Year C, RCL
April 21, 2019
North Fork Ministries
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
It seems to me that Easter Sunday isn’t really designed for beginners. Deciding to come to church on Easter Sunday when you haven’t been to church the rest of the year is a little like showing up for the final lecture in a graduate level course, having played hooky all semester. Hearing this story of the resurrection, without a prior immersion into the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus – without having heard the Sermon on the Mount, or having learned of Jesus’ miracles and healings, or the parables, or getting a sense of the compassion Jesus showed for the poor and marginalized can make it challenging to really understand what this resurrection business is really all about. And if you haven’t made the journey through Holy Week, from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through the darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and then experienced the agony of Christ’s death on the cross, then you haven’t done your homework and we have some catching up to do. So hang on, I’m going to be more pedagogical than usual, but we have to cram for the final exam.
It is fortunate for us that today’s gospel reading contains within it most of the elements essential to an understanding of the Christian journey. Within the intricate details of this remarkable story are revealed the big themes that we, as individuals, are likely to encounter in an effort to follow Jesus.
John’s gospel reports that “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid, “while it was still dark” – just before dawn. The teachings of Jesus are filled with these allusions to the movement from darkness to light. Jesus healed the blind so that might see. The light of Christ, chanted at last night’s Vigil, shows us the way.
Discovering that the stone covering the tomb had been removed, Mary runs to the disciples to tell them, “"They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Mary couldn’t find Jesus in the place she thought he would be. The Jesus that Mary had once known, like the Jesus you might have known as a child, can’t be found and we don’t know where to look for him.
Learning from Mary that the grave was empty, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, ran to the tomb, but the disciple whom Jesus loved was afraid to go inside. Unable to let go of our fears, we too let them prevent us from knowing that new life is possible.
Finally going inside the tomb, the two disciples discovered only the linen wrappings that once enveloped Jesus body. But still they failed to understand that Christ might rise from the dead. We too seek after understanding.
“Mary stood weeping outside the tomb” – just as we allow our sorrow to keep us from seeing that standing beside us are angels in white, questioning the cause of our tears and pointing the way to joy.
And then Jesus says to Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping.” And Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. We are alos called to make Mary’s mistake - to see the face of Christ in everyone we encounter.
When Jesus calls Mary by name, she finally recognizes him, calls him teacher, but tries to hold on to him – not yet able to understand that one can’t cling to a living Christ. Neither can we hold on to a narrow conception of what we once thought of as Jesus. The risen Christ can’t be contained by doctrine or belief, or even an idea of what we thought a “personal savior” might look like.
Finally, Jesus tells Mary to “go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And so, Mary Magdalene, a woman, preaches the first Christian sermon, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” It’s the final stage of Christian formation, the call to share the good news.
And so we have the essential elements of the story of salvation contained within the details of this single narrative: a movement from darkness to light, the quest for the risen Christ, faith overcoming fear, the dawn of understanding, a compassionate recognition of the Christ in others, a willingness to let go of old ways of being, a unquenchable desire to share the good news, and death defeated by new life.
In a book written by the Hebrew scholar, Avivah Zornberg, called, The Particulars of Rapture, Dr. Zornberg examines scripture using the tradition of midrash, an interpretive technique that involves the telling of stories that “fill in the gaps in the written biblical texts, elaborating on scripture through the use of multiple alternative narratives. Midrash looks for meaning between the lines of scripture. Her retellings give life, add flesh to the bones of the ancient accounts of the people of Israel.
Consider the way that God identifies God’s self at Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. The name of God is usually translated into English as, “I Am Who I Am.” But a better translation is “I Am who I Am becoming”. Dr. Zornberg explains that God is being intentionally evasive, refusing to accept the narrow label of a single name. She says that God is really declaring that, “I am the very principle of becoming, of allowing the possible to happen.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Passover this past week. It is traditional in Jewish households to hold a Seder meal involving a ritual retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt – the story of Exodus. You might think that the story of Exodus is retold every year, so that the people will remember it, so that each generation will learn about their heritage of slavery and liberation. But Dr. Zornberg points out something very different, “Over and over again, God says to Moses, Moses says to the people, 'All this is happening so that you shall tell the story.'”
We have the story of the Exodus. We have the story of the crucifixion and the empty tomb and the resurrection, not just so that we can remember them as literal, historical record, but so that we will retell the stories, so that they will stimulate our imagination, compel us to tell new stories, and make these stories our own. Each of these stories contains within them the capacity to rouse within us some sense of the possibility of change.
And it is within the particulars of the stories that we find the elements that resonate within us, catch our attention, and enable us to create our own stories. At the graveyard with Mary Magdalene we sense the darkness surrounding the tomb. We run with Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, in a footrace to arrive first at the empty tomb. With them, we see the linen wrappings once shrouding Jesus’ body, some scattered on the earthen floor of the tomb and some “rolled up in a place by itself.” We see Mary’s tears streaming down her cheeks as she bends over to look inside the tomb. And we squint our eyes at the whiteness of the garments worn by the angels she finds inside. And we smile at Mary’s error in thinking that the risen Lord was a gardener.
The modernist architect Mies van der Rohe got it right when he observed, “God is in the details.” Chances are, if we pay close attention to the details of life, to the particulars of rapture, the rest will fall into place. If we can come to know, to fully experience the joy of the present moment, then the grand themes of redemption, salvation, resurrection – well, we can leave those in God’s hands.