Sunday, April 1, 2018
Easter Fullness (Sermon: Easter Sunrise-2018)
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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. 2So 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.”
3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes. (NRSV)
In his version of Easter morning, John places Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the mysterious disciple “whom Jesus loved” at the tomb. Arriving first, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus’ grave has been disturbed and that his body has been removed. Distressed over what she logically assumes is a case of grave robbery, Mary runs to Peter and the other disciple to tell them that “they” have moved Jesus’s body. In John, “they” refers to the leaders of the Jews.
The two men run to the tomb. They enter and discover that Mary’s story is no idle tale. But the sight terrifies them. They fear that the Jewish leaders will come for them next, so they hurry home, and by the end of the day, all the disciples are locked inside one house.
What if those ten verses were the end of John’s resurrection witness? To me, that terribly unsatisfying ending would accurately describe the life offered by a resurrection theology based on nothing but an empty tomb. If we base our faith on an empty tomb alone, we’ll huddle together in locked sanctuaries, our individual and corporate lives a tangle of bewilderment, distress, and selfish fear. Empty-tomb theology is a theology of absence. There’s nothing gospel about it.
As the Church, we’re not called to explain resurrection any more than the gospel writers do. None of them even try to guess what happened in the tomb before the women arrive. They simply describe the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus. They set the example for proclaiming a living and present Christ, not an empty tomb.
It seems to me, though, that one problem for the Church has been that an empty tomb is easier and safer to deal with. A life defined by absence and scarcity is a lot less demanding than a life of resurrection fullness. Empty-tomb theology allows for a kind of divisive certainty that’s foreign to true spirituality. Empty-tomb theology pits us against each other. And it fits on bumper stickers that say things like, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Thanks be to God, resurrection isn’t about an empty tomb. Resurrection is about the fullness of God’s ongoing self-revelation in and for the creation. And Easter invites us into that revelation.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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.
13They 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.”
14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15Jesus 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.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
17Jesus 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.’”
18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (NRSV)
When consumed by absence, Mary’s eyes and heart are hollow and dark. And no one – least of all you and I – can blame her. Her last memory of Jesus was of his execution on a Roman cross. And it’s safe to assume that she knows all-too-well what dead looks like, and that it’s usually a permanent condition.
One way to understand grief is to see it as love that has lost its object. After a significant loss, that love must find a new purpose, and we a new identity. Grief also hurts because we’ve lost someone who loved us. That person knew us through-and-through, and still cherished, trusted, and forgave us. They made life a more joyful and holy experience.
Think about who that someone might be for you, that person who has died, or whose death would cause you the kind of grief that Mary Magdalene is feeling in the garden. Memories may be a source of happiness, but nothing can replace his or her presence. Nothing can substitute for hearing your name in that person’s voice.
“Mary!” says Jesus.
Mary doesn’t ask for an explanation. Nor does she question herself. When she hears her name in that beloved voice, the heavens open, and she recognizes Jesus.
“Rabbouni!” she says.
Don’t touch me, says Jesus. I’m here, but not like I used to be. I’m different. And while a lot is going to look, feel, and sound the same, everything is different now, even you. In time you’ll begin to understand. Now, go, and tell the others that there’s more to come.
Easter happens in the midst of grief, loss, and fear, but it moves beyond them. And Easter doesn’t come with noise and flashing lights. Easter creeps up on us in the speaking of our names, in the reminders that we are known and loved more fully than we can imagine.
Easter doesn’t have to come to us from beyond the grave, either. Because our theological tradition considers the Kingdom of God a here-and-now reality, we can gratefully acknowledge how God continually Easters us through people we can see and touch.
My dad has occupied a lot of my time and energy over the last few years. And I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts of him since his death two weeks ago. But Dad figured intimately if not physically in what I consider an Easter moment that happened almost twenty-four years ago.
As I’ve shared with you before, my sister got me interested in working with dreams. And one of the central faith claims of dreamwork is that dreams are gifts from God. They’re holy utterances of love, affirmation, and healing.
It was August of 1994. I was about to complete my supervised ministry at Timberridge Presbyterian Church in McDonough, GA. It had been a great summer, a confirming experience. I had preached and visited. I took trips with the youth. I’d been challenged and mentored by a wonderful supervising pastor named Tom Bagley. And I’d been embraced by a loving and very patient congregation.
Then, one night, in the depths of sleep, the image of my dad appears. In the dream, Dad doesn’t speak. All he does is smile and hand me a stole, the symbol of a pastor being yoked to Christ, yoked to his or her vocation.
Dad was Thomas Allen Huff, Sr. He, along with my mom, gave me not only life, but my name, Allen. God used Dad, the one for whom I am named, to affirm my given name and my baptismal name.
Allen, said God, I have chosen you to join those who recognize the presence of Jesus in the world, and the need for his love, justice, and peace. Go and tell Easter stories. Go, and tell people that there’s more to come.
Even today, when I feel weary, when I feel disconnected from all that once felt holy and beautiful, when I feel like nothing more than an empty tomb, that dream wriggles into my consciousness. It speaks my name, and it renews me.
Easter is about God’s naming and calling fullness. And perhaps we feel it most powerfully when we share it, when we stand with and speak the names of those who grieve, who hurt, who hunger, and who continue to work for justice in a world enslaved to the empty tombs of violence and greed.
This day and all days, may you hear your name spoken in some new way, some way that reminds you of your holiness and of your Beloved-ness of God.
May you see it in others, and with the voice of Christ, may you name it for them.