Weekly Seeds: Toward the Tomb

Sunday, April 9, 2023
Easter Sunday | Year A

Focus Theme:
Toward the Tomb

Focus Prayer:
Risen God, make us your resurrection people. As we draw near to you, send us out into the world as transformed and renewed agents of renewal and transformation. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 20:1-18
20 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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed, 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb, 12 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. 13 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.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 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,[b] if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[c] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not touch 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.’ ” 18 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 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

Focus Questions:
What is resurrection?
What needs resurrecting in your life, faith community, or world?
How are you drawn near the tomb of Christ?
How might your approach life differently in light of the resurrection?
What is your story of encounter with Jesus?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

Magnets can be powerful. When lined up in a particular way, they attract one another. When the alignment shifts, they may repel one another. One magnet may be more powerful than another and draw the less strong magnet by its greater power. Of course, magnets also attract objects that do not have their own magnetism but are composed of elements that are attracted by the magnet.

Gravitational pull functions differently even when the impact seems similar. The rotation of the earth around the sun, the moon around the earth, and even our stable existence on the edge of the planet results from the power of gravitational pull. Gravity has a weaker pull than magnetism, which is why we can stand upright and move in different directions with relative ease. If a magnet kept us rooted to the ground, we’d probably have a much harder time moving freely and perhaps even find ourselves plunging through the layers of the earth to the center.

In the gospel reading, the central characters appear to be attracted to the tomb.

The Fourth Gospel relates the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a victory, one in which Jesus willingly dies in order to fulfill his mission and thus to glorify God. In many ways, then, the death of Jesus brings to completion his role of revealing God in his actions, words, and finally his death. But the story is not finished. As Jesus indicated in his farewell discourses, there is a future to the story that involves his followers. They are to receive the Spirit; they are to continue to testify; there are to be future followers who come to believe based on the testimony of the disciples. With chapters 20 and 21, John turns to the beginning of this “rest of the story.”
Mark A. Matson

Early that morning, Mary makes her way to the gravesite of Jesus. Unlike the Synoptic gospel accounts, she goes alone and without an expressed purpose. When she arrives, the stone has been removed. Perhaps she peers inside to see that the body of Jesus is missing, but she does not enter. She finds Peter and the other disciple in some unidentified location and tells them the alarming news that someone has removed Jesus from his tomb. The two run to the tomb themselves in response to her report. Maybe they don’t believe her; maybe they surmise that the tomb would be a good place to start their search for Jesus. We aren’t privy to their thoughts, only their actions. As they move toward the tomb, the other disciple seems to be repelled. He arrives first on the scene but does not enter. Peter cannot be stopped until he is inside the resting place set aside for Jesus’ remains.

Only the linens remain as witness and evidence that Jesus was there and has now shed the vestiges of death. The cloth covering his face is slightly removed from the other wrapping giving a sense of his moving and shedding as he takes those first new steps of life:

The Fourth Evangelist’s report of the empty tomb and especially the grave cloths is interesting, especially if we contrast this with the other resurrection in this Gospel. We might recall that when Lazarus was raised, John was very explicit in detailing how he came forth from the tomb with the grave cloths still wound around him and his face cloth still covering the face (11:44). In contrast to this “normal” situation, Jesus’ grave cloths are lying on the floor, with the face cloth off to one side. This is clearly not normal—something unusual has occurred, and it is not simply the resurrection of a dead man. The unusual placement of the cloths is meant to signify something, and that is the activity of God.
Mark A. Matson

God’s action in the world is attractional. The tomb, even when absent the body of Jesus, holds the remains of that activity and movement. There’s a pull that brings Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other disciple to this place that now holds questions, possibilities, and uncertainty–all invitations to faith, the assurance of the unknown. Sometimes, faith is portrayed as being definitive and free of doubt, but this moment tells a different story. The other disciple, who is never named and could have been any of them (as Jesus surely loved them all), observes the empty tomb and believes. But again, the text rests in comfort with ambiguity. Does the disciple believe that Jesus has risen? While that may be possible, the next line of the text reaffirms their lack of understanding of the unfolding events. Perhaps, the disciple identified only as enjoying the love of the Christ believes in Jesus, the Chosen One. Perhaps resurrection faith is not about ascribing to a set of events or doctrine. Rather, it is belief in a Person–Creator and Sovereign, Redeemer and Restorer, Word and Flesh. Perhaps the description of a disciple loved by Jesus does not reflect preferential treatment but an identity rooted in the belief in the love of Jesus. The tomb beckoned with love; the other disciple found it there and knew, really knew, God’s love.

For Peter, the tomb called with hope and grace. His journey with Jesus will not end with denial but receive new life. He can’t stop from entering the tomb because his second chance needs the tomb to be empty; this moment is an answer to a prayer almost too big to ask. Peter, who so often acts instinctually, does not resist but surrenders to the pull. His life in Christ starts over.

Then, there is Mary, who returns to the tomb even though she knows it is empty. She first came looking for Jesus; she still seeks him. Where else would she go? When she returns, Peter and the other disciple seem to have come and gone. Angels greet her this time; she’s no longer alone although she still hasn’t found the one she seeks.

Finally, Jesus shows up. His resurrected body has transformed in such a way that even those who enjoyed a close relationship with him do not recognize him. Mary assumes him to be the gardener. In some respect, she’s not wrong…just incomplete in her understanding of Jesus. She cannot identify him by sight or even upon first hearing his voice. Yet, when Jesus recognizes her by name, she finally recognizes him:

What sight could not do, hearing finally accomplishes. Only one word is necessary: “Jesus says to her, ‘Mary!’ Turning, she says to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni,’ which means ‘Teacher!’ ” (v. 16). Once again (as in 11:43), Jesus puts into practice the principle that the Good Shepherd “summons his own sheep by name” (10:3). This time he is not calling someone out of a tomb (as he did Lazarus), but away from an empty tomb and toward himself. The sound of her own name awakens Mary as if out of sleep—the sleep of despair. Again she is described as “turning,” a term that sounds redundant after she has already “turned around” from the vision in the tomb to face Jesus. This time, perhaps, it refers to her state of mind no less than to her body language, yet, as we will see (v. 17), she may have turned her body toward Jesus as well.
J. Ramsey Michaels

Ultimately, Jesus holds the attractional pull. Mary, Peter, the other disciple, and Mary for a second time cannot resist movement toward the tomb. Of course, neither did Jesus. In the journey toward new life, the tomb is a necessary stop but not the destination. When we find ourselves in a place when our hope is scattered around us like discarded debris, when we become overwhelmed with despair, when we desperately seek another chance, or when we simply find ourselves open to the possibilities of something good in the midst of all that is wrong, we can turn toward the tomb, located by a garden teeming with life, hosted by angels, and tended by the Gardener who knows our name.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s Last Will & Testament
Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams – full equality for the Negro in our time – is realized. Yet, I face that reality without fear or regrets. I am resigned to death as all humans must be at the proper time. Death neither alarms nor frightens one who has had a long career of fruitful toil. The knowledge that my work has been helpful to many fills me with joy and great satisfaction.

Read the full message: https://www.cookman.edu/history/last-will-testament.html

For further reflection:
“If I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those whom he loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview of ultimate reality.” ― Philip Yancey
“Lent is a much-needed mentor in an age obsessed with visible, measurable, manageable, and tweetable increase, for it invites us to walk with Jesus and His disciples through darker seasons that we would rather avoid: grief, conflict, misunderstanding, betrayal, restriction, rejection, and pain. Then Easter leads us in celebration of salvation as the stunningly satisfying fruit of Jesus’ sacred decrease.” ― Alicia Britt Chole
“Then came the healing time, hearts started to shine, soul felt so fine, oh what a freeing time it was.” ― Aberjhani

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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