The Hope-Filled Rising

This sermon was originally preached on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church in Alaska.

John 20:1-18

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, “Rabbi!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to God. 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.

We’ve made it to Easter! We have prepared our eggs and baskets and made treats to enjoy together. Now it is finally here, and we get to celebrate. We read the scripture passage from John, a passage many of us know very well. If we retell it, it goes something like this: “Mary went to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and then saw Jesus standing outside it. Jesus told Mary to spread the news that Jesus was alive, and she did. And they all lived happily ever after.”

And that’s a really good start to the summary, and it’s not wrong technically, but it was a little messier than that. And I think that today of all days, if we simplify the story to this wonderful story of all joy and all celebration, we miss a lot of the miracle. Because overwhelmingly, the story of Easter, the story of the resurrection, it’s a story about doubt, about confusion, about searching, and about leaving space for all of those things.

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The passage in John begins with Mary, who went to the tomb because she was grieving. Yet she made the decision to break through some of that fear and sadness to go and take care of Jesus’ body. When she shows up, she notices the stone in front of the tomb is gone. Suddenly, Mary’s ‘neater’ grief process has been interrupted. Now, it’s not just that Jesus has died, but now someone has stolen his body, she assumes. So angry and probably scared, she runs to go and tell the disciples. She gets two of the disciples, who suddenly are also shocked, like Mary. Simon Peter, who is a key player in our stories, and this other disciple, who the author describes with no name, but as ‘the one whom Jesus loved’, they run to the tomb to check it out.

Simon Peter enters first, and lo and behold, he sees the cloth wrappings rolled up in the corner, but no Jesus. Next, we read that this other disciple, the unnamed one goes in, and it says they believe. It doesn’t say what exactly they believe, but it’s a good chance that this disciple remembered what Jesus had said on the night of their last meal together, about Jesus conquering the world. It is curious to me that the one who remembered such a huge part of the story is unnamed. One scholar believes that the disciple wasn’t named because they were meant to represent us, you and I, believers who remember what Jesus said.

So each of these three continue to be in grief, though they’re all at different stages and seeing the situation from different ways. The two disciples leave, and Mary is left there again by herself. She cries, again feeling the loss, the hurt, the confusion, and maybe even the doubt. Then she looks into the tomb, and in front of her are the angels, who ask her a ridiculous question, “why are you weeping”. Imagine the son of man dying in front of your eyes, and the angels can’t guess why you’re crying. Mary doesn’t make a sarcastic comment in response, and she tells the angels that someone took Jesus and she doesn’t know where he is.

Immediately, as she turned around, Jesus is standing there, but Mary doesn’t know it was him. Jesus likely looked significantly different than how she was used to seeing him, and instead, she thought he was the gardener. Jesus asks Mary the same question the angels did, and this time, Mary reacted differently, assuming that it was the gardener who took him. She pleads that he give Jesus back, and she would take care of him from there. We are given a front row seat to perhaps the arc of Mary’s grief, not recognizing what was right in front of her, because her pain and confusion was too loud.

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Jesus, in response, does something very simple and very powerful. He says her name, and upon doing so, Mary sees him. She embraces him, and she goes to do what Jesus has told her to do: tell the others.

What Mary thought was the end of the story actually turned out to be the beginning. We know death is not the end of the story today, but the resurrection isn’t the end of the story either. Jesus lives and breathes and moves and exists, far after the resurrection.

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So today, Easter Sunday, we remember the resurrection, and we realize it’s a little more complicated than a basic summary lets on. The story is messy. It’s full of loss and confusion and disbelief. It’s surprising. And yet, it’s a reminder we can hold on to, today and going forward.

Jesus teaches us that the resurrection is not the bow on the present of a story with a happy ending. The resurrection instead is power, power to transform death into the possibility for love to come again. And because God’s love comes again and again to raise us from death, we continue to rise in hope, but we have to remember that the promise of resurrection, the promise of hope is not the bow. With it, with the promise of resurrection, we still have to confront death, we still have to read into the complicated parts of the story, and we still have to sit in that grief for longer than is comfortable.

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Still, today, is a day to celebrate, among everything else. Because Jesus teaches us that today, the day of the resurrection, today is just the beginning. Easter is the day we celebrate that love is stronger than death, but we get to decide that every day! We get to decide if hope is stronger than despair, and if our hearts can be transformed through resurrection. We get to be Easter people every day!

Friends, let us do that together today. Let us celebrate today as a new beginning, a time for new life to spring up around us. Let us remember to leave room for grief and pain and sorrow in our Easter stories. And let us leave this place knowing that the son of man, Jesus Christ, is risen today, and that is good news.

Let us pray: God of life, death, and resurrection, you have led us through your story, and just when we thought we had reached the end, you revealed a new beginning. Allow us today, to believe in the possibilities you spring forth through this story, and guide us as we celebrate and remember and see newness in this Easter season. In your resurrected name we pray, Amen.

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