Rising into Newness of Life
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
April 9, 2023, Easter
Scripture: John 20:1–18
I remember the moment I released my concern about the empty tomb and whether I could prove it, convince people to believe it, or consider myself faithful if I didn’t understand it. About thirteen years ago, I heard my mentor and vocational ministry advisor recite the poem “They Have Threatened Us with Resurrection” by the Guatemalan poet and theologian Julia Esquivel. Esquivel was a brave woman who used her voice, writings, and activism during the years of civil war and autocratic violence and oppression in Guatemala to call attention to its various regimes’ kidnappings, arrests, and assassinations of Mayan, Quiche, and other indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Esquivel saw those killings not as an end but as the beginning of resurrection. In what for many was a daily experience of Good Friday, Esquivel articulated a crucified people’s belief that their deaths in the cause of justice and liberation were not in vain, that there deaths were already vindicated. Yes, they suffered, but every death enlivened and inspired the living to keep the faith and fight. She said in that poem:
They have threatened us with Resurrection
because they will not be able to take away from us
nor even their death
and least of all their life.
Because they live
today, tomorrow, and always
in the streets baptized with their blood,
in the air that absorbed their cry,
in the jungle that hid their shadows,
in the river that gathered up their laughter,
in the ocean that holds their secrets,
in the craters of the volcanoes,
Pyramids of the New Day,
which swallowed up their ashes.
They have threatened us with Resurrection
because they are more alive than ever before . . .
Those verses are a masterful articulation of resurrection faith. It was upon hearing that poem that resurrection faith was kindled within me. Perhaps, the witness of resurrection is most visible and reliable when death loses its ability to immobilize us in fear, grief, and hopelessness. Do you have a resurrection faith today?
The evangelist of the Gospel of John, and all of the writers of the Gospels for that matter, knew that resurrection would not be readily believed or digested, for it was a contested notion in their time. They knew that both skeptics and potential believers would want evidence that God raised Jesus from the dead, and yet, they don’t narrate a resurrection nor do they proffer proof of its occurrence. Their stories are empty tombs and appearances of Jesus. It makes you wonder why so many people insist on going further than early Christians in getting a handle on the resurrection. John was honest enough to show that an empty tomb was insufficient to tell Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple what really happened that morning. After all, simply seeing the stone rolled away from the tomb led Mary to believe that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. The idea of resurrection appeared to be far from her thoughts that morning . . . so far away that she repeatedly told those she encountered, “They have taken away the Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (vv. 2, 13, 15). Peter and the beloved disciple looked into the tomb, and what they knew or believed was unclear. We know they were not ready to be witnesses, for John tells us they went home after seeing the empty tomb.
Resurrection hopes saturated the religious beliefs and practices of Jews long before Jesus began his ministry. God’s people firmly trusted and believed that God would vindicate and liberate God’s people even if they died before God reconciled all things. They trusted that life would abound when God ushered in the new creation and the new age of God’s reign in the last days. And in John’s telling of how that resurrection hope evolved, Jesus came as an incarnated, embodied manifestation and revelation of God who would raise them on the last day. But the world’s logic has a way of intruding on claims of faith. The experience of Good Friday too often hides the persistent manifestation of life. Many, including Mary, carried faithful ideas, beliefs, and hopes about the resurrection, but when she saw the stone rolled away, she assumed that someone had stolen the body.
The behavior of Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple should strike us as a little curious because, according to John, Jesus has been trying to tell them about this. Jesus talked about the persistent manifestation of life within him, proclaiming it with the divine “I am” statements: I am the bread of life. I am the living water. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the resurrection and the life. But that empty tomb could not say anything definitive about life. So upon seeing the stone rolled away, Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple are left with an incomplete experience and still wrestle with resurrection faith.
But it wasn’t until Mary stopped looking for a dead man, stopped to listen for the voice of the good shepherd, that the vision and possibility of life began to crowd out the shadow and dirge of death. The moment of recognition came when she slowed down just long enough to hear Jesus call her by name. I recall the old saints from the little country church of my youth, singing, “Hush, Hush, somebody’s callin’ my name.” At that moment, life prevailed. At that moment, she is freed from the hold that death, loss, and grief had over her, and her mourning turns to joy. At that moment, she knew God had vindicated Jesus’ word, life, and ministry. And when Jesus told her to go tell his siblings that he was going to be with “my Father and your Father and my God and your God,” Mary caught a glimpse of the newness of life with God. The newness of life abounds even in a Good Friday world.
Because Jesus had conquered death, hell, and the grave, God’s promised liberation had begun, and yes, she was included. Because Jesus broke the hold of death to return to God, humanity now eternally abides within the heart and realm of God. We know Mary understood what was going on; we know resurrection or Easter faith had been kindled within her because she testified to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” She did not say anything more about seeing an empty tomb. She did not say she did not know where they had laid the body. She did not shout, “He has risen.” Mary said, “I have seen the Lord.” When Mary testified, “I have seen the Lord,” any concerns about an empty tomb or stolen body became irrelevant. Any notion about the finality and sovereignty of death lost its ability to frighten or discourage her. Life abounds amid loss, setbacks, injustice, and even after death.
That is the essence of resurrection, or Easter, faith: not a debate about the history or science of resurrection, but the testimony about the experience of life, the resurrections we experience amid the persistence of Good Friday. It is trusting that in Jesus’ resurrection and in the testimonies of those witnesses who saw life amid death and despite death, we can trust that life will prevail, that we are connected to the heart and realm of God in a way that death will never be ever to sever or separate. It’s knowing that when Jesus rose from the dead, we, too, became risers into the newness of life always available to us in the presence of God.
So, I don’t think the evangelist of John or any of the Gospel writers told their stories of resurrection to invite us to embrace a creed, doctrine, or proof for resurrection. I believe they want us to hear the testimonies of those who encountered the risen Lord so that we would open ourselves to an experience of resurrection. They invite us to an experience of the living One whose resurrection means we now eternally abide within the heart and realm of God; that even though we will experience death, that newness of life abounds in unexpected and surprising ways; that this experience of life will kindle within us resurrection or Easter faith that reminds us that death will never separate us from God; that Jesus calls us each by name and sends us out to tell the world what we have seen.
I have a resurrection faith, which has little to do with the historicity or scientific conclusions about the empty tomb. I have a resurrection faith, and it didn’t come because I read or memorized any of the historic church creeds. I have a resurrection faith because Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple found their lives and affirmed their faith when they could so quickly have fallen into despair, hopelessness, and faithlessness after Jesus was executed. I have resurrection faith because I know that God, in all of God’s creative power and fertile imagination, is not satisfied to leave God’s people without hope, vindication, and liberation. I have a resurrection faith every time I start to believe that Good Friday will never end, then comes Sunday, and all I can think is “this is the day the Lord has made, and I’m rejoicing and glad in it.” I have resurrection faith because, like Mary, I have seen the Lord—not an apparition or even anything like the crucified and resurrected body of the historical Jesus.
But I have seen the Lord when activists and advocates confront poverty, homelessness, racism, inequality, and gun violence and inspire and mobilize movements that force the government to change laws and address injustice. I have seen the Lord in the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated at a time when most of the country had abandoned and doubted his dream, only to be vindicated as a prophet whose words and dream live on in our culture and consciousness. I have seen the Lord in my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents, whose struggles and confrontations with poverty, enslavement, and Jim Crow segregation were vindicated in the lives of their posterity who stand before you with freedom, degrees, and accomplishments they could only dream about. I have seen the Lord at Plymouth Church in the lives, dreams, and aspirations of our members, friends, and visitors; because every day and every Sunday, we bear witness to a cold, cynical, unforgiving world that we will choose community and relationship within, among, and beyond ourselves; we keep trying our best against the prevailing winds of polarization and negativism, to reflect the heart and realm of God. I have seen the Lord in expressions of love all over the place. Amid disaster, violence, and hopelessness, people of every nation choose dignity, equity, and compassion in the face of imperial greed and domination. In all these manifestations of God’s presence, we know that Jesus lives. And we live, and death will not stop us.
Even as I say this to you, I am not worried about this testimony colliding with a scientific worldview. None of the evangelists who wrote the Gospel accounts about the evolving resurrection faith after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension ever concerned themselves with passing the scientific muster of future readers. I am celebrating today because Jesus’ works of justice, his manifestation of unconditional love, and his rejection of violence, revenge, and condemnation have been vindicated. We can live now with the hopeful expectation that God will vindicate and liberate all creation from death and dissolution. Because Jesus lives, we are rising with him into a newness of life that will prevail beyond death.
I saw that newness of life when I finally made my way to Guatemala to meet the woman who helped my see resurrection in a new and exciting way. got a chance to meet Julia Esquivel a little over ten years ago when some colleagues and I traveled to Guatemala. There she was, this slight little woman with a small voice, surrounded by the survivors of the regimes’ violence and the family members of the killed and disappeared. They were full of life, hope, and power. In their every gesture and every witness, I could honestly say that I saw the Lord. I can hear her testimony about the power of resurrection in the close of that poem that kindled within an unwavering resurrection faith:
Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already