John 20:1-18 Easter, Westminster Presbyterian Church March 23, 2008
This week has been marked by a lot of sobering talk: the 5th anniversary of the US led invasion of Iraq and protests against the war, newly recorded threats from Osama bin Laden and protests in Amsterdam against an Islamic film. Discussions of Gun control in the Supreme court and race in the Obama campaign; not to mention the tanking economy and continuing effects of global warming.1
And in the Church, we recognized the somber events of Holy week:
Last Supper reenactments took place with over 50 people gathering in the Barnes, Chavez-Nadell, and Topple homes to remember Jesus last meal with disciples. Gerzain was subject to eating just beans and bitter herbs, and no ice cream for dessert, and he was the last to wash feet, after over 40 feet had been washed in the basin, the water was a little murky.…??? Later that night some from the congregation joined hundreds on the solemn trek to Chimayó. They came away tired and sore, but some still managed be part of the gathering here Friday night when we remembered the harsh shouts: Crucify Him! Soldiers’ painful blows across Jesus face, and the torment and humiliation of hanging from the cross.
Did anyone notice that is spring?
Almost before Miquela Martinez could hop through our door Thursday evening, she said, ”Chester, did you know that today is the first day of Spring!”
Why yes, we have started playing soccer again out at the train park, and baseball’s spring training is almost over. In our yard, buds are showing on some shrubs and trees that desperately need pruning. I’m pretty sure our heating bill will be less this month than last. I don’t doubt that it will snow again, but I’m tempted to put some tomato plants in the ground. The hints of spring are nice. Signs of hope to be sure.
One should never underestimate the power of hope. This is why we are a little more crowded than usual this Sunday, we dress up a little nicer; there’s a little more pizzazz in the service with bells and children’s choirs proclaiming Alleluia! Today is Easter, which means more than hunting for eggs or eating a nice meal after church. Easter is the Christian message of hope: Resurrection. He is Alive!
On that first Easter morning, a grieving woman and disciples had no reason to hope. They had seen the hostile crowds in Jerusalem. The betrayal of Judas. Jesus stood trial, was sentenced and beaten, and then walked the long path to Golgotha. The woman saw the mocking and cursing, and his side pierced. Their song was, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
I’m sure sleep was hard to come by for Mary the next two nights. Dread and anxiety gripped her heart as she replayed the images in her head over and over. What will she do now without this loved one around? It’s during the middle of the second night that she can’t wait any longer, she’s got to go and see. So, before dawn, she slips out of her house as quietly as possible and makes the 2-mile journey into town by foot—hopefully a moon like Thursday nights guided her path.
She gets to the tomb, the sky is turning grey, she sees the stone—it’s out of place. Fear and nervous curiosity increase her beating heart rate. Something’s not right. The tomb is empty. She runs, and tells Peter and the beloved disciple. They run, the sky turns from grey to white to blue, sunrays are penetrating through the sparkling leaves of the olive trees, and birds are busy.
The men enter the tomb, linen wrappings lying there; the cloth that once covered Jesus’ head was rolled up and placed apart.
The two men found an empty tomb, just clothes lying there; and they went home saying nothing. Where was Jesus? Do they know what to make of this?
I think this may be where our biggest struggle with faith is. We all know death and loss, pain and suffering; our own and that of others. Can we still have hope in the midst of this harsh reality? Can resurrection and life lift us out of despair? We may find the tomb empty, but maybe we’re not really sure what to do with linens and no body. Where is Jesus; has he been raised from the dead? Or will death be the ultimate end?
In December, 2000, I received a call from my mother telling me that my cousin, a year and a half my younger, was missing. His car had been found two hours from where he lived. His clothes were found lying on the ground, folded some feet away from a body of water, but no body was to be found. To this day we know nothing. Many trails lead in many directions but the investigators and detectives have not been able to say anything definitively. Was it suicide? Was he kidnapped or killed? We don’t know. We have grieved this loss; the hardest part is not to knowing. Every night to this day, his mother, my aunt, lights a candle in the front window of the house as a sign of hope that maybe he will show up some day.
It is this hope that gives her strength. Her name is Mary, and were you to ask her, she would say that her deep faith in the resurrection gives her hope as well. Resurrection means that the ultimate power of death has been altered. Where O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting. The resurrection did not alter the reality of death. What the resurrection did was to defeat the power of death to rob life of its meaning or hope.
