An Easter sermon on John 20:1-18 preached at First Presbyterian Church, Pontotoc, MS; March 2018.
Jesus’s followers will end up rejoicing when they come to understand his resurrection, but the uncertainty and heartache they have had to endure to get there is striking to say the least. On Maundy Thursday we remembered that Jesus shared his last supper with his closest friends — washed their feet, and gave them nourishment for their bodies and their spirits — even though he knew one of them would betray him. Good Friday reminded us that Jesus’s loved ones had to stand by as he was crucified — a process that would have been lengthy and brutal. Recently though I’ve been thinking even more about Saturday. I think about the grief that must have settled on the shoulders of Jesus’s loved ones as they woke the morning after his death. I imagine them opening their eyes and slowly remembering the day before, realizing that it wasn’t just a nightmare. That their beloved Jesus really was gone. I imagine them rising again on this day, Easter morning, eyes red and faces swollen from the tears of their grief. After everything they’d been through — now this.
I can image Mary Magdalene’s heart sinking to the ground as she approached the empty tomb, devastated by the idea that grave robbers had stolen Jesus’s body. Mary rushes back to the disciples, even more despair settling into her bones. Peter and the beloved disciple take off, as soon as they hear, sprinting to the tomb, maybe fearfully scanning the shadows in case the suspected grave robbers have lingered. After finding that the tomb is indeed empty, the male disciples return home and Mary Magdalene is again left alone with her grief, left to plead with with the strangers in white who appear at the tomb.
There are a lot of incredibly human emotions here, that don’t fit neatly into our celebrations of Easter. They don’t seem to fit with our spring-colored clothes and our cheerful gatherings with loved ones. Of course we have about 2000 years of spoilers under our belts and we know, so to speak, how the story ends. We rejoice in proclaiming that “Christ is risen!,” and find comfort as familiar words remind us that there is light even in darkness, that we are loved, and that we are forgiven. Christ is risen indeed! These eternal words chase the sun over the horizon of this special day. But talking about Easter without the days leading up to it feels a little like skipping an entire novel — skipping the the depth of the characters and the richness of the plot — just to read the last page. Christ’s resurrection is even richer when we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. That valley looks different for each one of us, but I’d venture a guess that we’ve all been there.
Still, the joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection is at the heart of who we are as Christians. Author Barbara Johnson once said that “we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” And yet there are times when the Good Fridays of life seem overwhelming — when the shadows seem too close and too dark and hope seems impossible. Some face health challenges or the hard work of caregiving during someone else’s. Others face violence or the treat of it, fearing for their lives, or for life as they know it. Still others worry about food or shelter or money or struggles yet unnamed. We’ve got the Good Friday part covered. So what does it look like, in the midst of all that, to go about being Easter people?
This first story might not seem very Eastery at first, but bear with me. When I was in seminary, my school’s president was diagnosed with a terminal illness. President Hayner and his wife were open about their journey through his treatments, writing and sharing with us along the way. He didn’t deny the severity of his diagnosis, but he also maintained this seemingly unceasing spirit of joy — to the point where most of his written correspondences ended with “joyfully,” where others might have settled for a sufficient “sincerely.” I can’t tell you exactly how long it was, but the time came when it seemed his time on earth was coming to a end. He had been a dear friend and colleague to many of our faculty, and an encouraging presence to many students. So, during that last week we gathered for a vigil in the chapel, and faculty, staff, and students offered prayers, hymns, and Scripture as they felt led. It was raw, honest, and vulnerable. As the hour came to a close, one faculty member got up and through tears said, simply: “This is what we do.” Somehow even in that sadness, there was peace. This is what we do.
We are Easter people when we lean on each other and on God. When we lean toward joy and when we cling to the idea that there is more than fear and hatred and division. So leaning on each other also means holding each other up.The joy of Easter isn’t always obvious — Jesus’ own disciples didn’t even understand at first. And it’s definitely not always easy. But it’s there and it’s waiting for us.
