It’s been a long time since I’ve sung that hymn – that overly sentimental, “Jesus is my boyfriend” hymn. But that hymn was an essential part of my early piety. We sang it often and enthusiastically. And it strikes me now that the intimate words of this hymn are a kind of an attempt to grab hold of our often-illusive Savior.
I have been trying to grab hold of Jesus for as long as I can remember. As a young teenager, I had this incredible oversized 3-D postcard of the Shroud of Turin. The thing was awesome. If you held it to the light one way, you saw an artist’s rendering of the face of Jesus, inspired by a photographic negative of the Shroud. It was a death mask, eyes closed. But if you moved the postcard the other way, the eyes of Jesus would open. I spent hours flipping back and forth and watching those eyes open and close. And I used to wonder: “What if I am looking at the very face of Jesus the moment he was resurrected?”
Believers in the Shroud’s authenticity maintain that this image of the broken body of the Lord was not made by traditional artistic methods. Instead, they maintain that it was burned onto the cloth at the very moment of Resurrection, by a sort of radiation, a side effect of all that life-giving glory. In the shroud, they say, we have physical proof for this most foundational of all Christian beliefs – that Jesus Christ, crucified by Rome, dead and buried, was raised to new and everlasting life.
The shroud is some people’s way to try to grab hold of Jesus. They need the Shroud to be authentic because that would make it a witness to the Resurrection – something no human could have ever said. All four Gospels agree on that. No one was there. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Whatever happened in (that) cave happened in the dark. …it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.”
OK, so no one saw the actual moment. But lots of folks claimed to have seen the aftereffect. Ordinary people, like you and me, claimed to have had encounters with the strangely elusive figure of a Risen Jesus, who appeared and disappeared at a moment’s notice. Of course we don’t know exactly what they experienced, but whatever it was, it was enough to change their lives forever. It was enough that 2000 years later, here we all still are.
Very early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark; while it was dangerous for a woman to be traveling unaccompanied, a grief-stricken Mary Magdalene went to the grave of Jesus anyway. And when she arrived, she noted with fear that the stone had been rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. And so she ran to tell Peter and another unnamed disciple that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, which was the most logical conclusion. Upon hearing this distressing news, the three ran back to the graveyard; each one looking inside the tomb, each one seeing no corpse. Instead, the grave clothes were neatly folded on the slab; the face cloth carefully rolled up, something grave robbers would not have taken the time to do. So that was perplexing. But the notion of Resurrection never crossed their minds.
The two men being men decided that they needed to do something about this, so they ran off to tell the others. They ran off and left Mary by herself, still unaccompanied, grief-stricken, in the dark.
Suddenly, in the shadows, a stranger appeared. Startled, Mary assumed that he was the gardener and asked if he knew where the body of Jesus had been moved. “Please tell me,” she begged, “so that I can go and take the body myself.” As if she could. But grief does strange things to the mind. And still there was no thought of Resurrection.
The gardener did not answer her question. Instead he spoke her name. And when he did, it was like a flash of lightening. For just a moment, everything was as clear as midday. “Rabbouni” she cried and grabbed hold of him, hanging on for dear life. But then Jesus made a very odd statement: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” And in that odd statement an essential truth about the Resurrection is revealed. It cannot, in any tangible way, be grasped. It cannot be codified or put in a box or explained in a theology book. Instead we experience Resurrection as a flash of something too good to be true.
So, was it real? Was it a dream? Was it the hallucination of a sleep-deprived, grief-stricken woman? Whatever happened to Mary Magdalene in that garden was enough to convince her to believe the impossible. And so she ran back to where the men were now hiding in fear for their lives and Mary Magdalene, a woman, preached the first Easter sermon ever, boldly announcing: “I have seen the Lord.”
If only she’d had her iPhone with her. If only Jesus had whispered the secret word in her ear that only he would have known. If only he had given her something to prove that she wasn’t crazy. But all she had was her experience. All she had was that flash of the Resurrection. And that is all that anybody has ever had.
Flashes of the Resurrection - maybe that’s what you came to church seeking today. That’s what the great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth said. Barth said that the reason people come to church on Easter or on any Sunday is the unspoken question clinging to their hearts and minds “Is it true?”
In her marvelous short story entitled “See the Other Side” author Tatyana Tolstaya writes beautifully about our human struggle to dare to believe what we hope is true, but cannot prove. She writes: “We hear whispers, but we plug our ears; we are shown, but we turn away. We have no faith: we’re afraid to believe, because we’re afraid that we’ll be deceived. We are certain that we’re in the tomb. We are certain that there’s nothing in the dark. There can’t be anything in the dark.”
Except that the message of Easter is that the Risen Christ is found in the shadows. He does walk with us and talk with us. What proof do I have of that? Only my own experience. There have been moments in my life when I have been so low. Like you, I have buried those I love. Like you, my health has faltered. Like you, my relationships have crumbled. Like you, I have lost my job. Like you, I have wondered – truly - if God exists. And like you, I have doubted this incredible nonsense about a dead man being raised to life. But… time after time after time, at the edge of despair, in the darkness of doubt, in the midst of grief, I have been surprised by a Presence that knows my name. It’s always just a flash - but it’s enough for me to believe that I too have seen the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.