|The Rev. Dr.
Kristin Johnston Largen
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
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It’s Easter, and I am a systematic theologian—so settle in. I have a few things to say.
What will it be like, in the resurrection? What will it be like? Some might say such a line of questioning is futile: here and now, what can we say about such a thing? Only God knows anything for sure about the resurrection! Well, certainly, it is a question that we will never fully have the answer to, until, of course, we experience it first hand; but that does not mean that there is nothing a Christian can or should say about the resurrection. In fact, there is a scriptural witness that gives us both the confidence and the freedom to make some statements about the future that God has prepared for us; and our Gospel text tonight is part of that witness.
Tonight, then, I would like to reflect with you on two aspects in particular of the resurrection that awaits you and me someday, the same resurrection Jesus himself experienced on this most holy night in the Christian church; and ponder anew with gladness all the great things God has done for us, and all the great things still in store that we can only dimly see today.
In Jesus’ miraculous, memorable encounter with his beloved Mary in the early morning shades of pink and grey, we learn two important truths about Jesus’ resurrection, and thus also about the resurrection that awaits all of us: in the fullness of the new creation we are to become, we will be both different than we are now, and yet we will still be the same. Maybe that doesn’t seem like such big news, but it is gospel nonetheless.
So let’s start with the difference. It is clear that the resurrected Jesus is different from the crucified Jesus, because Mary does not recognize the resurrected Jesus! Mary, who knew Jesus as least as well as any of the disciples, sees him and doesn’t see him: she is standing right there with him, but she doesn’t know who he is. Now, at first, we might take this for a moment of profound theophany – a moment when the scales fall from Mary’s eyes, and she sees, not Jesus, but the lord of the universe, the incarnate God of creation standing before her – the almighty One whom no one can see and live.
It is an appealing interpretation, but unfortunately, it’s one the text itself does not support. Upon seeing Jesus, Mary does not take off her shoes, knowing she is standing on holy ground; she does not fall on her face in front of a Jesus all transfigured in white. Instead, she takes him for a gardener! She doesn’t think he is God – she thinks he is some guy whom she hopes may be able to help her, as it is becoming increasingly clear that Jesus’ body is missing—he is not in the tomb where they laid him.
It’s amazing, isn’t it – when you think about it: how can Mary not recognize Jesus – Mary of all people! And yet, it is a story that we will see played out over and over again, with a few disciples on the road to Emmaus, with all eleven back in Jerusalem—and with Thomas, of course. They see him, and they don’t see him: the ones who loved him the most and knew him the best, they see him, and they don’t recognize him. I want to reflect on what that means for us, and what this experience of difference in the resurrection means for our lives, for our future.
Let’s start with the most obvious: Mary’s experience with Jesus reminds us that a resurrection is not a resuscitation: our resurrection is not going to be a Lazarus experience, where we come out of the grave a little stinky, a little dazed, and a little worse for the wear. Oh no! In Jesus Christ, the dead are not so much raised as transformed. In our resurrection that new Adam who has been struggling for so long against the old Adam, that saint who has been fighting with the sinner every step of the way – are finally realized in their fullness, as we become the beautiful, grace-filled people God created us to be from the very beginning.
And what this means, then, is that, like Jesus, we will, in some sense, be unrecognizable to ourselves and to others. Think about it: can you really imagine yourself without your sin? How will you look – both inside and out – without your competitiveness, your maliciousness, your greed, your gluttony? What will you look like, when your every move, every word is governed by grace and love, rather than by jealousy or fear? We can barely imagine it.
But this is the future that is promised to us: a new life unscarred by these disfiguring manifestations of sin, unfettered by our crippling bondage to pride, cruelty and deceit. Again, we can barely imagine it.