Each time I hear John’s version of this Easter story, I’m amazed by how this world-changing resurrection can be simultaneously so universal and so personal. Each disciple reacts in their own way to the discovery of the empty tomb, and it’s only after Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name that she recognizes him and that her sorrow evaporates into relief and then, I imagine, joy. I think we all want to feel known, and in this moment Mary is reminded that she is. If ever there was a time for Jesus to gather all of his followers and deliver an impassioned sermon to rally the masses, this would probably be the time. But instead Jesus speaks directly to the only follower who still waits by his tomb, simply saying her name. And only in that moment does she finally recognize him. Even on such a momentous occasion as the morning Jesus is resurrected, God meets Mary right where she is. And even though we didn’t witness this resurrection in person, God meets us where we are too.
There’s this website called PostSecret. For those of you unfamiliar with this community art project of sorts, any person can mail in a secret. The only rules are that it has to be on a 4 by 6 card, that it is true, that you haven’t told anyone else. I should probably mention that although the word “secret” often has a negative connotation, it’s not so, here. So these postcards are collected and stored, then some are shared anonymously online. Many of them are works of art, as much visual explorations as verbal ones. Contributions run the gambit of topics, from crumbling relationships to blossoming ones, from the self-doubting to the self-assured. One past secret simply read “I made it. So will you.” Each one is an intimate glimpse into to the life of its sender, and yet its anonymous sharing makes it accessible to anyone on the internet. Some readers have even written to PostSecret, describing the profound impacts that others’ secrets had had in their own lives. The things shared here feel simultaneously universal and personal.
Jesus quietly meets Mary where she is, patiently leading her toward understanding. And through that small act he also begins to share his good news with the world.
But just moments after Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus she is told not to hang on to him. He can’t stay. Still Mary has an important job to do, as Jesus charges her with announcing his resurrection, telling her “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” We are Easter people. Hope is who we are. In some ways this day the culmination of what we believe, but in other ways it’s only the beginning. Having made it through the uncertain and grief-filled days of Holy Week, and having finally recognized the resurrected Jesus, what now? God has shown us unconditional grace, and it’s not the type of gift that’s meant to sit on a shelf collecting dust.
Mary Magdalene becomes the first Easter preacher when, after seeing Jesus, she follows his instructions, returning to tell the disciples what she’s seen. I imagine this would have required a great deal of bravery. Exhausted from the last few days and probably wondering if the disciples would even believe her, she goes back to the equally weary disciples and says “I have seen the Lord.” Some of them would have to see for themselves before they truly believed, but that doesn’t stop her. “We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” In living out that identity we are called not only to believe Mary but to look at the empty tomb for ourselves, opening our hearts and minds to glimpses of resurrection and the possibility for a new life in the world. And like Mary, we are called to say what we’ve seen. To hope and work for a more reconciled world, even when peace does not come easily.
Needtobreathe is a band I like, and one of their songs is called “Wasteland.” The word wasteland is probably harsher than most of us need, to describe where we find ourselves. But nonetheless, the words of this song’s chorus have a lot to offer us. Here’s what it says:
Yeah in this wasteland where I’m livin’
There is a crack in the door filled with light
And it’s all that I need to get by
Yeah in this wasteland where I’m livin’
There is a crack in the door filled with light
And it’s all that I need to shine.
Even when hope seems impossible, we’re sent to proclaim, like Mary Magdalene, that we have seen the Lord.
I have seen the Lord in tears shed for a broken world.
I have seen the Lord in wildflower signs of spring, blanketing newly green grass.
I have seen the Lord in cups of coffee with friends and trays of food with strangers and lunches right down the road.
I have seen the Lord in the quiet glow of an ember, waiting to be kindled into flames.
We have seen the Lord, and he is risen indeed!
And if you want to hear the whole Needtobreathe song: