Summit Presbyterian Church
April 16, 2017 — Easter
John 20: 1-23
No Longer Alone
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone. According to John, she didn’t come with any of the other women: Joanna, Salome, the other Mary. She didn’t come with any of the men: Peter or John or James. Maybe she needed to be alone. Grief can be like that. It can require solitude, getting away from other people, no matter how loving or sympathetic. Or maybe grief had isolated her - it can do that, too - and she didn’t have the wherewithal to ask anyone to join her. Or perhaps her friends declined to come, scared by the intensity of her pain and her desire to go while it was still dark. For whatever reason, Mary came to the tomb alone.
She saw the stone had been removed. This was not news that she could keep to herself, although at this point she thought it was bad news - a stolen body not a raised one. She ran to Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. The two men then set out: together at first but then the other disciple outrunning Peter, their feet pounding the ground separately, no words between them, with the other disciple reaching the tomb first. He waited for Peter but when he arrived they didn’t go in together: Peter went in first, and saw the linen wrappings lying there. Then the other disciple also went in. John said he “believed”; but we don’t know what he believed, as no words were exchanged and John said they did not yet understand the scriptures. Then the disciples returned to their homes. Homes, plural. Peter to his. The other disciple to his. Perhaps they needed solitude or perhaps they were driven to it, isolated from each other by the unsettling mystery of that empty tomb.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Alone. And then it all happened quickly: peering into the tomb and seeing the angels. Seeing but not recognizing Jesus in the garden, until he called her name. She held onto him, or started to. Jesus asked her not to so he could ascend to “your God and my God” but then gave her clear instructions: go back to the other disciples and to tell them what you’ve seen and heard. Which she did. We don’t know how the news spread to the different homes, but by evening the disciples were gathered together. They were still fearful, but then the Risen Christ entered the room and said, “Peace be with you.” He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. It was just like Jesus had told them it would be when they ate their last supper with him — their weeping turned to joy. It was at this moment, according to John, that the church was born. In the Garden of Eden, when God made Adam, God said, “it is not good for this one to be alone.” In this new garden, Jesus saw it was not good for the disciples to be alone. As the risen Christ, he gathered them back together.
It’s Easter Sunday, two thousand years later, and people are gathered together in churches around the world. More people come on Easter Sunday than any other Sunday, for different reasons, all of them good — and if you think you’re just here for the Easter Egg Hunt, the Holy Spirit can work through ulterior motives. You may be here because you’re an active member of Summit or another congregation, and this is one Sunday you wouldn’t miss. Or perhaps you don’t usually come to church - you pray and read the Bible on your own - but today you’re here to be with family. You may be a neighbor who came for the music. You may have seen the sign outside and were curious. Or you may be wondering if there’s something here for you to believe. When I was an agnostic in my 20s I used to go to church on Easter morning and silently challenge the preacher to make a persuasive argument, or give some convincing proof, that would allow me to believe in the resurrection. I never heard such a sermon (I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never given one) And because I didn’t believe, I didn’t feel right coming back the next Sunday. At least not for many years. Perhaps you’re in that same position.
So I invite you to come back, no matter what you do or don’t believe. Come back because it’s not good to be alone. Come back for the community. At his last supper with the disciples, Jesus said “I give you a new commandment - that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” We hope you’ll find love here. As we pray together, lifting up our struggles and joys. As we study scripture together, seeking God’s guidance for our lives and sharing doubts and questions. As we visit one another in the hospital, comfort one another in a time of loss, eat together at Elder Diner, teach each other’s children, laugh together at coffee hour. We hope that you will find love as we serve others, hosting those who are experiencing homelessness or collecting food for those who don’t have enough. As we march together for justice and peace. Please don’t let your reservations about the Apostles Creed or your questions about what “actually” happened at the Resurrection to get in the way of coming back. Let the love come first, and belief may follow. Because ultimately what we’re called to believe is not every line in the Apostles Creed or the Westminster Confession or that the resurrection happened exactly as John or any other gospel writer described it 2,000 years ago — which would be hard, since they don’t agree. Where called to believe that the Risen Christ is with us, through the Holy Spirit. That we’re not alone. In the church, in the world, and in the universe.
And it’s faith in the Risen Christ makes church different. Because - full disclosure - to the naked eye the church may look an awful lot like another other place where folks gather. There’s the same stuff you find everywhere: gossip, politics. Money worries and arguments, broken pipes to fix, burnt pots at church dinners, misunderstandings and hurts. [I can see Summit members breathing a sigh of relief — it would have been awfully hard to live up to the idyllic picture I just painted). On the positive side, other human communities also share love and do good. But in the church we confess that it’s not all up to us. We rely on the Risen Christ to guide us, through scriptures and the Holy Spirit. We confess that it’s in Risen Christ we find the courage to forgive one another - as we’ve been forgiven. That it’s in the Risen Christ we find strength care for one another. That it’s in the Risen Christ we find the hope and courage to face the most challenging and despair-inducing problems of our day: racism, climate change, war and terror. Indeed, we even rely on the Risen Christ for faith itself, which is a gift, not something we gain by willpower. So, as Jesus said when he first encountered potential disciples, “Come, Taste and See.” And let the Spirit work.
And when you come we hope and pray that you’ll not only find love, but joy. The joy of Mary and the disciples when Christ appeared to them, showing that death does not have the last word. The joy we know in worship and singing, especially this glorious Easter morning with the trumpet and bells and the Hallelujah chorus. The joy that comes even in the face of death, in the midst of terrible grief, when we hear and trust in the promises of eternal life. Now it’s true that even for the most faithful among us have dry periods, times of wandering in the desert, times of grief or depression. And that’s why it’s good we’re not alone. We are the church, and together we can encourage each other: Christ is Risen! Death did not and will not have the final word. Weeping will turn to joy. Jesus has not left us orphaned. Christ is Risen! Hallelujah, Amen.