The Awe and Meaning of Resurrection

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
March 31, 2024, Easter

Scripture: Mark 16:1–8

Every Easter, I feel the need to give a disclaimer that might help you calibrate your expectations. If you are looking for historical or scientific proof of the resurrection, or if you are looking for a defense of resurrection with Christian apologetics, I am likely to disappoint you. I want to reflect with you on the meaning of resurrection so we can live it in all its mystery, confusion, and incomprehensibility. Resurrection can make us uncomfortable and tongue-tied because we have been taught to think in historical, scientific, or cultural categories to help us explain and understand something that reason tells us does not happen. Dead people do not rise. But therein lies the confusion, incoherence, and inarticulateness that befall us, trying to describe something the Bible does not describe or to prove a phenomenon that eludes our modern scientific and historical methods.

But I want to assure you on this Resurrection Sunday that skepticism is not the only approach available to us to address our questions about resurrection. We can choose to trust God’s love, grace, and mercy to hold our doubts, our silences, and our search for meaning. How does resurrection move from a contested mystery or an apologetic confirmation into a substantive affirmation of a living faith? In a world in which the dead do not rise, what exactly is our claim about an empty tomb this morning? What does it mean to see and confess resurrection as good news liberating for all creation? Perhaps we can answer those questions by not proving resurrection but experiencing it, practicing it, or confessing it.

Early on in my journey into pastoral ministry, when I was sorting out my theology, deconstructing and constructing a new faith that was not simply a re-tread of a received tradition, I heard a preacher say that if someone offered irrefutable, unimpeachable scientific or historical proof that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, he would still follow and believe in Jesus. That assertion arrested me to such an extent that I felt compelled to take a deeper look at the resurrection as the foundation of the faith. How could he say that, and what was I missing? As I engaged my discomfort and questions, the Gospel of Mark’s resurrection story, specifically Mark’s original, shorter ending, spoke to me and invited me on the quest for meaning. The oldest Mark manuscripts end at verse 8. Still, some scribes were not satisfied with Mark’s abrupt ending of the story and added verses to satisfy the need for a more complete story. However, Mark’s shorter, original story is enough to open up our understanding of the resurrection phenomenon.

As Mark tells the story, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome got up the morning of the first day of the week to take the spices they had bought to anoint the body of Jesus, whose death and burial they witnessed. Just like the disciples and the crowds who followed and believed in Jesus’s way, the women were a faithful lot who understood that death was a fact. They were also people of the covenant and the Book who believed in God’s promise of life. But until that morning, that promise of life was an article of eschatological faith, an end-time expectation—the belief that God will someday vindicate God’s faithful. It never occurred to them that the someday of faith could be that day. They lived in the tension of the fact of inevitable death and believing in God’s promise of life. So, in the Gospel of Mark, we meet the faithful followers of Jesus at the very moment when God’s promise of life goes from being a far-off expectation to becoming a present fulfillment. And it was scary, impossible, and unbelievable.

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome got to the tomb, saw that the stone had been rolled away, and heard God’s messenger tell them that Jesus had been raised, they fled the tomb in terror and amazement and didn’t tell anybody anything. They are just as confused, tongue-tied, and silent in their first encounter with resurrection as many of us are. And Mark doesn’t tighten up the encounter to ease the terror and amazement. Jesus makes no appearances to confirm what they have seen. Mark offers no discourse or scene to provide an apologetic confirmation of resurrection. We are left with three women who are too afraid to heed the messenger’s call to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has been raised and goes before them in Galilee.

I don’t know what Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome did in the next hour, the next day, or even the following months. But that we gather here all these years later, witnessing the resurrection of Jesus in song, prayer, and praise, means that they eventually resolved the tension between the fact of death and God’s promise of life. The women and the disciples did not succumb to their fear of the reality of death. At some point, that empty tomb experience affected those women, the disciples, and our spiritual forebears. We don’t know when, but eventually, they got free from that place of death, from among the tombs, and woke up to the possibilities that flowed from Jesus escaping that tomb. Their every testimony, their every act of worship, their every act of service became resurrectional such that we now practice it, confess it, and experience it as the newness of life always unfolding even as death continues.

However, it is also essential to acknowledge something about the women’s encounter with that empty tomb, which is often overlooked when we try to explain how resurrection faith took hold. There is usually so much skepticism about resurrection because we get the sequence backward. When the women encountered that empty tomb, they did not believe in Jesus because of the resurrection. They had been following, journeying with, and learning from Jesus before he was crucified, seeing God revealed in Jesus’ life and ministry. They had heard Jesus debating the religious leaders about resurrection. They didn’t need a resurrection to believe in Jesus. No, the resurrection began to make sense to them because they remembered Jesus’ life and ministry revealed God’s work in the world. Let me put it this way: They had always trusted that God was faithful and just to bring life, but on that morning, when God raised Jesus from the dead, they saw that God was fulfilling God’s promise to vindicate God’s righteous ones who suffered for the faith. Because of that decisive act of God, they understood the meaning of resurrection. Not the proof of the resurrection. Not the science of the resurrection. Not the history of the resurrection. But the meaning of resurrection.

So, proof of the resurrection is a distraction when the meaning of resurrection holds so much more power and possibility for living a life assured of God’s promise of life. I know. Without the appearances of Jesus found in the other Gospels, without an account of what happened beyond that empty tomb, we may feel stuck right there with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, looking at an empty tomb in terror and amazement, hearing the word of a heavenly messenger that Jesus has been raised, and yet struck silent. Our reason won’t allow total surrender to the miraculous, to the impossible, to a phenomenon that confounds our reason. But if we allow resurrection to be an effect, a confession, a practice, an experience, death can never shake our faith, our dreams, and our possibilities. Let resurrection open our imagination to the possibilities before us because we trust God’s promise of life. Let resurrection give us the courage to move confidently forward as God’s Easter people because Jesus goes before us.

So, we experience resurrection anew by plumbing the depths of its meaning, awakening to the possibilities laid out before us when the threat of death has lost its hold over us. God is so trustworthy and determined to fulfill the promise of life that the someday of our faith can be today. And despite what anyone may say, or even the doubts we harbor about it all, the story continues, and we take our place in it. As one theologian said so powerfully, “The end of the text is not the end of the work” (Ched Myers). We assume our role as God’s Easter people, practicing, confessing, and experiencing the resurrection, which is good news for all God’s children amid the ongoing menace of death. And that’s what gives us the courage to speak life in places like Ukraine and Gaza. We speak life at the southern border for the migrant, immigrant, and sojourner. We speak life for those who thirst, hunger, and are in prison. We speak life for the disinherited and the dispossessed of every race, sex, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

We live in a world that keeps reminding us that death is a persistent fact. The rules of modern naturalism dictate that all living things must die. In keeping with that conventional, scientific, and historical understanding of such matters, we’ve heard much about the church dying. We’ve even seen many churches closing. And yet, when I look out at you, when I look at Plymouth Church, when I look at the faithful disciples gathering as beloved community, when I get over the terror and amazement of an unexplainable empty tomb, I see we are the fulfillment of God’s promise of life. And everything we do becomes resurrectional, full of promise, possibility, and imagination. So, we don’t have to allow fear to immobilize us. We don’t have to retreat into the safety of the familiar and the comfortable. We don’t have to sit in the places of the tombs. We don’t have to mute our voices of love, justice, and liberation. We live resurrection now, knowing that the someday of faith can happen at any moment with God. Hallelujah!

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