by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
The four Gospels may be at their most intriguingly diverse when they describe what it is like to encounter the risen Christ.
In John—the Gospel in which Jesus speaks of a seed falling into the ground to bear much fruit—Jesus first appears risen in a springtime garden, and appears to Mary as a gardener. In John, the resurrection is a garden.
In Luke, the first resurrection appearance happens in a little traveling liturgy on the Emmaus road: Christ hearing intercessions, Christ interpreting scripture and then Christ presiding at table where he is recognized in the breaking of the bread. In Luke, the resurrection is word and meal.
Apparently, in the original text of Mark, the risen Christ never definitively shows up at all! The resurrection in Mark is a rumor shared between angels and women, with the Gospel originally ending as the women, run carrying that rumor with awe and fear… carrying it perhaps toward us. In Mark, resurrection is a rumor, carried off of the page at a run.
And in Matthew, the gospel for this year, the resurrection is seismic: the earth splits, the stone rolls away, the soldiers faint, and—did you catch this detail?—the angel jumps up on top of that big stone and sits on it. The resurrection in Matthew is an earthquake.
For all of that diversity, the Gospels share in common a sense that the resurrection is never simple and obvious to see. In no Gospel is the resurrection ever fully recognized or comprehended from the start. It’s like there’s a persistent distortion in the way we perceive reality, like seeing through a mirror dimly. You could even have fun thinking about how the resurrection narratives first come at us sideways, drawing first on senses other than the ones we use to read a commentary or the New York Times:
- We smell the springtime garden in John.
- At Luke’s Emmaus, we taste the broken bread.
- That fearful rumor from Mark rings in our ears.
- And in Matthew, the news of the resurrection might first be perceived with the phrase that Californians in earthquake country know well: “did you feel that?”
I understand from people who experience earthquakes that there’s often a feeling of confusion, literally being unsettled, while you try to figure out just what’s going on: whether you imagined it, or a big truck went by, or the washing machine is doing that thing again. Or… maybe there’s something deeper going on.
Maybe you heard the news story this week about the trembler down in Davidson, North Carolina. A church in a fairly affluent community has installed a bronze statue called homeless Jesus. It's a park bench out front with a life-size figure on it huddled against the cold. The calls started pretty much immediately, including one woman who drove by at dusk and called the police on the sleeping-Jesus-homeless-guy… who is made out of bronze. One of the interesting things about the statue is that the only thing that obviously identifies the statue as Jesus is a nail print on a bare foot not fully covered by the blanket he’s under.
The news stories have largely been about how the ground in Davidson has been unsettled by this resurrection appearance of Christ.
- Some have said he makes the neighborhood look trashy.
- Some have said it demeans Jesus and offends their faith.
- Some people’s prayer life has been reconfigured, as the pastor has described looking out the window and watching people outside come to the bench, lay down a hand, and pray.
People in Davidson, North Carolina saw a nail print slide out from under a blanket on the foot of a homeless man and now that nail print has become the epicenter of a lively conversation they’re having: “did you feel that? What is that?”
I just learned this last week that it’s been only in the past fifty years or so that scientists have actually come to agree on the theory of plate tectonics. Into the mid-twentieth century, the earth was thought of as fundamentally solid and immovable, and earthquakes were mysterious anomalies. Scientists have only just recently come to understand that the same forces that make the earth tremble in an earthquake are also rearranging the continents and still today raising up the Himalayas higher into the sky.
A couple chapters earlier in Matthew, Jesus tells a parable that looks ahead to the unveiling of all mysteries, to a cosmic resurrection appearance when all knowledge is revealed. Matthew’s Jesus says that the knowledge that will shake this world to its core will come when the nations of the world ask the one on the throne about hard-to-perceive resurrection appearances: “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison?” The answer continues to rearrange our world’s landscape: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Matthew even gives us a proleptic earthquake at the death of Christ. As Jesus shares our death, dying with us mortal creatures of earth, Matthew gives us this image that at the moment of Christ’s death the earth itself cracks open and the dead who have been joined in solidarity by Christ like dry bones stand up and live. The solidarity that Jesus shows to us all the way to our death breaks apart the power of death, opens our graves, and sets us free from all sorts of tombs.
As I look out on this community, I’m aware that there are any number of seismic events that have been part of the story of people arriving here. For some, it has been being caught up in the church’s work for justice in your neighborhood. Others were able to endure a tragedy through the mercies of God. Some have in church and in the courthouse now been able to say out loud “I do” and we’ve felt the earth quake and the ground shift—in the lives of couples, and for all of us here in Illinois and around the country. And represented in this place there are any number of visions we carry of God’s overwhelming goodness that have so rearranged our own world that we can’t do anything other than give our lives to it. At some point we have felt the continents shifting, moving us to this place.
The world is an unsettled place and the world is trying to sort out the earthquakes that kill from the earthquakes that give life. I was thinking about the most recent IPCC report that came out last week, and how it describes the deadly shifts that climate change is bringing about on the face of this earth, rupturing the systems God has made to give us abundant life. And so I was thinking about these deadly kind of seismic shifts and trying to picture what kind of resurrection earthquakes might bring life in such a time.
And then I saw a story about an area [image projected] in Seoul, South Korea that had been choked with traffic and asphalt and soot from car exhaust where they had a few years ago decided to set off a kind of slow-motion-plate-tectonics in the city and remove what was a massive multilevel freeway. In the fissure that they opened up in that apparently immovable concrete, [image projected] they have raised back to life an ancient stream to run again through the center of the city. Now, where the cars and trucks used to roar and belch smoke, there is today a five-mile-long park [image projected]. Like a vision of the holy city in Revelation, on either side of the river are trees full of life, and the people and birds and other creatures stream to this reconfigured earth to find healing and renewal. Among that crowd I think that angel might be sitting up on top of a large stone, taking in the power of the resurrection once again.
Sometimes resurrection earthquakes open up space for a river of life to flow through a 21st century city, in South Korea, or in North Carolina… or Nebraska or Illinois. Sometimes the earthquake is as quiet as the breaking of the bread. Sometimes the earthquake is hidden, when God takes a heart of stone, breaks it open, and gives us a heart of flesh.
Where to you does the power of death and sin seem to be rock solid? Where does the stone seem immovable? Under that surface, like a seed that has fallen into the earth and died, inside of each one of us, at the heart of this beloved earth, and under all our city streets, there are tremors of resurrection. Some people think it’s just random noise. Some people call the cops. Some think it’s a lost cause. But some of us have come to know it as the power and wisdom of God, the source of all our lives and our true and final home. The four gospels are looking for witnesses to this power, and by your presence here, it’s obvious you’ve been recruited:
- Mark is looking for witnesses to the resurrection who can tell which rumors ring true and know how to run with them.
- John is looking for fellow gardeners in a restored Eden.
- Luke is looking for witnesses whose hearts catch fire when they hear the word of God and whose vision can see Jesus Christ setting a table for the whole world.
- And Matthew is looking for people who are like human seismographs, so that when the ground shifts beneath peoples’ feet, and they find themselves puzzled beside the park bench or by the river flowing where the cars used to be, or when mercy so strong breaks open their own heart of stone and they ask, “did you feel that—what was that?” someone is there to tell them: Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!