Scripture: JOHN 20:1-18
Several years ago, a friend of mine sent me a birthday card that I’ve probably mentioned before. On it, Jesus is depicted talking to a crowd of people out in the countryside, his hand raised in the air, everyone gathered around and listening intently. And what he’s saying is, “Okay everyone, now listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four different versions of this!”
And of course, that’s exactly what we ended up with—four versions of the story of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all painting their own portrait of Jesus and telling us what they think is most crucial. And while often they’re uncannily similar in their accounts, sometimes their stories are quirkily different from each other. We saw this one recent Sunday when reading Luke’s tale of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet, while other versions say she anointed his head. Or even more different, Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us the scene of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples, while John skips that entirely and writes instead about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Each evangelist has a distinctive point of view, a particular audience, and something uniquely special to say. They’re not writing history, as though their primary intent is to get the facts right. They’re witnessing to the power of their faith. They’re testifying to the One who has changed their life.
And it’s the story itself that matters, not the supposed facts. We human beings make meaning, we find our bearings, by telling stories. I tell you that it was a struggle for me to find my vocation as a pastor. You tell me that your father punished you with the belt for your indiscretions. Or that you met the love of your life one day at a friend’s party. Or that your inability to have your own biological children was both a searing loss and also the impetus for you to adopt the child whom you treasure beyond words. These stories are who we are. They reflect our values and our sense of ourself and what matters most to us. And these stories shape us. Maybe your mother was deathly afraid of traveling, and you absorbed some of that fear. Or your father showed his disdain of people of other races, and you have sought diligently to avoid that skewed perspective. Or a teacher was thrilled by art or music of numbers, and you developed some of that passion. We make meaning of our lives by telling stories.
So it’s hardly surprising that four followers of Jesus write their own unique versions of his story. And that they’re not all the same. Here’s what those four stories share, though: all four of them know that Jesus had changed their lives. All four of them know that that singular life of Jesus was full of wonder, and that when he died, that wasn’t the end. They are gripped by the sense that, even after he dies, Jesus continues to live, that his presence still grabs them, that something rich and magnificent and transforming continues to rivet them.
And they know further that it isn’t just Jesus who lives on, who has, in this mysterious way, conquered death. They know that what has happened to Jesus has also happened to them. We tend to think, “Oh, Jesus was raised from the dead. How cool!” as though resurrection was a one-of-a-kind gift presented to Jesus alone. What we may easily miss in this story is that, in bringing Jesus back to new life, God is promising the same gift for all of us. Easter isn’t just Jesus’ story, in other words. It’s our story, as well.
Now we know that the stories that shape us can sometimes be notoriously downbeat. They can be pretty discouraging. When I was in college, I was in a small one-act play. The main character in the play was portrayed as a distinctly despicable human being. So to get us ready for the play, the director told the whole cast at one rehearsal to treat the man who played that character like dirt. We were to help the actor, Peter, prepare for his part by treating him with disdain. So that day, we sneered at him and ignored him and ridiculed him. Not too long after we began that rehearsal, Peter collapsed in tears, sobbing at the treatment we had put him through. And I was shocked. He knew what we were doing and why we were doing it. And still he couldn’t separate himself from that toxic story to which he was being subjected. If we were treating him like crap, he must be crap.
We can so easily be shaped by the story we hear about ourselves, or the story we tell ourselves. Maybe the story that lives in you tells you you’re a failure, that nothing you do turns out well. Maybe the internal story tells you you’re always going to be a drunkard. Maybe it tells you you don’t really deserve love because there’s just something that’s kind of rotten at your core. Maybe it tells you you’re not much of a parent, or you’re a disappointing child, or you’re a poor student, or you’re ugly, or you’re incompetent and you’re never going to amount to anything.
And here’s the thing: that’s not the true story. It simply isn’t. That’s not who you are. That’s not what you’re worth. My classmate Peter was not the terrible person we were treating him as in that long-ago rehearsal. And you’re not the inadequate parent or failure of a child or dismal student you may think you are. Or maybe even more radically, let’s put it this way: maybe you are, in some way—as we all are—a failing parent or child or student or employee. But here’s the key: that’s not the last word. The only story that really matters is that God hasn’t given up on you, that you are not locked into any of that, that there is no grim story that cannot be told another way. Because God is the one telling the real story. And the real story is that there is no destructive or damaging story that cannot be reversed, there is no grim perspective that cannot be upended, there is no imprisoning narrative that cannot be undone.
