Easter Sermon 4/4/10

Resurrection Joy

John 20:1-18

            Easter morning is a joyous event filled with complex emotions and reactions.  Confusion, wonderment, fear, anger, shock, joy, awe, devotion, grief … and that could all be just one person’s reaction to the difficulty of understanding the resurrection.  In this passage in John there are three reactions:  those of the two men in the passage, Peter and the beloved disciple (presumably, John) and that of Mary Magdalene.

You can almost see the scene between Peter and John once Mary comes back to inform them of the empty tomb.  They have been stuck in the Upper Room, unable to “do” anything on the Sabbath.  Now, the body of their teacher and Lord is missing and they are ready to solve this problem.  So, they start out towards the tomb – in an almost comical manner.

–          I saw a new commercial recently that caught my attention.  Two adults, a man and woman whom we assume are a couple, have just exited McDonald’s and are walking quickly, almost racing.  As they run/walk, they start to elbow the other just a little trying to get a little edge on the other.  Something gets in the way of one of them so the other seizes the opportunity, grabs the Happy Meal and forges on.  This goes on, one gets blocked, the other steals the Happy Meal and they are racing for home.  Finally, they get home and Dad gleefully bends down and hands his “squirt” the prized Happy Meal.  Cheerfully, the child looks up and says, “Thanks, Mom!”

Peter, the Rock.The image of the two disciples elbowing each other around the city walls and through the rough garden entrance surprises me.  Like the parents in the commercial, there may be some competition, but the majority of their thought is the excitement of seeing their loved one.  They are running to see their teacher, to find out if there was somehow, some terrible mistake and he had not really died.  Or perhaps, the authorities were unwilling to let their teacher rest, even in death and they had stolen his body in the night.  They didn’t know what lay ahead, but they knew they wanted to participate.  Surely his denial of even knowing Jesus, rings through Peter’s head again and again as he runs toward the tomb.  It rings in his head just as it had all through the Sabbath day of rest, haunting him and racking him with guilt and with the hope that he might be able to make amends and find a way to continue Jesus’ ministry.

The One Whom Jesus Loved.  The beloved disciple John was there at the crucifixion.  He knows there is no chance his teacher is still alive, but witnessing the terrible events of that day, he also had felt a power in Jesus that made him think that anything was possible.  This man had taught him so many things about the Lord; John just knew this could not be some cruel joke.  He hoped and prayed that the power he had seen in this man during all of the healings and miracles had not died with his human life.

The two men reached the tomb, John first, and something makes him pause.  What if he’s wrong?  What if this is just a cruel hoax by the authorities or guards, just hoping to pour extra salt in the wound of Jesus’ disciples?  Peter, however, did not hesitate.  He couldn’t bear to be the one to hold back again, so he rushes in and sees the linens in the tomb – the head cloths gently folded and laid on the head stone.  John joins him.  Surely, a thief would not have bothered to remove and fold the linen cloths around the body.  But what could this mean?

Mary Magdalene  In John’s Gospel, Mary goes to the tomb alone.  Ralph Milton[1] has written a lovely re-telling of what Mary’s experience might have been like:

Mary stumbled and fell in the dark. Her hand and elbow scraped against the ugly rocks and though she couldn’t see it, she knew she was bleeding. No matter. She had bled before.
On she stumbled through the clutching darkness, along a half remembered path. She felt her way up to the garden tomb. Gradually, the cold gray light of early dawn outlined the naked rock that should have sealed the tomb, the place where they had buried her best friend.  The reality, the horror hit her instantly. Even in his death they could not give him peace. This kind and gentle friend had died the cruel death of criminals, and now to add to all the insult, someone had stolen Jesus’ body.
Screaming, she crashed back down the path back to the house where she’d been mourning Jesus’ death since that horror filled Friday. Screaming, she yelled for Peter, for the others. 
            “They’ve taken him away. Damn them anyway. They couldn’t let him rest. Peter, come,
            they’ve stolen Jesus’ body. Oh my God! How can people be so brutal?”
Now again, with Peter, she scrabbled up the path toward the tomb. Her rage carried her now. Her unfocused anger at this outrage carried her through the bitter morning darkness up the broken path, rocks and bushes scratched and tore her skin until she stood, chest heaving, beside Peter at the open tomb. Then she and Peter forced themselves to believe the unbelievable.
“He’s gone, Mary.” There was stunned, deadness in his voice. “All they left us was a corpse. Now they’ve got that too.” And Peter stumbled off, going nowhere but away from this revolting desecration.
Mary stayed. She had nowhere to go. She had nothing left. The power of her rage was spent. She was exhausted. She slumped her deadened body on a rock.
Head in hands she sat. Her mind shut down. She felt nothing. Not even the will to die.
Then memories. Memories of terror. Memories of despair. The pain of life in home-town Magdala came back – back in all its horrors. The darkness of that other life in that small town where she was beaten, starved and raped. Where people called her “slut” and “whore” though she was neither. Where she was called “possessed of seven demons.” It wasn’t till she remembered overhearing rumors of a healer, just down the lakeside at Capernaum, that a sense of feeling returned, and with the feeling, tears – tears that slowly washed her dry, red, angry eyes, tears that moved to moans, then into body heaving sobs – great gasping, screaming cries that found their way from the bottom of her wounded soul.
Through the prism of tears she saw the light of dawn slanting through the rocks into the garden. And there, in that golden light, a figure, a man, it could be any man, it must be the gardener, who else would it be here in this place so early.
            “Look, if you took his body, tell me where, please, just tell me where, so I can go and get
            him and give him a decent, human burial. Tell me, for God sake tell me.”
“Mary.” The voice was gentle. It seemed to come from another world. It took some moments to move its way through her sobs and into her consciousness. She heard it a second time. “Mary.”
Through her tears – through her salted tears of pain and anger and rejection, Mary saw him. “Rabbi,” she whispered, and then shouted, “Rabbi!” Springing to her feet to embrace him, the light of morning sparkling through her tears, Mary rushed toward her Jesus.
“Please don’t touch me, Mary,” he said. “There are reasons. Don’t be afraid, Mary. But go and tell our friends that death has been transformed to life and that despair has turned to hope.”
This time the path unrolled beneath her dancing feet. This time the amber rocks and greening bushes sparkled in the morning light. This time she shouted hope to all her friends.
“I have seen him. He’s alive. It’s true. All that he said is true. God loves us. All of us. And death and pain are not the end of life.”

                Mary, like many of us, experienced the truth of resurrection through tears.  Somehow in her grieving, she looked up and saw her risen Lord.  John and Peter reacted to the news Mary gave them with the faith of disciples who had lived and walked with a life-transforming Savior.  Each of them reacted in their own particular way, shaped by their personal experiences and emotions … and they show us that there are a great many ways to react to the good news of Jesus’ victory on Easter morning.  The reactions of these three people of faith, these three apostles remind us that “the encounter with the resurrection can be experienced differently by different people at different times, its music in different keys and danced in different ways.”[2]  The differences in their responses do not lessen the truth or the impact of Jesus’ resurrection.  Instead, these differences make the resurrection relevant to more individuals on many levels.  The joy or resurrection comes to each of us within our own personal faith journeys and pulls onto the path that Jesus calls us to, the path of discipleship.

Frederick Buechner has said, “It is not the absence of Jesus from the empty tomb that moves us.  It is his presence in our empty hearts.”  The absolute truth that we all find in the great victory of the resurrection is that Christ lives on – in mysterious ways within the body of Christ, and in personal ways within our hearts and relationships.  Christ is alive!  Christ is alive indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen!

[1] RUMORS, Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor, 2010-03-28.

[2] John K. Stendahl, Feasting on the Word, John 20:1-18


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