A sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
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.”
On Easter Sunday, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that death is defeated; even the humiliation and agony of his execution on a cross is overcome—Life has overcome Death. That’s why we’re here—because life has overcome death. Of an Easter Sunday morning, many come hoping for solid simple assurance. We all like to imagine a day when we think life was simpler, everybody believed in the Bible, and it was no challenge to believe in the Resurrection. Others stay away, because all of that seems too simple, too glib, and the complex problems of life aren’t just fixed with easy answers, at least not now, not in this modern world where it’s more difficult to believe anything.
I believe the Bible. So let’s pay close attention to the Gospel lesson for today. Outside that tomb in a garden near Calvary, it might well have been a beautiful spring morning—it was certainly in the spring. But it did not start out with hope and Easter eggs and getting all dressed up for a joyful feast.
Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ disciple and friend, was going out, after the Sabbath had ended, perhaps to mourn, perhaps to finish tending to the body of her friend. A wealthy disciple had Jesus’ body placed in a tomb which was sealed shut with a large stone. Mary saw something disturbing—the stone had been removed from the opening—she ran to get the guys, they look in—the body is gone but the wrappings from the body have been left behind—Peter and the other man leave, one happy and the other confused—and Mary remains behind crying. There’s someone else in the tomb—two of them [the word “angel” means messenger in Greek, and our standard image of the angels with wings didn’t really emerge until the Middle Ages, or even the Renaissance]—and what do they say? They say, “Woman, why are you crying?”
Really, this is just too much.
Life could not be more chaotic, if you had to change the baby three times, break up two fights between the kids and poke the teenager yet again to get him out the door on Sunday morning.
And then there’s another man standing there, probably the gardener who takes care of this place—he says it too, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
“If you have taken him away, tell me where you put him!” This is not the only time in the stories about Jesus’ resurrection that a disciple looks right at Jesus and does not recognize him. In the Gospel of Luke, on the road to Emmaus, two of his disciples walked with him for miles before they recognized him when he broke the bread. And in the Gospel of John, in Jesus’ final appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus talks with the disciples for quite a while and gives them fishing advice before Peter recognizes him and puts on his clothes and jumps into the water. Recognizing Jesus was not so simple, and plain and self-evident, even for Jesus’ closest friends two thousand years ago.
And Jesus spoke her name: “Mariam.” “Rabbouni” she said to her teacher. He was no longer dead, but alive, and sending her to share this life, this Gospel with the others.
Now, note—recognizing Jesus did not make everything simple or smooth. Not everyone took Mary’s word for it, or respected her, yet with that one word—“Mariam”—everything changed. Jesus is alive, and death no longer has power over him or over Mary—he called her by name.
Christ rose from the dead. The final reality and meaning is not death, destruction and dissolution, but life. And the meaning of that life, that final reality, is the love that is the life of God, the creator who has entered into his creation, who intimately knows our real life, even to the point of dying with us and for us. Even if it feels like despair—as Mary of Magdala appears early in this lesson to be despairing—that despair has no reality, for Jesus is as near to us as he was to her. He is our hope, no matter how we feel or what we might think. He is our hope because he lives. He is OUR hope because he has called us by name.
We have travelled through the season of Lent—that season is the time when from very early on, the church prepared new candidates for baptism. This year, we walk the way with those candidates, called Catechumens, through the lessons. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; Nicodemus, coming by night and learning that he must be born from above—that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but that it might be saved through him; the Samaritan woman at the well, who received living water; the man born blind who received his sight; the two sisters who had lost their brother, Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. In each of these lessons we learn more about dying to self and being raised to life in Christ in baptism. In baptism, Christians receive their name.
Jesus calls us each by name. Sometimes we don’t hear, sometimes we don’t recognize it. But Christ is here, for us and with us and in us. The ultimate meaning of this world, despite what any might do, is life that dwells in God’s love. Fear and hate, as real and compelling as they might seem at times, have no permanent power. Even for Mary Magdalen, the death of Jesus felt like the triumph of violence, but in the end God stands it on its head: it is Jesus, not the manager of that garden who speaks to her. It is the love of God in Christ that triumphs.
In our service at Easter, we invite you all, at the time we usually say the Nicene Creed, to join with all of us in reaffirming your baptismal vows. We travel with Jesus, we die with him, and he calls us each by name.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia.