Easter Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Gospel Lesson: John 20:1-18
Throughout the forty days of Lent, we have been on a journey with Jesus – one that began in the wilderness as he prepared for his three years of public ministry: healing the sick and afflicted, seeking the lost and the outcast, restoring dignity and relationships and connections to the community, and demonstrating time and again what it means to love God by loving your neighbors, by sowing seeds of peace, and by humbling oneself to serve others.
Throughout our journey, we have seen glimpses of God’s own heart – how God longs to provide for our needs; how God longs for our love and devotion; how God longs to nourish us toward vibrant, fruitful life; how God longs to welcome and celebrate those who have wandered, who have squandered, who have lost everything and are finally willing to come home out of desperation; how God generously pours out love in a way that liberates, and heals, and restores; how God is Love itself and longs for us to live out of our relationship with Love by loving and serving one another; and how God’s love took our very humanity and endured all the cruelty, hate, fear and abuse of power that mocks, tortures and kills the spirit and the body.
Today, our journey with Jesus takes us to his grave with Mary Magdalene. The gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene is one of the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples. Mary herself had been healed by Jesus of seven demons that had tortured her own body and spirit. She had seen and heard Jesus as he preached and ministered to the crowds throughout the region of Galilee. And she journeyed with Jesus on his final pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She, along with Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister remained at the cross with the disciple John to the bitter end, even after all the other disciples had fled out of fear.
John’s gospel tells us, “There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.” (John 19:41-42) Sabbath began that day at sunset, and so they had to ‘make do’ with what they could pull together in order to bury Jesus’ body according to their customs. Someone brought some aloe and myrrh and linen cloths, and they quickly wrapped his body and laid it in the tomb.”
John’s gospel tells us that “Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. Perhaps she felt they had not given Jesus’ body a proper burial in their rush on Friday. Or perhaps she returned, as many of us have, to the graveside of a loved one in order to grieve, in order to try to better remember the face or the voice, or in order to feel near them once again. So as we remember and celebrate all that Easter means, I don’t want us to skip over this part of the story – because it is so much our story.
Let’s take a moment to go to the tomb with Mary. It is still dark. The full weight of grief and despair fill her heart. Having been forced to leave the tomb after witnessing such a cruel death, maybe she has been trying to make sense of all that has happened. Maybe she walks to the tomb to confirm the reality of Jesus’ death. And so she goes to confront her worst fears, to see the lifeless body of the One who called himself the Bread of Life.
How many of us have had mornings like these? You wake on the day after something terrible has happened, or on a morning in a season of despair, and maybe for a moment you forget… but then the reality comes crashing into your consciousness, and the pain is there immediately. Today is the day you must deal with hard things, the day you must face the very thing causing your pain, your distress, your heartache. Many of us have experienced this day. The day after a tornado or fire destroys; the day after an accident or diagnosis; the day after a child leaves home or a spouse walks away; the day after a death – death of a dream, an expectation, a belief, or the death of one we love. It is a day that begins in darkness as you become fully aware of the defeat, the devastation, and the loss.
So Mary goes to the tomb and only has her grief compounded when she realizes that Jesus’ body is missing! Despair turns to confusion and panic. And so she goes for help. I think that is such a wise choice in that moment. She realizes that the situation has become too much for her to bear alone, and so she returns to her community, to her tribe, to find strength in numbers, to ask someone else for their perspective.
John, the faithful disciple as well as Peter who denied Jesus and ran away, both come with her the second time. And they run to the tomb, even, it seems, racing each other to see who can get there first – as if there is some merit for that. It seems almost inappropriate against the seriousness of the situation. We could understand them running with urgency, to get there as quickly as possible. But why should they race? Why does it matter who arrives first? Didn’t Jesus say something about how the first should be last? On this morning of darkness, the disciples are confused, too. Do they race each other as a distraction from their own grief and despair? Or maybe, John ran faster than Peter because Peter is just not ready yet to face the guilt and shame from abandoning just days before Jesus. What we can see is that all three of these followers of Jesus – Mary Magdalene, John and Peter – each make the journey to the tomb on this morning, carrying with them their own baggage, and their own perceptions. And we see that they each leave with their own conclusions, as well.
