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John 20:1-18 - Easter Sunday

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 I know my job description this morning.  Not only has it already been a great week, starting with fantastic weather, then Living Last Supper on Thursday night, Karfreitag on Friday afternoon, Tenebrae Friday evening, Pancakes this morning.  The lilies scent the air, the music has already stirred us and we all know today it is the starting day of baseball season.  So permit a baseball analogy here.  The bases are loaded and the sermon should hit a home run, knocking the ball into what used to be cheap seats in Citi Field and we go off and celebrate winning the game.  But baseball is a slow game.  The pitcher will stand there for a long time staring down the batter, then the batter steps out a minute and calls time to psych out the pitcher.  Then the catcher and pitcher meet to talk about the next pitch.  After the first pitch if finally thrown, it’s a ball and the whole thing starts over again.  That last at bat could take 15 minutes, killing you fans with tension.  This is like preaching, you are kept waiting for 15 minutes to see if anything will happen. 

A dramatic moment can’t be rushed.  In the four gospel lessons concerning the resurrection, the ones who ran to the tomb at first disbelieved.  So we need to give a little time and let the scriptures unfold.  Early one morning this week, in the same twilight as our gospel reading, I sat and read the four resurrection accounts together the different flavors of each.  I never get bogged down in the different details among the gospels because I never tell a story the same way twice either, and they appear in different decades and cultures.  If you have seen Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and that gruesome Mel Gibson piece, you get the idea of how the same story can be told form different angles. 

Mark is the first take historically, with three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome going to the tomb to prepare the body with spices.  They are startled by a young man in a white robe, who tells them that Jesus has arisen and commands them to go tell Peter that he will meet them in Galilee.  The original Gospel ends with them fleeing in terror and telling no one because they are afraid.  While understandable given the circumstances after a political execution, it left the first reviewers wanting something more.  Do you really want the Gospel story to end with everyone afraid and telling no one?  In fact, two ending are later added to Mark’s Gospel to remind everyone that Jesus appeared to others after the resurrection and then ascended into heaven. This is why writers dislike editors who try to make their art more tidy and easy to understand.  Mark’s original ending confronts our greatest source of human anxiety, the fear of death.  Rome can bring death.  Religious zealouts can bring death.  Speaking out against injustice can get you killed.  Mark’s ending reminds us that to embrace the resurrection, we must move through are fear of death and extinction.  

 Luke’s Gospel is a bit more dramatic.  At the tomb the three women are greeted by two men in dazzling clothes, and they are terrified and put their faces to the ground in fear.  Then the two men say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is risen.  Remember what Jesus told you?”  So the women go tell the disciples, who find the whole story utterly improbable and don’t believe it.  Peter goes to the tomb and looks in and then goes home amazed.  It takes two more appearances of Jesus for things to sink in.

 Matthew’s version of the resurrection is made for the widescreen cinema.  There is a great earthquake as an angel comes down and rolls away the stone and then sits on top of it.  Jesus comes out and his appearance is like lightning and his robes white as snow, so that the Roman guards are petrified with fear, they are like dead men.  Later the chief priests pay off the guards to stay silent about this.  This is the version film maker Cecil B. DeMille, who produced Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, would have loved.  It fits the musical scores, the Hallelujah chorus, and the dramatic triumph of a hero’s story. 

 So it is curious to me with the rising drama of the resurrection in each Gospel to see what happens in John, which is written at least 50 years later than the other versions.  At this point you might expect Jesus to fly over the Temple courtyard, drop the tomb stone on the chief priest, bend the spike into a heart, give it to a one-eyed beggar and make him Pope and ride an Arabian stallion up to heaven.  That is a resurrection! 

 Instead we have a very touching story of Mary Magdalene, grieving in the cemetery.  I’ve witnessed similar scenes in the cemetery next to my home.  A solitary person lovingly arranges new flowers around the headstone.  She talks to the stone while pulling weeds around it.  She has cried many tears here, almost enough to keep the azaleas watered.  After a time she gives the cold marble a hug that it cannot return.  It is so hard to make peace with death when you love so much. 

 Mary has lost her guiding light.  The gospels tell us everything from Jesus casting seven demons out of her to saying that she had been a prostitute.  Don Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” speculated that she was really Jesus’ wife.  Not only is her loss great, but now the body of her beloved Rabbi appears to be stolen.  When I think of Mary at this moment, I think of the mothers of the Plaza del Mayo in Argentina in the 1980s.  Thousands of people disappeared and were killed by the military dictatorship.  Several mothers went daily to vigil at the Plaza Del Mayo for their lost children. They had no body, they had no grave, no place to go and grieve, so they stood vigil against the injustice and terror of their government and would not silently grieve in their homes. This might have been Mary’s story if things had been different.  I could see her standing outside Pilate’s Palace on Mondays and the Chief Priest’s quarters on Tuesdays demanding to know where Jesus’ body was, calling attention to the great injustice.  If you really read the crucifixion story it makes your blood boil.  I imagine part of the early popularity of Christianity is that the Roman Empire was filled with people who were sick of brutal repression, who found a hero in a martyr so unjustly killed. 

 But this story will take a different course.  Mary sees two angels in the tomb, but they make no great announcement to her as in the other Gospel lessons.  These angels meet her in her grief and say, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him?”  She turns to a man who she assumes is the gardener who also says, “Why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?” 

 “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 

“Mary”     

     “Rabbi!”

Who can believe such a thing can happen?  I’ve spent much time in cemeteries and never seen anything like this.  Here in John’s Gospel, the only person ready to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the first Easter morning was Mary Magdalene.  Everyone else thought she was crazy because they were still singing “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded” and hiding from the authorities.  As we will see in the Eastertide Gospel readings, it takes time to absorb and deal with Christ’s resurrection.  Thomas wants to touch the nail prints in Jesus hand.  Peter must be restored after denying Jesus three times.   

 Resurrection is so different for everyone, even then.  For some it is earthquake and thunder.  Paul was later struck blind and fell off his horse on the road to Damascus and met Jesus.  Some need big drama.  It’s a guy thing.  For others, it happens when you are speaking with a gardener, or meeting a traveler on the road to Emmaus, having breakfast after early morning fishing.  In the midst of ordinary day events, you suddenly encounter Jesus.  There is not just one resurrection story, but many.  To me, this means Christ’s resurrection is not just a dramatic event in the past, which we must choose believe or disbelieve, but it is an event that keeps happening.  If we are willing, Jesus meets each of us in his own way.  Perhaps there has even been a few times in our lives where we missed it completely, never getting past thinking we are talking to the gardener.  Resurrection is not just an assurance of eternal life, it is woven into the fabric of our spiritual lives.  It is the power that energizes us to love, to give, to hope, to endure, to change and to grow.  If you are willing and keep your eyes open, resurrection is not just about Easter morning, but is a new possibility any morning.