I have the strange inkling that a few weeks ago I met the Risen Jesus. It happened again where it so reliably does that it shouldn’t be surprising and yet always seems to be. I was presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter in our cathedral in Chicago. It is a rather splendid liturgy and we often have folks from a number of parishes around the city and beyond who come. Many students from our campus chaplaincies are there too and so the whole thing is quite an event. This year I had the privilege of assisting with the baptisms of several adults and children. When the time came, in the semi-darkness I navigated my way through the crowd toward the font, trying to keep my sleeves away from errant candle flames. Thank God the deacons and vergers were well rehearsed because I couldn’t remember who was to come to the water first or which sponsors went with which baptismal candidate … Or who had the baptismal candles to present to them. Try as I might to stay centered, as usual in these big liturgies I was a little distracted. In any case, the candidates were washed in the font and I began to anoint them. I came to a young woman whose name is Scheherazade. I knew she had grown up in a Muslim household and that her journey to Christianity had been deliberate and difficult. As I began to anoint her she looked up at me with tears streaming down her face, really weeping — that doesn’t happen a lot at the Cathedral of St. James. I tried to smile reassuringly back at her and moved along to anoint the others. Later at the Peace I looked for Scheherazade in particular. I asked her if she was alright. She said to me, “I was crying because my family would not come tonight — they told me it’s like I have died. But I’m alive. I am crying because I have been born into a new family now. This is my family.”
I wonder what brought Mary to the tomb early that morning. She came to weep, surely, maybe to keep company with her loss and grief. The Gospel of Mark says that she and other faithful women came to anoint the dead body of Jesus properly — there hadn’t been time in all the chaos after his death and before the Sabbath. In any case she comes to the tomb and then a new shock. The stone gone and the grave empty. “They’ve taken him away and we don’t know where,” she runs back to tell the others. Peter and John come running back to the tomb (John of course is the triathlete in this account named for him, also the first to believe, naturally, but that’s another sermon).
There is no end to the theological commentary that might be offered about the significance of that unsealed and empty tomb. But the point of it all surely is that the tomb is empty. When the resurrection stories include the presence of angels, they almost take the role of standup comics: “Whaddya looking for? He’s not here!” Nothing to see here, so move along. Move along. In other words, the resurrection stories are not about the presence or the absence of a dead body. They are about the strange, comforting, disconcerting, gentle, powerful presence of a living Lord. Resurrection isn’t quite so much about what happened to Jesus as it is about what happened to his friends. The mighty mystery we call paschal is about the church, the Passover of Jesus from death to that unimaginable new life we call resurrection, and our passing over with him. He has drawn us to himself by the force of his love. In love he has gone before us, shattering categories of time and space to make possible an intimacy with himself so profound that finally not even death will have access to it. The Christian faith is the stunning assertion that in Christ each of us is being drawn into union with the deathless life of God.
But not without each other.
In Holy Baptism you and I have been made living limbs and members of the dying and rising Body of Christ. As in an ancient Easter homily where Christ says to us, “I am in you and you are in me and together we form one person.” We have become members of the one who called us friends. We become the family of God. I think that’s the point of this drama we’ve heard in the gospel today. Mary finds that empty tomb. She runs to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They find each other, they tell each other and in that finding and in that telling, in their shared grief and puzzlement and need, they find Jesus. Or rather, Jesus finds them. In the mystery of his resurrection he gives them to each other in an utterly new way. He gives birth to the church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. We are given to each other for our salvation. As sacramental signs, we present, we signify to each other the living presence of Christ, and as the First Letter of John reminds us, together we are sent to be the good news of God’s unconquerable love. To be signs and agents of God’s gift of eternal life to this violent, death-obsessed, broken, beautiful world.
We fail in that mission of course. Like the first friends of Jesus we bumble along, we forget the awesome dignity of our calling, we misunderstand and hurt one another, we disfigure our identity as the Body of Christ. We are human. The church may be a wonderful and sacred mystery but it is also frequently a maddening one. And when it is, oh, when it is, how many of you here today will join me in testifying to your gratitude for the gift of this particular community, this Society of St. John the Evangelist? It’s why we are here today. Richard Rohr says that when we encounter genuine wisdom, when we meet what he would call real elders, we tend to fall in love with them. So it is here. I hope I am not straying into romantic nonsense about the witness of vowed religious life. I know it is not easy, that this community is as fraught with human weakness as any, that living together here involves the same kinds of little crucifixions as any life-long vowed relationship. And that is exactly why this community is such a blessed antidote to my own periodic disillusionment with the church — because of its stubborn, steadfast faith that the Risen Jesus still bears the marks of crucifixion. And as living signs of his presence we do too. As the rule of the Society puts it, the difficulties of living in community are not signs of failure. Christ uses them for our conversion, they are invitations to trust him more and more deeply in obedience and love. We wound each other, oh yes, but there is no wound which the love of Christ cannot transform and even turn into a source of new life.
And so dear brothers, we give thanks for you who have been called into this society, this particular manifestation of the family of God. It is here among you that so many of us encounter the presence of the Risen Jesus with startling reliability. Like Mary and John and Peter and the rest, we come here to share our fears and hurts and heartaches, our challenges and questions and tears, and in that sharing again and again the Risen One finds us, we are re-membered into our identity as God’s beloved. I believe God has called and equipped this company of friends to be an icon of the fellowship we long to be throughout the whole church, an image of what God intends for the world.
So let us bless God for the gift we are to each other by grace and faith in this Society, this Fellowship of Friends. May Christ be known, worshipped and followed here and in the hearts and minds and bodies of all his faithful people.
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