Only the Beginning

SERMON: Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

John 20:1-18 (RSV)

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. So 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 1Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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. They 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus 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.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Two friends were talking about faith. One said to the other, “You know, you really should go to church more often.” The other looked a little embarrassed. He said, “I’m sure you’re right, I should attend church more often, but it’s so boring! They only ever sing two hymns: ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today.’”

….As a matter of fact, Easter Sunday – the pinnacle of our Christian year – may not be for beginners at all. We have climbed the mountain of Lent and Holy week and reached the very peak of the Christian story. Some would say we are at the apex of world history itself.

So maybe Easter is the advanced course, the final exam for humanity. Maybe Easter should only be undertaken after completing the introductory courses on Jesus’ life and ministry. We could begin with the Sermon on the Mount, get caught up in Jesus’ healings, his wisdom and compassion. Perhaps then we would be better prepared for the great mystery that is Christ’s resurrection.

Yet most people want to attend worship on Easter, even if it is a day when we proclaim the very thing most difficult to believe. I guess Easter worship can become a habit, or maybe it is a comfort to hear this ancient story told once again. Or maybe people come with questions.

Theologian Karl Barth once said that what brings people to worship – not just on Easter but on any Sunday – is an unspoken question: “Is it true?”

Is it true that the very God who established the laws of nature one day broke the world open by raising Jesus from the dead? Does resurrection spell out all the answers, end all problems, and wipe out the past?… Is it true?

And if it’s true, now what? We know Easter really isn’t the final exam at all. There is no conclusion, and the story doesn’t stop. Rather we believe God resurrected Jesus to convince us that we are only at the beginning. Resurrection doesn’t simply answer or end problems, or put everything right.  Rather, in Easter God creates something new. Our Christian faith does not remove us from the hardships, limitations, and challenges of this life, but opens for us possibilities that simply would not be available had God not intervened, first in the raising of Jesus and again by entering into our own lives.

The meaning of Easter is too powerful to be called a certainty; too wonderful to live only within the boundaries of our imagination. It calls us to grab onto the power of Jesus. This power allows us to see more possibilities in the people and situations around us than we might see otherwise.

Mary Magdalene (Mary of the town called Magdala) thinks she knows what she will see at the tomb of Jesus. She had been a disciple of Jesus all along, providing some of the financial support for his movement. Mary was there at the beginning and, tragically, at the end of Jesus’ earthly life. She watched as he died, she saw him placed in the tomb, and now she seeks what comfort she can by visiting his resting place.

In the cool, dark, pre-dawn hours, Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb and discovers the heavy stone sealing the opening has been removed. She does not need to look inside the tomb to guess what has happened; grave robbers. Fearful, distraught, Mary runs to tell Peter and another disciple, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

“Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.”

Most scholars seem to settle – lightly – on the idea that John is “the other disciple” or “the disciple Jesus loved.” This disciple reaches the tomb before Peter arrives, takes a quick look inside, and then stands aside to let Peter enter. Peter goes into the tomb and sees empty linen where Jesus’ body used to be. Then John also enters the tomb. The gospel says, “He also went in, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.”

John goes into the tomb and believes…believes what? If the two disciples do not yet grasp that Jesus must rise from the dead, then what do they believe?

Despite the fact that Jesus told the disciples many times he would be crucified and buried and then rise from the dead, they don’t seem to believe it could really happen. Peter especially rejects the idea that Jesus will ride triumphantly into Jerusalem one day and be murdered the next week. Yet Jesus does die – proving to his followers that he was horribly right all along. Peter also swears he will never, ever betray Jesus…and then does that very thing. At a rooster’s crow, Peter again realizes the truth of Jesus’ words.

And now Peter stands at the tomb looking at Jesus’ discarded grave clothes. If someone took Jesus’ body, why take the time to unwrap it first? Peter must wonder why the soudarian – the cloth covering Jesus’ face – was carefully folded and put to one side. This is in clear contrast to the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus stumbles from his tomb still encased in wrappings. But Jesus’ resurrection is not about new life that lives only to die another day. Instead, it is new life from God, and so it abides forever.

Scripture tells us very little about what Peter believed at the tomb. We learn only, “The disciples returned to their homes.” Perhaps the words, “Is it true?” haunted Peter all the way home.

Soon, Jesus will make his appearance to the disciples, and Peter will realize Jesus’ resurrection is true. It becomes the start of a new life for Peter, and the birth of Christendom. Peter, like so many of us, needs the power of Jesus’ resurrection to see possibilities rather than failure.

At the same time, John, the disciple Jesus especially loved believes almost from one minute to the next. Without much proof, John looks and believes. Suddenly and deeply, he makes that leap of faith.

For some of us, belief comes first as a gift from God, to be sorted out later. This is a raw faith followed by the slower work of putting all the pieces together. Faith enables us to move beyond believing only what we see to entrusting our lives to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

In her book, Take This Bread, Sara Miles relates how she first started a journey of faith by walking randomly into a strange church because she liked the architecture. She knew nothing of Christian doctrine, and even less about the nuances of faith. She was a non-Christian, yet her next step was to participate in the Lord’s Supper, and it proved to be a profoundly compelling, intensely moving experience for her. It was only then that Miles began to study this faith that was so foreign, yet so overpowering. Like the apostle John, like so many of us, she answered the question, “Is it true?” with a joyful and terrifying leap of faith.

Faith empowers us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a new and different way of living that causes us to see the possibility of new life in every death, light shining in the deepest darkness, and hope in the midst of despair. But it is not an easy path.

Christ’s resurrection doesn’t wash away the harsh realities of life, but it does make it possible to experience joy in the midst of fear, as God continuously creates something new. It moves us from a life we believe we must manage and control into the arms of the God who continually offers us grace and peace and mercy and love and life.

There will always be problems and sorrows for us, but we can encounter them with the knowledge that the God is not done yet.

Easter isn’t about a one-and-done historical occurrence. Instead, it reflects the dynamic and ongoing work of Christ in the world that God loves so much. And God is not done with us, the children of God, who God loves so very much. It is just beginning.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.