Sermon 4/4/10, John 20:1-18
I’ve always thought Easter was the hardest day of the year to preach on. Every year as I prepare for what is our most holy of Sundays in the life of the church, I struggle. I’ve preached on this Sunday many times now, but every year it seems to be the same. What do we say about Easter? The stories of Jesus, preaching about his life, his teachings – that gives us a concrete hold – we can hear a lesson he shares and learn how to apply it to our own lives. But what do we do with Easter?
We know the story. That’s not the problem. We know that Jesus was crucified and his body was laid in a tomb. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, and sees that the stone is removed. She runs to get Peter and another disciple. They come to the tomb and see that Jesus is not there, and they return home. Mary stays, and she encounters Jesus, although she doesn’t recognize him at first. But when he speaks her name, Mary realizes that it is Jesus. He sends her to tell the others, and she does, saying, “I have seen the Lord.”
That’s the Easter story. Jesus, who they saw crucified, is alive. So, what’s the trouble with this? Why is it so hard for me to preach on Easter? I’ve struggled with answering that question every year. What’s so hard about Easter? And I guess it’s a question of believability. But I don’t think it is that we find the story so unbelievable in that God couldn’t raise Jesus from death. After all, as human beings our minds accept a lot of phenomena of seemingly unbelievable kinds. You’ll find among us people who believe in ghosts and spirits and angels, or who believe in life on other planets or think they’ve seen a UFO, or people who have witnessed some sort of miracle – a healing, an unbelievably fortunate turnaround of circumstances. I don’t think it’s that we don’t believe it’s possible that God raised Jesus from death to life.
So what is it? What’s so unbelievable? I think, actually, that we have a hard time believing something much more straightforward. I think we have a hard time in believing that new life is for us. We can believe God can bring Jesus to life. But I think we don’t actually believe in new life. Maybe for Jesus. But not for us. We don’t actually believe that we can be resurrected. Maybe we believe in eternal life after death. But we have a harder time believing in resurrection that’s for right now. Think of all the public figures who have some scandal exposed, who fall from grace, who enter some rehab program or swear they’ve turned over a new leaf. It is not their failures that shock us and surprise us in the least. It is claims of being a new person that we’ll doubt, that will be met with skepticism or cynicism. We’re just not sure we believe in new life, not here and now.
Throughout Lent, we’ve been talking about the contradictions that mark our spiritual struggle. We seek abundance, and we seek to be filled, but we continually try to fill ourselves with things that have proven again and again to leave us empty. We want to be disciples but we’re unwilling to actually follow where Jesus leads. We are full of contradictions. And we talked about my suspicions that the reason we’re so full of contradictions – that I think we’re afraid to let Jesus change our lives, as we know would happen if we were really truly following God with our whole hearts. But I think we need to take it even one step further. I think our getting stuck in the same cycles of contradictions when Jesus offers us life is about even more than being scared that following Jesus will change our lives. I think, actually, we’re a little scared that Jesus won’t be able to change our lives. We’re scared that we’re beyond change. Or perhaps we’re not even scared – we’re just convinced, resigned, aware that new life is not possible in us. Change can’t really come to us.
After all, how many times have you tried and set out to change your life in some meaningful way, and failed? How many New Year’s Resolutions have you made and broken? How many fresh starts and clean slates have you tried to give yourself? How many times have you said, “starting tomorrow I’m going to…” and then that tomorrow never came? How many times have you imagined a different life – a fuller life, a more meaningful life – than the one you are living, and yet not found a way to that full live you’ve imagined?
What do you hope you could be, when you envision your best self? There are so many things I wish were different about myself, or that I wish I did differently. When I think of all the gifts God has given me, I start to be overwhelmed with feeling like I could be doing so much more. I could be giving more of myself. I feel I know what God is calling me to do, and yet I struggle each day just to do the bare minimum. There are so many changes I could make, and so many times when I commit to beginning again. And yet, if I was being honest about it, I’d have to admit that I can’t really see myself ever becoming the me I wish I was. I don’t really see it happening. That’s the new life I can’t believe in – my own new life.
That’s why I think Easter can be so hard for us to really ‘get’. It’s not that God raising Jesus from the dead throws us for such a loop. It’s figuring out if Jesus’ resurrection has any meaning for us, any impact on us that we can experience now – that’s what makes us skeptics.
I think our experience is somewhat like that of the disciples: Peter and the other disciple. In our gospel lesson, Mary Magdalene makes her way to the tomb to attend to Jesus. When she finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, she runs to bring back with her Peter and the other disciple. The two men run back to the tomb, actually racing each other, eager to see what Mary is talking about. When they arrive at the tomb, they walk in, look at everything, see that Jesus is not there. But they don’t get it – what they are seeing, or what they are not seeing. They simply return to their homes. They tell no one, they say nothing to Mary, they make no reaction whatsoever. All throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples have struggled with being truly transformed by knowing Jesus, by following him. Even his closest confidants had a hard time letting new life seep into them – and at first, on Easter, they don’t let the change wash over them. They’re frozen in time, in grief, and they can’t see the new life they’re staring at.
Mary, on the other hand, has a totally different experience at the tomb than do her companions. While they run to arrive at the tomb, but quickly leave once they find the place empty, Mary stays, Mary lingers at the empty tomb a bit longer. She stands there weeping, grieving. Overcome by the events of the past days, months, years – everything that has changed in her life since meeting Jesus playing over in her head – she just needs a moment to soak everything in. She stays at the tomb just a little longer, lets the emptiness sink into her mourning soul. It is then, then, that she leans in and sees the risen Christ. She does not recognize him right away, but she stays, she waits, she asks questions, and wonders about what she is experiencing. Then, finally, the joy hits her. And so Mary experiences the resurrection in a way that the others miss at first. Literally and figuratively she’s the first to experience the new life of Easter morning, as she sees the risen Christ, and knows, beyond a doubt, that resurrection is possible.
On this most holy morning, be careful – don’t miss Easter. Don’t walk away, disillusioned, from the empty tomb, wondering what you missed. Don’t find yourself feeling empty, like you didn’t quite get it, in the midst of family celebrations and special meals with loved ones. Don’t rush out, like the disciples did, feeling that what you came to see wasn’t as special as you thought it would be after all. Don’t hurry away. Just stay here, wait a little, stand here at the door of the empty tomb. The risen Christ is in our midst. And God promises new life to you.
But new life takes time to unfold, to grow, to take root, to bloom, to flower. It doesn’t usually happen all at once. It takes nine months for a new human life to be formed and born, and years after to see what this new life will be. It takes a season for seeds to planted to grow into food for harvesting. Decades or centuries for trees to reach maturity. New life takes time. It took time for Mary to understand the good news of Easter before she felt the joy. It took even longer for the disciples to experience the resurrection. In the weeks ahead we’ll see that it takes time and reassurance for resurrection to soak into the core of Jesus’ followers. There is still doubt, and fear, and wonder, and figuring it out, and messing things up.
But their lives are changed. Their lives are new. There is new life, and there is resurrection. The truth of Easter is that God has swallowed up death with life. Even for you. For you, life can be made new in Christ. That is Easter. Maybe it will take a little bit for it to sink in. Maybe we don’t realize it fully yet. Maybe we have to take small steps toward resurrection before we know what it means. Maybe we are still working resurrection out. But the promise of new life is ours. Today is a day of resurrection, and I hope that we let it seep through every part of us. New life is ours for the receiving. Let us go, and share the good news.