April 21, 2019
William G. Carter
Easter brings out a crowd. This is our big day. The music is joyful, the flowers are rejoicing, and the people around us are exuberant. Even those who had to walk a distance to find a parking space are in a good mood. When I go home for dinner, I’ll recount my altered nursery rhyme: Here’s the church without a steeple; open the doors, see all the people.
As we heard from the apostle Paul, there was a day sometime after the resurrection when 500 people saw Jesus alive, all at the same time. Nobody else mentions the incident. I think it is remarkable, not only because he wrote the letter over twenty years after the resurrection, but that there were 500 people present. Most of the resurrection accounts are much smaller. Paul himself was on the road to Damascus when he sees and hears the Risen Christ for the first time. Nobody else saw Jesus, but he did
In fact, it’s this personal, one-at-a-time experience of Easter that lies at the heart of this well known story of Mary Magdalene, who comes to the garden alone. We are never told why she comes. Grief, perhaps? Or the lingering shock of losing her friend? Or disbelief that he is gone?
She had stood by the cross with his mother. She saw him sip the sponge of vinegar and heard him breathe his last. Then it was over. There was nothing left to do but go home and sit still for the sabbath. After a brutal death like that, after such a stunning loss of one so brilliant and young, I’m sure she didn’t feel like doing anything.
And when the sabbath was over, she walked to his grave. Why did she go? You know why she went. No specific reason, but a lot of reasons. He was gone, but she thought, “Maybe if I go to the place where they laid him to rest, it will almost be like having him still here. And little did she ever expect what would happen.
The Gospel of John tells us what happened. Mary sees the tomb has been broken open. She runs to find Simon Peter and another of the disciples. “Somebody moved the stone,” she says, half out of breath. “They took him away, and I don’t know where.”
The two disciples race toward the open grave, and the younger one gets there first. But he didn't go in. Apparently he didn't have to do that. Right on his heels, Simon Peter blusters right in, takes a good look around, and doesn't say anything. We don't know what he thinks.
It’s then that the other disciple, the younger one, steps in, looks around, and believes. Both of them see the grave wrappings but no body. There is no talking, no interaction, no vision of the Lord. Then they return home. But something has happened in the younger one. He saw the empty tomb and needs no further proof. He believes Jesus is risen. As for Peter, there’s no word that he believes anything other than Jesus is missing.
Meanwhile, while all this is happening, Mary stands outside, weeping. For her, an empty tomb offers no consolation. It’s merely empty. So now it’s her turn to look. Through scalded eyes, she sees two angels in white, but she is not particularly impressed. What she wants to know is, "Where have they taken the body of Jesus?"
So when she turns around from the grave and sees the gardener, she doesn't really see him. "Sir, if you are the one who has taken away his body, tell me where you put him." There is no plan yet for what she would do if she found it, but it’s horrible that his body is missing. It would be one more humiliation of that wonderful, blessed friend.
But then Easter happens. With a single word, the gardener wakes her out of the trance of grief and calls her into the light: “Mary.” He calls her by name – and that changes everything. Now the world begins again.
I am often curious how people come to faith. People stop by and tell the stories (there’s often a story). Sometimes if they are courageous enough, they might tell me how they lost their faith. Or at least, how they shed an old confining faith that just didn’t fit any more.
As we hear this story, please take note of two things. First, Easter faith is something new. It’s not the same old thing. It’s more than a habit; most likely, it’s the thing that started the habit before it became a habit. And it’s the confirmation of a lot of hunches that we’ve had along the way – hunches that there really is a God, and that this God is creative, generous, and wise, and at the center of it all, there’s something alive. Something so full of exhilaration, so pregnant with joy, so abundant and gracious that it startles us, and stuns us, even shakes us out of a kind of slumber and brings us into the light.
Jesus won’t let Mary hang on to the old ways. “Don’t cling to me,” he says to her. “I’m going to my Father and yours.” The Galilean teacher with carpenter’s callouses is returning to where he came from, where he has always belonged. He will keep speaking and she will keep hearing his voice, but he has new life to keep birthing, new people to bring into God’s flock, new joys to create out of the ashes of sorrow.
