Sunday, April 21, 2019
Easter Sunday Year C
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.
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 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12
1. What do you expect from life, and what do you dare to hope for?
2. When have you been surprised, caught “off guard” by good news and unforeseen joy?
3. When something “too good to be true” has happened in your life, what evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news?
4. How do you respond to the different Resurrection accounts?
5. When you come to church on Sunday morning, what are you prepared to find, and to experience? Is resurrection joy something one can “expect”?
by Kate Matthews
Poor Mary Magdalene. One might think that she has it worst 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 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.
Struggling with the finality of death
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.
Still, Mary Magdalene’s thoughts and feelings seem less mysterious than those of the two disciples, Peter and “the one Jesus loved” (we traditionally think of him as John). As Philip Culbertson notes, 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.
Why bother to run if there’s no hope?
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. Whether they considered such details or not, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the texts says, “saw and believed” (what Mary had told them, having seen with his own eyes?).
Then the two men went back home, a very different response from that of Mary, who felt compelled to share the news, and then to return to the tomb, and remain there (I often wonder why). At this point, the text tells us, 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.
Who’s the real witness?
This seeing-and-believing theme, like that of 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 (and that means 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, 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. (One meme says, “In the interests of biblical literacy, all the preaching about the resurrection this Easter Sunday will be done by women.” Needless, to say, this will not happen.)
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.
Telling the least of them the good news
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 trusts and lifts up to shine like the sun (remember, for example, the Magnificat?).
How ironic, and how wonderful, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to one of those the world counts as the “least,” one of the “small ones”…and yet, how very biblical!
Many scholars note that Mary Madgdalene meets the two Pauline criteria for being an apostle, having experienced the Resurrection and received the charge to preach the gospel. Mary Magdalene was a woman apostle, overlooked for centuries, and a “silent” but powerful witness against the marginalization 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.
“Whom or what are you looking for?”
The way John tells the story, there’s no conversation between the two male disciples and God’s messengers (the angels), or with Jesus himself. That kind of 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 has focused on where Jesus’ body has been taken.
Even when Mary turns and faces Jesus himself, she doesn’t recognize him. As Mary Margaret Pazdan observes, 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).
Nothing will ever be the same
John doesn’t concern himself with the technical details of “how” Jesus was raised. Instead, he emphasizes the profound change in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and all of the disciples of Jesus right down to us, today. From now on, Pazdan writes, the disciples of Jesus are even more than they were before: “Jesus’ hour of glorification enables the disciples to be 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 story in the garden, so lovely that it inspired a hymn by that name, is a deeply personal experience of the resurrection. Maybe that’s why some folks dismiss that hymn as “sentimental” and too “personal,” that is, if they 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.
Bringing the personal and the communal together
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, 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.
God defeats the powers that be
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.
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.
Dare to distribute justice
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 means caring about Jesus’ great passion, which is also the great passion of God: Borg and Crossan call it “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 hot button in our political discourse, particularly in this divisive, endless election season.
The reality of God
This beautiful world of God’s Dream, 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, a way to live them.
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 “good, faithful Christians” are ready to hear a “political” meaning in Easter?
How do we respond to the resurrection?
John K. Stendahl’s insightful commentary on this text 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 font 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 had a doctorate in science viewing the resurrection story through a different lens than another person, who simply took the story at face value. Both of them, in some mysterious way, grasped the truth of the resurrection and proclaimed together in worship, “Jesus is risen!”
There is a delicate and deep interplay between faith and life experience, even life stages and cultural conditioning. The people coming to church on this Easter Sunday, members and visitors alike, are each in a place and time in their lives when they need to hear a word of hope and new life, even if each one hears it differently.
Could this news be too good to be true?
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, 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?
Seeing and telling
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) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.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:
Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century
“Power consists in deciding which story shall be told.”
Pope John Paul II, quoting Augustine, 4th century
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
George Eliot, 19th century
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. “
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.”
Brennan Manning, 21st 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.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen.”
Arundhati Roy, 21st century
“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank
“To say that there is not enough money is just a lie. There’s plenty of money in the world; it’s just not going to health care for poor people.”
Emily Dickinson. 19th century
“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”
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