John 20: 1-18
We are faithful witnesses to the resurrection because we have come here today seeking to hear and experience the joy and excitement of a story that is over 2,000 years old. And, each year, the story does not disappoint us. Our alleluia’s ring out, lilies dot the communion table, the children are dressed in their pastel finery, a bonnet or two still emerges and the scent of chocolate bunnies and Peeps are in the air! Christ has risen, and we witness that miracle once again today.
Our denomination, the United Church of Christ has a slogan that reads, “Our Faith is over 2,000 years old, our thinking is not.” Excellent point because what good is an irrelevant faith? What purpose would it serve if this resurrection story was just ‘an idle tale’ as the apostles in Luke’s Gospel first believed it to be? (Luke 24:11)
Let us now place ourselves in the Gospel of John, the 20th chapter and witness what happened on that first Easter morning…
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, (ra-BO-nai) “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Just like the beloved birth narratives of Jesus that we so adore with the wise men and shepherds, the stars, angels, manger, we love to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection story over and over and over again because this story, even more than Jesus’ birth is the heart, the nucleus, and the genesis with a small g of our Christian faith. We read into Jesus’ birth excitement and wonder because we know the end of the story. And the end of the story is today, Easter Sunday. Although, we know it’s really not THE end, it’s only the beginning.
Mary from Magdala awakens early; it was still dark. She takes oils to anoint Jesus’ body, she wanted to complete what she wasn’t able to accomplish on Friday because it was the Sabbath. When she arrives at the tomb she sees that it’s empty. You can imagine the fear, the unknowing, the sadness, the panic all funneled into that one little second when she sees that Jesus was not there. She wastes no time and runs back to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the beloved one to tell them the news, or rather exclaim to them that someone has taken Jesus away.
Neither do Simon Peter and the other disciple waste any time. They run also to the tomb, passing each other but the beloved one reaches the tomb first. He looked in and saw the linen’s. Then Peter arrives only seconds later and goes directly into the tomb and also sees the linen’s and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. It was rolled up neatly and laying aside. The beloved also now enters the tomb. And it is recorded that he believed, right then and there.
But Mary. Faithful Mary. Loving Mary. Grieved Mary begins to weep. She peers once again into the empty tomb only this time she sees angels gently sitting in the place where Jesus should have been.
Her tears flowed, but then she hears a voice, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” She didn’t turn around to see who had just spoken to her. She was fixated on the cavernous void of the tomb. In between the tears she said, “They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where.” She thought he was the gardener and pleaded with him to tell her where he had taken Jesus’ body.
“Mary”, Jesus says. She turns. “Teacher,” she says. At that moment, that very tender moment, she knew. She probably didn’t understand but she knew that Jesus was no longer dead but alive. She knew at that point that she was not left alone in this garden but had Jesus beside her.
In this moment the tectonic plates of the world shifted and it has never been the same since. You cannot deny that the resurrection did not cast a different light in this world. Out of the tomb came life. He who was tortured and maimed was now made whole. He who was once dead was now alive. Indeed, if you believe, then it has the power to transform your life in ways that you can’t even image.
You’re probably thinking, ‘come on preacher, the world really hasn’t changed’. The Romans probably got up the next morning without remorse and prepared the crosses for a new set of criminals and troublemakers. Wars have commenced, hatred and injustice remain, people starve as the eyes of the indifferent gaze at them. What in the world has changed since the first Easter morning?
The question is not what has changed. The question is who has changed? My question is, have I changed? Your question is, have you changed? Theologian Peter Gomes once said, “Easter is not just about Jesus; it is about you. He has already claimed his new life; now it’s your chance to claim yours.”[i] How will you proclaim your new life? How can Easter possibly change you?
It gives you new vision with which to see.
All the while what you are really gazing at might be, in reality, without the lens of the kaleidoscope, a trash heap. But there can be beauty that arises out of despicable places. Who among us at one time or another in our lives have not been able to see hope? Who among us has not been able to envision the next minute yet alone the next few years? Who among us has not been in the cold dark tomb, just like Jesus? I suspect I am not the only one in this sanctuary.
The apostles moved out of their place of fear and sorrow and carried on witnessing to God’s great love and living accordingly. You can too. You can be changed by the twist of your lens because the resurrection has given you new life too. The apostle Paul says, ‘anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten and everything is new.’ (2 Cor 5:17)
Today the tomb could not hold Jesus in death’s dark grips and neither can it do that to you. Beauty from ugliness. Hope from despair. Life from death. Easter proclaims the mighty and redemptive love of God when we can no longer see it for ourselves.
This is our proclamation today.
“Hold firmly”, Paul says, “to the message that I have proclaimed to you….If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain.” (1 Cor 15:2,13).
There is no tomb dark enough or deep enough that we cannot climb out of and overcome because Christ has claimed that victory for us. Hold firmly to it.
The lens of Easter through which we look at today is how we shall view all that happens to us in our lifetime. This is no idle tale. Hold firmly to it.
Let us witness resurrection today and then practice it each day of our life.
And you thought the resurrection was just a story!