(a sermon for April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday, based on John 20:1-18)
Well…finally! At long last, after an arduous winter that has seemed for some of us like it went on forever, here it is Easter Sunday, the day which is the harbinger of new life both within us and around us! So may I just say here that thanks be to God, life prevails!
Now, having said that, don’t misunderstand me: in faith we profess that Easter’s true meaning is not wrapped up in the arrival of springtime, but wholly in the resurrection of Jesus Christ… however, on a day such as this, when it’s going to be such an incredible day outside and we’ve got all these beautiful flowers inside, I think we’d all have to confess that our senses might tell us something different. After all, those themes of new life and rebirth are certainly apropos to our Christian faith, so we do indeed rejoice today that “morning has broken” in more ways than one, and that you and I can bear witness to God’s active and ongoing “recreation of the new day!”
And besides, you and I know that it doesn’t always work out this way! In part because of the changing place of Easter on the calendar, but also partly because here in New Hampshire springtime arrives on its own terms, thank you very much (!), there are many years that we gather for Easter worship still bundled up in our winter clothes! I remember one particular Sunrise Service years ago when there’d been this rather significant snowfall the night before; but come East morning we trudged gamely up this long hill in six inches of wet, slushy snow so to greet the dawning of what was a gray, dreary and very wintry morning! We huddled together in the cold, we sang the songs, we said the prayers, we shouted the alleluias – we were not about to let the joy of our faith be contained, no matter how bad the weather was – but admittedly, it was kind of hard for us to recognize signs of new life on that particular day!
The fact is, there are spring days, especially in these parts, that look all the world like it’s still winter… but that’s where looks can be deceiving. A day can dawn cold and harsh, yet by mid-morning the sun will be high and warm all around. An overnight snowfall that seems a setback to the coming of spring will melt quickly, nourishing the soil and hastening new growth; and before you know it crocuses and daffodils are defiantly poking through the mud and reaching for the sun. Oh yes, sometimes the signs of life we’re seeking are hard to recognize; but rest assured the signs are there. No matter what the weather or the darkness or the stress… ultimately life will prevail!
…which, come to think of it, seems pretty close to how one might describe the resurrection!
Looking for signs of life was the last thing on the mind, or the heart, of Mary Magdalene as she approached the tomb early that morning “while it was still dark.” Because you see, in a very real sense her own life, or at least life as she had known it, had come to an abrupt end at the exact moment on Friday afternoon when her master and friend Jesus had uttered, “It is finished,” and died hanging there on the cross. Mary’s grief was deep and profound, and she’d come there not only to perform the ritual act of anointing Jesus’ body for burial, but also, I suspect, to bring some closure to it all; just to take care of this one last thing so it could all be done and overwith. So know that in the midst of this Mary was neither looking for nor expecting anything like… resurrection!
Even when she could see that the stone had been rolled away, even when she ran back to tell Peter and John of what she’d seen there were no thoughts of Jesus having risen from the dead (!); in fact, in her despair Mary’s main concern is that someone had to have taken the body of Jesus out of the tomb, and so how were they to know where they laid him? The whole scene, at least as John tells it, seems bathed in confusion and disbelief; even Peter and John’s discovery of the empty tomb comes off as uncertain at best: both of the men see the linen wrappings lying there, but neither emerge with any real proclamation that that Jesus had risen, simply that John “saw and believed,” but also that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
In truth, there are signs of life abounding; but at this point, none of them – the very first ones on the scene of this first Easter morning – none of them recognized the resurrection! Maybe something was amiss; maybe something had happened, but all they really knew for sure is that Jesus was dead. And they knew this because they’d seen him die; and not merely passing from life, mind you, but they’d seen him crucified, and not before having been betrayed and mocked and beaten and finally nailed to a cross. Jesus was dead, and the hopes of those closest to him had died along with him. So even if in the back of their minds was this faint memory of Jesus’ words about being raised from the dead, how would they possibly recognize it happening now?
So now Peter and John go back to their homes… and Mary’s left there in the garden, alone with her thoughts and awash in her tears. It’s so typical of grief, isn’t it? In that moment every emotion that built up in her over the past few days just comes gushing out and she begins to weep uncontrollably. But here’s what’s interesting: as she’s crying, Mary decides to look and see for herself what’s inside of the tomb ; and now there are two angels, dressed in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been. But here’s the thing: even now Mary doesn’t recognize what’s happened, because she’s still talking about Jesus’ body having been taken away. Even when she hears this voice behind her asking her why she is weeping, she turns around and does not recognize that it’s Jesus! Mary thinks it’s the gardener!
