Jeremiah 31:1–6; Psalm118; John 20:1–18
My Lord, what a morning. Christ has risen, indeed! Actually, it’s been quite a week: a holy week. We began last Sunday with a parade of palms in celebration of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Thursday, we broke bread together in the manner of Jesus and his disciples on the night of his arrest. Friday, we honored our crucified savior with moving service of prayer, scripture readings, reflections, and song.
It was an important week in the life of the church universal, and it was also an important week in the life of this particular congregation. For the benefit of our guests, Western Presbyterian Church has been glorifying God from a location in Foggy Bottom since 1855. But it’s only been since April 17, 1994 that we’ve been serving our Risen Savior from the corner of 24th and G. Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of Western’s move into this building. Mary Wencil was there, along with members of her expansive family, and many of you, too, marching along G Street to be a part of the ongoing rebirth of Western Presbyterian Church.
According to legend, what you would not have found in the procession or the carloads of stuff that came along after the crowd were any pictures of Jesus. Now, Gaston remembers that there was a picture of Jesus on the wall of the Trilla B. Young Room, but somehow it didn’t make it over. It could be that someone forgot the box. But Gaston thinks it’s more likely the case that the pictures of Jesus that had been hanging around our former building bore a particular image of Jesus that may’ve no longer been relevant to our congregation. So, Jesus left the building, but the pictures were left behind.
Scripture tells us that we’re told not to make graven images. (Graven images are likenesses of anything that is in the heavens, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.) This could be one reason why John Calvin was against statues or pictures of the Godhead in churches in the first place. But more, he wrote in his Institutes, “A true image of God is not to be found in all the world.” We might expound upon this to say that the truth of our triune God goes deeper than what a physical representation might communicate. But even more practically speaking from our justice minded position as a church, images of Jesus become the stuff of controversy as we attempt to concretize perfection and hold one person’s idea of perfection against someone else’s idea of perfection until someone is determined to be absolutely wrong.
Like Mary Magdalene at the tomb that resurrection morning sometimes we try awfully hard to hold on to a particular image Jesus. It’s as if holding on to our idea of Jesus—or who we need Jesus to be for us in a moment – is how Jesus ought to be for us always—more worrisome, how Jesus ought to be for the rest of the world in this life or present day situation into the next. But some things we can’t fully grasp. Some things we can’t fully grasp for ourselves or of Jesus. And when we try to grasp Jesus in a particular way, when we decide for ourselves that our certain interpretation of who Jesus is is who Jesus is for everyone it is tantamount to denying the possibility of an experience with the Risen Lord and Savior for everyone involved.
I can imagine how it was for Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, rising that mournful morning with longing in their hearts, to go see the particular man named Jesus whom they had grown to love. I suppose that they’d planned this trip since sundown Friday. Mary woke first. She tapped the other Mary on the arm. They sat straight up. The two women wrapped shawls around their shoulders and stepped into the stillness of daybreak where not a bird was heard. Quickly, they made their way to a nearby garden and the tomb where their friends Joseph and Nicodemus had taken Jesus’ body just before sundown two nights before. There, the men had cleaned their Lord’s body with aloe and wrapped him in fragrant, spiced cloths drenched with tears and gently laid him to rest. What a day that had been! Who can believe it, still! Deep sighs and heavy words unspoken sealed the bond between the women as they continued their walk to this place again, hoping to find that the image burned in their minds of their suffering-savior-now-dead a complete mistake. – of course, knowing it was not. But he was going to save them all! And he was going to heal them from their pain forever! He promised peace; he was perfect love.
Without even a hushed word between them, all they could do was walk. Stopping abruptly midway through the cemetery garden, their shock sliced the solitude: the tomb was unsealed. Had someone moved Jesus’ body? Where had they taken him? Go, get Peter! Run! Get John! He’s gone!
Awash in a sour mixture of grief and confusion, the women and the other disciples were too stunned to understand what had happened even though they had been told. They made their way to the tomb, then turned back. Stumbling over stones, three made their way back home. But not Mary Magdalene. Weeping beside the tomb, she saw angels inside. She told them someone had taken away her Lord. As the conversation continued, a man she didn’t recognize was suddenly standing beside her. A nice enough man: maybe he’s the gardener. Maybe he’ll know. Then, “Mary,” he said. “Teacher!” she was overwhelmed with gratitude. A fresh image replaced the old.
As Mary turned toward the Lord, he stopped her. He held out his hand, palm forward: “Don’t hold on to me.” I have to go beyond this place and time — this experience of now.” Mary got this. She ran to tell the world: the Lord had crossed boundaries of time and space; their Lord had appeared in an unimaginable way.
