Summit Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2009 (Easter Sunday)
John 20: 1-18; 1 Cor. 15: 3-11
Not What We Think
When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb, while it was still dark, she saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. She didn't go in to inspect. There could only be one explanation: grave robbers. Grave robbers strong enough to roll aside the stone and carry away the body. Grave robbers who might have known that Jesus had been wrapped in a hundred pounds worth of precious burial spices. Grave robbers who could still be lurking in the dark morning. So she ran. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, and she told them what she saw - or thought she saw: They had taken the Lord out of the tomb. She didn't know who "they," were, but their intentions could only be evil. They had violated Jesus's grave - something right in keeping with the terrible events of the past three days. A desecrated tomb was only the final insult to their teacher who had been arrested, tried, tortured and killed in a most public and gruesome way. Not knowing where the body of Jesus lay - not knowing the condition it was in - was only one more layer of grief for Mary and all who loved Jesus. But Mary knew that's how the world was. Pain, grief, death.
Then Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, ran to the tomb. The other disciple - who reached the tomb first - may also have been spooked. He bent down to look into the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there but he didn't go in. Peter, coming behind him, went into the tomb, and saw something odd: the cloth that had been on Jesus' head was not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. What a strange thing for the thiefs to have done! Why leave the linen wrappings at all, why not just take the body away as quickly as possible? Then the other disciple also came into the tomb; and although John says he saw and believed, it's not clear what what he believed: perhaps, simply, that the body had been taken. [After all, you can't always believe the report of an hysterical woman]. John tells us that neither Peter nor the other disciple yet understood the scripture, that Jesus must be raised. So they left. They returned to their homes with nothing to proclaim but more sad news concerning the death of their teacher.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Weeping, she bent down to look inside. It was then she saw the two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. You might think that two angels in white would be a clue to Mary that things were not as she thought. But she's still caught up in her grief. When the angels ask her why she's weeping, she repeats what she told the disciples, although now she just speaks for herself: They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. Then she turns, and sees --- Jesus. But she knows it can't be Jesus, so her mind quickly creates an alternative explanation: it's the gardener. And then, still struggling to make sense of all this, she wonders if the gardener might have taken the body and could tell her where Jesus is. We can see some cognitive dissonance here, some attempt to account for the strange things that she's seeing - the linen cloths, the angels, Jesus. But she's not yet ready to let go of what she knows, or she thinks she knows - that Jesus is dead, his body has been stolen, his friends will be forever haunted by this violation of his grave. For Mary knew that was life: pain, grief, death.
And then Jesus calls her name. He calls her name and she turns to him. It's then that she's able to see that it's not what she thought. The grave had not been robbed. The gardener had not taken the body away. Jesus was in front of her: alive, there for her to see and even touch. Talking to her, giving her instructions, telling her where he was going. Not to the underworld, not to the ground, but to God. To his God and to her God. Jesus had died, but death was not the end, for him or for her. Pain and grief were not the final words about life - or the world. So Mary went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord." We don't know if they believed her, but Jesus also came to them later, that evening, and showed them his hands his side. They, too, could see the world was not as they thought. Jesus was alive. Pain, grief and death were not the final words.
When we're depressed - whether it's a matter of feeling temporarily blue or something more serious - it's easy to fall into a negative thinking pattern, a pessimism about the past as well as the future. When we're depressed we may think: I've never really been a success at anything - I probably never will be. Or I've never really been in love, I'll bet I won't find it. Or, I've never actually been happy - I don't think I can be. Friends may point out our successes, our periods of happiness and the people who love us, but confronting someone who's depressed with the facts - the linen wrappings - usually doesn't help. Depression is powerful, even more so if it's a clinical depression. It colors a person's perceptions. When we're depressed, the world can seem a dark and hopeless place despite evidence to the contrary. Professional intervention may be needed: medication, therapy, a combination of the two. The good news is that treatment can be effective: people emerge from depressions and perceive themselves and their world in a more hopeful light.
But pessimism and hopelessness are not only a matter of perception. The world is full of suffering. Our losses are enormous: broken relationships, the death of loved ones, failing health, layoffs, a sheriff's sale. For many in the world, losses such as these are compounded by daily, grinding, hardship: backbreaking work or no work, too little food, the barest of shelters, the constant threat of bombs or gunfire. On the macro level, when we look at history, we can point out progress: more people live comfortably, the evils of sexism and racism have been named, tyrannies have been overthrown. But we can just as easily point to the genocides of the 20th century, the dangers of nuclear war and global warming, the threat of AIDS. Few people would deny there's good in the world: but evidence can easily be marshaled to prove the world is ruled by evil forces. That to be without hope is realistic. A world, where, to all appearances, we creatures all end up in the same place: dead. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Mary didn't need to be depressed to assume that an empty tomb could mean only one thing. A stolen body, wicked thieves, unending grief.
So Jesus intervened. Christ came to her. Christ came to her so she would not be deceived by appearances. Christ came to her so she could see that the world was not as she thought. Death was not the endpoint. Evil did not rule the day. Christ came to Mary so she could see the world as it really was. A world under the reign of God, even though Rome was still in control. A world stretching into eternity, even though Mary was surrounded by death. A world held in love, even though Mary had just witnessed so much hate and cruelty. This is the Christian claim. The world is not what we think.
When Jesus came to Mary, she went immediately to the disciples to tell them what she had seen. We learned this morning that Christ also came to Paul, and to the disciples and many other apostles. We can't historically verify these resurrection appearances. It's possible Jesus came to Mary in a way that a bystander could not have detected. But we don't have to prove them historically, because Christ also comes to us. Not necessarily in conversation or in a clear vision, although many Christians say they have met Jesus that way. Christ may also come to us through the power of the Holy Spirit as we know it in worship, in scripture, in community, in the beauty around us. But make no mistake, Christ is alive: alive to tell us that death is not the end, that hope is not misplaced, that evil does not ultimately rule. That is our claim.
One final note. The resurrection appearances as we have them in the gospels are personal, intimate, encounters. The risen Christ does not appear to national assemblies or royal courts: he appears to Mary and Thomas and Peter and Cleopas. So Christians can be forgiven, perhaps, for often acting as though the salvation Christ offers is purely personal. That it's about each one of us being with God in heaven after our death. That it's about having hope and finding love in our personal circle of family and friends and church; that it's about our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Christ does redeem each of us personally. But we should not be misled by the intimate nature of the resurrection appearances. God has a vision that's much grander than individual tickets to heaven. Jesus spoke about that vision to his disciples, and God also spoke of it through the prophets. God's purposes have not been completed, the vision has not yet been fulfilled, but the resurrection of Jesus is a sign that it will be. So on Easter Sunday, in addition to the stories of the empty tomb and other appearances, the church has another lectionary reading, from the prophet Isaiah. This reading reminds us that Christ has risen for the whole world, that death has been overcome for everyone, not just people who come to church. Listen for the word of God in Isaiah 25:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
God will swallow up death forever.
Then then Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of the people God will take away from all the
For the Lord has spoken.
This is the living word of God. Thanks be to God.