How powerful is hope? Perhaps a better question is, how powerful is the absence of hope?
Dr. Jerome Groopman teaches at Harvard Medical School. His research has focused on the basic mechanisms of cancer and AIDS. He describes the importance of hope from a medical perspective:
“I think hope has been, is, and always will be the heart of medicine and healing. We could not live without hope. Even with all the medical technology available to us now, we still come back to this profound human need to believe that there is a possibility to reach a future that is better than the one in the present.”
We could not live without hope. This is true for religious and non-religious people. Republican or Democrat. For those who prefer American League or National League. It’s true whether you live in the 21st century or the 1st century.
We come to Easter with the curse of knowledge for we know how the story ends. But if you were one of the first followers of Jesus, your dreams of a better life ended when Jesus was buried. Your hope was dead.
Let’s go back to the 1st century – to the first followers – and hear the story the way they experienced it.
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying. 11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. — John 20:1-18
What did the ancient people believe about life beyond the grave? In the 21st century, we often believe that before modern science, ancient people believed all sorts of odd things – like resurrection. And that would be false. Ancient paganism did not believe in resurrection.
Judaism, on the other hand, is rooted in the belief that God is the creator of the world and that God will one day put the world to rights. By time of Jesus, a majority of Jews believed in a final bodily resurrection.
Even so, Peter, John, and Mary were not expecting Jesus to be alive. Mary’s weeping is mentioned four times in four verses. When a friend dies, we cry.
For the incarnation to be taken seriously, being human must be taken seriously. That’s why I believe the question Jesus asks is so important:
“Who is it you are looking for?”
Jesus does not ask her, “What is it you are looking for?” For Jesus, it’s relational; it’s about a relationship. It always has been.
People often think that God’s problem with sin is that it breaks a rule. It’s not. His problem with sin is that it breaks a relationship.
The message of Easter is not that Jesus will take us back to the way life was before. He tells Mary to not hold on to him. She has to let go and return to her friends. Easter reminds us that the way out of the darkness is only by moving ahead and the only person who can lead the way is the Savior.
When the church first began, it struggled through periods of persecution for 300 years. Every Sunday when the believers gathered, they took time to love each other because they did not know who might be martyred for the faith before their next gathering.
Why were so many so willing to lay down their lives for the confession that Jesus is Lord?
Because when they were baptized, they were buried with Christ. They had already died to all of the old dreams for life. And you just can’t scare dead people.
They died with Christ, however, only to be raised to a new life with him and in him.
Only in his death and resurrection is it possible for us also to die to our old agendas and rise to a changed life.