April 16, 2017                    EASTER                        John 20: 1-18

 

Prayer: Dear God, We joyously welcome you into the sanctuary on this Easter morning. Please have us understand its meaning as you wish. We ask that those who are with us rarely especially hear a word of welcome from you – into the mystery that is faith. We pray in the name you wore when you were resurrected, Amen.

 

 

 

 The Third Way

 

      There are two times in most people’s lives when they want church involvement – whether they attend church or not.

 

          Funerals. And weddings.  

 

         Almost every minister I know is humbled to be part of a funeral service. We’ve had two this spring, and there is nothing more important than being with a family and helping them memorialize a loved one. Helping usher them through a ceremony that honors their loss, recognizes their grief.

 

         As for weddings, almost every minister I know privately thinks …  Just shoot me now.

 

         I know it should be a sacred and wonderful time. And sometimes it is. Sometimes.

 

       At my seminary, we spent about 20 minutes of our three years on weddings. My professor told about a rehearsal in which all the bridesmaids were Hooter’s waitresses. When one of them walked down the aisle and pulled up her shirt, he stalked off to his office.

 

        That was about it for my wedding training. Then he added, “Oh, yeah. We’re Protestants. Don’t let anyone sing Ava Maria.”

 

        Ah, but he hadn’t heard Carla sing it. We allow it.     

 

        But funerals are different. Some people think they should be a place only to proclaim the gospel. I don’t agree. I think the gospel can be proclaimed alongside the deceased person’s rich and deep place in it.

 

          When Helen Traynham, the last church mother from the old Triune UMC died last month, I told her family that. They said, “That’s a good thing. She left directions that her service be all about Helen.”

 

        Funerals can bring out the best in us. I never leave one without wanting to embrace the living, to give thanks for all the people still in my life.

 

         We embrace the living even as we accompany the deceased into the loving arms of our God, into those dwelling places he promised.

 

       “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” we say at the graveside, “… earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

 

        What allows that hope … is the basis for today’s gospel passage.

 

        What allows that certainty … is the resurrection.

 

          We’ve been reading from the gospel of John all through Lent, so we’ll turn to his account of the resurrection. 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 towards 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

 

       Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’

 

       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.

 

   

 

   Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark….”
          Until the very end, John uses the contrast of light and dark to tell his story. This is the same gospel writer who began his story by saying that Jesus “was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1: 4-5)

 

          Now Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb while the world is still dark. But everything, everything was about to change, as surely as the early morning darkness would give way to dawn.

 

          She finds that the heavy stone guarding the tomb has been rolled away, and she assumes that Jesus’ enemies have stolen his body. She rushes to find Peter and the so-called “disciple whom Jesus loved.” We think that may be the gospel writer John himself.

 

          And then John gives us two ways in which the disciples responded to the empty tomb -- two ways that exist until this very day.

 

          Peter went in first and saw the linen wrappings lying there. And that’s all John tells us.

 

          He saw the wrappings, and he returned home.

 

          But the disciple whom Jesus loved saw the very same linen wrappings … and he believed.

 

          We’re not sure what he believed, exactly. John is very clear that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” But for John, belief is always paramount.

 

          Remember what Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

        I think Nicodemus did believe, because he conducted Jesus’s funeral. He and Joseph of Arimathea took his body from the cross, wrapped it in spices and linens, and laid it in an empty tomb.

 

          To believe – to believe without evidence, without proof, without authentication – that was the mark of true discipleship for John.

 

          John doesn’t chastise Peter. But he shows this other disciple acting in a superior way. He believed.

 

          But then John shows us a third way – a third way, too, that exists until this very day. And that way is the way Mary Magdalene experienced Jesus – up close, personal, with obedience.

 

          Presumably, she saw the same linen wrappings that Peter and the other disciple saw. And presumably like Peter, she was dazed, shaken, confused.

 

          Then she saw Jesus and he spoke, but she didn’t recognize him. She didn’t recognize his voice. She supposed him to be the gardener.

 

      But then he spoke her name.

 

      She recognized him when he spoke her name. And I think that says it all.

 

        Her third way was personal. It went beyond Peter’s seeing and beyond the other disciple’s believing. It went to knowing, to recognizing, to loving … to being known by Jesus.  

 

       You know, a seed goes into the ground – and emerges a sunflower or a cantaloupe or a pear tree.

 

    A caterpillar goes into a cocoon – and emerges a butterfly.

 

      In the same way, Jesus went into the tomb a broken, bloody dead man – and emerged as something quite different. Something changed. Something resurrected. He became something that his closest friends didn’t recognize – in this story or in the stories that follow.

 

      Unlike Lazarus who went into a tomb a dead man and emerged as a living man, Jesus went in a dead man and came out something else entirely. He came out as someone who knows all our names. He came out as someone who calls all our names.

 

        The resurrection will do that to you.

 

       Not so many years ago, it didn’t cost anything to place an obituary in The Greenville News. Like most newspapers around the country, The News considered it part of its mission to record the deaths in its community. That’s why a typical obit read, “Edith Jones died on March 11.”

 

          But then newspapers decided that obituaries could be sources of revenue. The family now pays for one – pretty steeply. So they get to write whatever they want.

 

     That’s why now you might read, “Edith joined the heavenly choir on March 11.”

 

      Or, “God whispered in Fred’s ear, ‘Come home, my son.’ ”

 

      I told Vince I want him to write, God sent down Elijah’s chariot of fire for Deb …   as the angels played banjos and sang Van Morrison.  

 

         He said maybe I could finance that myself.

 

        We write and create and imagine such fanciful scenarios because we don’t know what the other side of this life holds. We know only that we are promised resurrection with our Lord.

 

          You may remember that back in 2007, the Discovery Channel broadcast a film called, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. It claimed that ossuaries, or ancient boxes, could have contained the bones of Jesus and his family.

 

         Many Christians angrily responded that a box couldn’t possibly hold Jesus’s bones. If Jesus’s bones were found, it would mean he wasn’t physically resurrected. For them, it would undermine the entireBible, the entire Christian faith.

 

          But our Scripture gives us many pictures of the resurrected body of Jesus. His close friend Mary Magdalene didn’t know him, as we just read.

 

       In later passages, he will walk locked doors. His disciples won’t recognize him. He will disappear on the road to Emmaus, and just as mysteriously reappear in Jerusalem.

 

          These are not the actions of a physical body.

 

          On the other hand, the resurrected Jesus will cook and eat fish. He will allow his disciples to touch his hands and feet where the nails were driven. He will speak in words the disciples understand.

 

          These are the actions of a physical body.

 

          So the truth is we don’t know exactly what this resurrected body looked like, how it worked, how it functioned.

 

          When the controversy over Jesus’s bones was raging, Furman religion professor Dr. Helen Lee Turner wrote a column for The Greenville New. “This is a body not constrained by the limitations of time and space…,” she said. “The resurrected Jesus is a transformed body, one for whom the existence or nonexistence of skeletal remains is irrelevant.”

 

          We need not split hairs about doctrine or what could or couldn’t happen with Jesus’s bones. We can merely be exhilarated by the resurrection.

 

       As I pulled into our parking lot early this morning, I ran into my friend, Stephen Clyborne, the pastor of Earle Street Baptist. He was walking to the Ham House after his sunrise service. And he greeted me with these words, “He is risen!” The man was exhilarated by the resurrection.

 

            The resurrection changes things. The resurrection changes everything.

 

       Part of it is that the resurrection introduced to us the possibility of a friendship with Jesus, the possibility that he could call our names in the same way he called Mary Magdalene’s. He could call Pete and Sippio and Mildred and Bobby and Earl and Vernelle and Henry and Patsy. 

 

       Helen Lee wrote that the unearthly nature of Jesus’s newly resurrected body “means that Jesus’ presence was not limited only to people who consorted with him in the first century, but is also available to all Christians of all times and places.”

 

          When he was on earth, he knew a few people like Peter and Thomas and Mary Magdalene well enough to call their names. Now he knows all of us.

 

         Now he calls all of us.

 

         In this story of Easter morning outside the tomb of Jesus, John paints a portrait of three responses to the resurrection.

 

          Like Peter, we can know it’s true, but remain unsure what that means for us. We return to our homes, confused about what in the world an empty tomb and left-behind funeral wrappings mean.

 

          Or like the disciple whom Jesus loved, we can see the empty tomb and discarded garments and believe. We might not understand everything, but we can believe that Jesus is the resurrected Lord, that these fantastic gospel stories are true.

 

          Or like Mary Magdalene, we can choose the third way, the more excellent way. We can see the empty tomb and discarded garments and then listen for Jesus’s voice. We can listen so hard that we hear him call our name. And then we can obey.

 

          Jesus told her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

 

          And without hesitation, without delay, she ran and told them.

 

          She obeyed.

 

          Let us listen for what God is telling us to do with this grand news of the resurrection.   

 

           Amen.

 

 

 

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