Byron C. Bangert

April 12, 1998

Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

In proclaiming the good news about Jesus the Christ, Peter says, in our text from the book of Acts, "They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" [Acts 10:39b-40]. This is one of several testimonies concerning the resurrection of Jesus. These various New Testament accounts and testimonies differ in several respects. There was obviously no collusion among all the followers of Jesus to come up with one single, coherent account--to get the story straight, so to speak. There are differences in these accounts regarding who, and where, and in what way Jesus appeared.

In Matthew, Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, then to the eleven, among whom some doubted even while they paid him homage. In Mark there are no resurrection appearances at all, only the word from the angel at the empty tomb to the two Marys and Salome that "he has been raised." In Luke these same women and others similarly encounter the empty tomb, but it is on the road that Jesus first appears, incognito, to two unnamed disciples on the way to Emmaus. Then an appearance to Simon Peter is briefly reported before Jesus appears to all the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem. In John there is the appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden, followed by an appearance to the disciples, then another when the doubting Thomas is present, then a final appearance to seven of the disciples at the sea shore in Galilee. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that Jesus also appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, as well as to James, the brother of Jesus. And of course there was that final appearance to Paul himself on the Damascus road.

Perhaps all these various accounts help to explain the way Peter speaks of these appearances in our text from Acts: God "allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses." In other words, Jesus never appeared in such a way that everybody could see him in the same way. He was "allowed to appear"--to some but not to all. He never appeared as what we might call an objective, material fact. He never appeared in such a way that a photographer from the Jerusalem Times or the Galilee Gazette could have gotten him on film, or the camera-man from Temple TV could have caught him on videotape, or the soldiers from the Roman garrison could have arrested him and tried and executed him all over.

For all the differences in the accounts of the resurrection appearances, they all seem to suggest an elusiveness about the risen Jesus. Part of this elusiveness, no doubt, is the unexpectedness of these appearances. The disciples tend to be amazed, surprised, frightened, caught off guard, in their reported encounters with their risen Lord. But in addition to the surprise of these appearances, there is also the difficulty of recognition. Biblical scholar Robert Funk observes, "Paul did not recognize Jesus in his vision on the Damascus road. Mary also didn't recognize Jesus when he appeared to her at the tomb. The two on the road to Emmaus also failed to recognize Jesus, although they had known him personally. The seven did not recognize Jesus immediately when he appeared on the shore of the sea" [HONEST TO JESUS (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 259-60].

In all the New Testament resurrection appearances, says theologian Juan Luis Segundo, one point is crucially important: "the difficulty people have in recognizing Jesus." For whatever reason, Jesus appears in such a way that people do not recognize him at first sight. "On every occasion," notes Segundo, "the bridge between the risen Jesus and the prepaschal Jesus is built in an indirect way. There is something reminiscent of Jesus as he was, some characteristic of him that remains or reappears despite the transformation he has undergone: another miraculous catch of fish, the pronunciation of one's name, the breaking of bread, the wounds received on the cross, and so on" [THE HISTORICAL JESUS OF THE SYNOPTICS (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985), 170; cited in WORD & WITNESS, March 26, 1989, Vol. 13., No. 4 (36)]. And, as these examples make clear, it is not some feature of physical resemblance that finally enables those who encounter their risen Lord to recognize him. It is rather some action, some way of being with them in the world.

The story of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John likewise is unique in many of its features, and likewise shares this common theme of elusiveness and difficulty in recognition. In the first place, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, perhaps as one might go to any place where a loved one has just been buried, to grieve, to meditate, to ponder the meaning of what has transpired and the prospect of life without the loved one who is gone. Perhaps she expected to have access to the body, though it had already been laid in the tomb. In any event, what she finds is an empty tomb. Running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, she reports, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." What follows is a foot race to the tomb between these two disciples, who find that Mary's report is true. So far this account is similar to that of the other Gospels. What is most unique about this account, as well as what it most meaningfully shares with the other accounts, does not come until after Mary is left alone in the garden with the empty tomb.

There stands Mary, weeping outside the tomb. So far, not a story of resurrection. Rather, a story of a missing body. It is the dead Jesus who is missing. There is something about a missing body that demands an answer. It is harder to believe, or to accept, a death without the body. Mary leans over to look into the tomb and sees two angels sitting there. They ask, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Now, you and I might think that seeing two angels in an empty tomb would be sufficient to alter our frame of reference, and that being asked a question by them would shock us into some kind of recognition. We would realize that something extraordinary was going on. But apparently that is not the point of this story. Neither the empty tomb nor the two angels changes what Mary had hoped to find. She responds, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

Is this a cruel joke? His disciples are robbed of what remains of Jesus. Is it insult added to injury? They--whoever they are--won't even let him rest in peace! In this account, as in all the resurrection accounts, the followers of Jesus have no clue that their crucified leader is about to become their risen Lord. That would seem to be an authentic expression of the downright unexpectedness with which these followers experienced the resurrection. But what we are reading here also expresses the perennial difficulty that all of Jesus' followers face in their efforts to find him. We may think we know what we are looking for in our spiritual journeys. As we proceed, however, events often take an unexpected turn. We run into obstacles that confound our faith, opposition that causes us to lose heart, evils that we deplore. Suddenly, we feel ourselves bereft of the Jesus whose company we have known. Mary speaks for us all in our grief: "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

Turning around, Mary sees a figure whom she takes to be the gardener, standing by, observing her grief: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" That is the question for all of us, is it not? Whom are we looking for? On a literal level, Mary is looking for a dead Jesus: "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." If it should be that he has relocated the body, Mary would be only too eager to take Jesus off his hands. But perhaps the meaning here is much more profound. In the transfiguration accounts of the Gospels Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" Now, here, he asks Mary, "Whom are you looking for?" The question has to do with his true identity, and with Mary's understanding.

