Resurrection and Recognition

March 31, 2013


John 20:1-18


Easter arrives and we suddenly have to shift gears.

We’ve just finished forty days of Lent—forty days in which our focus has been on repentance, study, prayer, acts of service—or at least thinking that our focus should be on such things. After all there are so many things that compete for our attention: work, school, family, friends, our physical well-being, the political life of our nation.

Lent, of course, has a very physical quality about it. We started with those ashes forty days ago, tangible reminders that we are dust and to dust we shall return smeared on our foreheads or the back of our hands.

Last Sunday we had those palms that could be grasped and waved—palms that will become next year’s ashes. We pictured the joyful crowd. We heard the shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!”

On Maundy Thursday we gathered around the table and shared the bread and cup—common elements that we could see and smell and touch and taste. We listened and watched as candles were extinguished and the darkness surrounded us.

On Good Friday there were the cross, the nails, the body, and the cold stone of the tomb.

Over forty days we took all this in. Although the season usually isn’t described this way, Lent is in fact a sensual time.

Now when we come to this day that has so long been our destination, what do we have?

            “He is not here.”

            “Don’t touch me.”

Easter arrives and we shift gears. Suddenly sight and smell , of touch and taste seem of little use. When Easter finally arrives, we find it difficult to sense what it is that we’re celebrating.

Yes, we can say “resurrection,” but how do you see that? Where do you look for resurrection? How do you talk about it? The words don’t come easily.

It’s hard to get a handle on this risen Jesus. We try to grab onto something and find our hands are empty.

We are confronted more by what isn’t there, than by what is. We are startled more by what we don’t see that by what we do see.

Look at the tomb.

We expect to see a stone there, sealing the entrance—but it has been moved.

Even more surprising, the body of Jesus is nowhere to be seen. A few linen cloths used in burial remain—that’s it.

For most people, this could lead to only one conclusion: the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth had been taken out of the tomb. Grave robbers, vandals, Romans—somebody has taken the body.

We announce something different. We sense that God is doing something new here.

John gives us some hints about this new thing that God is doing from the start of his Easter story—indeed from the start of his Gospel.

Remember the opening words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.”

“In the beginning…”

Where have we heard that before? That’s right—those familiar words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” –the story of creation.

John is telling us that his Gospel is also a story of Creation. And as this Gospel comes to an end, we see yet another new beginning: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”

It is the first day of God’s new creation—a new world is coming into being and we are present at the creation.


Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb early on the first day of the week, on Sunday morning before daylight.

She was one who followed Jesus. She followed the whole distance—all the way to the cross, where she stood with other women after nearly everybody else had run off.

She was there when they crucified her Lord.

She was there when they nailed him to the tree.

She was there when, as John tells the story, Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” when his work was over, as God’s work was completed on the sixth day and God rested on the seventh day.

She was there, no doubt, when they laid him in the tomb, for in the pre-dawn darkness she knows just where to go.

Mary goes back to the tomb. Back to where everything ended.

She goes back because she knows that the tomb was where she would now find Jesus. No longer would he be among those who followed him—making their lives whole, teaching them about God’s forgiving love, announcing that God’s realm was breaking into this old world,  holding out hope that life could be different, the world would be different. No longer would they know his laughter, his tears, the touch of his hand, the sound of his voice. No longer would they feel the way they felt when he was with them—so alive.

Because now Jesus was dead—and the only way to be near a dead person is to return to the place where the person is buried.

But even in the dark it is clear that something is missing. The stone is rolled away and the meaning is clear: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Two men run to the tomb. Peter gets there last, but goes in first. He, too, is struck more by what he doesn’t see that by what he does see.

Mary was right.

The body is gone.

I think I might have told you about the time years ago  when during an Easter sermon I asked with great rhetorical flourish: “Where is Jesus?” A three year old girl visiting with her grandparents that day, who was obviously unfamiliar with the niceties of worship yelled out for all to hear: “I DON’T KNOW!” Since then I have been much more cautious about asking questions when I preach. Let those in our congregation who are preparing for ordained ministry learn from my mistake.

And yet, that little girl’s vocal uncertainty over the whereabouts of Jesus matches that of Mary and others on that first Easter. And she gives voice to our own uncertainty as well.

Peter goes back home.

And Mary is again left by herself, weeping outside the tomb.

Which is pretty close to our situation on Easter morning.

We come looking for something and often don’t find it.

Some come looking for spring—greens and yellows, soft bunnies. But instead we find patches of mud, leafless trees, and sand left over from winter. This year, especially, spring still seems a long way off.

Others come looking for positive “proof” of the resurrection, something we can hold onto when doubts plague us, when the fear of our own death nags at the back of our minds. We’ve spent the last 18 months here exploring science and faith because we believe that they are not mutually exclusive. But we know that science can neither prove nor disprove what happened on that morning on the first day of the week.

We find no such proof—only the witness of a woman who says with joy, “I have seen the Lord!”

Or maybe we’ve given up the search for anything new. We prowl around the tombs of our own lives, looking for old resentments, recalling past hurts, nursing grudges. Certainly there’s no life there. But better to be surrounded by those dead things that give a kind of comfort than to look for something that probably isn’t there anyway.

We weep, Mary weeps, because we don’t see what we want to see, we can’t touch what we want to touch.

On Easter morning our vision can be obscured.

So Mary looks right at Jesus—and thinks she is talking to a gardener.

She looks right at the risen Christ—and thinks she is seeing someone who might know where the dead body of Jesus is. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Is it possible to look at the living Christ and to see someone else?

We do it all the time.

We look at the face of Christ but we see the face of someone we don’t think is as good as us.

We look at the face of Christ, but we see a teenager asking troubling questions.

We look at the face of Christ, but we see a parent or some other hopelessly out of date adult.

The Risen One is not always easily identified, but is present in a thousand faces.

And then Christ speaks your name: Says that name by which you were called in your baptism. Calls to each of us individually and all of us together:

            “Congregational United Church of Christ.”

[Just yesterday afternoon Robin and I were walking on the Ped Mall, somewhat involved in conversation over the approaching sunrise service, when suddenly I heard my name: “Bill.” Startled, I looked up, look around, seeking to locate the speaker. It was Mike McBride a former member here back in town for Easter.

“Bill”—in a small way I was called out of myself, beyond my current preoccupation.]

Each one of us is called by name by the God whose love is stronger than death, the God who is making a new creation. You are called, perhaps in spite of yourself, back to life in its abundant fullness. Your life—and how you live—is of great, even eternal, importance. You turn and find that you are in the presence of the living God.

It doesn’t make sense—that one who was dead should now be living; that the living One calls to you.

Yet this is just what is happening.

It doesn’t make sense—that new life is possible even after the worst tragedies. Yet this is just what is happening.

Of course, now as then, it is not possible to remain in the presence of the living Christ perpetually. Mary could not hold onto the risen Jesus, nor could any of the other disciples, nor can we. To hold onto is to lose Christ.

The living Christ will not be held captive by the church or by scripture or by our own always-incomplete understanding.

Jesus is free in the world, where we are called to follow. Christ is present in the poor and the afflicted, in every life that we would deem insignificant or unimportant. And—wonder of wonders—Christ is present even in you and me.

Christ is free in the world, calling your name, calling all of us to ministry in his name.

In the end, it really isn’t possible to get a handle on this risen Christ. For Christ is not ours to possess. We are Christ’s and Christ claims us and calls us to love this world and the people in it.

We can’t get a handle on this risen Christ. But with Mary, with countless women and men—rich and poor, weak and powerful—over countless generations we can shout with joy:

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed!