Sermon Archives

What Does Resurrection Mean?

Preacher: Rev. Karen E. Gale
Date: April 21, 2019

What Does Resurrection Mean?
Easter 2019
John 20:1-18

What does resurrection mean? What does resurrection mean for us aside from a wonderful, celebratory service on Easter with lots of alleluias?

Jesus has died. His body is laid in a tomb, a huge stone rolled across the front. A day and more go by and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb under cover of darkness. (God bless those faithful women disciples who dare to creep out and see.) But the stone is gone and she runs back to the other disciples, two of whom come running back with her. The stone is gone. The body is gone. The grave clothes are neatly folded. And Jesus is not there. Their loved one is gone.

What does resurrection mean?

Do you believe that love lives on? At a church I served previously I was sitting with a woman reflecting on the untimely death of her husband a dozen years past. It was a sudden, tragic, unexpected death. She told me that deep in her grief she talked to a therapist who asked her, “Do you believe love is stronger than death?”

She hesitated. The therapist continued.
“You loved Jacob. Jacob died. And you still love him.
“So, yes, love lives on after death.”

We know this. The love that goes on past the death, past the grief. Past all things.

That is not what we see this Easter morning, not yet. Jesus’ death is too raw for these disciples, men and a woman, who go to the tomb. They are all wondering what will happen now.

The three of them have very different experiences:
First, Mary comes, sees the empty tomb, and runs back. He’s gone. His body is gone she tells them.
Second, Simon Peter arrives and goes in. And is not sure what to make of things. Soldiers wouldn’t steal a body and then neatly fold up the grave clothes. But then what happened?
The disciple whom Jesus loved, assumed to be John by readers of the gospel, sees and believes. But believes what? The next verse says they did not understand yet that Jesus would rise.

And then, then we are back to Mary again. Who stays. Who cries. Who is the one to see the angels. Were the angels always there and she was the only one to notice or see their presence?

Mary is the one who verbalizes her grief, the one who tells the gardener, “please let me know where he is so I can go see him.”

Then is the one to hear her name “Mary” spoken aloud. She hears her name said in Jesus’ voice and whirls around to see the risen Christ.

“Three disciples. One sees the grave clothes neatly folded and believes. One sees the same thing and there is no indication that he believes anything. One is surprised into believing by hearing the sound of her name. ..In each of these we find ourselves at one time or another. John could have written a less complicated story. “Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings lying there and believed Jesus had risen from the dead.” John leaves room for each of us -- for one who sees and believes, another who sees and leaves uncertain, and one who needs to hear her own name.” (Barbara Lundblad,

What do you need this morning? How does resurrection speak to you?

Traditional church theology and hymns speak of this as Jesus’ triumph, his amazing successful finish to the tragic story.

But you know, as I hear the story this morning, I don’t experience it as a real “success story.” I see three lone people in a graveyard at dawn.

Is the resurrection a success story? Well, it depends on what we mean by success.

The adult bible study group has been reading Tattoos on the Heart, a book about a Jesuit priest. Father Gregory Boyle, who works with gang members in poor, desperate Los Angeles. He offers gang members a way out, a job, a reason to get up in the morning, and buckets and buckets of unconditional love. They have a saying at his organization, “you just can’t disappoint us enough to make us stop loving you.”

Reading this book has challenged our ideas about grace--deserved or undeserved--reconciliation, forgiveness and second chances.

Most recently we talked about how he and we define what success is.

Jesus was not successful if we measure it by what happened. He died. He died a terrible, ugly, political death. The crowds that loved him were nowhere to be seen. His best friends betrayed and deserted him. This is no Microsoft success story. No empire. No regime change.

In the face of such failure, what did resurrection mean?

It did not mean a return to ministry as before. “Don’t touch me,” Jesus says. This is not the same Jesus who just days before washed feet, broke bread. Life cannot go on as before. Jesus being raised from the dead does not mean he will be with them in the same way. There will be no triumphant return riding into Jerusalem again.

In the journey from the catastrophe of the cross to the resurrection -- from disbelief to belief -- the empty tomb was a very tentative, shaky first step. It is not the end of the journey, or the beginning. (

Resurrection is a turning. A movement from the moment of death to the moment of possibility.

A turning from what is dead and gone to what is next. To a first step. A step toward life and a future. A miracle. And truly, when we find things finally change within us, doesn’t it often seem like a miracle.