But here, too, Scripture helps us. The reality of our transformation is described beautifully in powerful metaphors in two of tonight’s readings. First, in Isaiah 61, the prophet describes the newness of the resurrection with an external image – the image of new, clean garments from God that replace our worn-out, dirty clothing. Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, the Lord has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Clothed and cleaned by God, we will shine fresh and clear—living signs of God’s great love for eternity.
And in a similar way, in Ezekiel 36, the prophet uses an internal image – describing the resurrection as radical surgery, where what is evil and broken in us is removed & replaced with what is healthy and whole. Ezekiel writes, “Thus says the Lord: A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Not only outwardly but inwardly,too, will we be cleansed, renewed and perfected. No wonder we will be hard to recognize!
Now this promise of renewal and transformation would certainly be gospel enough, but there is more: the differences between our pre-resurrection and post-resurrection existences are only half the story. The other half, of course, is told through our sameness: after all, if there were only differences, we would be eternally unrecognizable to others – and even to ourselves – and it would be hard to see how such a resurrection was anything but a total obliteration of the old, and the construction of something entirely new. And this is not the reality to which Scripture & the tradition testify.
Again, let us turn to John’s Gospel. Mary’s confusion as to Jesus’ true identity does not last long. As she is speaking with him, Mary does finally recognize Jesus, in the moment when he speaks her name. Isn’t that lovely? How fitting that the one who is God’s Word incarnate is recognized in the word, and not just any word, but in her name.
Here we recall the image of Jesus the good shepherd, the one who has, indeed, laid down his life for the sheep, the sheep who know the sound of his voice and trust him. Of course Mary would recognize him when he calls her.
So we see, then, that after all, Jesus is not entirely unrecognizable in the resurrection; and so with Jesus, so also with us. This text, then, promises us that, just like Jesus, we will still be recognizable as ourselves;
the resurrection will not destroy us, but will instead preserve two of the most important aspects of each one of us: our human relationships and our physical bodies.
And again, we look to Jesus as our model. Not only in this text, but later in John, and in Luke’s account of the resurrection as well, we see how Jesus has not forgotten his disciples in the resurrection; and the relationships they formed while he was on earth are still a part of his resurrected existence. He comes to them, speaks with them, eats with them, and, most poignantly, I think, allows Thomas the doubter to touch him; and allows Peter to redeem his three-fold denial with a three-fold affirmation of his love and devotion to Jesus. Jesus has not forgotten his friends – and nor will we. Those relationships that have been integral to our lives here and now, those people whose love and care have formed and shaped us will not be forgotten or left behind. Instead, they will be a part of our resurrected lives, too, and they will share in the joy of new life with us.
And this is not all. In a somewhat surprising verse in our text, we hear that Jesus tells Mary not to touch him, which obviously means she could have—clearly, there was something there for Mary to hang on to—but Jesus asks her not to. What this tells us, then, is that even Jesus did not discard his physical human body in the resurrection—it, too, was part of his transformation. It is, then, a mistake to read Paul’s language about the spiritual bodies we receive in the resurrection as somehow incompatible with the physical bodies we received in creation—resurrection, creation—: God’s good work is behind it all. And so just like with Jesus, our physical bodies are part of our created goodness, our uniqueness molded by the hands of God. These bodies may be transformed—thanks be to God—but they will not be lost; even our earthiness will be preserved and restored to perfection.
Well, I have said a lot—I warned you!—but frankly, the most important thing about this Gospel text is not what will or will not be about the resurrection, but in fact, what is. Jesus is raised. The victory is won. Death is defeated. And the powers of evil, destruction, shame, oppression, grief, hopelessness—they have been vanquished and will not have the last word.
Because of the resurrection we celebrate tonight, we know that we, too, will be resurrected in glory, and reunited with all our loved ones in Jesus Christ. Because of the resurrection we celebrate tonight, we know that we are deeply loved, fully forgiven, and mercifully reconciled to God forever. And because of the resurrection we celebrate tonight, not despair but hope, not loneliness but love, not weeping but joy are the hallmarks of a Christian life. Alleluia. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
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