(A sermon for Easter Sunday–April 8, 2012–John 20:1-18)
Early on the first day of the week—last April, in fact – we met on a knoll at Skyline Farm, to welcome a new day and New Life. Roosters sang with us, and a fox made a cameo appearance, off toward the tree line.
Half a dozen little children also worshiped, and when a Deacon read the lesson from Acts, the littlest asked her grandfather, “They talkin’ ’bout Peter?”
“Yes,” he nodded.
Early, early, on the first day of the week, a very little girl supposed we must be talking about the rabbit she knew best, for surely rabbits and Easter belong together.
And early on the first day of the week—early, early—Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. It was so early it was still dark. And in the darkness she saw one unbelievable thing after another. She did her best, just like Peter Rabbit’s little friend, just like all of us, to make sense of what she saw.
But it was a time for supposing things that were not true.
Early on that morning, when Mary Magdalene awoke, she felt the terrible shock we do when the death of someone close is so fresh that we have to realize it again, to tell ourselves the bad news and make ourselves believe it.
Somewhere in Mary Magdalene’s upbringing I imagine a mother telling her something like my mother used to tell me when I complained of not feeling up to what I needed to do: “Get up and get moving and you’ll feel better.” Keep at it. Do the tasks of daily life. Fold the towels. Load the dishwasher. Weed the flower bed. Take a walk.
Go and visit the cemetery.
We get up and move because we must, because we fear if we do not, we might never move again.
We get up and do something—anything—because anything is better than nothing.
|From the Sunday School|
Mary Magdalene got up and went to the tomb.
She went there because she was a disciple. She may not appear on lists of the twelve—all men—but she appears in each of the four gospels, in combination with various other women, and as we read in John’s gospel, all alone.
Every version of the story tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, early on the first day of the week.
In John’s gospel, she is the first witness that Jesus’ body is not there. She carries the message to the disciples, and they follow her back to see if she can possibly be telling the truth.
When the others left, shock having been added to shock as they saw the empty tomb, Mary stayed.
Mary stayed and wept, and she saw angels—again, the number and description vary among the gospels, but she always sees the transcendent delegation. And they always speak to her, but here they are not the only ones. She sees a man, and she thinks he is the gardener and makes an odd leap, asking if the body has been moved, offering to carry it—to carry him—away.
“Supposing him to be the gardener”—I love that turn of phrase. It tells us he looked human to her, not so unfamiliar as the angels in the tomb. He looked human, though he was more than human. He speaks to her, asking why she weeps. But he has to do more than speak for her to know him. He has to say her name. Then she can see who it is.
One of the troubles some people have with the Easter story is believing that there was a bodily Resurrection. In other words, we may feel comfortable with the idea that the disciples and others saw Jesus – had some experience of Jesus – but they don’t want to go all the way to thinking he walked out of the tomb. It seems more rational to suppose this was literary license, but for today, let’s embrace him, right along with Mary Magdalene.
Because in John’s gospel, he had enough form that Mary Magdalene could grab onto his feet. She heard and touched and recognized her friend, her teacher, her master.
We’ve all had those moments, the flash of hope that the bad thing never happened, the urgent rush of optimism. “Teacher,” she cried, thinking they had it all wrong. Maybe he hadn’t died! Maybe in the shock and the despair she had misunderstood, they had all misunderstood.
Then – “Don’t hold onto me,” he tells her.
They meet at a liminal moment. He is between two states, and so is she. The Jesus of Friday has died, and the Christ of heaven is not yet ascended. Mary Magdalene, the grieving follower, has only a moment to kneel before him, a moment to transform into Mary Magdalene, the first evangelist.
The apostle Paul is a better-known evangelist, a fully-fledged spreader of the Good News. But he didn’t start out that way. The Corinthians knew his story. It was part of his testimony to all the churches he started and supported with his encouraging letters.
He did *not* suppose Jesus to be the gardener. He supposed Jesus to be a madman, a force of evil, possessed with a desire to ruin everything that mattered to Saul, as he was then known. He saw Jesus as a threat to the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem and the fragile understanding with the occupying Roman forces. Saul did everything he could to wipe out the followers of Jesus, who kept sharing reports of the Resurrection.
It took a voice from Heaven, a literally blinding experience of Christ, to convince him that there was truth in the story. And once convinced, he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for his past disbelief. Zealous to share his new understanding, he undertook long and dangerous journeys around the known world, being driven out of cities, stoned and jailed for spreading the Good News of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Saul began a new life, symbolized by a new name, Paul, and no one could stop him telling about the joy of his new life in Christ. Even the least of the apostles – even the most unlikely one for God to use – can share that joy.
This *is* a joyful day. We pull out all the stops with flowers and music and new clothes and good things to eat. It is right to do it, even when it spills over into plastic eggs full of jelly beans or becomes conflated with the bulbs pushing green shoots up through soil, because these rites of Spring remind us that weeping was not the end of the story. Mary Magdalene stayed and became the witness to new life. Paul saw the light and became a witness to the world.
“I have seen the Lord,” said Mary Magdalene. She told the disciples and they told others, and they told others and so on until one day someone told me. One day someone told you. We may not remember the first time we heard the story; it may be simply part of who we are. Or it may have come as a gift when we needed it desperately, a word of hope early on a dark morning.
It’s a story I’ve known since I was a little girl. I can’t remember hearing it for the first time. But there have been Easters I could not feel the joy or see the hope. So I understand Mary, going through the motions. I understand that she didn’t recognize Jesus because she had no hope. I understand that she “supposed” him to be the gardener, because who else would be there so early in the morning?
I’ve supposed a lot of things that weren’t true. We all do this sometimes.
Oh, I meant well. So I understand Saul, wielding the dry authority of the old ways against the vivid wonder of the Resurrection. I understand that he was following his carefully taught beliefs. I understand what it’s like to be your own worst enemy.
I’ve held onto a lot of old ways that kept me from new life. Maybe you have, too.
My supposing blocked the truth: although Jesus died, he rose again.
My beliefs closed out the Good News: God has the power to take what we see as dead and gone and to bring from it new life.
Paul proclaimed it, “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” Mary shared it with the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
By the grace of God, we are what we are, witnesses to the Good News. The sun rises, and the tomb is empty. No supposing. Go out to tell the world: He is risen! Alleluia! Amen.
(And while it is not the same sermon, this one owes something to a message I prepared two years ago, with the same title.)