R. S. Thomas, a Welsh Anglican priest and also a poet wrote:

… There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

In Tattoos on the Heart the author introduces us to many gang members who are able to take that step, make that change, from death to life. From the numb endless death of gang life to something new through Homeboy Industries, the program that helps gang members get jobs, learn a skill, work alongside their enemies, and support their families.

Success. So much success in lives changed. Awesome. As a group we were so enamored by reading these stories of gang members making this turn and changing their lives around. And yet…

In the first chapter we meet a former gang member Luis. He had been one of the biggest, saviest drug deals in the community. And for more than a decade Father Boyle had offered him a job which was politely declined. But when his daughter Tiffany was born, things changed and he wanted to work at the bakery.

In time he became one of the folks who greeted visitors and showed them around. And he hated that part of the job. On one particular day after showing a busload of tourists around he asked Boyle, “what’s up with white people?”
“I don’t know,” Boyle [who is white] replies, “what’s up with us?”
“I mean, they always be using the word “GREAT.”
“We do?”
“Oh, yeah. The tourists stroll in here and see the place and its all fine and clean and they say this place is GREAT. And then they see all the homies, enemies working together, and they say, You fellas are GREAT. And then they taste our bread and they go, This bread, it’s GREAT. I mean, why are white people always using the word GREAT?”

Boyle tells him he doesn’t know but every opportunity after that he tells Luis how ‘GREAT’ he is just to mess with him a little.

Boyle runs into Luis several months later. Excited Luis says, “you are not gonna believe what happened to me yesterday after my shift.”

He shares that he went to pick up his four year old Tiffany at the babysitters and takes her home to the tiny apartment where for the first time Luis is paying rent with honestly earned clean money. Tiffany runs in, stands in the living room, spreads her arms wide and looks around and saying this is GREAT.

Luis, shocked, gets down on her level and asks, what’s great.

She gushes MY HOOOOOME!

After a long, long moment, Boyle is able to say, you...did...this. You've never had a home in your life--now you have one. You did this. You were the biggest drug dealer in town, and you stopped and baked bread instead. You’ve never had a father in your life and now you are one and I hate to have to tell you...but … you’re great.

Boyle pauses for a moment in telling the story. I imagine he sees what I felt in reading this story. Smiles all around. That’s success. That’s a heartwarming story. Yeah, you tell it pastor. That’s resurrection. That’s great.

And yet….the story goes on. Boyle writes:
“the first time I told this story was at Luis’ funeral. He wasn’t doing anything wrong on the Wednesday he was killed. He was loading his car trunk to go camping and was gunned down in a drive by shooting.”

Boyle shares the story because he’d been asked by home boys over and over that week
“What’s the point of doing good if this can happen to you?”

And Boyle said “the point is that Luis was a human being who came to know the truth about himself and liked what he found there. He found that he was clothed in God’s goodness, and that became Luis’ life’s work. He embraced this goodness--his greatness--and nothing was the same again.”

“And, really, what is death compared to knowing that? No bullet can pierce it.”

What does resurrection mean?

We are not called to be successful, but faithful, says Mother Teresa

The first time I read this book, the first time I read this chapter and read this story I nearly threw the book across the room. What is the point of reading about these people who find transformation only to die senseless deaths? Why?

But as Boyle says, and on this Easter as Jesus says, it is the finding that matters. It is finally hearing our name called by God and knowing ourselves to be beloved. Taking a new step, that is what matters. That is resurrection. And no bullet, and no crucifixion and no loss, even the loss of Jesus himself, can destroy that.

Jesus brought God to us. Connected us in a way that made things different. Different for his disciples. Different for Luis. Different for us. And that is resurrection. Life, love. Deep peace.

Success has no meaning in this way of seeing the universe. We just need to be faithful to resurrection. And help it spring forth again and again in ourselves, in the work we do, in our communities, in the places of despair. We don’t need to succeed.

Tom Wright interprets the Easter story this way: "Jesus is risen, therefore you have work ahead of you."

You are beloved of God. Nothing can ever change that. Know that. We all long to hear our names called in a voice of love. Mary hears it this morning. You are invited to hear it too. And out of that love, out of being known, you can offer love and justice and peace to a hurting world. Resurrection will spring forth out of your actions, your deeds, your hands.

What is resurrection? Only everything. The way forward in the darkest dawn and the brightest morning light.

Christ is risen. Alleluia. Amen.