To listen to this sermon live:
I just love the Gospel of John. All throughout the Gospel, the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, uses imagery and beautiful language to draw people in to know more deeply God’s love for the world. And, our story today is no different. Just in this chapter alone, the twentieth chapter of John, some come to believe because they have seen, others because they hear, and others because they have not seen but believe. Pictures are painted with words – details are made clear so that we can more tangibly participate in the story unfolding before our eyes. The Evangelist calls us to be active rather than passive readers. We are invited take our seats in the front row, center seats, and listen carefully. And, today, if we take the Evangelist up on this invitation, we just might find ourselves on that road or in the tomb, and experience the presence of God.
Let us pray: Our lips cry out the joyful news that, “He is risen!”. May our hearts and minds be moved to hear the Words you have us to hear and discern what Your risen presence is among us, O God. Amen.
John 20: 1-18
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. 2So 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.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
So, this Easter Sunday’s story is a footrace. I am an avid audio book listener and having recently listened to Boys in the Boat and Seabiscuit, I can tell you that a good telling of a race is crucial. And, the Gospel of John does not let us down. We can imagine the scene from the disciples’ point of view. Going about their mournful business in the early morning hours when Mary Magdalene arrives with news that the body of Jesus has been removed from the tomb. As the news sinks in, the disciples are off, on their way to the tomb, as if in a race. Adrenaline courses through their bodies. Questions swirl in their minds. Emotions burn in their chests. The disciple that Jesus loved so dearly picks up a little more speed and arrives at the tomb before Peter. Hesitating to enter, the Beloved Disciple pauses and bends over with trepidation – you can almost see the disciple’s face – with an expression of confusion and pain at the sight of the empty burial linens. Peter arrives and without hesitation passes the other disciple and walks directly into the tomb – he notices that the wrappings of the body were where one might expect to find them but the cloth that was around Jesus’ head was balled up in a different place, like a well-worn pair of socks that missed the laundry basket. Finally, the beloved disciple crosses the threshold and stands in the place where Jesus’ breathless body once laid. The two disciples saw the linens and they believed he was raised from the dead, even before they made the connection to scripture, and they left and returned to their homes. It was a lot to process all at once, wasn’t it?
And, while they were experiencing the empty tomb in their way, Mary Magdalene had a different experience. After his death and before the Sabbath, she prepared the traditional burial spices and went to the tomb to apply them as ritual demanded. Only, the body wasn’t there. Perplexed or afraid or wanting a second opinion to confirm what she was seeing, she runs to the disciples and she tells the first two she can find. The disciples take off for the tomb and she follows behind – we don’t know if she ran after them or if she slowed her pace, trying to come to grips with what she had seen. The disciples enter the tomb and look around and confirm for her that his body is not, in fact, in the tomb, and they leave. She remains and she weeps. Alone at the empty tomb for the second time that morning, she crumbles and looks inside, only to find another surprising vision – 2 angels. They ask her why she’s weeping and just then, there is a man standing behind her who asks the same question. This is a moment when I can imagine all the thoughts and emotions swirling around in her head in this moment. ‘Am I seeing things? Are these angels? Who is this man? And, why do they all question why I weep? Isn’t it evident as to why I weep?’ And, then the man speaks – asking her who she’s looking for. Believing him to be the gardener, she doesn’t respond to his question, she just fires back with a question asking if his body has been removed and taken to another burial location, another tomb – could she have the address of the new location? And, then, he says her name. “Mary.” She hears her name from his lips. The familiar sound. The voice she knows so well. I imagine she never thought she would hear that sound again in her life. But in this moment, from the depths of her visceral senses, she knows that the presence of God is alive and with her in the world. And, that voice she knows so well, the voice of Jesus, then sends her, a woman, to go and tell what she has experienced. And, how about that: Mary Magdalene, a woman, called by Jesus and sent into the world as the first pastor testifying to the risen Christ.
The Gospel of John paints an incredibly vivid, palpable scene of the resurrection of Jesus. Every year, we gather together in houses of worship and we listen again to the story of the Gospel, witnessing the Good News, witnessing the myriad ways followers of Jesus came to believe and understand the presence of God through Jesus, and it makes us ponder again what we understand the resurrection to mean for our lives. Every year, I hear this story and I marvel at what it means and oh, to have been one of those disciples at the tomb or to have heard my own name rolling off the tongue of Jesus to be sent into the world to teach of God’s love. This is a powerful moment in our story as a people of faith. It is miraculous and mind-boggling. It is wild and startling and it is overwhelming evidence of God’s power to break all bonds of darkness and destruction, even the bonds of sin and death are not barriers for God. Because of this story, hope is not lost, my friends. Sin and darkness do not have the final word – forgiveness and love have much more to say.
People often say that the story of the resurrection speaks for itself. For preachers, we don’t need to dress it up or put a new twist on it – just telling the story each year is enough. And, it’s true. After a long journey to Jerusalem, after a long season of taking an honest look at one’s own life in Lent, confronting one’s own darkness and sin, after a long season of humble repentance, the gift of God’s love and forgiveness breaks forth with such power that even the one we believed to be dead to the world, has been brought back to life in glory by God. The story of the resurrection is extraordinary and it has a great impact on how we, as Christians, live in the world today.
You see, many Christians grow up being taught that the death and resurrection of Christ means that we as sinners are separated from God and deserve death, but that Christ took our place on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. In theological terms, this is called Substitutionary Atonement. But how does this interpretation of the resurrection mesh with what we know of the character of God as reflected in Jesus – Jesus, whose time was spent with tax collectors and lepers, who espoused and modeled love, and nonviolent peace, and forgiveness. This morning I want to discuss an alternative understanding of Easter, one that is rooted in redemption and restoration, not retribution. I propose that we are saved not because of any punitive violence of the cross, not that God’s love could only be made known to us in such violent sacrifice, or not that such violent sacrifice is necessary for us to be in relationship with God. Rather, we are restored and brought into right relationship with God because Christ overcame the brokenness of punitive violence and death. Through the resurrection, Christ breaks down the system of retribution, exposes the injustice of it, and enacts reconciliation – reconciliation which leads to right relationship for us with God and reveals a new way of loving one another as neighbors.
There is a well-known prayer out of the Church of England often prayed during a service of communion – Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. This prayer is made real in the story of God’s love for the world, reflected in the resurrection. Out of love, and through the form of Jesus, God entered into the world in human form to show that God is with us in every way. Jesus walked alongside us in every experience – from kings to prostitutes, from tax collectors to lepers, from soldiers to children and widows. Jesus felt emotions of sadness and confusion, weariness and exhaustion, joy and thanksgiving, just as we all do. Jesus showed the power of God’s healing and peace to all humankind. He empowered those around him to live well in humility and he offered forgiveness freely. Over and over again, Jesus shows a new way of being, a merciful way of being, where we need not be the judge of one another nor do we need to bear the burden of not being good enough. He embraced the diversity of God’s creation and encouraged all to open their eyes to bear witness to its beauty by commanding us to love God and to love one another as we love ourselves. Jesus exposed oppression and persecution and the fragility of an unjust empire, and died on a cross. And then, Jesus rose again. Standing in the garden, speaking the name of Mary, God’s power and presence in the world, once again, defeated any boundary or barrier that stand between us and abundant life.
The incarnation of God in Jesus reflects God’s desire to draw near to us, God’s solidarity and compassion in our entire human experience – including the brokenness. By solidarity with human suffering and brokenness, Jesus likewise experienced human violence and injustice. But what separates Jesus from other social reformers or moral leaders who died for speaking truth to power is what happened when Jesus faced the brokenness of the world on the cross. Jesus laid in the tomb for three days and then Jesus rose from the dead. In rising from the dead, Christ proclaims that no oppression, no injustice, no violence, no suffering, no wrongdoing can separate God from God’s beloved people. In rising from the dead, Christ proclaims that all of us, as broken, flawed people, are worthy, are restored and redeemed and are free to live as such. Because in the resurrection, life triumphs over death, redemption triumphs over brokenness. Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection is the greatest gift from God to the world to help us understand that God’s justice is oriented towards healing, towards mercy for the purpose of restoring right relationship, restoring shalom – restoring peace between us and God and us with one another. Through Jesus we understand that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever and not even the tomb of sin and death can separate us from the love of God.
And, isn’t that incredible news?! Not even the grave can inhibit the presence of God in the world. In the resurrection, there is no boundary the love of God cannot penetrate and overwhelm. Not the walls we build up around our hearts; Not the walls we build up through polity in the church; Not the walls we build up through our laws in our country. God’s love is loose in the world and we, as Christians, have the opportunity to take Mary’s lead and believe it for our own lives and then go and share what we have experienced. We have seen the Lord. We have seen the Lord and we need not fear. We need not fear change, we need not fear humility, we need not fear failure. Not even death should make us afraid for ‘He is risen.’ (He is risen indeed).
Friends, may we go from this place and live boldly. May we understand more deeply the power of God’s forgiveness and love and may we share that Good News with others. May we live with confidence that God’s steadfast love endures forever. May we live with confidence in God’s power to resurrect into new life that which we think is beyond redemption. May we go forth and live as God’s beloved children, forgiven and made new each day, sharing the Good News that God is alive in the world. May we go from this place in hope – for He is Risen. (He is risen, indeed!).
Paintings by Jan Richardson and Daniel Bonnell
Sermon preached at Western Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC on Easter, 2015