Text: Mark 16:1-8
What are the first words on this Easter morning? Christ is risen! Death is not the final word. Resurrection is real. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Today, we affirm the central message of the Christian faith: God raised Jesus. Think about this: without Easter, we wouldn’t know about Jesus. If his story had ended with the crucifixion, he most likely would have been forgotten—another Jew crucified by the Roman Empire in a century that witnessed thousands of such executions. Perhaps a trace or two about him would have shown up in Josephus or in Jewish rabbinic sources, but that would have been all. So Easter—the story of the resurrection of Jesus—is utterly central to the Christian faith.
In an earlier part of my faith journey, I resisted making this story central to my faith. Some of my reasons, I have shared with you before. From a childhood point of view, I didn’t like the Easter story because Easter Sunday meant an even more lacy, itchy, frilly, uncomfortable dress—an article of clothing I’ve never felt comfortable in. As I moved into those early days of being a rebellious theological student, the idea or notion that Jesus “had” to die on a cross and then be resurrected from the dead to save me from my sins was something that I deemed unnecessary. To make it worse, the way the Christian faith had gloried the violence of the cross, a central part of the Easter story—I found to be offensive. At best, I just stayed away from this story and at worst, I rejected it. But thankfully, I have not stayed in those places. Well, that’s not all together true—Can any of you remember the last time you saw me in a dress? But on the important issues of Easter, I am grateful that my faith journey has taken me to a place of deep appreciation and respect, even affirmation, of the Easter story.
As I read the story of Jesus’ resurrection from Mark’s gospel this year, I was reminded of the obstacles we sometimes put in the way of living into the good news of Easter—the good news that Jesus is alive. Whether theological or otherwise, many of us, yes, even us Christians, are skilled at focusing on all the barriers that stand in our way of seeing that indeed Jesus is not among the dead but rather among the living—an affirmation that Matthew offers in his telling of the story.
What started me thinking about obstacles and how they can sometimes keep us from focusing our attention on the bigger picture is the conversation between Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they made their way to the tomb to anoint Jesus for his final burial. Mark tells the story this way: “Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb. On the way, they had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’” Now before I place too much judgment on these women, I will acknowledge that their concern about how they will get to Jesus, knowing that it would be necessary to move a large stone in order to get to him, is understandable. They had just witnessed the execution of their teacher, leader, and friend. Their grief must have been all consuming. And sometimes in our grief, the things we have little or no control over are the very things that tend to occupy our thoughts. I will also acknowledge that even though they knew there was an obstacle before them, they made their way to the tomb anyway. And yet, their question caught my attention and it left me wondering what obstacles/stones do we sometimes focus on and allow to stand in our way of being able to see that Jesus is not among the dead; that, indeed he is the living Christ.
As I consider the major obstacles that we place between God’s love and us—and there are many—some of the more prevalent ones are our need to control, our insatiable need to be “right,” and our disbelief that we are worthy of love. When you look at what is underneath the women’s concern about moving the stone, it is their understandable expectation that their action and intervention will be necessary to allow the story to unfold. They have set out with a plan like all of us do. And while plans are necessary, the truth is that we don’t always have control of how our well-intended plans will play out. There seem to be two lessons from Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome. The first is that though they clearly foresee a formidable, and potentially insurmountable obstacle in the stone at the tomb, they act anyway. Their minds are occupied with the barrier ahead, but they follow their hearts to the side of Jesus. Which brings us to the second lesson: the hopeful word for us out of this part of the story is that God is always anticipating our obstacles and opening a way for us.
For sure, our insatiable need to be “right”—an affliction that not only we as individuals suffer but one our country is burdened with—stands between God’s love and us. Many of us received this message of having to be “right” early in life. It is, at its most basic level, an ego need. Being right is one of the ways we protect ourselves. It is the way we make sense of a chaotic world; it can also be the way we gain power over others. But maybe more significantly, it is often one way we hold God at a safe distance. One of the lessons we learn as a person of faith is that our journey with God is not about being right or wrong. Our walk with God is about living into the mystery of God’s love and compassion for us all.
Possibly, though, the most significant obstacle to living the Easter story is our disbelief in our worthiness of love—particularly God’s love for us. This takes me back to that earlier time in my life when the Easter story seemed so inaccessible and unbelievable for me. I didn’t want it to be true that I was worthy of such love because if I believed it to be true, I knew on some level that it would change my life. Believing that I could be worthy of such love would, on the most basic level, require me to change how I saw myself as well as how I related to others. Allowing our selves to be loved—especially to be loved unconditionally—seems like it should be so simple. And yet, it can be one of life’s most enduring challenges. The Easter story confronts us head-on with this challenge. No matter what you believe about the events of Easter, the meaning of the story is that we are worthy of love and that we are loved.
So in the end, the question before us this Easter morning is this: “If we can make peace with the obstacles we create, what waits for us one the other side?” A life of being loved and of loving; a life of being accepted and of acceptance; a life full of grace and redemption. What waits for us on the other side is God’s yes to us—God’s yes that we are not only loved but that we are worthy of love. God’s love is always available to us if we can learn to trust it and believe in it. That is the heart of the Easter story. Who will roll away the stone for us? That work has already been done. God goes before us rolling the stones away. Our job is to believe it and then live it. And when we struggle to believe that indeed God does roll away the stones, let us follow the example of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome and set out on the path, even as we ask our questions.
Christ is alive. Death is not the final word. Resurrection is real. God loves you and you are worthy of that love. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.