Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr., Rector Scripture: John 20:1-18
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
The Son also rises
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
“The small group of mourners had gathered to meet the coffin at the nearby air base to make sure that it was respectfully borne to its final resting place in the military cemetery. The box, draped with an American flag, contained the body of a soldier, but not just any soldier. This particular soldier was their son, their brother, their friend — he had a name so precious that to mention it now was to summon tears to all their eyes. He had died far away from them, but his comrades had brought all that remained, a lifeless body, home to them. The companions now silently, carefully unloaded the coffin from the hold of the airplane, wheeled it to the waiting hearse, rolled it into place for its final journey.
The mourners got into their cars and followed the hearse as it pulled away from the airplane. Each one struggled to make sense of this death and to cope with it in his or her own way. Each one was doing the work of death — removing the body from this earth in burial, removing the life it contained from their lives in mourning.”
What we just heard is an excerpt from Drew Gilpin Faust’s, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, xiv). If we have lived long enough to attend a funeral, the imagery evoked by Faust if not identical, is certainly familiar. Going to a funeral, going to a graveside is a somber and sad affair, especially if the deceased is young, as in the case of a soldier killed in battle. The grief, the sense of loss, is almost too much to bear. We would rather be somewhere else—bright and cheerful. What value is there in the darkness of death, in the darkness of a tomb?
If you have heard or listened to my sermons over the past several weeks, I have emphasized that the words and images St. John uses are often to be understood in a way that is other than the obvious. Is he trying to be tricky? No, rather what he wants is for us to open our hearts and minds to a greater reality, indeed God’s reality and God’s perspective. So then, when we hear John tell us “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” we need to stop and ask ourselves does John mean more than it was Monday (Sunday was Monday for the Jews) and that sun had not yet risen? Is that all he means to say or is there more?
John tells us in the very beginning of his gospel that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people (1:1-4). Who is the Word? Jesus is the Word and through Him everything came into being, everything was created. This is to remind us of the creation account in the book of Genesis. Listen to the parallel. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
In other words, Jesus was there at the beginning of creation. In fact, He created creation. And, on the first day of creation, it was dark. “Darkness covered the face of the deep.” What did we hear in John’s gospel? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Do you see what is happening here? On the first day of the new creation while it was dark, Mary came. Did you hear it? On the first day of the new creation while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb. What’s new about it you may be asking? We will get to that, but hold that thought. Something extraordinary has happened. “Welcome happy morning,” indeed, as the hymn proclaims. And, in the background we can hear St. Paul whispering, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I am getting a little ahead of the story, so back to Mary Magdalene.
Mary comes back to the funeral home, so to speak, to prepare Jesus’ body for a proper burial. Jesus, of course, was crucified on Friday and because the Sabbath begins on Friday afternoon and no work is to be done on the Sabbath, there had not been enough time to prepare his body. Mary returns to the tomb and horror of horrors Jesus’ body is gone. Where was it? We read from time to time where funeral homes have put the wrong person in the casket to the shock of family members, but this was different. There was no body at all. Understandably, Mary flips out and runs to tell the guys what has happened. We then hear of this strange foot race between Peter and John, apparently to see who can get to the tomb first. Perhaps, the music from the movie, Chariots of Fire, was playing. If you like, visualize that race scene between Chevy Chase and his son to the entrance of Wally World.
Notice though how the younger John seemingly deferred to Peter. It was Peter who first went into the tomb, even though John got there first. We can imagine that Peter, being older, had been around dead people more than young John. Perhaps, he was still squeamish and apprehensive about being around the dead. When Peter went into the tomb, verses 6 and 7 tell us: “He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” What are we to make of the linen wrapping being rolled up?
Some contend that this linen wrapping is the Shroud of Turin. As to the linen being rolled up, we need to know something of Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating. Now if the master was done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. In those days, the wadded napkin meant, ‘I’m done’. If the master got up from the table, folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because . . . The folded napkin meant, ‘I’m coming back!’ Peter and John would have known this tradition. Surely, the rolled linen must have puzzled Peter and John. “As yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” John and Peter booked it back to their homes.
Mary, though, is still hanging around the tomb. Some people are like that. They like to linger at the grave site. I remember a certain funeral I did a few years back. The graveside part of the service had been completed, but the family continued to hang around, watching as each shovel-full of dirt was pitched into the grave. Okay, I suppose that sounds sensible, but when it is pouring down rain?
Mary herself looks into the tomb. Surprise of surprises it is no longer empty, but it is not the body of Jesus she sees. It is two angels. Curiously, she does not seem in the least bit surprised at the two angels—certainly not an everyday occurrence. Perhaps, her grief has so overwhelmed her. The angels are not indifferent to her sorrow, asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Having explained the reason for her grief, something prompts Mary to look behind her outside the tomb. Jesus is standing there, but she does not recognize Him. He, too, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Remember that this is John’s gospel. Does he mean for us to take special note of Mary thinking Jesus is the gardener? The tomb was in a garden, but what garden are we talking about at least through the eyes of John? Could it be the Genesis Garden of Eden where God created Adam? Who was it that created that garden in the first place? Was it not God? Was it not Jesus through whom “All things came into being,” as John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel? In truth, God, Jesus, was a gardener, the gardener. So, John gives us much to ponder here, when he tells us that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. Even so, why did Mary not recognize Jesus, who was no more than a few feet away from her? Perhaps, a couple of illustrations would be helpful—one funny and one serious.
After being married for 55 years this month, a certain man took a careful look at his wife one day and said, “Fifty-five years ago we had a cheap house, a junk car, slept on a sofa-bed and watched a 10-inch black and white TV. But hey I got to sleep every night with a hot 23-year-old girl. Now … I have a $750,000 home, a $45,000 car, a nice big bed and a large screen TV, but I’m sleeping with a 77-year-old woman. So I said to my wife “It seems to me that you’re not holding up your side of things.”
My wife is a very reasonable woman. She told me to go out and find a hot 23-year-old girl and she would make sure that I would once again be living in a cheap house, driving a junk car, sleeping on a sofa bed and watching a 10-inch black and white TV. Aren’t older women great? They really know how to solve an old guy’s problems. Undoubtedly, this was not the kind of transformation the old fellow was looking for.
Show video clip at https://youtu.be/sGg89igSKK4
Mary did not recognize Jesus because His body, His appearance had been transformed. It was the same Jesus, but in a transformed body. Hearing His voice, she did recognize Jesus. So, how are we to understand what is going on here? Why did Jesus’ look different and not as He had before He had died?
Let me begin to answer that question by asking another question. Have you ever thought to ask yourselves why it was that Jesus never just snapped His fingers, so to speak, and materialize enough food out of thin air to feed the five thousand? Why did He not just say “abracadabra” and poof,–there was plenty of wine for the wedding guest? If we reflect on every miracle or healing performed by Jesus, we realize that He doesn’t just start with nothing. He starts with something, a few fish and loaves for example, and transforms it into something else, indeed something more.
The bottom line of the gospel is the resurrection. It is not that trouble is thwarted or prevented, which is what we would prefer. Peter would have preferred that Jesus not die on the cross. Jesus told the disciples in Mark 8 that the authorities would kill him. “Peter (then) took (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (8:32, 33). Obviously, Jesus’ crucifixion was not prevented. The message of the resurrection is that trouble; any kind of trouble will be overturned or transformed. Again, Jesus never materialized things out of thin air like some kind of magician. Rather, He transformed the situation, whether blindness to sight, water to wine, or a few fish to feed many. They were transformed just as the grandfather’s eyes were transformed (albeit by special glasses) and not replaced.
So, here’s what matters to us. Here’s what we should take away with us this Easter to treasure and hold on to for dear life. The only way we can know and experience trouble being overturned or transformed is through a relationship with Jesus. There is no other way and no other faith which will guarantee this or tell you this. Jesus, God the Son, is the great transformer. It is who He is. He took the virgin womb of Mary and transformed it into vessel of birth. He transformed blindness, deafness, all matter of illness into health and wholeness. He transformed scarcity into plenty and lives into hope. We hear again St. Paul’s words, referenced earlier. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). If He can transform death into life; He can transform anything, no matter how serious or horrible.
Perhaps, you see now why I said earlier that when John wrote, “It was early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” that he meant for us to understand that it was more than Monday or Sunday and more than before the sun had risen. He means for us to understand that this was the first day of a new creation, a transformed creation, where humanity itself would be re-created.
God in Jesus had taken the same old clay from which He created man in the first place. We read in Genesis 2:7: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” God had taken this same old clay, the body of Jesus, and transformed it into a resurrected body.
Later in John 20:21 when the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples this idea of “life being breathed into” presents itself anew. “(Jesus) breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Luke records a similar event in the Book of Acts. What we know of as Pentecost.
You see when we repent and accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour then this very same, life-giving, life-transforming Spirit comes to reside in us, to transform us. We hear St. Peter tell us in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” No, this does not mean the transformation will occur overnight, and no, it does not mean the transformation, our transformation will be easy. It does mean, however, that whatever sorrow we have known, whatever failure has come our way, whatever our limitations or shortcomings, they will be transformed no less than Jesus turned water into wine or a dead body into a living, resurrected body.
Friends, this is saleable. This is something we can tell people about. We can tell people that if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour that He can, He will, transform whatever kind of death they have known, loss, failure, disease, into life, new life. That, my friends, is good news, very good news. So, tell it. He has risen, and we with Him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.