With his compassion, and his love, and his ability to heal, and his desire to save her from all of the pain of the world, Jesus called her by name. He brought her peace just as Jesus comes to each one of us after all the pain of the world with the promise of new life in so many forms to as many people as who are suffering or in any way in need of his grace, his mercy and his love.
Just as it was important for Jesus to tell Mary not to hold on to him that day, it’s important for all of us to hold loosely a particular image of our Savior Lord so that we’re left open to experience our savior in the way he comes to each one of us each day. It’s important for us to hold Jesus loosely so we are not left with an inflexible idea of who Jesus is for the world and who the world needs Jesus to be this day well into the next.
Joseph Campbell, a psychologist and mythologist who gained prominence in the mid-1900s with his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, would’ve said that Jesus was just one of the many versions of the savior the world has been yearning for since the beginning of time: the Hindus with their Buddha; the Sumerians with their goddess, Innana. Through different times and cultures, the hero makes her appearance in different forms because the needs and “effects of creation are multitudinous, complex, and of mutually contradictory kind” They call us to imagine our savior – our “private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet…. secretly potent pantheon” of a savior.
Now, 2000 years later, more than 2.1 billion people around the world hold Jesus as our Savior. That’s a long run, in Campbell’s “hero terms.” There are times when this works for us: Times when we need a metaphor or rationale for goodness in the world; times when we’re pleased with our experience of “church;” times when we’re hoping for a reason to live; times when we’re confident that we’ll find a champion for our cause; times when we’re intoxicated by the air of freedom. These are times when Jesus as imaged for us through the gospel accounts works best.
But there are other times when this Savior we come to know as Jesus falls flat: Times when oppression stares us in the face and won’t blink an eye: Times when we’re rejected by the church that we’ve loved since birth; times when we’re wanting for a friend in our darkest hour and we’re unable to feel a warm hand holding ours; times in the darkness of our human existence when we’re longing for wisdom or security or some construct of life that we can’t quite grasp.
Any one of us, wading through our own sour mixture of grief or confusion, oppression or pain, has an image of what we need of a Savior. There are times when the savior who’s been imaged for us through scripture seems nowhere to be found. Give glory to God that Jesus’ being transcends a particular interpretation. His grace transcends denominational dogma. His hope transcends faith traditions. His mercy transcends civil penal codes. His love transcends scriptural cherry picking. His peace transcends breached treaties. His skin tone transcends race, just as his mannerisms transcend culture.
Because if we try to hold on to a particular image of Jesus – one day that image will fail us. Even if our particular image is that Jesus was a savior who loved beyond all imagining. Because there will be a time for each of us when even our most expansive image of Jesus is inadequate to overcome our heaviness over something we’ve done or left undone; something happening in the world around us; something anticipated or unanticipated which we all pray will pass; or maybe some way we’re feeling about our very selves. Once we experience our need for the corresponding truth of our transcendent Lord, we will understand Christ’s resurrection in a whole new way. We will understand that Christ’s resurrection signals an everyday ethic to love. We will understand that Christ’s resurrection transcends humanly understandable constructs to tell us to extend God’s divine grace and mercy, truth and love to everyone we meet. We will understand that we are to be open to one another, and receptive to new ideas, responsive to the needs of others and anticipate their needs for mercy.
This signals to us the most pressing idea of all, and that is for each of us to rise above the idea of our very selves and let Christ be resurrected in us today!
New Testament scholar Donald Juel reflected on the resurrection: “[N]one of the Gospels really end the story of Jesus.” None of them even attempt to explain it. In fact, no amount of explanation can adequately explain the meaning and significance of Easter. “The whole point is that it continues—and that its significance continues.” This is a pretty fair summation of the meaning of Easter: Christ’s resurrection means that the story of Jesus is “to be continued” in you, and in me, and in every life that is touched by the power of the good news “He is risen.”
May Christ transform your spirit this resurrection morning, that you become the image of God the Risen Lord needs in the world today to help move the world beyond the pain, the suffering, the oppression and anxieties of this day and the next. May Christ transform the spirit of others in your path that someone become for you the image you need to transcend any challenges you’re facing today, and all your days. Together, may the spirit of our Risen Lord transform us all into becoming a forever Easter people as ones at one with our triune God, forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Third Edition. (Novato: New World Library, 2008.) p. 259.  Campbell, 2.  Juel, Donald. A Commentary on The Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990) 234.