I Have Seen the Lord
This year we’re reading the resurrection story from the gospel of John. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all write about the resurrection in their own ways, but John’s gospel might be the one with which you’re most familiar. John’s gospel zooms in on Mary Magdalene. Although much has been written about Mary Magdalene, we really know very little about her, other than that Jesus healed her from what the Bible describes as possession by demons, and that Mary has been a follower of Jesus since then, providing, along with some other women, material support for Jesus and the other disciples. While other gospels have Mary as one of many women visiting the tomb of Jesus early on the first day of the week, the others aren’t mentioned by John. And although Peter and the beloved disciple make an appearance at the empty tomb after being summoned by Mary, who is distressed and confused when she first sees the stone rolled away from Jesus’ grave, the two men don’t stick around for long before returning to the locked up house where the disciples have been hiding out in fear after Jesus’ crucifixion. So by the time we encounter the risen Christ in John’s account, even the angels Mary sees inside the tomb seem to fade away once she sees Jesus. After a brief exchange with the angels, who Mary doesn’t seem to identify in her grief, she turns away from the empty tomb and comes face to face with Jesus. Her grief is such that she doesn’t even recognize him. How could she, since he was supposed to be dead? Jesus asks her the same questions the angels asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener, something I imagine she laughed about later. But now, she’s utterly devastated, pleading: “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me, and I will go get him and care for his body.” And then Jesus simply says to her, “Mary.” He calls her by name, as God promises to do with us. And as soon as she is called by name by Jesus, someone who has always seen her, she recognizes him. “Rabbouni!” she exclaims. “Teacher!” Her exchange with Jesus is brief but powerful. He tells her “Don’t hold on to me. But go, and tell the others.” And Mary does just that: She announces the good news. She’s the first messenger of the resurrection. She says, “I have seen the Lord.”
Normally, that’s where we’d end our story on Easter Sunday, and we’d read the second part of our text next week. But it’s still Easter day as we continue on in John, and I think we might relate to what we find. On that same day, in the evening, all the disciples are together, in a house locked up tight because they’re afraid of the religious leaders who had just succeeded in putting Jesus to death. By now, they’ve heard Mary’s announcement: “I have seen the Lord!” But of course Peter and the other disciple were at the grave and they didn’t see anything. Can they believe Mary? Even if they believe her, it hasn’t yet made them unafraid. But Jesus is suddenly among them. No locked doors can keep him out. And he’s speaking words of peace to them, and breathing on them, and telling them that God will send them out just as God sent him out, and giving them the Holy Spirit, and giving them authority. Thomas, for some reason, isn’t with them, and so eventually Jesus appears to them again when Thomas is present too, even letting a skeptical Thomas confirm that it is really Jesus by touching the wounds Jesus has in his hands and side from the crucifixion. Finally, Thomas believes too. Jesus doesn’t chide, but simply says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I know for many of us, when we first realized we wouldn’t be able to gather together physically for worship this year for Holy Week, for Palm Sunday, for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and especially, especially for Easter morning, it was disappointing to say the least. Heartbreaking. I so love our Easter practices that embody the joy of the resurrection of Jesus. When you find out that death has no power over life, when you find out that Jesus is alive always, when you find out that new life is possible, when you find out that God makes you new, resurrects your life too, you want to celebrate! I love gathering on the hill at Wally Hurlbut’s for our sunrise service, around the fire, sharing communion. I love the huge breakfast we share in in the basement at North Gouverneur, with more food than we could possibly eat. I love the bright colors of children dressed up for worship in the sanctuary here, and the beautiful Easter flowers given by the congregation for loved ones - the smell of Easter. I love the full sanctuary, the power of our voices joined together in “Christ the Lord has risen today!” I love unburying the Allleluias, and singing them with gusto. All of those traditions - they embody the joy we feel at hearing, remembering the good news: “I have seen the Lord!” The grave is empty. Death can’t hold back the work of God. Christ is risen, and we rise with him - Alleluia!
I’m missing those traditions this morning. But John’s gospel reminds me that what we’re not missing is Easter. Easter isn’t canceled. Instead, perhaps, we’re channeling that first Easter more than ever. Our hearts are broken. Our world is full of fear and anxiety right now. We’re wrestling with isolation, locked behind doors, wondering what comes next. And friends, Easter comes for us today just as surely as it did for Mary and the disciples on that first Easter morning. Trusting that death can’t stop the power of life, of love, of hope, of joy - it’s hard to believe sometimes in dark days. Sometimes we’re like Peter and the other disciple, seeing and trying to believe but not quite understanding. We’re like Thomas, needing extra doses of confirmation before we can rejoice in the truth. We’re like Mary, so mired in grief we don’t see what’s right before us. But Jesus seeks out all of these followers, and gives them what they need to experience the truth of resurrection and life. And Jesus seeks out us too, and gives us what we need.
Like for many of you, I have all sorts of rhythms and routines that have been shaken up in these days of pandemic, and none more so than my typical Sunday morning. Normally, I lead worship at North Gouverneur at 9:30, and then hustle over to First UMC to practice with the choir briefly before worship starts here at 11am. But since we’re doing just one livestream, of course, suddenly, I have a whole morning before worship begins. Even the preparation I do for worship has shortened, because without powerpoints for liturgy and announcements to prepare, I have even fewer tasks to complete before worship. And so I’ve found myself, the last few weeks, listening to worship at my Uncle Bill’s Church in Baldwinsville, NY. It’s a blessing I cherish, even as a long for the return of my Sunday routine. A couple weeks ago, Uncle Bill was preaching on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. And he shared a quote from a Christian writer and speaker Ravi Zacharias: “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, He came to make dead people alive.” Those words really caught my attention. “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, He came to make dead people alive.” Sometimes we water down what Jesus was about until we picture him as just a disciplinarian, here to make sure we follow all the commandments, that we’re nice and well-behaved, and that we’re good enough to be worthy of God’s love. But Jesus wouldn’t even let people call him good when they tried. What Jesus does say is that he came to bring us life, abundant life in fact. Mary Magdalene and Peter and the beloved disciple and Thomas and all the others who experienced the resurrected Christ on that first Easter - Jesus gave them new life. Oh, they still suffered pain and hardship. And they certainly weren’t perfect, always choosing what was right. But they were those who had been made alive in Christ - truly living in this life, and truly living in life eternal. And that’s what Jesus wants for us, offers to us, even when it seems like death and sorrow is all around. Jesus is alive, and wants us to truly live too.
If you’re a regular at church here or in North Gouverneur, you might recognize the name Rev. Thom Shuman. He writes beautiful liturgies for worship, and I often use his calls to worship and prayers in our bulletins. He wrote a beautiful reflection for Easter that I want to share with you. He says, “I imagine a lot of clergy, isolating at home, pacing back and forth ... wondering how in the world they might come up with the most important Easter sermon they have ever given in their lives, especially since it will all be online, no one with them, no one in front of them, no one to look at to see how they are doing. The pressure is on!! It will continue to mount . . . what shall we do? How about this? The camera opens on the pastor, simply sitting in a chair, in a pew, on the steps, on the floor. Nearby, is a pile of folded clothes. As the camera pans in, the pastor looks up from the book they are reading, stares directly into the camera, and he says, "oh, it's you." Then, pointing to the clothes, she says, "sorry, Jesus is not here; just like he told you." Then looking directly into the camera, they say, “He's out there: with you, your family, your neighbors; he's out there: in the midst of this pandemic, in the middle of all the fears; he's out there: home-schooling kids, caring for folks in retirement communities and the vulnerable in residential settings; he's out there: making masks and ventilators, building field hospitals, working on a vaccine; he's out there: stocking the grocery stores, delivering packages, listening to folks on the hotlines; he is not here. he's out there, just like he told you; why are you looking for him here, and not out there with him?" And then they turn back to their books as the camera pulls back from them, and pans to a shot of the doors leading into the world.” (1) Friends, Christ is alive, and thankfully, he’s not contained in this or any building. He’s in the world, beckoning us to join him, asking us to tell what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, and how Jesus has brought us to life too. Have you seen the Lord? Tell it! Share it! Live it!
As I was thinking about Easter in the midst of pandemic, I couldn’t help but think about the story from Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and about how Christmas came, to the surprise of the Grinch, even without decoration and presents under the tree. He couldn’t stop it. And sure enough, a few days later, I saw that someone had reworked Suess’s words for these days. Here’s just a part of “How the Virus Stole Easter,” by Kristi Bothur, about Easter morning when the world suspected Easter couldn’t come at all.
“... And [the world] did hear a sound coming through all the skies.
It started down low, then it started to rise...
Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small,
Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all! ...
“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,
It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”
Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.
“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.” ...
The churches are empty - but so is the tomb,
And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.
So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,
As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.
May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.
May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.
[May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.
May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.]” (2)
Christ is alive. He lives to make us alive too. I think we’ve seen him, seen God at work in countless ways. Let’s tell what we’ve seen. Let’s share the good news. Let’s remember that Jesus doesn’t live in this building, as much as he is treasured and celebrated and worshiped here. Easter has come, and will come, day after day. Have you seen the Lord? Tell it! Share it! Live it! Amen.
Shuman, Thom M., https://www.facebook.com/thom.shuman/posts/10163173267100262.
Bothur, Kristi, “How the Virus Stole Easter,” This Side of Heaven, https://www.thissideofheavenblog.com/blog/how-the-virus-stole-easter.