For her, this is all new. For any of us, this is new. Life in the Risen Christ is not merely a continuation of the status quo. It’s something bigger, something deeper, something wider, something far more true.
If Christ calls your name or shakes you awake, you are not going to stand for the hundred different ways that the power of death encroaches on us. You’ll have no tolerance for injustice and no patience with corruption. You will not let your neighbors be excluded from God’s resources nor permit the downtrodden to be demeaned. You will take a stand in every for the fullness of life and the abundance of joy, because full life and abundant joy have found you – and called your name… “Mary… Brian… Barbara… Gene… Rebecca… Donald… Tom.”
Of all the things that Easter means, it means that God raises Jesus up as Lord over every false and destructive power that reduces or destroys the gift of life. Jesus Christ is alive again, and he is going to keep feeding the hungry, gladdening the broken-hearted, forgiving the broken-souled, speaking the truth to all, and revealing the grace of heaven. Death is defeated and that is new. That’s the first and greatest truth of the Easter faith.
And here is the second truth: this Easter faith comes to each one of us at different times, in different ways. One size for Easter does not fit all – and the story in the Gospel of John has already told us this.
· Mary Magdalene sees an unsecured, open tomb, and it disturbs her. She runs to tell the others, two of them run to see what’s going on. Simon Peter looks in, sees the empty bed, the folded-up wrappings, but sees no angels, hears no voice. So he leaves. He doesn’t believe, not yet.
· The other disciple looks in, sees the very same arrangements, and he does believe. It comes easily to him, and he departs.
· So then Mary looks inside the tomb, sees the same situation, plus see a couple of angels, but that’s not enough to spark belief. Faith comes only when she is personally addressed, when she hears a voice. The point is, all three of them are different.
That’s not all there is to the story. That night, the disciples lock themselves away in hiding. Suddenly Jesus appears, fully alive, and now gives them something to do: “I send you as the Father sent me; go and forgive sins!’ They believe because they now have a job to do.
Then you might remember Old Thomas, the patron saint of show and tell, He wasn’t with the others, and said, “I’m not going to believe until I have physical proof.” A week later, Jesus comes to him and says, “Hey Thomas, do you want to touch my wounds?” Belief for him was inescapable.
Every one of them came to believe in a different way.
In fact, Simon Peter, whatever did happen to him? He went back to his old line of work, back to the old fishing boat. He returned to the Sea of Galilee, and one night he didn’t catch a single fish. Then a stranger appeared on the shore and said, “Cast the net on the other side of the boat.” And immediately, there were 153 tilapia fish jumping into the net. Peter said, “OK, OK, I have seen the Lord.”
Each occasion was different; no experience was better than any other. The only thing that mattered is that they came to trust that Jesus is alive, and that trust brought alive something in them. That's how it is with Easter faith. As a wise old Christian once put it,
Faith is not for all the same experience, neither is it generated for all with the same kind and degree of "evidence." For some, faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on grandmother's lap. For others, faith is a lifetime of wrestling with the angel. Some cannot remember when they did not believe, while others cannot remember anything else, their lives having been shattered and reshaped by the decision of faith.
There is faith based on signs and faith that needs none; there is faith weak and faith strong, faith shallow and faith deep, faith growing and faith retreating. Faith is not a decision once and for all, but a decision anew in every situation.
So I think about all of this, the amazing news that we hear this day and the nature of faith. Some of us take to it easily, and others wish there was more sunshine and fewer clouds. Maybe you came to worship this morning, confident of what you know. Or maybe you came hungry for Jesus to finally call your name. Maybe you are afraid of something. Or maybe you need something important to do. It could be that you know what it would take to start believing, or believing again, and you’re not sure you want to drop some of the burdens – intellectual, emotional, or otherwise - that you’ve been carrying for such a long time.
Here’s what I say to one and all: relax and rejoice. The Risen Christ knows who you are. He knows what you’ve been carrying. And what he desires for you is what all of us desire for ourselves: to be completely alive. To know that we matter to God and to one another. To trust that we are loved. To welcome the happiness of this day so that it might lift us a little higher.
For this is what I believe: there is a deep desire in each of us for a joyful, honest, abundant life. This is the first sign that the Risen Christ is at work within us. This is already the promise that he is already calling your name, and he will call it again and again.