John arrives first, looks inside and sees the grave-cloths lying there. Peter doesn’t just peer inside but enters the tomb and sees more than John. He sees not only the grave-cloths, but also the facecloth. And it’s not just lying there, but is folded up in its own place. John then decides to enter, as well, and apparently sees enough to “believe.” But it doesn’t seem to be enough for him to understand. Perhaps he believed that Jesus had simply ascended to heaven. But his behavior doesn’t indicate any change of heart, because he and Peter both return right back to that room where they and other disciples have been hiding.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t leave with them. Even through her grief and tears, she’s still looking for answers. When she enters the tomb, she sees even more than the other two. “She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.” (v. 12) And they ask her why she is crying. But their presence doesn’t seem to shake Mary from her grief. She continues her search for Jesus by telling them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” (v. 13) There are two angels dressed in white, sitting inside the tomb. Peter and John didn’t see them, but Mary does. And yet, she seems completely unfazed that two of God’s messengers have appeared to her. In her panicked search for what she’s lost, for what she believes has been stolen, she dismisses these angles only to turn around and nearly bump into Jesus himself.
He also asks her, (v. 15) “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Sometimes our grief, and despair, and heartache over what we’ve lost can cloud our sight and our judgement to the point that we don’t even notice God’s presence.
And then, Jesus calls her name. “Mary!” And suddenly, it’s as if she’s been shaken from a dream, or a nightmare. As if a heavy fog has lifted and she can finally see. When he calls her name, she immediately recognizes him, and responds to him, “My Teacher.” Because Mary chose to remain fully present – physically present at the tomb, but also mentally and emotionally present to her pain and grief – she is blessed with the appearance of Jesus. And I think that’s an important part of our story, as well.
Deep pain like this – raw and heart-wrenching sadness and grief – these are not pleasant. Some of us would do almost anything to avoid experiencing the deepness of these feelings. So we may deny or avoid our feelings, stuffing and burying them, ignoring them, or pretending they don’t exist. Or we may try to numb them or cover them up with alcohol, painkillers, food, or other distractions. But eventually, these feelings will tear us up if we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge them, to fully feel them, and let go of our need to try to control them. When we are able to be fully open to those feelings, then we also open a door for Jesus to appear. When we acknowledge our grief, our brokenness, our need we find God drawing near; we hear Jesus calling our name.
But here’s the most important part of the story – what Easter morning is really all about. When Mary recognizes Jesus, she tries to reach out and hold on to him. She is probably reacting to her memory of who Jesus was, and so she is relieved that he is alive. But what she doesn’t understand at first is that Jesus was not just resuscitated, like Jesus did for Lazarus. This is not Jesus in the physical body that was beaten, tortured and executed. This is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus after the holy and mysterious work of defeating death and hell once and for all. Mary did not recognize Jesus because of how he looked, but because of the way he called her name. Jesus tells her (v. 17) “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
"Don’t hold on to me.” Remember the words of Isaiah 43:18-19, “Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”
Don’t hold on to the past. When you have encountered your worst day, when the worst possible thing has happened in your life, when you wake up to deep darkness, and grief, and despair, look for Jesus. Bring your pain and your sorrow to Jesus’ tomb and wait there until you see him, until you hear him call your name. God can take our worst days, our worst experiences and transform them with resurrecting love, to bring life out of death, and to create a new thing – a new way forward, a new normal.
Next week, we’re going to celebrate what God can do in song. Our entire worship next Sunday will be a service of Easter hymns and a celebration of our ministries at Maple Grove. You’ll also have a chance to hear next week about upcoming ways that you can get involved in making a difference right here in our community with some mission and outreach projects. And then, beginning May 5th, we’re going to explore the Easter stories of resurrection and Jesus’s appearance to others in a worship series called, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Life Falls Apart.” Because the Easter story is our story.
We have all had a ‘worst day.’ Some of us are living through that day, or that season, right now. And we are all looking for resurrection, for God to come to us in our time of struggle, worry, and grief, when everything starts to come unraveled, and to mend our pain and brokenness, to lead us to a new path, a new morning of light and healing and a new creation. And once we’ve experienced resurrection like that, then we, too, can say with Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord!” (v. 18)