer, he caught Covid-19, and yet, through the care of others in hospital, made it through. Some of us will have also seen the remarkable refugee Moz Azimitabar tell his story on TV this week of how he came through year after year of danger and detention, maintaining extraordinary hope and care for others. David Attenborough has told the story of mountain gorillas in Africa he thought had been made extinct. Yet they, through the strength of others’ dedication and imagination, have survived to offer hope for ecological suffering too. Meanwhile, the transgender day of visibility last week reminded us of how gender diverse people are in themselves signs of resurrection – literally, and metaphorically, new creations whom others do not always believe. Indeed, we are all literally resurrections, where we have borne our suffering, and even with continuing scars, witness to new life. Of what examples can you think?
(P) Wow! That’s part of the big vision of Resurrection, isn’t it?! No wonder we have so many different stories in the Bible – how could we express that in any one narrative?! It is as another bishop we knew used to say. In the face of rising fundamentalism, and a refusal to listen to long established biblical scholarship, David Jenkins would affirm that ‘the Resurrection is so much more than a conjuring trick with old bones.’ Sadly, his opponents and much of the media used to misrepresent him by reporting that he had said the story of the Resurrection is ‘merely a conjuring trick with old bones’ and claiming he didn’t believe in Resurrection at all. Well, of course he was trying to open others’ eyes to how much bigger and much more real is the Resurrection as a whole. Sadly, eyes and hearts are so easily closed to new life and bigger pictures, aren’t they? I remember David Jenkins telling us a joke about himself which summed it up well. You may have heard versions relating to others too…
(J) A rabbi, an imam, and the Bishop of Durham (David Jenkins) went rowing on a lake, but lost their oars. What were they to do? After a while, the rabbi jumped out on one side of the boat, and swam powerfully to shore. She was followed, shortly after, by the imam, who jumped out on the same side, and reached the shore to further applause. What about Bishop David Jenkins? After a little while longer, he stepped out of the boat on the other side, and he walked over the water to shore. The media headline the next day? – ‘The Bishop of Durham can’t swim’!
(J) Now, we could simply ask how did the bishop do it? We could look for naturalistic explanations, such as stepping stones below the surface. But the real point of course - as with Mary in the garden in John’s story, or Mark’s shocked disciples – is that we can easily reduce new life to our self-seeking expectations and ideologies. In contrast, true Resurrection calls us into recognising, and living into, deeper experience, deeper love and deeper mystery.
(P) Maybe we then need all the biblical stories of resurrection - both to keep us on our toes and assure us that we will encounter God’s new life, but in many different ways. For ultimately the greatest story of the Resurrection is ourselves and fellow Christians, and our continuing story. So, let us open our eyes afresh and recognise Jesus as John’s Mary does, and take up the opportunity Mark offers us to write our own Resurrection endings - or rather beginnings - for others to take on.
(J) Let’s conclude Penny with your beautiful prayer, which part sums up what we have explored…
Touched by the light of new dawn
Send us out to dispel the darkness
Helped by your grace to look twice
Send us out to see you in the stranger
Nourished like seeds in rich earth
Send us out to bring life to the world
Rejoicing that death could not hold you
Send us out to bring joy to the sorrowing
Brushed by the wings of angels
Send us out to proclaim the good news.
Easter Reflection 2021 @Pitt Street Uniting Church
photo: Penny Jones