He is Going Ahead of You


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church April 16, 2017

Texts:  Psalm 121; Mark 16: 1-8

Art often has a way of glimpsing the underlying truth of life in a way when words often fail. The earliest images of Easter date from the fourth century and are the images of the women coming to the tomb, which they found already open and empty except for a young man dressed in a white robe who, according to Mark’s Gospel read this morning, tells them to tell the other disciples that Jesus has gone ahead of them into Galilee.  

Over the centuries artists have provided us with many different images of Easter.  Reflecting the statement of the fourth century Ambrose of Milan that “in Christ, the world has risen, heaven has risen, the earth has risen,” artists usually depicted the risen Christ as rescuing others from the underworld and death.  With a few exceptions, images of the actual event of Christ’s resurrection did not begin appearing in the West until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Most images prior to that development usually showed a stern and judging Christ Pantocrator, the word finding its origin in the Greek for “God Almighty.”

One of the earliest images in Western art is found in a beautifully illustrated manuscript known as the Bamberg Apocalypse of the three women at the empty tomb being confronted by the young man now depicted as an angel with wings.

One of the most powerful images of Resurrection is the early seventeenth century painting by Rubens showing a muscular Christ leaving the tomb looking up as if summoned with the soldiers cringing and cowering.  Our modern artistic images tend not to be representational, as we see on our bulletin cover, but are more abstract and colorful  

Music, too, reflects the wonder of the story, even the one in Mark, although the magnificent Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah does not use an actual biblical text for its setting, but abridged portions of texts drawn from the book of Revelations by a preacher named Charles Jennens.  

We, of course, really have no idea what actually happened that first Easter, for the various biblical texts although they try to paint a picture provide no rational explanation of the events.  That is what is most perplexing to our so-called modern minds.  Scholars and theologians uneasy with non-scientific explanations have tried to cherry pick their way through the Gospel accounts, which, if you really examine them, are not exact copies of each other.

Those accounts provided statements of faith and were aimed at developing community memory more than a full generation later. Our twenty-first century minds have difficulty with what seems to be the irrational.  I mean, if you really think about it, the story doesn’t make sense – scientific sense.   Where’s the evidence some ask?  No wonder that the alternative fact presented was that the disciples had stolen the body and invented the story in order to justify what had actually happened to this man Jesus, crucified as a trouble-maker and political revolutionary, someone who challenged authority and the abuse of power.

We need to look at the resurrection stories, including this one we read this morning, in light of the essential interrelation of Jesus life and ministry on the one hand and the community of faith on the other.  There were no neutral observers or witnesses to the Resurrection, and as one theologian put it, the Gospel accounts show a noticeable hesitancy to meet the demands of reason.

Indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus calls for an existence of faith in which it becomes evident that Resurrection established a new reality.  This new reality calls for a corresponding lifestyle.  Our faith and faithfulness to the demands of the Gospel flow into our lives as believers creating analogies to the life of Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord.

So what does all this mean?  The three women who came to the tomb that morning expected to find a body to be anointed.  In fact, as the text tells us, they asked each other, “Who will roll away the stone?”  The old cave burial places had large stones to seal them.   Remember the story of Jesus and Lazarus?

According to custom, in defiance of the authorities, the three women were going to anoint the body of their dead friend who had been killed as a criminal, a trouble-maker who pushed the boundaries of the religious and political authorities.

These women who could not even testify in a court of law at that time were the first witnesses to the Resurrection transformation.   This transformation is a process, as the words of the young man robed in white tell them:  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you in Galilee.”   And they fled from the tomb in terror – as most of us would have.

The words at first seem strange to us:  He is going ahead of you to Galilee.  The words do not tell us of a cataclysm, angels descending from the clouds, or of a shaking of the foundations of the earth.  They are simply that Jesus of Nazareth, now the risen Christ is going ahead of them to Galilee.  What on earth could that mean?  What awaited them in Galilee?  

This is so different from the other stories of appearances, such as the road to Emmaus, the closed room, or in the garden with Mary Magdalene.  Galilee was the place where Jesus began his ministry healing and teaching about a new way to be with other people in a new kind of society called the Kingdom of God.   This new way was to point to God’s shalom, the peace that we share and give to others through the power, the measure, and the meaning of life in the risen Christ.

This means that we must live as if Easter really matters.  The experience of the three women was at first dismissed by the disciples, but as others began to experience the presence of something they could not explain in ordinary terms, they realized that the women were not just hysterical with grief.

Going to Galilee means that this event which goes beyond history and transformed a small group of people into a force that changed the world I believe, that rather than making Easter something apart from the life of Jesus, we must integrate it into the very fiber of who Jesus was and what he did.  

Following Jesus to Galilee means transforming our lives in such a way that we actually realize God’s grace here on earth.  Truth goes beyond the way an event is communicated; there is a truth that was essential in the very life of Jesus.  We cannot just simply focus on Easter and Resurrection as a way of getting beyond our daily concerns; Easter is about our daily concerns.  Look at the life of Jesus himself.   He not only healed people but spoke out against those forces that confine and oppress them.  And, to paraphrase Pogo, “them” is us.  

Living as if Easter really matters means being willing to take risks. In today’s world, we are not usually called upon to take the kind of risks as did the early followers of Jesus. Many of them paid for their risks with their lives.  Our risks are different because we live in different times but they are just as real for us as were the risks faced by the early disciples.  They are risks we are required to consider regarding our environmental future, our commitment to creating an open and welcoming society, and our willingness to share our resources with others.  

Jesus the Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, just doesn’t go off to Galilee by himself.  When we are told that he is going ahead of us, it is more than an implication that we are to follow.  It is a clear statement of his expectation.  “But go, tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you.”  In other words, stop cringing and hiding, and come out and live the Kingdom of God.

Opening a future of hope, the resurrection delivers us from what one writer called a deadening fatedness, a belief that things will always be what they were.  Mark’s Gospel ends as it begins, inviting us to discipleship. In the very beginning of the Gospel, we are told that the kairos, God’s time is at hand.  It is the appointed time for the purpose of God, and now at the end of the Gospel we are told that God continues to act.

Mark’s gospel, called a discourse of both trenchant realism and stubborn hope, does not flinch from forcing us to face our limitations of self-absorption, disbelief, and fear.  It invites us to confront our impediments honestly and to test our convictions.  If we make Easter a story only about some vague eternal reward rather than a living reality in our lives, then we are, as Paul says, the most abject of people.  For Easter is not about some super miracle as seen in Renaissance art.  Easter is about how we live every single day of our lives.   

This very morning in China those who worship in the underground church face years in prison; this very day in North Korea, Christians are sent to camps where they are systematically starved to death; this very night in El Salvador, an evangelical pastor preaching  peace will have to face the gang members who want the children in his church to join them.  Easter means that the Resurrection we proclaim is not just some event that happened way back when on some foggy morning; Easter means that we are given the opportunity to have a new life, a new life in Christ, and that Resurrection can happen every day

The Resurrection calls us to push away the impediments that prevent us from living fully and to meet Jesus in Galilee, where we live, for it is in meeting Jesus in our everyday lives, whether we live in Galilee, New Jersey – or in the forgotten corners of violence in the world, that we truly encounter the Risen Christ.  

Let us pray:  God of Life, you have shown us through Jesus of Nazareth, who died because the world would not accept your truth, that there true life, new life in the Christ who lives through the proclamation of your realm that knows no end. Amen.