Easter C, March 27, 2016

March 29, 2016

Waking Up to Easter

John 20:1-18


20:1 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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 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. 13 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.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 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.'” 18 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.


The thing I love most about the way Easter morning is described in John’s gospel is the role of Mary Magdalene. She isn’t exactly the hero of this story. God is the hero, but Mary is the one who is first to understand what God had done, and in that sense she became the first evangelist. According to John, Mary is instructed by Jesus to go tell the good news of his resurrection. I may not be reading this right, but it looks to me like Mary is not only the first female preacher – she was the first preacher ever.


The way that John tells the story of the resurrection (and he tells it very carefully) is that Mary is the one who got the story straight and told it. Peter and this other disciple, whom Jesus loved, had the same opportunity that she had, but they didn’t stick around long enough to fully understand what had happened. This story fits in a long line of stories where God uses the person who is least regarded to do the most significant work. We’ve got all kinds of good news to celebrate this morning. Not only can God redeem the most tragic of circumstances, but God can use anyone in the process – maybe even well regarded men who work in the professional religion business – I hope that’s a possibility.


I’m always struck by the details that John includes when he tells the stories of Jesus. The stories he tells about Jesus include the kinds of details you would find if you were writing stage notes for a play. John describes how the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first, but then he only looked inside. Peter was the first to go in the tomb, and other disciple followed him. They found the linen cloths neatly set aside, and we’re told that the other disciple believed, but we don’t know what he believed because John then says they didn’t understand, and then we’re told they both went home.


Men are often accused of being unwilling to ask for directions, and I think this is an early case of that tendency. They didn’t know what was going on, but that didn’t stop them from making a decision about where they needed to go. I really don’t know what to make of this, but there’s a clear lesson here. If you’re the first person to enter the empty tomb of the recently crucified messiah — don’t go home before the angel’s appear. They really missed an opportunity. That would be a hard thing to get over.


But Mary did it right. She knew she didn’t know what was going on, and she stuck around until it all became clear. She didn’t stick around because she knew something good had happened. She suspected foul play. She addressed the angels as if they were common laborers, and she mistook Jesus for a gardener. She was feeling like the empty tomb was nothing but insult to injury, and her lack of recognition of what was going on was probably due to her inability to stop crying. Both the angels and Jesus asked her why she was weeping, and nothing penetrated her grief until Jesus said her name.


It’s not surprising that the sound of her name would get her attention. Hearing our name spoken always gets our attention. It can be frightening to hear your name when it’s spoken by someone with the power to do you harm, but it’s always a good thing to hear your name spoken in a loving manner. There’s probably nothing more comforting than to hear our named called by a cherished soul, and in this case it was absolutely transforming. Mary went from trodding through abject sorrow to bounding off in joy to tell others what had happened, and the turnaround came about through the sound of hearing Jesus call her name.


The concept of Jesus rising from the dead is a hard thing for me to get my mind around. John provides us with a lot of details about that first Easter, but it doesn’t answer every question. Some of us modern-minded people would like to know a few more details about how this came about, but I think John provided all the details we need. I think the invitation is to embrace the broad concept of what God did in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Easter morning isn’t about a mysterious biochemical process.  Easter is about the profound way God comes to us in our darkest hours and pulls us back to life from the brink of death. What Mary and Peter and the other disciples experienced was the miracle of having their absolute despair about the death of the one who promised life transformed into the celebration of reunion. I don’t know exactly what they experienced, but I know what they came to understand. They witnessed his crucifixion, and three days later they were back in touch with his living presence. It’s hard to explain, but they were certain of what they had experienced. Their despair had been reversed. The pain of death was replaced by the joy of Christ’s miraculous presence.


I’ve never been in a situation as devastating as that which Mary and the disciples found themselves. I’ve lived a relatively comfortable and sheltered life, and I’ve generally been able to obtain the things I’ve felt like I needed. Consequently, when I don’t get what I want I have a tendency to react badly. It kills me to not get what I want.


Such was the case several years ago when a position came open that I desperately wanted. This was a position I felt well qualified to handle and I was in a situation I was more than willing to leave. I also felt like I had good connections to the place, and I pulled every string within reach. I felt like a strong candidate, but at some point I came to realize I didn’t have a foot in the door. It struck me as a rigged deal on some level, and I was pretty upset about the situation.


As I say, I like to get what I want, and to not get what I felt perfectly suited to have left me feeling really angry and resentful. My wrath was directed toward one person in particular which wasn’t a particularly rational thing because that person probably had very little to do with the decision, but I held him responsible on some level, and I was having a hard time letting it go. It kept me upset for weeks, and I didn’t know what to do to get over it, but one night a remarkable thing happened to me.


And this is probably the kind of thing you should only share with a therapist, but now that I’ve got your attention I’ll tell you about a dream I had that actually enabled me get over that whole situation. I had this dream in which I murdered the person I was so angry with in a remarkably slow and brutal manner. And I know that sounds terrible, but when I woke up I just had to laugh about what I had done in my dream, and I was over it. It was a truly remarkable thing that I experienced. It was an ugly dream. I didn’t behave well in my dream, but it enabled me to let go of my hard feelings. Maybe I was about over it anyway, but on some level it felt like my life had been restored in a somewhat miraculous manner. That strange dream served to wake me up and to help me gain some new perspective.


I actually came to be very grateful that things didn’t work out in the way I had desperately tried to make it happen. As Garth Brooks would say, I thank God for that unanswered prayer. And while I’m not convinced God orchestrates all of the ups and downs of our lives, I do believe that God works at enabling us to discover new life when we feel like life is over. It’s not easy for us to hear this message. We are easily distracted by the trials and troubles that surround us. You might even say we live much of our lives in a state of semi-consciousness – numbed by the harsh realities that make us want to shut down our senses and to remain stuck in the death-fearing view we have of life.


The power of death certainly hasn’t been eliminated from this world. In fact it’s the most obvious form of power we ever see. The terrible power of death has been on full display recently with the recent bombings, and the primary story we hear is of the ever-increasing tensions that are being ramped up in the world. Death is doled out regularly in new and terrifying ways, but the message of Jesus is that the forces of hatred and death will never prevail.


The resurrection of Jesus Christ was real, but it didn’t happen immediately. The disciples were in genuine despair for a period of time, and the truth of God’s ability to restore hope in the midst of despair wasn’t obvious to everyone all at once, but this truth didn’t remain hidden for long. The crucifixion of Jesus was intended to be a painfully real display of ultimate power of death, but it failed to deliver. Death can only do so much damage before the life-restoring power of God becomes miraculously real.


It’s hard for any of us to imagine how God is going to redeem the terrible tragedies that we see happening on every level of life. Whether it’s on the scale of geopolitical conflict or the trials of personal disappointment we are all touched by the cold hand of death-dealing forces. None of us are immune from the sting of deathly power, but none of us are out of reach of the same life-giving message that Mary received and went on to deliver. Mary heard her name spoken by the living Lord of life, and she was told to spread the news.


Mary discovered that Jesus was alive and speaking and on his way to be with his God and our God – the God who has decided that death will not prevail in this world.


The message of Easter is that there is no situation that cannot be redeemed. Just as Mary was overwhelmed by the tragedy of her day until she heard the voice of Christ call her name, we can all spend a lot of time in the nightmarish world of hatred, pain, and death, but that isn’t where God wants us to remain. We may not hear Jesus call our names as quickly as we would like, but I trust he is trying to wake us all up to the reality of life. Jesus is calling for us to wake up and see that we are loved, we are forgiven, and we have the opportunity to find new life in the midst of this old world.


Thanks be to God.



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