Hollywood filmmakers turn often to the drama of crucifixion (most notably, Mel Gibson) but rarely to the resurrection. I wonder if an empty tomb is a bit…boring. Or maybe there are too many oddities to stitch together coherently, or strange moments of anticlimax.
This year’s lectionary cycle gave us Matthew’s version of the story as an option, a great example of Easter’s peculiar character.
“Go to Galilee.”
What an odd thing for the risen Jesus to say. Just then, at this first post-resurrection appearance, this profound moment of realizing God’s victory over death, Jesus says, “go to Galilee” (Mt. 28:10).
What would “Galilee” have meant to those women, those men, those first followers and disciples and dear friends of Jesus? What was “Galilee” to them?
Matthew drops hints about this throughout his account of the Gospel, hints about a place where I might imagine feeling completely at home and fully myself. That sets a fairly high bar, so I sometimes try to imagine a place where I can at least come close to feeling perfectly at home in my own body and gladly at home with other bodies.
If you can imagine such a place, that’s your “Galilee.” That’s your home base, your go-to, can’t-live-without place. And the risen Jesus says to his closest friends, “go to Galilee; I will meet you there.”
This homey image matters, it seems to me, especially when confronting the disorientations of Easter. Christmas, after all, is much easier to manage—what’s not to love about a newborn baby? But what in the world do we do with an empty tomb?
Believers and skeptics alike have answered that question in different ways. Throughout church history and today, there’s a whole range of ways to read and interpret the Easter story.
For some, Easter is a beautiful metaphor, evoking the cycle of life itself in the seasons of the year. What lies buried in the cold earth beneath layers of snow emerges in the warm daylight of spring, the green shoots of new life, and here in western Michigan, the carpets of lavender crocus everywhere.
For others, Easter offers reassurance that what was lost can be found, what has been damaged can be restored, what has grown old will be made new. Whatever has failed in our organizations and institutions, whatever has died in us—joy, perhaps, or intimacy, trust and tenderness—whatever has been marred by neglect or abuse or trauma, God can renew and restore and bring to life once again; that’s Easter!
Still others will of course embrace this morning’s celebration as the story of God raising Jesus bodily from death to new life. I don’t mean the resuscitation of a corpse and Jesus is not a ghost. Resurrection in this view instead marks something new and uncanny, and it is the first fruit and foretaste of our own resurrection-destiny.
Those are just a few of the options for embracing Easter, and my prayer is that Christian communities everywhere would welcome everyone, regardless of where they fall on that spectrum of options. The arc of our liturgical year, from Christmas to Easter, touches on the deepest mysteries of birth, death, and new life any of us can confront; I see no point in administering orthodox tests or quizzing anyone’s doctrinal acuity about such things.
Everyone—whether convinced, searching, certain, doubtful, agnostic, perplexed, wildly faithful or some combination of these depending on the day of the week or what they had for breakfast—everyone should find an Easter home, a place to be loved into healing and renewed by grace. We all need a Galilee.
Personally, I land in some fashion on all of the ways one might conceive and believe the Easter story; I see no reason to choose just one. In fact, all those various ways of believing mutually affect the others: of course God raised Jesus from the dead; look what happens in the spring! Of course this community can come back to life; look what God did on Easter!
In my (perhaps peculiar) view, nothing is too good to hope for. What biblical writers consistently urge us to consider has also been true in my own life many times: God usually surprises us with more than we expected, with far more than we thought possible.
Here’s something, however, that I do worry about: postponing resurrection life into such a distant future that it makes no impact on the present. That’s not the Easter story; that’s actually the story of Empire. The powers and principalities of imperial regimes will always try to divert our attention away from the needs of the poor, delay the call for justice, and mute the urgency of ecological renewal by insisting that our only hope resides in some far-away world beyond the grave.
Remember, Empire killed Jesus; and God raised Jesus right there, in Empire.
In contrast to imperial paralysis, and as my good friend Jim Mitulski likes to say, the point of an Easter faith is to practice resurrection now, every day, in our lives and personal relationships, in our organizations and institutions, and in the wider world around us.
Practice resurrection now—in this world of narrow-minded bigotry, and death dealing institutions, and casual acts of violence, and where we can’t even get sensible gun safety legislation passed in Congress when our children are dying.
Practice the transforming love of resurrection now in all the most familiar places, in the most ordinary communities, among the people you know best.
In other words, go to Galilee.
This anticlimax moment in Matthew’s version of the story should remind us that Easter is not some foreign, exotic, distant planet we’re invited to visit at some point in the far-off future—it’s in our own backyard right now.
Just last week, on Palm Sunday, we heard Matthew’s story about Jesus bringing crowds of people with him from Galilee to march on Jerusalem. They had heard him teach there in Galilee, watched him heal the sick, and share meals with prostitutes and tax collectors there, they got into boats with him and sat on hillsides with him and had finally found their place with him, there.
Go to Galilee, the risen Jesus says, the place where we met and where we were most at home together; that place where you learned how to fish as a young boy; where you climbed sycamore trees as a “tom girl”; where you dropped your fishing nets and left your orchards and followed me because you caught a glimpse of something new and powerful—the hope of healing and love and flourishing and finally and at last, beyond your wildest dreams, being fully at home and fully yourself.
“Go tell this to my brothers,” Jesus says to his closest women companions. These are not slaves or servants or even disciples; all of these are family; all of this happens at home.
“Galilee” is here and now; no need to travel, and we must not delay. Christian communities everywhere must practice resurrection today, together, because the world is desperate for Easter.