Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, April 20
Resurrecting God, you conquered death and opened the gates of life everlasting. In the power of the Holy Spirit, raise us with Christ that we, too, may proclaim healing and peace to the nations. Amen.
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.
All readings for the Week
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
1. Why do you think Mary Magdalene, rather than, say, Peter, was chosen to be the witness to the resurrection?
2. What do you expect from life? What do you dare hope for?
3. When have you been caught off guard by "unbelievably" good news and unforeseen joy, something "too good to be true"?
4. Were you hesitant, or eager, to share what you experienced?
5. What evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news? What did you need to "see" in order to "go tell"?
Reflection by Kate Huey
Poor Mary Magdalene. On this first day of a new week, her hopes, once high, are now crushed by the death of Jesus. In John's Gospel, she comes to the grave alone (in all four Gospels, a woman, Mary Magdalene, comes to the grave of Jesus). We wonder what she's thinking, and what she expects to find. It seems certain at least that she does not expect an empty tomb. Barbara Brown Taylor explores what's in Mary's heart: "Resurrection [unlike springtime]...is entirely unnatural. When a human being goes into the ground, that is that....You say good-bye....and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them...." Mary is lost, "like an abandoned pup who had lost her master, staying rooted to the last place he had been without the least idea what to do next...."
Mary Magdalene's thoughts and feelings seem less mysterious than do those of the two disciples, Peter and "the one Jesus loved," who respond to her alarmed notice that "they" have taken Jesus' body (and we don't know where "they" took it). Perhaps Peter and the other disciple are problem-solving, facing a crisis that they believe they can handle more competently than they faced the Teacher's death. The worst has happened, but maybe they can handle its aftermath more courageously than they handled Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. When they arrive at the grave, racing, it seems, against each other (John mentions three times that the other disciple got there before Peter), they see the grave cloths left behind by Jesus, who, unlike Lazarus, did not need to be "unbound." They "saw and believed," but they did not "yet understand." This "seeing and believing" theme, like the theme of the resurrection, runs throughout John's Gospel, but it isn't clear what the two disciples "believed" when they returned to their houses. We know, from the end of today's passage, that Jesus still felt it necessary to commission Mary Magdalene to tell his disciples (the community, really, not just the small band of "apostles") the good news. One wonders about the confidence he has in the disciples' ability to carry through even after seeing the empty grave.
This is a good moment to consider in greater depth why Jesus entrusted such marvelous news to a woman, of all people, something quite remarkable, given the status of women then and, ironically, ever since, in the eyes of the churches, despite Mary's faithful abiding, and her witness to the rest. Mary stands for even more than herself here, writes John J. Pilch: "This special knowledge, given by Jesus uniquely to Mary Magdalene, makes her a 'typical' or representative character." She has become an "insider, someone who is definitely 'in the know...an 'enlightened' person [who] does not depend upon the group or any other person for her special knowledge of Jesus....How," Pilch wonders, "did our allegedly patriarchal ancestors ever accept the help of women in making sense out of an empty tomb?"
The thread of hope
Good question, but even better than a "type" (I'm always wary of creating "types" of women), Mary Magdalene represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like a vein of gold: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones whom God trusts and lifts up to shine like the sun. Remember, for example, Mary the Mother of Jesus singing the Magnificat? How ironic, and how wonderful, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to this "insider," this "enlightened one," who is also one of the "least," one of the "small ones"...and yet, how biblical!
There's no conversation between the two male disciples and God's messengers (the angels), or with Jesus himself. That encounter waits for Mary to return to the grave, still faithful, still present, still waiting. Still weeping, too. Why does she look in the tomb again? What does she expect to see--the body returned? Evidence of where it was taken, or who took it? We don't know, nor do we know whether she perceives the angels to be more than ordinary people, for her grief makes her focus laser-like on where Jesus' body has been taken. Even when she turns and faces Jesus himself, she doesn't recognize him. It's surely no accident that the question he asks of her is the same one asked twice before in John's Gospel, observes Mary Margaret Pazdan: first, the inquisitive disciples-to-be are asked, "What are you looking for?" (1:38), and later, the mob who came to arrest Jesus, "Whom are you looking for?" (18:4).
In the garden: beauty, and wonder
The beautiful story in the garden (so beautiful that it inspired a much-loved hymn by that name) doesn't worry about the technical details of "how" Jesus was raised. It "focuses instead," O. Wesley Allen says, "on how Mary experienced Jesus' resurrection." And key to this experience is a profound change in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and all of the disciples of Jesus right down to today. From now on, Mary Margaret Pazdan writes, the disciples of Jesus are even more than they were before, "children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus...,[not] persons who are under parental care as dependents...[but] adult believers who belong to the household of God."
What does Easter mean? What is the Resurrection of Jesus about? Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have written an excellent book on the last week of Jesus (titled, appropriately, "The Last Week") that culminates in the Easter experience and its two-fold significance, both personal and communal. Our joyful proclamation, along with Mary Magdalene, that "Jesus lives" claims that he "is a figure of the present, not simply of the past...The spirit, the presence, his followers knew in him before his death continues to be known...." In John's theology and in the theology of the church, this holds a call for us, personally and communally. "The Way" Christians follow is the path of transformation, "the path of personal transformation," Borg and Crossan write.
Saying yes and saying no
The garden encounter that Mary Magdalene experienced is familiar in different ways for us today, when we experience resurrection and new life, when we encounter the risen Christ in our own lives. But there is the other side, too, for "God has said 'yes' to Jesus and 'no' to the powers who killed him," Borg and Crossan write. Even after he is raised, Jesus "continues to bear the wounds of the empire that executed him," and yet, "if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not." And that, Borg and Crossan write, tells us something about God: "Easter means God's Great Cleanup of the world has begun--but it will not happen without us."
We may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, "walking and talking" with our risen Lord as the hymn describes. But following Jesus after that encounter, according to Borg and Crossan, means sharing Jesus' passion for "the kingdom of God, what life would be like on earth if God were king, and the rulers, domination systems, and empires of this world were not. It is the world the prophets dreamed of--a world of distributive justice in which everyone has enough and systems are fair." This beautiful world, Borg and Crossan write, "is God's dream...that can only be realized by being grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice. Jesus' passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter" (The Last Week).
That sounds as if there is more for us to do than merely take good news back to the others: it's a call for our whole lives. The world should be able to see in our lives our own passion for the truth that Jesus is risen and that God has begun the "Great Clean-up," the one that won't happen without us. If we go back to our lives tomorrow as if nothing has changed, what then have we really experienced?
Letting go of the way things used to be
Barbara Brown Taylor finishes her sermon (in Home by Another Way) with a reflection on Mary Magdalene letting go of Jesus, even though we don't really read that she was holding onto him and the way things used to be, before the dreadful events just past. Mary Magdalene calls Jesus "Rabbouni! - "his Friday name, and here it was Sunday ñ an entirely new day in an entirely new life. He was not on his way back to her and the others. He was on his way to God, and he was taking the whole world with him." While Taylor claims that resurrection is unnatural, so is the truth that it reveals this "happy morning," the new life within us, planted by God, new life that "cannot be killed, and if we can remember that then there is nothing we cannot do: move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world. The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him...." Instead, we must "let him take us where he is going....into the white hot presence of God, who is not behind us but ahead of us, every step of the way."
This was the moment that changed the world, and, hopefully, our expectations, even today, two thousand years later. Thomas Long describes the new way things are in the light of resurrection: "The way the world used to be, if something troubling got in the way, like a call for racial justice or a worker for peace or an advocate for mercy, the world could just kill it and it would be done with. But Jesus is alive, and righteousness, mercy, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword." Where are you "in this new and frightening resurrection world"? (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Where does your church stand in this resurrection world? What will you do?
For a preaching version of this reflection (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/april-20-2014.html and find us on https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For Further Reflection
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen."
John Paul II, 20th century
"Do not abandon yourselves to despair....We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."
Arundhati Roy, 21st century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
Frederick Buechner, 20th century
"It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection."
Mary Gordon, 21st century
"For me the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps. Perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
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