You who have come here this morning, whom are you looking for? Try to personalize this question for yourselves. What sort of Jesus are you looking for? Not simply a dead one, I hope. Are you looking for the Jesus who is your friend? Are you looking for the teacher? Do you seek the one who has power to heal and drive out demons? Are you looking for the compassionate Jesus? Or the Jesus of judgment and redemption? Are you looking for a master, who can direct your life and govern your world? Or a moral exemplar, who embodies those virtues and ways of being in the world that you would embody also? Are you looking for Jesus, the teacher of wisdom? Or Jesus, the social prophet? Or Jesus, the head and leader of the church? Are you looking for the Jesus who is personal lord and savior? Or the Jesus of the creeds? Are you looking for the Jesus who is fully divine, or fully human, or fully both? Are you looking for the magnanimous Jesus who seems to welcome everyone, or the trenchant Jesus who insists upon the narrow gate? Are you looking for the Jesus of pious devotion, or the Jesus of historical scholarship, or a bit of both?

When I was growing up there was a program on TV called "To Tell the Truth." Three contestants tried to fool a panel of celebrity judges as to their identity. After all the questions had been put and all the guesses made, the host of the show would instruct the contestants, "Would the real so-and-so please stand up." Well, imagine if the opportunity were given, would the real Jesus please stand up! But there he is, already standing, next to Mary Magdalene, and she thinks he is a gardener. Until he speaks her name: "Mary!" And then she knows, without anyone having to tell her, and she addresses him back, with an affectionate form of the word for teacher: "Rabbouni!"

There is an elusiveness in all the accounts about the risen Jesus. In the first place, this elusiveness reflects the mystery of the experience of resurrection. The disciples really had no way to explain what was happening to them. Even the later church could not make any plain and common sense out of this mystery. The best they could do was to proclaim that God "allowed him to appear." But the elusiveness also has to do, I think, with the fact that those who knew Jesus did not experience him in any one single way. Even to his closest disciples, there must have been a variety of ways that he was perceived and understood.

To Mary Magdalene, one of the most prominent of Jesus' disciples and probably not the former woman of the streets that she is sometimes portrayed to be, he was Lord, beloved teacher, friend. Other women who became Jesus' followers may have been of questionable background, however, and to them he was perhaps the compassionate judge. There were surely many who found in him a teacher and guide. There were also those who took him to be a social prophet, or who looked to him as their ruler and head. In chapter six of John, Peter speaks of him as the Holy One of God [6:69]. He was all these things and more.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul defends his own preaching of the Gospel with a rejoinder to those who apparently have challenged his teaching. He complains with reproach that "if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed . . . you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted" [II Cor. 11:4]. But which Jesus, then, are we to proclaim, and which spirit to receive, and which gospel to accept? About this, all of the Gospels and Paul are clear: the Jesus we are to proclaim is the Jesus who was crucified. There is room for more than one way of proclaiming the gospel, or expressing the faith. Indeed, there may be many different ways that we can experience and perceive and understand Jesus of our faith. But they all go back to the Crucified One.

In our time this makes all the more poignant and pressing the question, who was this Jesus who was crucified? What did he teach? What did he do? What can we know and believe about him? The quest for the historical Jesus is by no means a frivolous task. Who was this one, the disappearance of whose body causes Mary to weep? Who was this one, by the touch of whose hands or the impact of whose words people found themselves healed of their afflictions, delivered of their demons, and convicted yet relieved of the burdens of their sins? Who was this one, of whom some said that he was a glutton and a drunkard, of whom some charged that he fraternized with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners? Who was this Jesus, who announced, without official religious sanction and in the face of Roman occupation, the coming rule of God? Who was this Jesus, who taught us to pray for that rule to come on earth as it already exists in heaven? Who was this Jesus, whose death on a cross had so dashed the hopes of his disciples and so shamed them of their faithlessness, yet whose grace and power so liberated them from their pride and so transformed them from their despair, that they preserved the stories of their own infidelities and follies? This one, Jesus who was crucified, is the one whom Mary seeks on Easter morning.

And if we share in her seeking, we also sometimes share in her grieving. Not that the Church has ever tried to get rid of Jesus--though perhaps it has--but surely we have often misplaced him. Sometimes we have tried to push him aside, or cover him up, or hide him in some niche or cranny where he cannot command our attention. Sometimes we have ignored his gospel, and rejected his spirit. Sometimes we behave and live as if Jesus were no longer among us, as if he had nothing more to do with us. Sometimes we act as if he is not here! Or as if we are his memorial society, but not the vital community of disciples who know him to be our Savior and Lord, our living Head, our guiding Spirit, our consummate Teacher, our wounded Healer, our compassionate Guide, our faithful Friend.

Mary laments, "They have taken away my Lord . . ." The reality is otherwise, but her experience is real. Rejected him, yes. Crucified him, yes. Laid him in a tomb, yes. But even as Mary speaks, Jesus is still with her, there, in the garden. And she will recognize him when he calls her by name. And we will recognize him when, by God's grace and power, we discern in our midst some action that evokes our recollection of the One who was crucified. AMEN.