United Church of Christ

Love Comes to Life

Sunday, April 1, 2018
Easter Sunday Year B

Focus Theme:
Love Comes to Life

Focus Prayer:
We exult in your love, O God of the living, for you made the tomb of death the womb from which you brought forth your Son, the first-born of a new creation, and you anointed the universe with the fragrant Spirit of his resurrection. Make us joyful witness to this good news, that all humanity may one day gather at the feast of new life in the kingdom where you reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Focus Questions:

1. What do you expect to see each day?

2. Have you ever been caught off-guard by good news that changed everything?

3. Who are the marginalized people in our time who are witnessing to us about God's love?

4. What would "The Great Clean-Up" look like today?

5. Do you think the world is ready to hear a "political" meaning in Easter?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Poor Mary Magdalene. Perhaps she has it worst on this first day of the week, her hopes once high, now crushed. In John's Gospel, she comes to Jesus' grave alone (we note that she was here in all four Gospel accounts); she hasn't come to tend the body but simply to grieve her loss, perhaps to feel closer to Jesus by keeping vigil at his tomb. Since "it was still dark," maybe she had spent the night tossing and turning, sleepless from sorrow and grief.

We wonder what she's thinking, and what she expects to find. It seems certain that she does not expect, of all things, an empty tomb. In Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, she describes the finality of death ("the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them") and likens Mary to the "abandoned pup" who still waits for her master to return. While we rejoice at the Resurrection, we should not hurry past the deep, broken-hearted grief of Jesus' followers, embodied so lovingly by the women at the tomb just as much as at the Cross. Their sorrow is ours as well.

What were they thinking?

Mary Magdalene's thoughts and feelings seem less mysterious than those of the two disciples, Peter and "the one Jesus loved," whom we traditionally think of as John. Philip Culbertson has an interesting take on this scene: when Mary runs to tell the disciples that "they" have taken Jesus' body (and we don't know where "they" took it, or even who "they" are), she's "fearful," but the male disciples are "excited"--a not insignificant difference.

Perhaps, when they rush to the grave, Peter and the other disciple are trying to make up for their earlier failures. The worst has now happened, and maybe they hope to prove themselves in the aftermath of the Teacher's death. 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 by others. This detailed description matters, for thieves would certainly not have taken the time or care to wrap up the head cloth and set it neatly aside.

Who will witness to the Resurrection?

Whether they considered such details or not, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," the texts says, "saw and believed," and then the two men went back home, a very different response from that of Mary, who felt compelled to share the news, and also to remain at the tomb. At this point, Peter and John didn't make the connection between what their eyes were seeing and what their ears had heard from Jesus on more than one occasion, about his suffering, dying, and rising again.

This seeing-and-believing theme, like that of resurrection, also 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 (and that means the community, really, not just the small band of "apostles") the good news. We have to wonder about the confidence he has in the disciples' ability to carry through even after seeing the empty grave.

Trusting the women

This is a good moment to consider the fact that, in all four Gospels, Jesus entrusted such marvelous news and responsibility to a woman, of all people. This charge is both remarkable and ironic, given the lamentable status of women in communities of faith then and ever since, despite Mary's faithful abiding, and her witness to the rest. And that's not the only marvel, for Jesus talks with Mary "in the garden," alone, one single man, and one single woman, a quietly intimate, heartfelt conversation. If we stop to think about it for a minute, not as 21st-century readers who have experienced a least a measure of progress for women, we realize that this intimate conversation, in a very secluded place, must have shocked John's earliest audience.

At this crucial moment in the Gospel story, in salvation history, a woman, Mary Magdalene, represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like indestructible gold: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones whom God lifts up to shine like the sun (remember another Mary's Magnificat, for example?). How ironic, and how wonderful, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to one of the "least," one of the "small ones"...and yet, how very biblical!

What makes an apostle an apostle?

Many scholars note that Mary Madgdalene meets the two Pauline criteria for being an apostle, having experienced the Resurrection and received the charge from Jesus himself to preach the gospel. Although she was marginalized for centuries because she was a woman, Mary Magdalene was an apostle, a silenced but still powerful example of the gifts and deep faith of women in the church. Not that that has kept church leaders from distorting this text in order to accommodate patriarchal practice: I have read more than one church document claiming that Mary was simply a messenger to the "real" witnesses, the (male) apostles.

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 focuses on where Jesus' body has been taken.

What are we looking for?

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, as Mary Margaret Pazcan notes: first, he asks the inquisitive disciples-to-be ("What are you looking for?" 1:38), and later, of the mob who came to arrest Jesus ("Whom are you looking for?"

The story in the garden that inspired a hymn by that name doesn't worry about the technical details of how Jesus was raised. Instead, it tells the story of a deeply personal experience of the resurrection. Perhaps that's the reason there's a measure of discomfort with that hymn, since many folks miss the third verse that tells Mary, and us, not to linger there, waiting for Jesus, but to go back into the world that is suffering. We have been assured that we will find him there, in that suffering and need.

What do the Gospels tell us about this?

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book on the last week of Jesus, appropriately titled, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem, culminates in the Easter experience and its two-fold significance, both personal and communal. Crossan and Borg say that our joyful proclamation, along with Mary Magdalene, that "Jesus lives" is a claim about Jesus today, in our own life and time.

Like the earliest Christians, we follow "The Way," a way, according to Borg and Crossan, that leads to our transformation. Mary Magdalene's garden encounter with the risen Christ is familiar to us in different forms 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 the resurrection is God's way of defeating and denying the powers that be that were responsible for his death, including empires both ancient and contemporary. We are reminded that Jesus is really in charge, not the petty powers that seem to rule the world in every age.

What is God about in the world?

And that, Borg and Crossan write, tells us something about God and what God is about, for God is about repairing the damage that has been done, and is calling us to join in the work. We may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, walking and talking with our risen Lord. But following Jesus after that encounter, they write, means caring about Jesus' great passion, which is the great passion of God, what Borg and Crossan call "the Dream of God," the well-known kingdom of God, when all of God's children will live in shalom, with enough for all, and healing, peace, justice, and mercy will reign. (Borg and Crossan even dare to use the word "distributive"--a word that sounds a lot like the controversial "redistribution" that has become a political hot button in our country.)

This beautiful hope, Borg and Crossan write, calls us to be "grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice," which is, they claim, "the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter." 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 indeed begun the "Great Clean-up," the work that requires our participation. If we go back to our lives tomorrow as if nothing has changed, what then have we really experienced? Do you think the world is ready to hear a "political" meaning in Easter?

Life experience in dialogue with faith

John K. Stendahl's reflection on this text is especially insightful. He contrasts the boyish racing between Peter and the other disciple with the depth of feeling in Mary Magdalene's response to the resurrection. The difference between the two notes struck by this account--almost comical, and deeply tragic--is a wonderful point for our reflection: not just one or the other meaning is worth our attention, Stendahl claims, but both, because different people respond differently to the resurrection.

I remember what that was like in Bible study in the local church, with one church member who was a scientist viewing the resurrection story through a different lens from that of another person, who simply took the story at face value. Both of them, in different but mysterious ways, grasped the truth of the resurrection and proclaimed, "Jesus is risen!" There is a delicate and deep interplay between faith and life experience, even life stages and cultural conditioning. The people in our pews, members and visitors alike on this Easter Sunday, are each in a place and time in their lives when they need to hear the core message, a word of hope and new life, even if each one hears it differently, out of their own life experience and situation.

What do you dare to hope for?

What do you expect from life? In your relationships, in your family, your neighborhood, your community, the nation, and the world, in your own congregation and in the United Church of Christ and the whole church, the Body of Christ, what do you dare to hope for? When you come to church on Sunday morning, what do you expect to happen that day? As you live your life each day, what do you expect to see? Have you ever done the things you planned to do, and then witnessed something, or even experienced something, that you never thought would happen? When have you been surprised, caught "off guard" by good news and unforeseen joy?

Has anything ever happened in your life, or the life of your church, that seemed too good to be true? Have you ever received news so good that it required a re-appraisal of your worldview? What evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news? What did you need to "see" in order to "go tell"? This was the moment that changed the world, and, hopefully, our expectations, even today, two thousand years later. Where do you stand in a world made new by the events of Easter Sunday so long ago? Where does your church stand in such a world? What, then, will you do?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) along with reflections on the other lectionary texts, at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Rob Bell, 21st century
"It is such a letdown to rise from the dead and have your friends not recognize you."

Megan McKenna, And Morning Came: Scriptures of the Resurrection, 21st century
"The Resurrection is not a single event, but a loosening of God's power and light into the earth and history that continues to alter all things, infusing them with the grace and power of God's own holiness. It is as though a door was opened, and what poured out will never be stopped, and that door cannot be closed."

Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
"It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It's the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can't be packaged, and it can't be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement."

Christian Wiman, 21st century
"Wonder is the precondition for all wisdom."

Pope Francis, 21st century
"Jesus is the everlasting 'today' of God."

Brennan Manning, 20th century
"For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ."

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays, 20th century
"Perhaps [the critics are right and] the drama is played out now and Jesus is safely dead and buried. Perhaps. It is ironical and entertaining to consider that at least once in the world's history those words might have been said with complete conviction, and that was on the eve of the Resurrection."

Arundhati Roy, 21st century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century
"Power consists in deciding which story shall be told."

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 20th century
"Miracles... seem to me to rest not so much upon... healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always."

John Paul II, 20th century
"Do not abandon yourselves to despair....We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."

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."

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen."

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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