We can easily get mired in trying to picture the details of what actually took place on that first Easter day: did it really happen, what did Jesus look like, could a person really have returned to life? The story’s literal unlikeliness may tempt us simply to dismiss it. It’s worth remembering, though, that none of the gospels describe the central moment of that day. There’s an empty tomb in all four gospels, and there are accounts in three of them of Jesus reappearing later in some sort of new way. But no one makes even a nodding attempt to say what happened in the resurrection itself. And that’s all for the best. Because it doesn’t really matter what happened on that day. It doesn’t matter what a sophisticated video camera might have captured if it were in that tomb. The only thing that matters is that that early community of followers knows that, in some totally inexplicable way, the Jesus who had died has come back to life. And they are stronger and better and infinitely more joyful because of it.
We have no proof of a dead person getting up and walking out of a tomb. We have only the unconquerable sense that limits are shattered, that chains are broken, that despair is erased. In the same way, it doesn’t really matter what the so-called “facts” of our lives are. The only thing that matters is the unassailable conviction that our constricting stories are false, that even death is not the end, that everything—everything—is now new.
This resurrection of Jesus and of us doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re not going to run into roadblocks, that we’re suddenly going to be able to do anything we want, that we’re even going to escape physical death. All the limits of life are still going to be there. We’re not going to succeed at everything, we’re not going to escape severe illness, we’re not going to avoid all errors.
It’s just that those limits and pains are no longer what define us, they are no longer the be-all and end-all. The real story, the true story, is entirely different. When you mess up, that is not proof-positive that you’re worthless. When you make a mistake, you’re not locked in some unforgiving maze of blame. And when you receive the bitter prognosis, that is simply not the end. The real story, the true story, is completely different. You’re not your worst mistake. You’re not the letdown your parents thought you were. You’re not the ne’er-do-well your ex-spouse says you are. You are a child of God. And you are someone in whom even physical death will yield grace and love. You bloom with something radically new. You are imbued with hope and blessing and promise.
One of the new members who joined Federated last Sunday quoted a remarkably astute line of the writer Anne Lamott, who once said this: “The three most terrible truths of our existence are that we are so ruined and so loved and in charge of so little” (from Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers). That, in a nutshell, is the good news of Easter.
We are, says Lamott, “so ruined.” And you may quibble with that word, thinking that “ruined” may be a tad exaggerated for the state of our lives. Let’s let her have her hyperbole, though. Because at one point or another, and perhaps more often than we’d like, we are indeed ruined. This is the stuff we don’t tend to talk about at parties. We are overrun by depression or anxiety or alcohol. Our child seems completely lost. Despite our best efforts, our business tanks. We receive a diagnosis that hammers us right in the chest. It’s not too much to say, at any of those moments, that life feels ruined. At one time or another, we’re all ruined.
To make matters worse, we are also “in charge of so little.” How we’d like to undo the horrific mistake. How we’d like to make the parent’s or the child’s life easier. How we’d like to have been the success we hoped we’d be. We are in charge of so little. This part of our story is also true. And it’s our version of the cross that fells Jesus. The passion of Christ, the negation that slays Jesus, the betrayal and denial that overtake him—that’s a not insignificant part of our lives, as well. The cross that fells Jesus is the same cross that comes for all of us sooner or later. We are ruined, and we are in control of so little. This is the dirty little secret of life.
But ruin and powerlessness are not the only chapters in the story. Because the heart of Lamott’s captivating line is not just that we are ruined and not in charge, but that we are “so loved.” The heart of Easter is that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the undying love of God. The Easter story we need to tell ourselves over and over again—because the world wants to tell us a contrary story—is that you and I are so insanely loved that if we really took it in, all the suffering and failure and worry of our lives would vanish in a puff of pixie dust. We would instead stand tall and walk proudly and live with joy at our core.
Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, works with gang members who are never far from the ruin of life. Boyle says that, at Homeboy Industries, they don’t hold the bar up and see if you measure up. They hold a mirror up and tell you that you are exactly what God had in mind when God created you. It’s this story that has to be at the core of these young people, the story that reminds them that they are magnificent creations of the Holy One who does not make mistakes.
Their role is to look at themselves, and our role is to look at ourselves, and the role of all of us is to look at everybody, says Boyle, with eyes of “affectionate awe.” Eventually, he says, you come to inhabit this truth. This comes to be your story, that you are beloved, that God looks at you and every particle of this magnificent universe with affectionate awe, that nothing can separate you and me and every person we meet from that sublime love. And it is precisely this realization of how profoundly loved we are that enables and makes possible all our creations of beauty, all our acts of mission and service, all our efforts at pursuing and embodying social justice. God’s renewing love is the house in which we live.
I had forgotten entirely the short song I wrote years ago for Federated’s worship, the words of which Marty Culbertson displayed in the Generosity video she produced for today’s service. That song sings, in a nutshell, the heart of the Easter good news: “I am God’s child, full of love and light. And God will use me to change the world.” That’s the story to tell ourselves and each other. It’s the story that changes the world and makes all the difference. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Thanks be to God!