The Remembrance that Overcomes

John 20:1-18 (NRSV)

The story of the resurrection is joyous, of course. That which we should fear the most, death, is shown to be a temporary condition.

There are, however, other emotions we can sense in John’s story of the resurrection, as well as the three other gospels. There are moments where even the witnesses who love Jesus experience what we might call muddled minds, showing or expressing confusion and fear at the news Jesus is risen. These anxious responses continue for some time in the stories, even after Jesus physically appears to his followers.

In John’s version of the resurrection, Mary has every right to be confused. Coming to the tomb very early, she is deep in grief. As the events surrounding daybreak unfold, she remains rooted in the horrors of what she has seen. Her beloved teacher, the miracle worker who had brought so much hope into her life, had been beaten, crucified, and even speared through the side in the Roman guards’ effort to be sure he was dead.

Yes, the stone is missing; but Jesus is dead. Yes, there are strange-looking men in the tomb talking of wonders, but Jesus is dead. Yes, Jesus is standing right in front of me, but Jesus is deadit must be the gardener.

Not until Mary hears Jesus’ voice does she begin to live into the truth of the resurrection, soon declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” in a proclamation almost angelic in its power.

Other followers took longer to let the resurrection truth begin to reshape them. The most visible example is Peter, who seems to have continued brooding even after Jesus had physically appeared to, spoken with, and even breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

Peter’s difficulty is understandable. He was, after all, the brash disciple who failed Jesus, three times denying knowing Jesus after his arrest. Near the end of the Gospel of John, in the 21st chapter, Peter tells the other disciples, “I am going fishing.”

I find this one of the most poignant quotes in the Bible. Peter, broken by his own failure, decides to take comfort in returning to what he used to do for a living. He and six other disciples don’t go to fish to relax, like we do on the lake. They pull out the big boat, haul out the nets, and pursue a commercial catch.

The resurrection has happened—Jesus is alive, and appearing to hundreds of followers—but Peter cannot let himself be transformed by this world-changing truth. He will, though. Oh, will he learn!

From the beach, Jesus appears to his followers in the boat, giving them a sign. As they end up on the beach eating breakfast together, Jesus three times asks Peter to affirm his love, which of course, Peter does. Breakfast becomes a do-over for Peter, wiping away the pain of his three fearful denials.

Our own sinfulness and shame are similarly wiped away as we learn to trust the power and grace in Jesus’ resurrection. We hear these stories, we let the Holy Spirit go to work in our hearts, and we too are healed and restored. We call this process remembrance, and every one of us is invited to participate in this process today.

When we use the word “remember” casually, we associate it with memory. Something happened in the past. What we sensed and how we felt was stored in our brains in varying levels of clarity, and we retrieve that mental record.

When we think biblically, however, remembrance moves us to a whole new level spiritually. In a way, the words we translate as “remember” invite us to time travel.

Biblical remembrance means prayerfully immersing our emotions and souls into an event as if we were physically present. It is what we have been trying to do this past week if we’ve paid any attention at all to the story of the crucifixion.

When Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples and said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he was telling them and us, come back to this table, and all that this table representsmy broken body, my shed blood and experience how much you are loved. Our table may be in a different place and time, but we are all in the story.

If we consciously stepped into the continuing story, we walked with Jesus through the betrayals, the agonized prayers in the garden, the arrest, the beatings, and ultimately the horror of the crucifixion. It was frightening, but we see God’s love in action.

If you’re thinking this definition of remembrance sounds far-fetched, consider this: We were there. Jesus had each and every one of us on his mind and in his heart as he died on the cross. He died for our sins; he experienced their great weight and absorbed the punishment we deserve. He saw our unborn faces as he suffered.

And joy of joys, today we are invited to time travel to the resurrection, to let go of pain and shame and live into that moment where we see proof that sin and death are defeated.

Biblical remembrance is a life-changing act. I don’t know what sins weigh on you or what shame or pain you may bear, but on this Easter Sunday, walk with the risen Christ.

The cross has worked, your sins are defeated, and death is now meaningless for you!

The featured image is Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” 1638.

