Sermon Seeds: Christ is Risen

Easter Sunday Year A

Lectionary citations
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

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 20:1-18
Note: Tuesday, April 22, is Earth Day. Worship resources are available at Creation Justice Ministries.

Weekly Theme:
Christ is Risen

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about someone released from the grave. Earlier in this very Gospel (11:1-45), Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and in doing so, sealed his own fate with the religious authorities who were driven to distraction by his power. O. Wesley Allen writes that resurrection is an important theme in John’s Gospel, in fact, the lesson of Lazarus being raised isn’t proof of Jesus’ power so much as it demonstrates who he is: “Jesus is the Resurrection.” You could see the truth of that claim in the lives of his followers in the days that followed, right down, we hope, to our own time. In John’s account, Allen says, there are significant differences from the other Gospels: Here, “Jesus was buried with care (10:38-42), so Mary Magdalene comes not to complete his burial, but simply to mourn and honor Jesus…” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Poor Mary Magdalene. One might think she has it even worse on this first day of the week, her hopes once high, now crushed. In John’s Gospel, she comes to the grave alone (we also note that she, a woman, was there in all four accounts). 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. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful sermon on this text, she 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. You pay your respects 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…” (Home by Another Way).

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 a little 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”), and they “saw and believed.” And yet they did not “yet understand.” This “seeing and believing” theme 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 (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 the fact that Jesus entrusted such marvelous news to a woman, of all people, a fact 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 Cultural World of Jesus Year A).

Good question, but even better than a “type” (we ought to know from history to be wary of creating “types” out of women), Mary Magdalene represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like 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 laser-like in her focus 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: first, of 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?” 18:4; see Mary Margaret Pazdan, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

The beautiful story in the garden (so beautiful that it inspired a much-loved hymn) 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” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

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, in the theology of the church, this holds a call for us, personally and in community. “The Way” Christians follow is the path of transformation, “the path of personal transformation,” Borg and Crossan write.

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.” 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 the dream 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? 

Barbara Brown Taylor finishes her sermon 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 – 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.” We remember that Taylor claimed that resurrection is unnatural, and 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” (Home by Another Way).

What do you expect from life? In your relationships and ministry, in your family, your neighborhood, your community, the nation, and the world, in your own congregation and in the United Church of Christ, what do you dare to hope for? When you come to church on Sunday morning and prepare for worship, what do you expect to happen that day? When you go to meetings, write sermons, keep appointments, visit the sick, make plans, dream dreams, 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 the life of your church that seemed “too good to be true”? What evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news? What did you need to “see” in order to “go tell”? Thomas G. Long writes evocatively in his commentary on Matthew’s account of the Resurrection (28:1-10, the other lectionary text for this Easter Sunday) about the two worlds in that text, one full of sadness and despair, the other one pulsating with resurrection and new life. “Without even knowing that they had crossed the border, they left the old world, where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another, and people hatch murderous plots, and dead people stay dead, and they entered the startling and breathtaking world of resurrection and life” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

This was the moment that changed the world, and, hopefully, our expectations, even today, two thousand years later. 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, he asks, are we “in this new and frightening resurrection world”? (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). And what will we do?

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.”

Pope 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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 Lectionary texts

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”


Jeremiah 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
Thus says the Lord:
  The people who survived the sword
   found grace in the wilderness;
  when Israel sought for rest,
   the Lord appeared to him from far away.
  I have loved you with an everlasting love;
   therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
  Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
   O virgin Israel!
  Again you shall take your tambourines,
   and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
  Again you shall plant vineyards
   on the mountains of Samaria;
  the planters shall plant,
   and shall enjoy the fruit.
  For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
   in the hill country of Ephraim:
  “Come, let us go up to Zion,
   to the Lord our God.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

O give thanks to God, for God is good;
   God’s steadfast love endures for ever!

Let Israel say,
   “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

God is my strength and my might;
   God has become my salvation.

There are glad songs of victory
   in the tents of the righteous:
“The strong hand of God does valiantly;
   the mighty hand of God is exalted;
   the strong hand of God does valiantly.”

I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the God.

God has punished me severely,
   but God did not give me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to God.

This is the gate of God;
   the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.

This is God’s doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day that God has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Colossians 3:1-4

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.


Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

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.


Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors: Lent and Easter

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.

There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.