But who could blame Mary for this; because remember, Jesus was dead! Mary was looking for a corpse, not anticipating the arrival of a risen Lord! It takes Jesus speaking her name – “Mary!” – spoken in the most tender and loving tone possible to awaken her from grief and the loss of hope. It took Jesus calling her by name to make her see that the impossible had become real and that life, life abundant and eternal – had prevailed.
“Rabboni,” she said. Teacher! In that moment, in every sense of the word, the resurrection “dawned upon her.” In an instant Mary moved from grief to hope, from death to life, from being utterly alone to dwelling in the presence of Christ; the horror of Good Friday had become the glory of Easter Sunday in one incredible movement of divine grace. Mary recognized Jesus there before her and she understood; suddenly, everything was different; everything was new, because He had risen! In the midst of Mary’s every fear and her hopelessness, Christ had risen indeed!
Life prevailed! And for this, beloved, you and I can only say, “Thank God!”
Because the truth of it is, like Mary before us, you and I live in a world that’s still filled with so many Good Fridays. Simply put, it’s hard for us to recognize the resurrection in a world that’s so often steeped in that which is related to suffering and death. I mean, how can we possibly see the signs of life prevailing when every day we’re living with wars and rumors of war; bombarded with countless details regarding the all the latest and disturbing random episodes of hatred, violence and terror; and this is to say nothing of the wrestling that so often torments our own hearts! Not to be a “downer” on this beautiful day, but this is the sad “Good Friday” reality of our world and our lives. But here’s the good news: that thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, we are Easter people in a Good Friday world! Christ is risen, beloved – he is alive (!) – and because of the resurrection Christ is present and at work in the world and in our very lives.
There is, in fact, no corner of our lives and living where Jesus Christ is not alive for us; no situation we face where Christ is not walking with us in the encounter. In times of crisis or confusion, despair or destruction Jesus is there to guide us and lead us; he is there to comfort and challenge us; to bind up our wounds and bear our burdens; to empower and encourage our ministries of life as his disciples; and finally, to bring us beyond life and death to the life that endures forever. This is what comes in the resurrection, God’s final destruction of all the death and darkness of our lives; and as such, it is the ultimate declaration to you and me and all creation that life… true life… will prevail!
So how are we to recognize the resurrection in our midst? Well, it can be seen whenever we gather to worship and sing and pray before the Lord; and it’s revealed every time we come to the table of blessing to embrace the promise of the broken bread and the shared cup; truly, the resurrection is proclaimed whenever you and I take hold of our true identity as a community of faith, the body of Christ.
But there are other places that the resurrection is clearly seen; like in those horrible moments of life when, even though we’re sure we can’t anymore, somehow we hang on. When we bear the burdens we believed to be unbearable; or when there’s grace to be found in the face of illness, or courage that’s found walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s revealed when we care for one another, sharing tears and laughter and hugs; when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger; when we pursue peace and work for true justice in all circumstances; and when we love even as we are being loved. Here is where we stand at the empty tomb and discover that right before us is the Risen Christ; and by his calling us by name we are assured that he is risen, indeed; and that life… our life… will prevail!
The story goes that a certain artist once wrote some rather indignant remarks to his fellow painters, asking, “Why do you keep filling gallery after gallery with endless pictures of… Christ in weakness, of Christ upon the cross, Christ dying, Christ hanging dead? Why do you stop there as if the curtain closed upon that horror?”
“Keep the curtain open,” he continued, “and with the cross in the foreground, let us see beyond it to the Easter dawn with its beams streaming upon the risen Christ, Christ alive, Christ ruling, Christ triumphant. For we should be ringing out over the world that Christ has won, that evil is toppling, that the end is sure, and that death is followed by victory. That is the tonic we need to keep us healthy, the trumpet blast to fire our blood and send us crowding in behind our master, happily on our way, laughing and singing and recklessly unafraid, because the feel of victory is in the air, and our hearts thrill to it.”
Well, the art critic who spoke these words was Michelangelo, and he wrote those words hundreds of years ago, but they still speak profoundly to you and me today on Easter Sunday 2017. Death may indeed surround us, but Christ is alive, Christ rules and is triumphant, transforming everything in our lives; even every uncertainty, every tragedy, every senseless act of hatred and violence that would threaten to undo us. For in the risen Christ we know, at long last, love is stronger than hate; that good triumphs over evil; and that God has spoken the last word over sin and death!
Because of the resurrection, beloved, life prevails!
Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed!
Alleluia! Thanks be to God, and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry