April 9, 2023 ~ EASTER Sunday
Rev. Beckie Sweet
One evening a couple of years ago, two pastors, Philip and Joseph, went out for a beer after a long Wednesday at work. Before we get too far into this, let me just say that it is okay for ME to tell weird stories about my colleagues, or stories about my weird colleagues. Whichever the case may be…something weird is going on! So, Philip and Joseph drove down to a trendy part of Richmond, to a craft brewery, and parked their car along the curb. It was already dark, and things were kind of winding down. As Phillip stepped onto the sidewalk and shut his door, he looked into the window of the brewery to see if it was actually still open, and to his surprise, he saw what looked to be the Lord. He turned around to Joseph, who was a little bit behind him, and said, “It looks like they’re still open. But Jesus is in there.”
Thinking that Philip must be making some silly theological comment about the fact that Jesus liked to hang out where the people were, Joseph just chuckled and said, “I know. Jesus is everywhere!” So, Phillip peered into the window again, craning his neck, as Joseph came around the corner of the car. He knew his eyes weren’t lying: there was a guy dressed up like Jesus in the brewery. Phillip had no idea what the guy was doing, but it was clearly someone who resembled the Holy One from Nazareth. Again, Phillip said to Joseph, “No, really. Jesus is in the bar.”
So, they opened the door and walked up into the brewery, and sure enough, there was a guy wearing a crown of thorns, and a white tunic with a scarlet robe draped over it, with sandals on his feet. It appeared that he was leading the people of the brewery in a game or some group activity. Joseph about fell down the stairs when he saw him. But you should have seen the color that Jesus turned when he saw what looked like two priests, in their collars, coming toward him! He did look like a ghost!
Several minutes later, after he finished his game-leading duties, he immediately stripped off his crown and costume and slunk over to where Phillip and Joseph were sitting ~ to apologize. You have never seen a more sheepish and remorseful-looking Jesus look-alike! Imagine his surprise when the clergy insisted he put his costume back on so they could have their photo taken with him. What an opportunity for a selfie!
They had seen the Lord! In so many ways, that experience reminds me of what was happened as the disciples first came to the tomb on the second morning after Jesus’ death. We hear about Mary Magdalene and the disciples, all reaching the tomb at different times, peering inside, seeing different things, peering into the tomb again, coming to different conclusions, ending up in different locations, and being surprised with what they learned.
And the first Easter message is not “Christ is risen!” or “Death has been defeated!” but rather, “I have seen the Lord.” For John, the gospel-writer, seeing something is the ultimate in truly understanding it. For Mary to declare she has seen the Lord means she now fundamentally understands who Jesus is and what he is about.
John’s gospel does not tell us why Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. It could have been to anoint his body with spices (as reported by the other gospel writers), but it could have just as easily been because she just wanted to be near Jesus ~ even the lifeless Jesus. For in life, Jesus was the One who had inspired her and given her hope. She traveled back and forth that morning, shocked and dismayed that Jesus’ tomb had been opened, and the body was gone. After that Peter and the other disciple take off, almost in some kind of race. But then, strangely, the one who gets there first stops and just looks inside. His buddy Peter, still rounding the corner, barrels right on in there, wondering what is going on.
They take turns understanding, on their own level, why the linen wrappings were rolled up without a body. Only one of them believed what had happened, the Gospel writer tells us, but then neither of them fully understood. They returned home, as if nothing was really strange there.
It was Mary who was left to put the pieces together, but it all came very slowly for her too, and only through the blur of her tears and sorrow. Distraught, she even carried on a conversation with Jesus at one point, thinking he was the gardener.
That the resurrection of Christ began with such confusion and lack of clarity probably perplexes us on some level. The strange sequence of events, the wide range of differing reactions, are not exactly what we might expect from the first account of someone rising from the dead. After all, we are more accustomed to the news of death and terror. We hear it on the news every day! In broken-apart bits and puzzling pieces the bad news comes out—whether it’s from the doctor over the phone, or worse yet, the coroner or police officer, despite their best intentions to keep it straightforward. Sometimes the news of death or impending death does come through the media as we endeavor to filter fact from fiction, like so many other scenes of tragedy and despair. Yes, it is as precious life is shattered, and enters its tomb, that we often encounter confusion and fear, grief and despair, — not when life bursts back from the grave!
Interestingly, though, not one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection has a witness at the tomb as he comes out of it. Instead, we hear bits and pieces like today, first this person’s account, then that person’s understanding. Some might find this to be evidence that the resurrection of Christ stands on shaky historical footing, but for me and others, it only amplifies its truthfulness. These first witnesses are humans encountering something totally unprecedented and left with nothing but their real, human emotions and doubt to figure it all out, to report what they know and see.
Furthermore, it is not Jesus’ closest disciples, the men he hand-picked to learn his new way of embodying God’s law and love, who get a handle on this miracle and marshal this message to its first hearers. It is Mary Magdalene, who stands by the tomb in her grief, who first begins to understand what God has done. It is Mary Magdalene, whose honest response of sorrow honors all our grief at what death has done to us.
All those who have ever stood at a graveside weeping, who have struggled to carry on like normal after the death of a loved one, or who have felt so isolated by grief are there with Mary, seemingly alone. Loneliness and despair are not how Mary’s story ends. Easter puts a twist ending on all the grief we bear, all the sorrow we carry with us through this life. As she stands there, she is approached by the very Lord himself, and she only recognizes him when he says her name. …and she knows Jesus has returned. She hears a voice that only one person can have…and she knows God must have triumphed over death and the grave.
Easter is God’s appearing first to the ones who are weeping, questioning, stuck in their confusion. Easter is God’s surprise that we never know exactly where we might bump into the Lord next, but it’s probably best to look around the dark corners of life. The earliest Christians, in fact, built their first churches not on city squares or in the middle of some beautiful flower-bedecked valley, but basically underground, right next to the tombs and burial chambers of their loved ones. They worshiped the Lord right in the places where they had wept.
This is what Mary’s first Easter message, “I have seen the Lord,” has done to people. It provides the courage to look death in the eye, to peer into the open tomb, to gather at scenes of tragedy and loss because we have faith Christ, the Lord of life, is out and about. That’s what it means to be a People of the Resurrection! The transformation from pain and grief ~ to joy, that Mary experiences may not be so quick for all of us, but the joy will come. Christ is risen, and we have faith that those who have cried, those who have died, will someday hear Christ call their name.
Inspired by Rev. Phillip Martin