05 April 2010

Always Ahead of Us

Mark 16: 1-8

Resurrection of the Lord/ 4th April 2010/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

The stories don’t line up. The witnesses don’t agree on what happened that morning. Some said they saw him; others said they didn’t. Some say he was at the tomb; others say he wasn’t. According John’s Gospel and Matthew’s, Jesus appeared in all his resurrection glory on the day after the Jewish Sabbath. The women saw him; they had a conversation with him. But read Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s, Jesus is no where to be found that morning. There’s actually no resurrection account in Mark. The entire narrative just seems to dissolve away, it fizzles out, ending with a preposition in the Greek, literally “they were afraid for;” it’s open-ended. Luke gives witness to Jesus appearing on what we would call Easter evening, walking on the road to Emmaus. Not Mark.

If you’re looking for a triumphal pronouncement where Jesus’ resurrection is conveyed as a concrete, verifiable historical event, then Mark’s gospel this morning might leave you disappointed. If you suffer from literalism (a malady we all struggle with from time to time), then Mark’s story might make you uneasy. After all, what do we really have here? An empty tomb, a man dressed in a white robe telling three women that the one they’re looking for is now gone; you’ll see him, not in Jerusalem, but back north in Galilee. And the women leave running in amazement and fear. No Jesus.

Maybe. Mark might be the earliest gospel, written around 70 A.D. We know that Matthew and Luke both relied heavily on Mark in writing their gospels. Mark as the shortest gospel is succinct, yet there’s a profound complexity in the way he crafts his story. Every word, every sentence, every allusion is intentional, requiring us to pay close attention to the theological thrust of his argument. And we need to remember that a gospel is a unique literary form that emerged after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John include history, of course, but they are not chronologies, they are not historical accounts designed to tell us “what actually happened.” (1) They are not technically histories and if we view them as such, we will completely miss the message. Why aren’t they histories? Hegel might be of some help here.

In the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831,) said the task of the historian is “to hold fast what is dead.” (2) The historian’s task to make present that which the past, “the dead.” To “hold” it in the present. So why aren’t the gospels histories? Because these authors are not trying to hold fast what is dead, but to give witness to one who lived and died and rose from the grave and is still alive. (3) To be able to tell this story requires a whole new genre, a whole new literary style, like a gospel. For how do you tell the story of resurrection? And not resurrection as just a one time event, but, as the first Christians knew and as we know, resurrection as an ongoing reality.

How do you convey such an experience? Indirectly, as Mark does, and through absence. There’s no resurrected appearance here and yet it’s extraordinary how not describing Jesus’ presence at the empty tomb actually evokes his presence. Presence and absence go together. To experience the absence of someone we love evokes a memory or feeling of his or her presence. To experience the presence of someone we love is to evoke the possibility of what it might feel like to experience his or her absence, loss. One conveys the other. One evokes the other.

There’s something of this going on in Mark’s gospel. And I’m grateful for it. Why? Because it reminds us that Jesus is always beyond our grasp; he can’t be managed or controlled or defined or limited to a text, confined to words on a page. I’m grateful we don’t have a detailed, historical account of “what actually happened.” We have four witnesses and they all don’t agree. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection. I believe the creed (and just because it’s in a creed) when it says “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This phrase coordinates Jesus in space-time, it anchors, grounds Jesus in history. (4) And it’s precisely because resurrection is so important and real and life-changing and earth-shaking that we have to be wary of the tendency to reduce it to history, where we’re always looking for proof, always playing the historian, always looking for the “facts.” “Give me the facts, Ma’am, just the facts!” (5)

We celebrate and praise God this morning for resurrection. We are not simply commemorating a significant event in the past. Yes, it happened. But our orientation this morning is not backward, but forward. We’re not here to recollect, but to anticipate something, an experience promised to us that is about to happen. Our task is not to hold fast to the dead, but to be held fast by One who is living. (6) History can’t connect us with Jesus Christ. For he is not in the past, which is the place of those who have died. The voice of the angel to the women at the tomb in Luke’s gospel speaks to the church in every age, “Why do you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)?” A living faith is rooted in a living Lord who is not confined to the dead past but who is encountered living in the present and beyond it. And this is the point for Mark, Jesus is found in the present yes, but he goes before us. The place where he was is empty. If we want to find him, we’ll have to go forward. That’s what resurrection does: it reorients our relation to time. For we will not find him in the past, but in the future. Jesus is evasive; present yet always just beyond our reach; present, but also absent, always just ahead of us. Where is Jesus post-resurrection? Where will they find Jesus? “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

A few years after my ordination, I came across Eugene Peterson’s pastoral reading of this verse and it has stayed with me ever since. As a Presbyterian minister-writer, Peterson helped me to see that Christ always precedes us. Christ is already there. He goes before us. Before every pastoral visit to the hospital or to someone’s home, or before what I suspect will be a very stressful meeting, I remember this text and pray that I can find Christ in that situation. We don’t bear the burden of having to carry God to every situation or circumstance. God is already there. Our job is to search after God, to attentive to, to look for the God who is already there, to give witness to Christ’s presence who promises to go before us.

Christ’s absence evokes his presence and entices us to go seeking after him. Christ’s absence draws us out and compels us into action. Christ calls us ever forward into a future where he promises to meet us. The promise causes a forward momentum, a dynamism that moves us, lured by the anticipation that we will see him. Knowing that we will be meeting the Risen Lord, maybe today, maybe later or tomorrow or next month stirs within us the desire to move, to act in hope. But it’s more than just anticipating what might be in the future.

