Christ is Risen – Easter 2022

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, “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.

Sermon Text

What would we do if we could walk in a garden with Jesus? Would we spend the whole time asking questions? Would we listen carefully as he spoke to us? Or would we both, in silence, walk through the morning dew that had blessed the new day? I like to think I’d listen carefully, but I also know myself well enough to say I’d probably start rattling off questions before I even realized what I was up to. To spend time with Jesus, just us and him, that is one of the dreams we all have as people of faith. Our beloved savior and no one else to distract us or get in the way.

Mary and Jesus in this moment show us a lot about what it was like to travel with Jesus. Though this interaction is brief, we get a glimpse of just how wonderful Christ was with those who followed him. Mary is distressed when she thinks he is gone. She does not notice who he is when he appears. She is instantly comforted when she hears her name said in his voice. Her amazement at Christ’s words to her lead her to go and proclaim his resurrection to all who will hear it, but first and foremost to all the others who knew the comfort and joy of hearing Jesus say their name.

It was not in the style of ancient writers to give us especially long accounts of individuals speaking to one another. Outside of philosophic pieces which go on and on with imagined conversations between great thinkers, the ancient world only records dialogue when it was public or when a general outline of what was said is known publicly. The average piece of writing in the ancient world was focused more on what a person did to impact the public sphere much more than they were what individuals did to impact those around them personally. We, therefore, only get brief glimpses of the personalities of our Biblical siblings, and only then through the lens of what they do out in the open.

This passage stands out to us because of how rarely we see someone just being alone with Jesus. It stands out because we all dream of this kind of open interaction with our God. It stands out because, when Jesus returned to life on that Easter morning long ago, Jesus did not do so with drums and trumpets, but with the quiet speaking of a single person’s name. Jesus showed us that day long ago, as Jesus did throughout his ministry, that there was more to the Kingdom of God than we dare to dream, and that God’s kingdom is always able to grab us unexpectedly and surprise us with just how different it can be.

I have always been fascinated by Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus in this story. Elsewhere, like in Luke when disciples on the road to Emmaus see Jesus, a similar problem occurs. Something about Jesus dying and being raised again has changed the way he looks. He still has scars in his hands and in his side, his body is still the same one that went into the tomb on Friday, yet he has been changed by death and changed once again by resurrection. As I understand it, this is a result of Jesus being the “first fruit,” of God’s resurrecting of the entire world. Jesus the man had become glorified, this was how Jesus was going to look for all eternity now, because Jesus had died and been raised as all of us shall one day be.

Some people talk about Heaven as though we will not exist the same way we do now. Some do this by talking about having completely new bodies, others by making it seem like we have completely incorporeal or spiritual bodies but no physical self. While I cannot speak to the time between our death and the establishment of Heaven on Earth, I can say that both these perspectives miss the ultimate point of our resurrected life in Christ. We are not going to one day get new bodies, or cease to have bodies, but be risen and perfected in the bodies we currently are in today. We are not souls who will some day be free from flesh or souls waiting for some new, different shell, we are a perfect unity of flesh and spirit, or at least we one day will be.

Jesus shows us what that sort of existence looks like. Jesus, despite having never sinned, was not fully revealed in all his glory until after the resurrection. In being resurrected, we see in Jesus what we will all day look like. Jesus was still who he had been before death, but was now somehow changed. Whatever roughness that human existence gives to our being is erased when God re-imagines us for eternity. We are the perfect example of who we should be, not in human terms, but in God’s terms. The beauty innate to all of us is exemplified in the beauty of our resurrected forms.

People often ask ministers like me how we’ll recognize one another in Heaven. Honestly, I think that we often times won’t at first. When we all rise in the resurrection of dead and get to meet one another again, I think there will be many moments like what we see with Jesus and Mary. As we make our way through eternity we’ll bump into all sorts of people, and only after talking for a bit will we have the sense to go, “Wait a minute! Are you who I think you are?” Then, seeing each other as we were always meant to be, I think that we will shed more than a few happy tears in our reunion with one another.

            Our resurrection will be absolute. We will no longer know how to do evil, because the image of God will be fully restored in us. We will no longer know what it means to fear, because we have faced death and been brought into eternal life. We will know what it truly means to be joyful, to be united as a family, to sing God’s praises through all time. The miraculous power of God that shone out on that Levantine morning long ago is going to surge through all the earth one day and it will see all flesh made new. The work of God and God alone is to see us brought into this glory, the work among ourselves in the meantime is to get out of the way of what God is doing in the here and now.

            This morning, as the sun was rising on the world, we looked at how Luke tells the story of Jesus’s first morning back into the world. There we saw God showing God’s glory to the women disciples and the refusal of the men to listen to them. We are all at different times one or the other of these groups. Sometimes we meet God, and we know immediately that something miraculous has happened, going out to tell everyone we can about it. Sometimes we are unwilling to believe that God could still really be working in the world, so lost are we in our own fear and doubt and troubles. Obviously, one is better than the other, but both are endemic to our life on this side of eternity. The key is to try and move always from one to the other. Away from sorrow and into joy, away from jadedness and into trust.

            This isn’t always easy, and we in the Church seldom make it easy for others either. Despite our call to be people of the resurrection, we get caught up in the world-as-it-is. We do not dream of God setting things straight, only of God keeping them from getting worse. Without the divine imagination enlivening our visions of the future, we inevitably fall into despair and in that despair we fail to bring others into the joy of God’s kingdom. We are so convinced of our defeat that we cannot show the world that Christ has already won the victory.

            Now, I’ve got chronic depression, so I am not gonna stand here and pretend I do not struggle with this myself. My brain is wired specifically to focus in on the doom and gloom of life, so I am often chief amongst the doomsayers. Yet, despite all that, there is another inclination within me that I can never snuff out entirely. This is not something innate to my being, but something which I have to carefully watch over and foster. This is the first spark of something new, something special in a way I cannot begin to fully understand. This is the Spirit of God beginning the regeneration of my mind, body, and soul. This is hope made manifest. This is resurrection power.

            Though my inclination to negativity is not inherently bad, God made me this way after all, it can definitely impact my life in negative ways. The same is true for all of us. The God given inclinations of our heart meld with the evil we have grown on our own and the circumstances we find ourselves in to make a complicated mess of emotions and desires that are not always easy to sort out. The good news for us is that, when these complicated things grow up alongside one another, we do not find ourselves with a God who will just cut it all down and replace it with something else, but a God who is much more thorough and careful. I do not think it was a mistake that when Mary saw Jesus that day she mistook him for a gardener.

            The resurrection we are all going to know one day, that is already beginning in our hearts, is the transformation of ourselves into who we are meant to be. This is a constructive journey rather than a reductive one. God is not cutting away aspects of our personality till we are a carbon copy of some ideal apart from who we are. Instead, God is cutting away the things that are not part of who we are. Thinking to one of my favorite songs of the faith, God asks us all “Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?”[1] We are all slowly being shown that we are, in fact, beloved by God because of who we are and not in spite of who we are.

            The ideal self is, of course, not just the elevation of what we want in life, but of ourselves-as-we-ought-to-be. We become the most loving people we could be, the most joyful people we could be, the most Christ-like we could be. This does not erase who we are, but it does transform us. We may, if God truly shapes our soul, change enough that people do not even recognize us. Yet, when we call their name, they will have no doubt whose voice is behind it all. This Easter, let us all seek to be our ideal selves, let us all be who Jesus has always meant us to be. – Amen.

[1] The Summon. John Bell

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