Confusion and Clarity

It’s nice to understand why events have occurred a certain way, and what is to come because of those events.

I’ve certainly craved such clarity in my life, and judging from what I’ve read and heard, that desire is common to much of humanity. Different religions attempt to provide such clarity in varying ways; the Easter event takes us to the core of how Christians view God and the very nature of the universe from beginning to end.

In other words, Easter is about celebrating the unveiling of The Really Big Picture.

The specific Easter story I’m focusing on this year, John 20:1-18, can be read as a movement from confusion to clarity. (If you want to see this text dramatized, it is part of a video clip found here.) As we experience the story, we can watch Mary Magdalene, Peter and another disciple, simply called the disciple whom Jesus loved, move from panic to a dawning awareness of what has happened.

The story begins with Mary Magdalene, who clearly adored Jesus with a deep, tender love. She discovers the stone covering his tomb has been rolled away and immediately runs for help. When she announces what she has discovered, she triggers a footrace between the two male disciples back to the tomb.

After they see Jesus’ burial linens and leave, Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb, weeping.

Confusion clearly has a grip on Jesus’ followers early in the story. It’s a confusion brought on not by the Easter events, but by the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. They are horrified at what they’ve seen. They’re also mortified at their own cowardice and betrayal, and they fear the Jewish leaders and the Romans are preparing similar crosses for them.

Our individual circumstances are all different in the details, but I feel certain most people will recognize the general pattern Christ’s followers go through in this story. Somewhere there is a moment where life doesn’t make sense. What came before, good or bad, seems like part of an arbitrary universe; where you are headed can seem meaningless.

Oddly enough, it’s a feeling we can experience in the midst of worldly success or failure. Such confusion seems to walk hand-in-hand with youth. And often, old age can trigger a common question: “Is this all there is?”

At first, an empty tomb only magnifies the confusion of Jesus’ followers. It is interesting to me, though, how evidence of the resurrection almost immediately begins moving these disciples toward a clarity of thought that changes everything.

The open tomb and its unwrapped linens offer an answer: “There is something more.” The unnamed disciple in the story seems to at first hear the answer more clearly than Peter.

“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in,” we are told in verses 8 and 9, “and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Belief, even when not fully formed, is much better than despair.

Mary Magdalene receives an even greater revelation—she is the first to see with her own eyes why the tomb is empty. Her mind cannot process the answer at first. Even after a vision of angels, she believes the man before her must be the gardener. But at the sound of Jesus’ voice calling her name, she cries out with recognition.

She then runs and preaches what is for all practical purposes the first Christian sermon: “I have seen the Lord!”

If you call yourselves Christians, I’m sure you remember that first burst of clarity in your life, too. God does provide us with answers. God has imbued a wandering, sin-filled world with meaning and healing, and that gift to the universe becomes a gift offered to each one of us.

Death has no power. Why? Because God walked among us as Jesus Christ, experienced death, overcame it, and then told us not to fear it. Even if we pass through death before Christ returns, the void on the other side has been filled by his loving arms.

Sin has no power, not even in this life, not once we turn our lives over to the risen Savior. Why? Because when God crushed death, he also smashed and subjugated its cause, the evil that has run loose in this world for a time.

When we sin as Christians, it is only because we have forgotten who is on our side. Christ trumps Satan whenever we call on Christ’s strength to sustain us. The one who will be destroyed cannot stand against the one who is eternal.

It should help us to remember that the disciples did not achieve complete clarity of mind all at once. The Really Big Picture came into focus gradually, as if through a lens slowly twisted. The resurrected Jesus had to spend time among his followers, strengthening the weaker ones with signs, reassuring them that even in their failures they were loved. Ultimately, they needed the Holy Spirit working within them to achieve perfect clarity and strength.

Clarity did come, however. Great works in the name of Jesus Christ happened and continue to happen despite the human fragility of those who follow Christ.

And best of all, we know what we move toward—the full and complete restoration of all Creation. He is risen, and that truth changes everything.


I’ll spend the rest of the Easter season relating some of Jesus’ other post-resurrection appearances.