There was a lot of frenzy this weekend over the unveiling of the new Apple iPad. Everyone is talking about it. Steve Jobs called it “magical and revolutionary”! On Friday evening a friend of mine was wished, “Happy iPad Eve!” Another fiend went to the Apple store early yesterday morning just to see it for themselves and they ended up buying one. I recently got an iPhone and I confess I’ve been seduced by its charms. Although I feel like I’ve just joined a cult! That’s not the kind of anticipation I’m talking about.

It’s more like this: the experience of a toddler learning to walk. That very first step is an extraordinary act of hope! You can stand behind a child, holding him under the arms and help him take a few steps. You can stand above her, holding her arms, helping her take a few steps. But there comes a time when a toddler precariously stands on his own, and his mother or father crouches down in front, just a few inches or a foot or so beyond his reach, and the parent says, “Come!”

That’s one of my favorite images for how God relates to us. (7) For me, it’s the image conjured up by the command to go to Galilee. The truth is, Christ is always ahead of us, two steps or more ahead of us; out there in our future and in grace, he says to us, “Come.” Our ability to go, to move, to walk into the unknown with hope is what resurrection means. It’s the Resurrected Christ who goes before us and summons us along the way to meet him, to serve him, to love him, to live in and with him. He is always ahead of us, which means that we will always people on the way, forever living into resurrection, into becoming the people Christ is calling us to be. You can see why the Christian life is viewed as a journey, never a destination. Not one of us here has arrived. We’re all on the way to Galilee. And on the way we discover what it means to live from the power of resurrection, forever pulling us forward into its reality. The resurrection is not an end, but a beginning because it points to the fact that there’s still work to be done. It also means there are things to discover along the way. There are things we can only discover of Christ when we step out and go forward to meet him there.

We have to move forward. It’s in this context that we will affirm our new vision statement (see below). I’ve come to see this as a resurrection document. A surface reading of the statement might lead one to say there’s nothing new about it. If you’re looking for a strategy statement, then stop because you won’t find it here. It’s not about strategy. You might say, we’re already doing these things (and some very well) so what is new? You’re right, what you see here is a summary of the ministries we value as a congregation, what we consider to be important. But we’re also humble enough to know that while this is a great church, there is always more work to be done and we will build on our strengths. This is a living, breathing document that will orient us toward the future that Christ is giving us. With this statement we are claiming a conscious way of being – this is what matters to us. Under every bullet there’s enormous area for growth and expansion and depth. This is what we’re striving after. The use of the word “strive” is very intentional. We are living into this vision. The call is ongoing, it’s always ahead of us and so we have to go there, continually open to discerning God’s calling for this community. What is God trying to do through this church, with this church? The same questions must always be asked of ourselves, What is God trying to do this me, with me? We’re not yet where we need to be and because God isn’t finished with us, we strive. This is a Resurrection community that confesses that it wants to live in conformity, in relationship with Christ, participating in the presence of the Living Lord and discovering on the way to Galilee the cost, the risk, and the joy of the journey.

A church that lives in the power of the Resurrected Christ does not simply remember and imitate a story; rather it experiences the present reality of God now and goes wherever the Spirit will lead it. Jesus is always ahead of us. This means, who knows where he will show up? In Galilee? In Catonsville? In this sanctuary? In you, in your dreams, in your heart? In the person sitting beside you? In my words? In your words? In the music and in the prayers this morning? Or, here in the breaking of the bread?

Adopted by the Session on March 3, 2010

We seek to find and share God’s calling for this community of faith through worship, fellowship, and service.

We are called to live in conformity with Christ because the Church does not belong to us, but belongs to God. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, God’s people at Catonsville Presbyterian Church will strive to:

• Offer inspiring worship through compelling and relevant preaching, enriching music and thoughtful prayer.
• Worship and gather as a welcoming and accepting community of faith in a space open and accessible to all.
• Provide opportunities that nurture the spirit and promote learning for the members and visitors of this Church.
• Foster fellowship that strengthens relationships and bonds of friendship, and promotes opportunities to share God’s love.
• Share the gifts of this congregation in service with our brothers and sisters through mission programs, locally and globally.
• Nurture the growth and development of children and youth, and encourage and support their active participation in the life of the Church.
• Maintain our strong commitment to the inclusion of music as an integral part of our life together.
• Support intergenerational activities of fellowship and mission.


Image: Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, Israel.

1. The German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), considered one of the founders of modern source-based history, set the tone for later historical writing. He said, “…the historian must present the past as it actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewessen).” Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514 [1824]).
2.Cited in Edith Wyschogrod, An Ethics of Remember: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), ix. Wyschogrod suggests that what drives the historian is an “eros for the dead.” (xii-xiii).
3. Kenneth E. Kovacs, “The Relational Phenomenological Pneumatology of James E. Loder: Providing New Frameworks for the Christian Life,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland (2002), 197-198.
4. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 108-113.
5. Joe Friday in the NBC-television series Dragnet (aired in 1950s-1960s).
6. Kovacs, 198.
7. I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Hiroshi Obayashi, professor of religion at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, who shared this image with me when I was his student.

No comments: