three easter conversions – which is yours?

There is a lot of running going on in John chapter 20 – a lot of running in the gospel’s narration of the events of that Easter morning. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early on the first day of the week, when the glow of morning has barely appeared on the horizon. All she sees is that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance – that’s enough for her, apparently. We read: “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” Mary Magdalene runs to the disciples upon finding the stone rolled away because something here matters to her – something animates her. In her case it is bad news that matters to her – bad news that animates her. She is convinced that someone has stolen, taken the body of Jesus.

When Peter and the other disciple (we suspect it is John) – when they hear the news from Mary, it is their turn to run. In the case of these two disciples, are they running because they have heard bad news (the body has been taken) or because they are hopeful (he’s not in the tomb – perhaps a live)? Whatever the reason, they break out in a run. And the urgency is so great that they aren’t actually running together – each of them is trying to get there as fast as he can. John is the faster runner, and so Peter falls behind. John arrives at the tomb first, breathless. Peter arrives second, and steps in to discover the tomb is indeed empty. The grave clothes that had been carefully wrapped around Jesus body just a few days earlier, are folded there.

With my kids (mostly with the younger two – the older one is getting too old for that) – very often a running race breaks out simply when we arrive home. It isn’t a race to see anything. It’s not that we’re running away from bad news. It’s not that we’re running toward good news. It is simply a race to see who is first. It’s a race to touch the front door. Sometimes when we all arrive home on bike, which happens more and more with the coming of spring – the bikes are thrown to the ground and feet go pounding up the sidewalk to claim first touch of the front door. I confess that I have been known to ride my bike down the middle of Monkland or Somerled on the way home to block Becky and the kids – playing at slowing them down so I can beat them to the front door. And I should perhaps also confess that there have been times when I have chosen not to be nice and let someone else win the foot race – with resulting tears.

All of us, in a way – we run. Sometimes just for the sake of running. We run – sometimes to be first. We run away from bad news. We run toward good news.

In our modern urban culture, in fact, there is an awful lot of running going on. The complaint against technology has now long been that technology was supposed to make life easier – but it has in fact complicated our lives. Made our lives busier. We are running to keep up with the technology, which can be exhausting all in its own right.

In modern culture we also run because we feel a need to give our lives meaning and significance. In our culture, traditional sources of meaning and significance have been displaced and we have been left to construct a world of meaning for ourselves. And so we seek meaning, we run to find meaning:

relationships that have meaning for me

work that has meaning for me

a wardrobe that has meaning for me

opportunities for our family that have meaning for the kids

spiritual practices that have meaning

a list of books to read that has meaning

a Facebook identity that has meaning

It’s difficult not to end up running away from things that don’t give meaning – and to end up running after a multiplicity of things that we hope will give life significance – all in a world where the meaning of it all is very much up for grabs.

Of course this almost desperate running after meaning need not be reserved for our modern, largely atheistic context. There are versions of Christianity within which this kind of running will also make an appearance. It happens particularly in those forms of Christianity that highlight our need to please God or focus on our need to live a good life before God. In these cases, the reality of God’s grace is displaced, and women and men have ended up running themselves ragged in the attempt to please God. Think of that familiar story Mary and Martha – where Martha is busy with the preparations, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening. Jesus’ answer to Martha’s complaint that Mary should be helping, is this: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

In the midst of this running, in this context of running away from bad news and running toward the possibility of good news – is there any chance we might discover rest and peace – is there anything that might put a brake on our restless running? If there is anything that will slow us down, it will almost certainly flow from some clear and deep realization that meaning isn’t ours to make.

A few months ago now I shared the conversion narrative of Lamin Sanneh, who is professor of world Christianity at Yale University. And I’d like to remind us of that narrative, because it seems to me that the Easter narrative we have read is a conversion narrative. The Easter narrative is a story, if you will, of conversion to faith in Jesus – conversion to trust in his resurrection life – conversion to a new way of seeing the world. Born into the Islamicized Mandinka people of West Africa, Lamin Sanneh learned of Jesus in a variety of contexts, including within Islam. As a young man, however, he comes to faith in Christ, and in his recently published autobiography he tells of what happened one day as he walked on the beach in Banjul, capital of The Gambia:

Suddenly I was unable to continue with my stroll unless I persisted in defying the relentless nipping at my heels. A momentary pause was enough to set a new course. I had no idea what I was doing or why. The short, small step I took to suspend my seaside stroll and head home turned me in a new direction: I had to follow Jesus as the crucified and risen One…

When I turned to go home I realized I had also yielded to the mystery pursuing me. I remember the sense of a door opening and a reassuring presence sweeping into my life. With my guard down, I had the feeling of giving myself in trust. By the time I reached home my legs were heavy, and the next thing I knew I was tumbling to my knees in prayer to Jesus, pleading, imploring, begging for God to forgive me, to accept me, to teach me, to help me – everything a child looks for.

I got up from my knees with the feeling that I was waking up on a new day. The late afternoon was infused with a grace-tinged soothing flare, and with a hint of the luminous freshness of new creation. Awakened, all sense of struggle, fear, and anxiety vanished. I felt bound and confused no longer. It was a new feeling of release and of freedom, infused with a sense of utter, serene peace.

Release. Freedom. Peace.

No more need to make meaning.

No more need to please God or anyone else.

No more bondage to his inadequacy or brokenness.

No more desperate building of a life of significance.

