Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:102, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I am so delighted to see you all here on this morning; and I am also so glad that finally we have arrived at Easter! This has seemed to me a particularly arduous Lent, not only spiritually, but also emotionally and physically. We started with an Ash Wednesday marred by a horrific school shooting in Florida, reminding us again of the fragility of our lives and of the many ways that our world has fallen prey to evil. Each day we hear news of a world that threatens to spin out of control at any minute. Add to that a March that held more snow than all of the rest of the season, giving us lots of overcast days and a feeling that spring might never come. And an Easter day that will fight to get over 40 degrees. No question, I am clinging to Easter this year as hope and promise of better things to come. I am longing for the light and warmth that is promised.
In the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts we have been thinking a lot about evangelism—shining with the light of Christ for the world—and working on storytelling as one means to share that light. I am excited about what I have learned about the power of telling our stories as a way to remind us of what really matters, and that, even in dark, dreary times, there is hope. So I thought this morning would be a great time for all of us to try it. What I’d like you to do now is to find someone here that you don’t know and tell them in two minutes or less about the ways that Jesus has touched your life and the hope that you hold as a result. Go ahead and find a partner… [pause] April Fool’s!
I think there is nothing that makes an Episcopalian more nervous than asking them to talk about Jesus – especially to a stranger! But what if we could? What if we were able to express the deep joy and hope that brings us to church even on a day that should be warmer and more spring-like? What if we could actually understand what draws us to Christ, and to Christian community, and were able to tell that story to others who crave a similar source of peace and love?
I think we struggle to tell our story because of our doubt about what others might think, and in reality, our struggle with what we ourselves think. What do we really believe about the events that we celebrate today—the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ? Are we fools to believe that these things happened?
Certainly these disciples we encounter in John’s gospel on that cold dark morning almost 2,000 years ago weren’t believers, at least not as they approached the tomb. The rug had been pulled out from under them. Their beloved teacher and friend had been brutally tortured and murdered. They thought he was the Messiah, but it seemed they had all been wrong. What they did know was that they were in shock, and deep, deep mourning. And so, we read that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on that first day of the week, while it was still dark.
It is interesting that the other three gospels report the women came to the tomb when it was already light, but not John. “Given John’s earlier use of the imagery of light and darkness (remember the opening of John’s gospel, where we are told that John the Baptist came to testify to the true light coming into the world), this may well be our first clue to the lack of understanding that pervades this story.”[i]
Mary sees that the stone has been rolled away, and she is sure what has happened. As if it weren’t bad enough that Jesus had been killed in such a torturous way; now they have taken his broken body! She runs to tell the disciples, and the three of them rush back to investigate.
This is where John’s version of the story becomes interesting. We are told that the unnamed disciple (always referred to in John’s gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) goes into the tomb and immediately “saw and believed” (v. 8). Somehow he is able to grasp what has happened. Theologian Raymond Brown says, “the disciple who was bound closest to Jesus in love was the quickest to look for him and the first to believe in him.”[ii] We are reminded of the power of love, the power of belief. While all the rest doubt, or are not yet willing to believe, the Beloved Disciple is bold enough to believe that this is not an end but a beginning. His belief seems resolute.
Can we do the same? Can we trust, when things seem bleak, that God is not finished with us yet? Can we believe even when the odds seem stacked against us and against our belief, that God is bigger that anything we can ask or imagine? Can we see past our own hurt, through our tears and cries to the dream that God has for us? Can we become fools for the way of love?
This disciple reminds us of the power of looking for divine love amid the injustices of our society and the tragedies of our own lives—even when that dream has long since ended for most of the world. As the beloved community of Christ we are called to be the keepers of the flame of love; to be so bold as to believe the signs we hear in Scripture, and in our shared history, and in our liturgy; to believe that the power of God’s love continues to pervade the world, undeterred by death or destruction.[iii]
We aspire to be like the beloved disciple, seeing the light of life and love among empty tombs and discarded grave clothes, amid the trappings of death. But in fact, far too often we are like Mary.
You see, in this morning’s story Mary doesn’t get it yet. The disciples leave, and she remains beside the tomb, weeping. Even though her heart is breaking, she is unable to see beyond the emptiness before her. And even when she turns around and Jesus is standing right in front of her, she cannot see him.
That’s us—the signs are all around, and yet far too often we cannot see them. Often we so sure of what we believe is real, that we don’t see the truth right before us. Too often we believe that the world is filled with evil, that everyone is only out for themself, that we have to look out for number one because no one else will, that love is losing out to hate. And it doesn’t stop there. We also believe the lies about myself that we have wallowed in for years—that we are too fat, or too slow, or too naïve, or too flawed; that we are unlovable.
Mary is so sure that the worst has happened, that even when Jesus stands before her she cannot see him. And then that amazing moment happens: Jesus calls her name.
That’s all he does. No long address; no sermon or parable or platitude; no chastisement. He says simply, “Mary,” the word that applies to her alone, reaching right into her heart. You see, it wasn’t words that Mary needed; it was a real, visceral experience of her beloved teacher. He calls her name, ad suddenly she knows that he is risen, that he has vanquished the specter of death, and that the world has been turned upside down, just as he promised.
We long to hear God call our name—to be truly seen and understood; to be known. We want more than just an intellectual understanding of a higher power; we want to experience Jesus with all our senses. One theologian says, “we do not want to be loved by some distant cosmic Lord who relates to us in the same grand way God relates to the cosmos. We want to be seen for who we are in the most intimate, far-reaching corners of our interior psychic lives, our bodies, our histories, our dreams and losses…. As he did with Mary, Jesus comes to us not as a general idea or an imagined ghostly figure, but as a presence that reaches beyond our mind’s overt powers of knowing and touches our lives in ways we cannot see.”[iv]
What does this mean for us? It means that we are called to be available to God in all the ways that God comes to us. To be open not just to an intellectual relationship with Jesus, but to a visceral one. To put ourselves in places where we can hear, and taste, and smell, and touch God. For many of us, that place is in the church, especially in a lovely, thoroughly-prayed-in space like this. Now, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that we see, and taste, and hear, and smell, and touch God each time we come to this place; but make no mistake we do experience Jesus here, and each time we are moved and energized by it.
When we experience Jesus, not only here but so often in our everyday lives, we are reinvigorated; we discover again the utter joy of life; we know again the power of love for each of us. And we want to share that amazing experience with other. I keep thinking of that church camp chestnut, Pass It On: “That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it. You want to sing; it’s fresh like Spring; you want to pass it on!”[v]
We cannot keep the gift of God’s complete, grace-filled love to ourselves. We must tell the world. Like Mary, we must tell the story! And yes, we may come across as fools; but we know that light of Christ that we have seen shining in the eyes of one who embodies his love; we know the taste of the bread and the wine, signs of God’s unfathomable gift of eternal life that is our theme at Easter; we know smell of beautiful flowers and the good earth coming back to life, a reminder of the amazing cycle of life the world around us; we know the touch of a warm hug, reminding us that we are not alone; we know the sound of the laughter of children, and of voices raised in song, proclaiming the goodness of God. We know the signs of God’s presence in our world and in our hearts. It is a story we must tell. May this Easter mark for us a new moment of awareness of the goodness that pervades our lives, and of the hope that comes from an empty tomb. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 377.
[ii] Brown, Raymond E. as quoted by D. Cameron Murchison in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2 (Ibid.), p. 376.
[iii] Murchison, D. Cameron. Feasting on the Word (Ibid.), p. 378.
[iv] Jones, Serene. Ibid., p. 378.