Unspectacular Beginnings (John 20:1-18)
Sunday, April 20, 2014 (Easter Sunrise Sermon)
John 20 (NRSV)
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb;12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b]“Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I was visiting a cemetery. I walked among the headstones reading of lives summed up in a date of birth and a date of death. A breeze blew across the garden of stone, slightly cool, just a bit uncomfortable. The quiet also was uncomfortable … eerie. I did not feel like I was alone. I could not see anyone, but I was possessed by an uneasy sense.
Then, the most amazing thing happened …
Actually, no, it didn’t. I had a quiet moment of prayer and I left.
I recall a few years ago talking to a neighbor. I could sense she was not very interested in things of faith. She would discuss attending church, but I think she did so because she knew I was a pastor and she wanted to relate. She did not give any evidence that a relationship with Jesus was a driving force in her life.
I tried to steer the conversation in a spiritual direction. Maybe I could get us past the small talk and down to things that truly matter, issues of the heart, yearnings of the soul. She and I would talk at a deeper level and meeting there, together, we would meet Jesus. I used verbal prompts to indicate my intentions, and she used facial prompts to clearly communicate her disinterest. She was not going there, no thank you. I longed for a conversation of great spiritual significance. She turned back my invitation. We made it through the awkwardness and talk turned to little league baseball. One of the kids, hers or mine, I don’t remember, came bounding round the corner of the house, hers or mine, I don’t recall. I wanted to talk Jesus. Nothing happened.
A quiet walk in the cemetery ending with prayer. A front porch conversation that resisted any spiritual content. Unspectacular.
It is a fitting word for the way John’s gospel gives us the resurrection, and the beginnings of Christian faith.
Mary made her way early in the morning. Depression dripped all around as she sought to express the failure of deep love for one who had died and was truly and fully dead. She remembered that he brought Lazarus back after being four days dead. But, there was no one to bring him back. Jesus was gone, a corpse, and she was coming to see and love a corpse. When she came to grave site and found the tomb open, resurrection never entered her mind.
She ran to the disciples and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb” (v.2a). Locked in death, she did not imagine the resurrection could have taken place. Peter and the beloved disciple inspected the interior and found the grave clothes neatly folded. This was exceedingly odd as grave robbers would certainly not take time to unwrap a corpse. The text says the beloved disciple “believed” (v.8), but what he believed is unclear. Later (v.19) he was right along with the rest hiding for fear of the authorities. When he and Peter saw the tomb empty, we are not told what they said. They just returned to where they were staying.
Mary, still shrouded in death, made her way to the tomb a second time. She looked in this time and saw two angels. Where did they come from? There is nothing said about Peter or the other seeing angels. All they saw was burial cloths. They observed and went home.
Now Mary sees angels who seem to have come from nowhere. This ought to perk her up. But death’s shadow is too heavy, too dark. Throughout the Bible people become petrified the minute they see a heavenly being, but Mary is too sad to even be impressed. She’s so stuck on death that the appearance of a divine creature just gives her someone else to whom she can appeal.
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
“They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have [buried] him.” She’s set on finding a corpse. Nothing else will do.
She then turns and … it is Jesus!! We know because we’ve read the story through, but she couldn’t. She was living the story, locked in on death. There he is. It’s the risen Jesus Christ. She is the first person to talk to the resurrected one and she cannot see through her tears. All she sees is a gardener.
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
“Sir, if you have taken him, tell me where you have laid him and I will come and take him away.”
It is absurd at many levels, but remember, she loved Jesus. When everyone else was in bed, Mary got up and went to the tomb. She was sure he was dead, but he still held her heart. Even as she was locked in death, she went to again love him by respecting his dead body. She is to be honored for her place in the story.
For a resurrection account, it is an unspectacular story. From Mary’s confusion, the scene moves to disciples hiding behind closed doors where Jesus appears to them. They are amazed, but one is absent. Thomas misses that meeting and when his friends tell him, he refuses to believe. It’s like everyone in this story is determined to not grasp that God has, in Jesus, defeated death.
Eventually Christianity takes hold in the hearts of few. It is a misunderstood, minority religion that at times is ignored, at times is heavily persecuted, and at other times is cruelly mocked. In the earliest centuries, the most devout Christians finds themselves nailed to crosses or burned at the stake or thrown to lions in the coliseum while bloodthirsty crowds roar with delight. These sound like inspiring stories but they do not include last minute angelic rescues. There are no miracles. In martyr stories, the heroes end up dead.
Christianity only becomes a dominant religion when it is endorsed by Roman Emperor Constantine. Then it does not take long for the faith to be utterly corrupted. Any time in history the church has had the backing of those in power – governmental, financial or military power – it loses its dependence on the Spirit of God and becomes something other than Christian. In those early years, though, the most amazing aspect of Christianity is that it survived in the face of persecution and through the fragility of the Christians themselves.
How is it that we stand on the unspectacular? We do because we are unspectacular. We are humdrum, average. Yet, God meets us and moves in us. Through every day people, God accomplishes his purposes. We know, just as Mary and the disciples came to know, that what happened on that morning truly was God’s new way. Death had been defeated. Jesus rose from the grave and he invites all who believe in him to come and have life as sons and daughters of God.
For Mary, the moment became real when her beloved Jesus spoke her name. Hearing him says “Mary,” the light came on. She did not understand it all just yet, but she knew enough. He had been dead, but here he stood. How does one go from grief to joy instantaneously? It cannot happen. But it did!
It is the same for us. This Easter morning, we have read the resurrection story in John’s gospel and it truly is amazing. The word of God is transformative, but only when the Spirit of God awakens our hearts and moves in us. Only when our hearing of the word is joined by God’s touch do we realize that this all true, death has been defeated, and in Jesus, we have life.
John’s Gospel tells us that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will not die and those whose bodies do die will be resurrected and live eternally. It all begins with Jesus’ resurrection which was so unexpected those closest to him could hardly bring themselves to believe it. But he helped along the way with his appearances, his words, and his promises. He helps us in our unbelief as his Holy Spirit does come and guide us through our hearing and living of the story.
I don’t know always know when the Spirit is directing me. Sometimes, I only realize it when I look back on seasons in my life. Only in looking back do I understand that even in struggles, I was living into resurrection because I follow Jesus, the one who is alive.
This morning, our Easter Sunday beginning is quiet and at the same time joyful. I am not troubled by Mary’s inability to accept resurrection, Thomas’ doubt, or the difficulties of the early church. I am encouraged. Through very real people, God ignited a movement that would bring love and life to the world. The church then and now is comprised of flawed individuals. In many ways we are extraordinary. We are also less than perfect. But just as Jesus appeared and appeared again and again until the first believers got it, so does the Holy Spirit moving through the word repeatedly appeal to our hearts – until we understand.
We are God’s. The resurrection of Jesus is promised to us. Unspectacular as we may be sometimes, when we gather, God is with us, calling our names, doing what needs to be done to help up see and believe. We are united in Christ and have life in His name. This is the good news of Easter. Thank you, God, for calling us together and not stopping until we are in your embrace.