John 20 INI
I met Vinnie in Florida. He’d grown up in New York, where the name for a person like him was lowlife thug. If someone owed you money and wasn’t paying, you’d hire Vinnie to beat him up. If you needed cash, you could hire Vinnie to burn your garage for the insurance and hope he didn’t set himself on fire. If Vinnie needed cash he would stage an accident and sue the business where he was “hurt.” That was Vinnie.
Up in New York it got to where Vinnie had to get out or get killed. So he came to Florida and tried to start a new life. Now, Vinnie had this giant tattoo on his shoulder that was left over from his thug days. I forget what all was in it, a skull and some other stuff. He decided that he would not have it removed. Instead, he added new things to the tattoo, like a cross and some flowers, and a chain around the bad stuff to wall it in.
He saw it this way: his days as a thug were a permanent part of his life. The memories, the police record, the consequences, were all there and he could not change the facts of the past. But by giving his life a new future he could change the meaning of the past. He could make his past something that served a new future. That is what redemption means.
The Easter story is also full of folks whose only hope is that redemption works. Everyone in this story has painful scars and regrets. Here is Peter. He had a chance to man up the night Jesus was arrested. They asked him if he was a follower of Jesus. He could have said, “Yeah, I am – what of it?” But instead he said, “Uh – heck no don’t say that.” He wimped out.
The other disciple did better, but he was helpless to save Jesus’ life.
Mary Magdalene? Jesus had thrown seven demons out of her. Her life had been a mess and Jesus had put her together. And now he was dead.
What happens next is that God writes a new end to Jesus’ life, so that he in turn can write new ends to the stained and broken lives of his friends. Death and disgrace are not definitive. Peter’s failure becomes a story of forgiveness. He can draw from it not a lesson about what a mess-up he is, but a lesson of God’s faithfulness and the chance for a fresh start even after disaster. He can draw from his failure a gentleness and an empathy with human failings which will serve him well when dealing with others.
Mary Magdalene? Her story is not a victim’s tale, that just when life gets good tragedy takes it all away. It’s not that you finally meet a guy who treats you nice and then you have to bury him. Her story is that the Lord who made her sane is strong enough now to do the same for the world.
This gives us robust confidence as we face life. Our hope doesn’t depend on all turning out right, no mistakes or misfortunes. Nor does it depend on unrealistically pretending bad things didn’t happen, or trying to snip them out of our lives. Bad may happen and we may do wrong, and this remains part of who we are. But the situation is not beyond God’s power to redeem. Resurrection’s new end rewrites the meaning of all that has gone before. It becomes wisdom, compassion, insight, understanding.
I suspect most of us in the room today have at least one cringeworthy memory somewhere, a stain on life that just won’t come out and has to be lived with. There is not a single person in this room who does not
have some form of inner shakiness or vulnerability that could shake
loose again. That is part of being human. Too often I have talked with people who feared that one huge blunder, one bad turn, one bad stretch, had made them unworthy of happiness or unfit for full participation in the human race. For them life goes on, but not well. They sneak around afraid that someone will discover their awful secret. They feel that they don’t belong in church.
The anger and the yelling and the drug abuse and the infidelity and the years when you never stood up for yourself; the times when you got fooled because you were too nice or got dumped because you weren’t; those days are part of the permanent record of life. But in the dawning light of resurrection they can become testimony to God’s longsuffering, patient, skillful and relentless loving pursuit of those he loves. His ability to reach down into the most unpromising life to find a beloved child. Then in us these same experiences become reservoirs of wisdom learned the hard way, of understanding that leads to kindness, empathy and humility. Most of what we ever learn we seem to learn from pain.
Even raised from the dead, Jesus continued to wear his wounds. In fact, they were how he identified himself to his friends. We too wear our scars as signs of what we have experienced, and how God has healed us.
But in Vinnie’s case there’s a cautionary tale. It ended up badly. He got in some big fights with people in the church, his marriage blew up, and in the end he died mysteriously at home at age 37. Not sure what it was. So the new life didn’t hold. Unfortunately it takes more than a modified tattoo. In Vinnie’s case religion didn’t get past being one more hustle, one more thing he tried to do to get by. The new life goes further. It takes dying to an old way of life, and putting our confidence in the one who raises us with himself – the transformation and renewal of life.
In the words of a German pastor, Juergen Moltmann, In this Spirit of the resurrection I can here and now wholly live, wholly love and wholly die, for I know with certainty that I shall wholly rise again. In this hope I can love all created things, for I know that none of them will be lost.