Jesus did not come back from the dead. Lazarus did that. Or rather, Jesus brought him back from the dead to pick up his life where he had left off.
Jesus passed through death to a radically new life.
God gave Jesus that new life. Jesus did not give it to himself. After all, he couldn’t give himself anything. He was dead as a doornail. The dead don’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
You see, resurrection can happen only once there is no hope of reviving the old life that we had worked so hard to build and sustain. The path to Easter always passes through Good Friday.
Jesus is risen. And he is imparting his new life to us—to you and to me—as we stumble and scurry and skip and dance and scooch our way along our various paths. One day our lives will come to an end and we will fully inhabit the new life imparted by Christ.
For now, we are growing into eternal life gradually, one day—sometimes one moment—at a time. Growing into eternal life is not something we achieve. We can’t speed it up by trying harder or getting the hang of it. Eternal life doesn’t even come as a reward for good conduct, exemplary spiritual practices, or exceptional faith.
You just have to die. And then God gives you eternal life. As a gift. Those of us who choose to follow Jesus intentionally walk a path punctuated by dying and rising.
Before we draw our last breaths, we will from time to time meet death. Now it won’t be our final death, but it will be real and unavoidable. The life that we have grown so accustomed to and worked with such love and sweat to nurture and tend grinds to a halt or shatters or evaporates or grows unbearably hollow.
We will certainly mourn that good life. For some time we’ll struggle to admit that the life we knew is no more. We may resist the very idea that it’s gone, trying again and again to revive it. All to no avail.
I experienced that sort of death as a child when my parents divorced. The death of a loved one or the end of a relationship can shatter a life. Our bodies age us into new seasons of living. Good things like graduation from high school and college mark the end of a pattern of life.
We have to let go of the old life in order to take up and grow accustomed to the new life we’ve been given. Sometimes we enter that new life with such joy that we hardly notice the grief. But this is not always true. Sometimes, our sorrow is so deep that we can’t imagine any new life at all.
That’s how we find Mary Magdalene on the day of resurrection. Well, for her, it was the third day since her world had come to an end. Wracked with grief, she was going through the motions of an old life robbed forever of all its former light and laughter. Jesus had been at the center of her world. And without its center, that once glittering, orderly world had become a heap of dusty rubble.
Jesus chose to show himself first of all to Mary Magdalene. And he wasn’t content to just show himself. He took pains to teach her what it means to give herself to the resurrection power of God’s love.
“Don’t cling to me,” he said. In other words, don’t cling to the me I used to be, to the life we used to have.
Mary imagined for just a moment that Jesus was back from the dead. They could pick up where they had left off. The life she feared she had lost was restored. At least, that’s what she thought.
But Jesus was not back from the dead. He had passed through death to new life. Magdalene’s old life—the life that she shared with Jesus and the other disciples—was over. He came to give her and them and the rest of us a new life.
Jesus was teaching Mary Magdalene to cling to the risen Christ.
And as difficult and painful as it would be, Mary had to let go of that old life to begin—step by step—to inhabit the new life that Jesus was bringing her.
Letting go of the old life can be very hard. And it is also true that we will spend some time feeling awkward and disoriented in the new life that Christ is giving us. Feeling at home in eternal life takes time, and no little amount of trial and error.
The very essence of eternal life is love. Eternal life reflects the very heart of the God who imparts it.
As it turns out, getting the hang of eternal life involves growing into a life of habitual love. God’s love is not a mere response to circumstances. It is a free and creative force that enters unlooked-for into the unlikeliest of places.
Love’s presence raises up what has been cast down, makes new what has grown old, and brings all things to perfection in Christ, through whom all things were made.
Love has died to judging others for being different and embraces each person and every creature as the beloved child of God.
Love has died to the drive to get ahead and devotes itself to leaving no one behind.
Love has died to seeking its own status and guards the dignity of every human being.
Love has died to settling scores to make things right and forgives to restore right relationship.
Love has died to comfort and personal privilege and pursues justice for the forgotten and the persecuted, the despised and the oppressed.
Jesus did not come back from the dead. He passed through death to eternal life. And that is the path we follow when we cling to the risen Christ.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.