Release. Freedom. Peace.

Is such a conversion even possible in our hearts and minds? Is such a conversion, and such an experience of release and freedom and peace – is it imaginable for us in a world where we are sent the message, time and again, that God is dead. Don’t expect God to save you – you’ve got to make meaning for yourself.

 

Our reading from John’s gospel – with Mary running away from the bad news of an empty tomb – and of Peter and John racing against one another to reach the empty tomb – our reading from John’s gospel, is a story of three people in the midst of a conversion – three people who find themselves on the way to discovering something new. Three people in transition to a fantastically new imagining of the world they inhabit.

First there is Mary Magdalene. Of course she is the one who runs to Peter and John with bad news – “The tomb is empty. The body has been taken.” Mary just wants to find the body of Jesus so that it may be treated with respect. Once she is back at the tomb, after Peter and John leave, Mary sits there crying. She inhabits a world without meaning – a world of loss and fragmentation. Even the presence of angels does nothing to give her hope. So deep is she in a world of loss – do deep is she in a world without meaning – that even when Jesus himself appears she cannot see him. In her world and experience, the Jesus’ resurrection is not a possibility. He is dead. He is gone. The only thing left will be to get through the sadness and eventually pick up and get on with life.

There is only one thing that breaks through into Mary’s world of loss and meaninglessness – a personal experience of Jesus’ voice. “He said to her, ‘Mary’.  She turned to him and said, ‘Rabbi’, ‘Teacher’.” Only with a direct and personal experience of his voice and his presence does Mary move from into the realm of faith. In a profound sense, her conversion is not something she does. It is something that happens to her as her eyes are opened and she discovers a reality she could not have imagined if Jesus had not spoken her name.

John’s conversion is not at all like that of Mary Magdalene. In fact, with John’s experience it seems that the word ‘conversion’ is out of place. When John looks into the tomb it’s as if nothing changes for him – he looks in the tomb and he says: “Yea, that makes sense.” In the text we read: “The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” We almost have to ask, “Believed what?” No one has yet said “Jesus is risen.” No one has yet said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead.” No on has yet said: “He has gone ahead of you into Galilee.” But John believes. Apparently John has been listening and understanding when Jesus made such cryptic comments as this: “Tear down this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” John has already understood the possibility that Jesus’ and his way would be vindicated in resurrection. In some sense, there is no conversion for John on Easter morning, because he is already there in his faith. He has passed through the darkness of Saturday with, his anaticipation rewarded. He has not found himself cast back on his own resources for meaning-making – he hasn’t found himself cast back on his own resources and energy and time and skill to put it all together. The empty tomb is all he needs: “Yea, that makes sense.”

And then there is Peter. Where does the text leave Peter? Peter doesn’t have the dramatic experience of Mary, later in the garden. And the text doesn’t say that he believed – it singles out only John in that respect.

Where does that leave Peter? Well, the text says only this in verse 10: “Then the disciples returned to their homes.” Peter goes home. Back to his life. Back to his family. Back to what he knew before he knew Jesus. It is probably safe to say that Peter goes home with a cloud of great uncertainty hanging over him. Mary has discovered faith in the presence of Jesus. John has discovered resurrection only at the sight of the empty tomb. But there is no conversion for Peter – no new vision of a new world – no astonishing encounter – no intuition that resurrection makes sense. He goes home.

I have a feeling that when it comes to resurrection of Jesus – many of us will find ourselves in the place of Peter. The world presses in upon us with the conviction that what you see is what you get – what you can see and touch – that’s it. Faith is dead. God is not there. The logic of modern thought and society presses persistently against our minds and hearts – this is all there is – forget the possibility of anything more. Forget about resurrection. If there is new life, you’ll have to make it for yourself.

With Peter, we often go home – we have not had Mary’s dramatic experience of the risen Jesus calling our name. We often do not have the faith of John, who could believe in the resurrection and vindication of Jesus based simply on the absence of Jesus from the tomb.

The question arises: What will it take to shift us out of that world in which we are cast utterly back on ourselves and cast utterly on human resources to make a meaningful life. What will it take to open our eyes to the wonder of Jesus’ vindication and resurrection – his new life for us and for our world – his gift of life and peace and goodness and truth?

We are like Peter. We go home with him.

Evidently, Peter later encountered the risen Jesus. He too had that world-defining, imagination shaping encounter with God’s Son.

But for now, he simply goes home. And we go home. Pressed between the possibility of resurrection and a world that assumes it can’t happen.

If a conversion will happen. If our imaginations are to be awakened. If we suddenly see Jesus, where before we could not. If the world suddenly make sense to us only because the creator has come to renew us and our world. If the resurrection of Jesus suddenly becomes the defining reality of our lives and of our day to day living, it will only be as we open ourselves in heart and mind to the voice that spoke Mary’s name. It will only be as we learn to let down our guard and trust that God may encounter us in ways we hadn’t imagined – in ways that our world has insisted aren’t possible.

As we discover the truth of the risen Jesus Christ, we might learn to stop running. The meaning of our lives has been given.

I got up from my knees with the feeling that I was waking up on a new day. The late afternoon was infused with a grace-tinged soothing flare, and with a hint of the luminous freshness of new creation. Awakened, all sense of struggle, fear, and anxiety vanished. I felt bound and confused no longer. It was a new feeling of release and of freedom, infused with a sense of utter, serene peace.

 

 

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