This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on Easter Day 2016 is built around the reading form the Gospel according to John appointed for Easter Day in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
What powerful and wonderful words they are that we claim and proclaim this morning; words that change everything.
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, and entering the tomb. Upon finding it empty we proclaim,
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
And everything is changed. Where we have been, what we once were, no longer defines or limits us, because the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Love freely given has proven to be the greatest power of all. We are beloved and nothing
“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).
Those words… the words that change everything, come at the climax of a story; a story that we have claimed and proclaimed for almost two thousand years; a story that today features some supporting characters with whom we are very familiar…
First there is Peter, one of the first to follow Jesus; Peter who was the first to name Jesus as the Messiah; Peter who was there at the Transfiguration; Peter who didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet; Peter who cut of the ear of the slave of the High Priest with a sword; Peter who denied Jesus three times in order to save himself…
Peter, who isn’t the first to arrive at the empty tomb but somehow manages to be the first inside…
Then there is the beloved disciple, the one who was reclining on Jesus’s breast at the last supper; the Beloved Disciple who Jesus, as he died on the cross, named as Mary’s son; the Beloved Disciple whom Jesus told to take Mary as his mother… The Beloved Disciple who was the first to arrive a the tomb and was apparently shouldered aside as Peter stumbled… first through the door…
And yet neither of these central figures get a speaking role in John’s Gospel today. John seems anxious to move them off the stage so that someone else can step into the light, Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus had expelled seven demons; Mary Magdalene who was one of the women who followed Jesus and the disciples; Mary Magdalene who was one of the women who helped to bankroll the movement; Mary Magdalene who was there at the foot of the cross as Jesus died; Mary Magdalene who sometime in the middle ages acquired a reputation for a notorious, less than virtuous that is nowhere supported by the Gospel accounts…
It is Mary Magdalene who gets the starring role in today’s story, and it is her part in the story to which we, some two thousand years later, need to attend.
Mary is out in the dark, alone, 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. All she can think to do in this moment is to come to the place where Jesus’s is laid in a desperate attempt to be near him.
When she finds that the stone is rolled away she doesn’t look inside. She doesn’t know that the body is gone but she runs to the Disciples and she says, “’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.
John tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple race one another to the tomb. He doesn’t tell us whether or not Mary runs back with them, but when Peter and the Beloved Disciple leave to go to their homes, Mary is there, weeping… It’s not until Mary is alone at the tomb that things really begin to get interesting.
Mary looks into the tomb, maybe for the first time, and sees two angels sitting on the bench where Jesus’s body had been laid. Angels! Dressed in white! Angles who speak to her and ask her why she is weeping!
Mary, confronted by this miracle, seems completely unmoved… She doesn’t fall to her knees. She doesn’t cover her eyes. She doesn’t flee in terror… She responds to them as if their presence was as commonplace as meeting a stranger in the market…
Then she turns and sees Jesus, her teacher; the one who had rescued her from a life of pain, suffering and misery; Jesus, the friend she had watched die a terrible and shameful death on the cross… and again, she seems completely unmoved. She doesn’t recognize his appearance or his voice, and she speaks to him in the same way she had just addressed the angels in white!
It’s not until Jesus “touches” her by speaking her name that she finally “sees” The Truth, but when she does… everything is changed!
We don’t know what was going in on the minds of the other two people who visited the tomb that morning. John tells us that the Beloved Disciple, when he finally gets inside, “saw and believed,” but he also tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple
“did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
How much did they understand? Was The Truth beginning to creep into their imaginations? We don’t know for sure because John moves them offstage right away. What we do know is that they left the tomb and they went home… They went home.
What was going on in Mary’s head? Why didn’t she react to the angels in the tomb? Why didn’t she recognize Jesus right away? It is possible that her grief had blinded her; that she was so numb, so worn down, that she wasn’t herself, and couldn’t see clearly…
But I think a better explanation lies in what happens next.
Jesus asks her to go and tell the others that he has been raised from the dead and is going to ascend to the God who loves us all. Mary becomes the messenger, the evangelist, the interpreter that we need to understand, to grasp, to believe.
Mary lived in a world where the dead were dead. Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. End of story. Full stop. She couldn’t see the Angels, she couldn’t see Jesus, because they were outside the realm of possibility, they were unimaginable. Her grief, her pain, and her understanding of the way the world works, kept her from seeing The Truth.
It was her name… her name, gently and lovingly uttered by The Truth that changes everything; that reshapes her imagination; that reshapes her understanding; that reshapes her world. And it was Mary Magdalene who was given the task of sharing The Truth that would reshape, re-imagine… that would change the world. She accomplished that task by sharing what Jesus had shared with her.
So here we are, sitting in the empty tomb. It doesn’t matter who we were when we came in… Peter, the Beloved Disciple, Andy, Dorota, Martha, Don…. We need to leave here this morning as Mary Magdalene!
Peter and the Beloved Disciple are out there; in the people we know, at home, at work, in the marketplace, filled with grief, remorse, shame, anger, dismay… blinded to The Truth that we proclaim. They are out there, in a world for which the dead are dead. End of Story. Full stop. A world in which a love so powerful that even death cannot destroy it is outside the realm of possibility, unimaginable…
This morning, gathered together in a tomb that has been empty for almost two thousand years, a tomb that will never again hold sway over us, we are called to be Mary Magdalene, to go out into the world and to proclaim in a loud and joyful voice
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!