Praise God, Mary is still part of the story. She was the first to the empty tomb, and she is the last to leave. The men leave without saying a word. She breaks down and cries, the tears we have all experienced with loss and pain and confusion. She looks up blurry eyed and now sees two angels inside the tomb—a visit from angels in a time of grief…? As she talks to them, a strange man—the gardener perhaps?—is listening in on the conversation with the angels.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” He asks, “Now who is it you’re looking for?
She didn’t recognize Jesus. Were her eyes blurred from tears? Was it one of those psychological phenomena in which the brain can only see what it expects to see? No way she expected to see the man she had just seen brutally murdered on the cross walking around with a garden rake in his hand. Or had he really changed? Who are looking for? he asked.
Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where he is and I will take him away. The story once full of drama, confusion and agony, now turns almost humorous.
“Mary…,” [“hey, It’s me, look who your talking to.”]
Teacher? Mary doesn’t trust her eyes, but she does trust her ears.
The Word who has come into the world is spoken and heard, first. The Good shepherd has called his sheep by name.“2
Is this the difference that Easter makes in our lives? We have come face to face with human suffering, arrived at the tomb and peered in, and it was there in that moment that a voice called our name. Have we come here this morning on Easter because we have heard our name?
Jesus didn’t appear to everyone after the resurrection. He didn’t walk into the city and shout out to the powers look, you tried to do away with me and I’m back. He didn’t even appear to the two disciples who had rushed to the tomb; not at first, anyway. But he appeared to Mary, to Mary, and called her name.
I don’t really know what resurrection means for most of you. But I do get the sense that you have heard your name called, each in a unique but powerful way. Is that true Elisabeth? Is that right Polly? Has God spoken to you, has God called you by name? Something has happened that inspires the deacons to keep on caring, and the session the strength to lead. Algo se les ha pasado familia Cervantes que les motiva seguir a pesar de tantos obstaculos. Terry, Helen, Sr. Giron. You have heard your name called. The question then becomes, how are we to respond?
Jesus has appeared to Mary, but something is different. She reaches to grab hold of him and to keep him with her. But he tells her that she can’t hold on to him. He must return to the Father.
And that she, Mary, is the one who must go and tell of this news. So Mary must release the garment of security, and get up from that place in the garden. She is commissioned to preach this thing that she had seen. And she did! ”I have seen the Lord.” Boy did she have a story to tell. Go to the others and tell them; Share hope, Share Hope.
Easter Sunday invites our curiosity and doubt, it invites our tears and anxiety. The resurrection invites our ears to listen and our hearts to respond. The resurrected Christ invites each and every one of his disciples to share hope.
“If you can but receive the hope, the good news that the past does not necessarily determine the future, if you can receive that, then you will have enough to live for and to die for. The good news of easter is not only that there is life after death; it is the promise of new life before death.”3 In our lives before death, we can share hope. In the midst of cancer, share hope. In the midst of frustration at work, share hope. In the midst of difficult family members, share hope. The tomb may seem empty, but remember just who it is you looking for. He is Alive!
I’d like to share one last Easter story. A little boy was missing school because he was in the hospital. His teacher asked a visiting schoolteacher who worked in a hospital to go visit him and help him with his homework. “We are studying nouns and adverbs in class, and I hope you will help him,” the visiting teacher was told.
When the visiting teacher arrived at the hospital, she discovered the child was in the hospital’s burn unit in very serious condition, and in tremendous pain. She walked in the room dismayed seeing the child in sheer misery. Not knowing what else to do, she stumbled through the lesson, ashamed of herself for putting him through such a senseless exercise.
The next morning, the nurse on the burn unit said to the teacher, “what did you do to that boy yesterday?” Before the teacher could get out her apology, the nurse said, “We had given up on him, but ever since you visited him, he seems to be fighting back, responding to treatment.”
The boy himself later explained that he had given up hope, but it all changed when he had come to the simple realization that they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?4
O, the power of hope!
In the midst of our doubt and fear, our pain and suffering, may we hear our name being called. May we receive a powerful message of hope and then be commissioned to share that hope with the world, even in small subtle ways, that may make all the difference in someone’s life. This is the miracle of resurrection! The wonder of Easter!
“Across even the darkest shadows of life, there shines a light that will never fail.”
Just three days ago, Jesus was dead. And now he is Alive! Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 Adapted from Susan Stambergs Commentary, “Spring in the Nation’s capital,” as heard on Weekend Edition Saturday, March 22, 2008.
2 David Bartlett, The Easter Texts: Hope, Comfort, Courage,” in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2006, pp. 3-7.
3 Joanna Adams, “Good News Indeed,” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2004, pp. 38-41.
4 Adapted from Joyce Holliday story as told by Joanna Adams, “Good News Indeed,” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2004, pp. 38-41.