First Congregational Church
March 31, 2013
"The Odd Easter Version"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
John 20:1-18 NIV
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
In the spirit of the day, Q: What's the difference between a bunny and a lumberjack? A: One chews and hops, the other hews and chops. Q: What do Easter Bunny helpers get for making a basket? A: Two points, just like anyone else. Q: How does Easter end? A: With an r. Q: How does the Easter bunny get all the eggs painted? A: She hires Santa's Elves during the off-season. Q: What has big ears, brings Easter treats, and goes hippity-BOOM hippity-BOOM? A: The Easter Elephant.
It is a great day - all over the world. From Russian high church masses, complete with incense and chanting, to a little white clapboard worship service, to the enthusiasm in an earthen building on the edge of the African bush, to the little groups meeting in secret - places where Christianity is illegal - it's all about an empty tomb and the risen Christ. There are entities that would like us to think it's about chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, but we know the basic Easter story.
Sesame Street has taught children how to distinguish between things with a little ditty called "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others." When it comes to the four Gospels, the one that is not like the others is the Easter account read at the beginning of the service from the book of John.
Unlike the other gospel accounts, John begins the Easter story in the dark, the absence of light. We're not really sure why Mary came so early. Maybe she came to anoint his body or to ensure that no one had stolen it. Maybe it was because she'd been up all night with grief anyway, and somehow it was just easier to mourn at the gravesite.
If there was any year that we needed to hear this version of the Easter story, it's this one. There are so many individuals that have spent the last few months in the dark - not just physically - as in nearly sunless Benzie county - but in the darkness of mind in the land of depression. At least I am apt to create a picture of Jesus more like the one on the cover of our bulletin - one where he stands in the light. Or a picture of Jesus standing outside the tomb with a big ol' "ta dah!' We don't associate the revelation of Jesus with the morning dark.
The Gospel of John's Easter account is amazing in how much running happens compared to other versions. Mary Magdalene discovers that the tomb is empty and runs to the disciples. The disciples then run to the tomb. One runs faster than the other, but both run as fast as they can. Interesting that Jesus doesn't run alongside them. Interesting that we don't ever find Jesus in frantic activity.
We spend so much time running, running, running. We run to work or to school, we run through our work, we run home. We run through our errands, our chores, and our jammed schedules. I've known more than one "retired" person that has run from doctor appointment to "vacation" in this place to trying to get everything done in Traverse while we're up there. We even race through the experiences that are meant to relax us. And I don't mean those statements as indictments. They are just truths.
And yet, sometimes our running may be a search for the missing Jesus. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they laid him.” Perhaps you, like me, am prone to getting caught up in what we think we should do, rather than embracing the example Jesus has given us. I - we - know better than hustling all of the time with the idea that surely Jesus can keep up with me. Irony of ironies, Jesus finds us when we are too tired to keep running.
Commentator Lucy Hogan put it this way. "Another possibility is that our frantic activity actually assumes that Jesus is still dead. And if we only hurry through life and work hard, we can take over for him as Savior. But some of the best news of Easter is that Jesus is alive and well, and the job description of Savior is still filled. So you don’t have to be Jesus now. You can enjoy your true calling, which is to witness how his salvation continues to unfold."
John also oddly mentions "the other disciple" - the one Jesus loved. Apparently John assumed that everyone knew "the disciple Jesus loved." Some Biblical commentators think it may have been Lazarus, or John Mark, or John the son of Zebedee, brother and fishing partner of James. Could it be that the beloved disciple is unnamed because, as one biblical scholar has suggested, this person is to represent us? Later on, when you are having trouble falling asleep, put yourself into that scenario, running with Peter. What do you see? What do you smell? What strikes you as odd?
And then there's the oddity of the rhetorical questions, "Why are you crying?" The angels ask it and Jesus asks it. This is one of those situations where it would have been so helpful if the writer would have given us a little direction in the "hearing" of those questions. Since Jesus - and angels - are less about belittling and more about dignity, I doubt the question they asked had a tone similar to what a parent would take toward a child. Or the dismissive tone we might hear in the follow-up statement, "Knock it off."
So often - too often - I hear apologies for tears. And I've made those same apologies. But when our hearts hurt, we were given the gift of tears to lessen the pressure. Mary had lost her friend, and it was still so fresh. In the physical finality of death, Mary's tears are representative of the tears of all humanity. All of us are altogether too familiar with death. Jesus himself knew that he and Mary both needed the tears if the truth of what had just happened was going to come to mean exactly what it still means: we have the hope of new life smack where we need it most: in the midst of a world full of death and dying.
One of my favorite preachers, Craig Barnes said, "No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen. Easter is the last thing we are expecting. And that is why it terrifies us. This day is not about bunnies, springtime and girls in cute new dresses. It’s about more hope than we can handle."
And John's is the version where Jesus says, "Do not hold on to me." This is not my favorite part of the Easter story. If I were writing this drama, I would have included a long tearful hug, followed by Jesus saying, "Find the others and tell them I’m back. We’re getting out of here and going home." But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says, "Don’t hold on to me."
I'm sure she wanted to hug his neck and not let go. I'm sure she wanted to grab his hands and then just sit there, staring into his eyes. Now that she had her beloved Lord with her once more, she never wanted to lose him again. Yet Jesus said she had to.
He says instead ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ What an odd way of stating that he had work yet to do on this earth. What an odd way of saying that where he was going, we would go.
Some months back I asked a couple of questions in our newsletter. "What is Easter? Or where do you see signs of resurrection life?" I had only one answerer, and it struck me as one that maybe few pastors have recognized or embraced. The person's answer was "It's a happy and sad day for me. It's sad because of what happened. But it's happy because I know I will get to see those I love again. I start getting excited for Easter before it gets here, and that's the good part, too. But when the actual day is here, there's always an element of sadness to it."
Such a steady statement of honesty and faith. Perhaps much more in line with this odd, understated version of the Easter account from John, with no pre-dawn earthquakes, no soldiers fainting dead away, no precise moment Jesus emerged from the tomb. John's version gives us an Easter that can go back home with you when you leave here this morning.
If Easter's joy and proclamation required the blare of trumpets, the thunder of pipe organs, and the shining brightness of fresh flowers - if that type of setting were the only place where Easter could thrive - then who among us could take that back home with us? Who would want to take it home? Who among us would claim that just about every single evening when we walk through the door after a day at work, we launch right into the "Hallelujah Chorus" because it had been such a wondrous day? How many of us ride the crest of a joy wave most every moment of the average week? Maybe a few of you do lead that kind of singularly lilting existence, and if so, God bless you in it. But some of the folks I know wake up many mornings "while it is still dark," and they're not sure they can outrun the shadows - the balance of the day, either.
Which seems like a perfect place to pray. Gracious God, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts that you give us good news we can live by and live with. Thank you that in the shadows of our lives, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting with new life. Thank you that the darkness of this world does not need to lift completely - in ways no one could miss - for the truth of Easter to be ours. While it can be odd to thank you for giving your son to die, we do so because we understand that it means we live - here and in eternity. So thank you, Gracious, Loving God for so loving us. And all your people say - Amen!
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.