Beloved Rising Up

John 20:1-18

Well, well, here we are. It’s the Easter/Resurrection story. Now I don’t know how you interpret this, or how it makes you feel. If you’re someone who thinks it’s BS, stay with me; your insight is needed in this conversation. If you’re someone who isn’t sure what it means, keep at it; your insight is essential. If you’re someone who finds meaning in the story and you may even believe in resurrection, stay with me; you are needed in this conversation. If I missed you and you have another take, you are so important; please stay with us.

I’m not going to rehash all the details of how we got here in the story. I think you probably know that Jesus of Nazareth, upon entering Jerusalem [his end goal], was arrested unjustly, given an unfair trial and then accused of treason against the Roman State simply because he stood up for the poor, the unclean, the widows, the immigrants, the marginalized, and the forgotten of society. Many of the so-called religious folks of Jesus’ time and even those in his inner circle abandoned him when things got tough and sold him out, and ran away, said bad things about him, and didn’t even stay…when Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire on a cross; then his body, wrapped in mummy cloths, was taken to a cave.

Yes, the story takes a dismal turn. And we’re left with Jesus of Nazareth no longer alive and his body in a cave on Joseph of Arimathea’s land. And seemingly only Jesus’ female followers are still around—at least at the beginning. And then, after that…what really happened? Was Jesus’ body stolen? Did angels come? Or did Jesus, the Galilean actually rise from the dead?

Or, a better question: does it matter what we think or believe about this story?

Or, is it MUCH more important how we practice resurrection in our daily lives, caring for the marginalized and isolated, and building beloved community?

A few months ago I saw Peter Rollins, a Northern Irish writer, public speaker, philosopher and radical theologian at World Café Live. Peter is a mover toward the theory and practice of Death of God theology, a “religionless” interpretation of Christianity called pyrotheology.

Faith is a particular way of engaging with the world rather than a set of beliefs about the world.

When Peter was asked about the resurrection of Jesus, he said:

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Indeed. What if the day called Easter Sunday, what if this story about the resurrection of Jesus was not about what we believe? What if it is actually about how we live?

Let’s dive in. Did you know? The beginning of John’s Gospel doesn’t give us a lovely birth story like Matthew and Luke—no inspiration for Christmas Eve services and children’s pageants.

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Instead, in the beginning of John’s story, it’s dark, you cannot see anything. It’s just like Genesis 1, the creation. It’s a void. It’s dark. Light is absent.

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But then…some hope, and I think, some foreshadowing:

“All things came into being through Logos/Word, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3-5).

In John’s resurrection story, Mary Magdalene is the central character and most faithful disciple of Jesus, and she begins the story in the dark. She’s sad, but she still goes to the tomb anyway. In the dark. Act one. The curtains close.

Act two. The curtains open: Peter and some unnamed disciple, which in literary device, means that the other disciple is us. We [the other, beloved disciple] go to the tomb and see and believe.

But what do we believe?

Good question. It’s for us to answer. How do we see the empty tomb? Is it revenge of the body snatchers? Is Jesus a zombie? Or is it something else?

Act three: back to Mary. She cries, just like before Jesus’ death, when she was in her home with Martha and Lazarus and anointed Jesus’ feet. But this time, she cries in mourning, not in recognition or joy. Plus, there’s no more empty tomb, but instead, two angels inside. Then, a mysterious gardener. And some interesting literary trickery here.

The gardener asks Mary: “Whom are you looking for?”

Well, in John chapter 1 Jesus asks John the Baptizer: “What are you looking for?” In both cases, this question means that the story is not ending, but just beginning.

It’s a rising up.

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So what are we looking for?
Because we can see the empty tomb and come to a thousand different conclusions.

But again, I don’t think our conclusions and interpretations are the heart of the matter.
Instead, how will this story, how will this empty tomb inspire us to live?

Rising to life is more than a metaphor. It is reality. Some of us often feel dead, we are imprisoned, pushed to the margins, isolated, misgendered, abused, neglected, shunned, ignored, oppressed. Some of us search for meaning without end. Some of us search for connection and cannot find it. We want to belong, we want to be part of a beloved community—we want to feel beloved!

And so the empty tomb beckons us to…rise up.

The emptiness of the tomb mirrors our own emptiness. We go to this tomb empty. Like Mary Magdalene, we are devastated with life. Should we give up? But we decide to still go, and there we find folded clothes in an empty tomb. We start to wonder. Then, we hear a voice that is familiar and yet this voice challenges us. It is both comforting and energizing. The voice reminds us that we are actually alive, in spite of what the world tells us, and also, that we are beloved and no one or nothing can change that.

To paraphrase Marcus Borg, Jesus couldn’t be held by a tomb. Jesus’ spirit—what he taught and lived, is still around.  It’s still loose in the world, still recruiting people for this beloved community of people that seeks justice, welcomes and loves the marginalized, works towards healing, stands up to oppression and imperialism. The tomb is empty because nothing can contain the power, energy, and strength of beloved people building beloved community together.

You are not required to believe a certain something about resurrection.

You are instead called to see yourself as alive and beloved; you are given the opportunity to rise up to love, to rise up for justice, to rise up for compassion, to rise up to newness—how does this energize you? How does this give you new life?

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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