What powerful and wonderful words they are that we claim and proclaim this morning; words that change everything. It was just three days ago that we gathered to celebrate the last Supper and watched, and participated, as Jesus washed our feet and we washed the feet of others. We listened as Jesus instituted the sacrament, the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, the sign and symbol of Gods ongoing presence among us. It was just three days ago that we stood numb and then fled in panic as Jesus was arrested and taken from us. We gathered the next day at his trial and we shouted “away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” And then we stood in shock as he died on a cross and was laid in a tomb.
But today we come here to this place, we duck down and walk through that threshold, entering the tomb and finding it empty we proclaim
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
So maybe… that’s enough… Maybe at this moment, having claimed and proclaimed those words, we are all ready to come to this altar, to this table and to share the sacrament so that we can hurry home to our brightly colored eggs, and to our piles of chocolates, and to the ham that is warming in the oven. But I think that before we allow ourselves to do that we need to grapple a little bit with the story that we have been given for this morning.
The story that we read this morning is a gift. A story rich with drama, with surprise, maybe even a little comedy. In this story we have three people running back and forth to and from the tomb, three people who are already very familiar to us.
First there is Mary Magdalene. Now we know Mary as a person of great status and stature among the Disciples. We know this because she is named as one of the women standing there at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies. She is there with Jesus’ mother and his Aunt. Her status is affirmed by he presence in such company and because she is mentioned by name (John 19:25). Mary Magdalene is someone who was there right to the very end standing on the “inside” with the people who were closest to Jesus.
But there is something very familiar about what she is doing in this story. She is out in the dark, in the middle of the night, before the sun has come up. And she clearly expects to find the stone still blocking the mouth of the tomb. She hasn’t brought anyone to help roll away the stone. She hasn’t come with spices or ointments to anoint the body. She doesn’t seem to have a plan of action. She is there grieving, lost, in despair. And all she can think to do in this moment is to come to the place where his body is laid in a desperate attempt to be near to Jesus.
Now we know what her despair is about in this moment by the way that she interprets the open tomb. She doesn’t look inside. She doesn’t know that the body is gone but she runs to the Disciples and she says, “they,” they have taken the body away. Mary’s greatest fear in this moment is that the powers of this world, that ill defined “they,” have triumphed once again; that the movement towards freedom that she had sensed, that the light that she thought she was seeing, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, had been extinguished. Mary is there in this moment fearing that all of the promises that she has heard and felt have come to naught. Mary is afraid that the light has come into the world and that the darkness has overcome it once again.
We have two other people who are running in this morning’s story. The first is the Beloved Disciple, the Disciple whom Jesus love, and he is so upset and so anxious that he outraces Peter and arrives at the tomb first. Here is a person who has felt God’s touch, who has felt God’s favor and God’s love in his life. And in this moment when Jesus lies dead in the tomb he must long beyond reason and beyond hope to feel that love once again. He is in the dessert… He is lost and alone. He races to the tomb trying to re find that connection, to be reconciled, to be in communion once again with his Lord and Master and friend.
Then we have Peter who is probably in a very different place as he runs towards the tomb. Having denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed he is rushing to the tomb with some level of guilt and shame and remorse. Maybe he let the Beloved Disciple get there first so that he could evaluate the situation before he went in. But in his inimitable fashion Peter arrives at the tomb and blunders through the door, probably elbowing the Beloved Disciple out of the way.
All through this season of Lent, and especially now in Holy Week, as we have listened to these stories and we have participated in them, we have been invited to see ourselves, to feel ourselves as part of the action; to make these stories present for ourselves here and now; to make them present and true for the world in which we live. So I think that there might be a temptation here to identify too closely with any one of the three characters in this story. We have all arrived here at the tomb this morning with a different stance, a different posture, a different pain or grief that we are bearing. Some of us may have arrived worrying that the powers of this world have indeed triumphed and that the darkness has overcome the light. Some of us may have arrived here this morning in the midst of a dessert, dry experience, longing to feel once again the connection with God that we have felt at other times. Some of us may have arrived here with some sense of remorse or guilt, or even shame, hoping to find release and forgiveness.
I would like to invite us to avoid the temptation to identify too closely with any one of these three characters and to recognize that, in fact, we should be identifying with all of them.
Now, and at different moments in our lives, we will arrive at the tomb bearing different burdens carrying different crosses. Gathered together in this room today bring we bring with us a vast variety of experiences. The journeys that have brought us here are all different and uniquely our own. We come from different backgrounds and different places and when we arrive at the tomb together we need, we long for, we are seeking different things. What we need, long for, seek this year is different from what we needed, longed for, and sought when we came to this place last year and is likely different that what we will seek when we come again an year from now. So identifying to closely with Mary, or Peter, or with the Beloved Disciple is limiting in a way that is not reflective of our experience of life and the ways that we grow and change. When we experience and participate in this story we are not one particular character in the story. We are every character in the story.
I think that recognizing that this is not “my” story, or “your” story,” or “this person’s” story, or “that person’s story,” but recognizing that this is in fact “our” story also brings us much closer to the way that the early church and the disciples saw these stories and with the way that the early church saw themselves as being in communion with one another, as one Body. This remarkable story, with all of its layers of meaning, all of its possibilities, is “our story” as a community, as a people, as the Body of Christ.
Now there is some danger, risk and discomfort in seeing this as “our” story. Because we may not want to bear the cross or the burden that someone else has carried to the tomb this morning. We are busy enough carrying our own. And to see this story, every bit of it as “ours” means that it is not the Jews who crucify Christ. It is not the Romans who crucify Christ. It is “we!” Because every character in this story is each and every one of us! Multi faceted and multi layered, complex and irreducible to one experience, event, or story line.
So this is “our” story to tell and to bear, with all of its pain, with all of its cruelty, and with all of its betrayal. But it is also our story with all of its joy. Because when we see this as “our” story, when we see ourselves as every character in the story, then grace, relief, and release that each and every person in this room feels today also become “ours.” Mary Magdalene arrives here in the empty tomb worrying that darkness has overcome the light and she discovers that the light has prevailed. Jesus has risen and he stands here in the garden and calls her by name. So we know that the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. Her fear has turned to joy.
It hasn’t happened here in this moment yet but “our” story will go on show us that the Beloved Disciple will again feel that touch, that communion, that closeness with his Lord, Master, and friend, with the God who loves him.
Peter, who denied Jesus three times will be invited to breakfast and told three times to feed God’s sheep. Peter will find that absolution and forgiveness for which we all long.
No matter which cross, no matter which burden we carried into the tomb with us this morning, all three of these redeeming story lines are ours for the claiming. And that is the source of our joy, celebration, and hope.
If this story, every bit of it is “ours” then this story shows us that, having found the tomb to be empty, we need to stand and bear witness, to testify to one another about our own journey, about our own path, about the burdens that we brought with us today, and about the way that they have been lifted.
Mary Magdalene has an encounter with the risen Lord and she runs to tell the disciples. The first evangelist, spreading that word in a way that will change the world and set it on fire. We are called to do that same thing; to describe our experience standing in the open tomb, discovering that Christ has risen and explaining to people how that has changed our lives.
So I am going to pass the microphone around and ask everybody to take a turn and tell us your story…. No? OK. I’ll tell you what. We’ll give you a little time to think that through and to rehearse it; to work on it so that when you are given the opportunity to testify about the empty tomb you are prepared and in t a place to do that with joy, and with passion and with conviction.
In the meantime as we work on our story, as we listen to the people around us and and let their stories enrich our experience and our understanding, as we let their testimony lift us up when we fall, and support us as we walk this path… We will just speak in shorthand to one another.
We will stand here in the doorway of the empty tomb, looking out into the world that is now illumined by the new light of Christ and we will say
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!