Sermons That Work

Those of You Who Have…, Easter Day (B) – 2009

April 12, 2009

Those of you who have nearly lost someone near and dear will find the gospel today within your experience. In wartime, families hope to avoid and yet expect the knock on the door. There stand uniformed and grim-looking people who have come to announce that a young person is missing in action or dead.

Others have sat in one of those ambitiously cheerful waiting rooms, expecting a surgeon to appear to tell them the worst or perhaps the best. Time seems to stand still. Hope comes and goes. Perhaps we pray or tell God off or both. Our companions try to comfort us, awkwardly. There’s always one person who is brave enough or foolish enough to assure us all will be well. We’d like to believe, but Uncle Charlie always looks on the bright side.

When we hear that the young soldier is alive after all or has been found and is safe and well, we thank God. We affirm our belief in miracles. When our loved one is safely in recovery we think Uncle Charlie was so right!

Please don’t believe for a moment that the disciples were so faith-filled on Easter morning that they expected to meet the Risen Jesus. First-century Jews were no more used to people emerging to life after death than we are. Many of them believed that at some future time the righteous would rise and inherit a new earth. Many, like perhaps some of you, didn’t really believe in life after death, let alone dead people coming to life. They went through life with no hope of a future life, and yet they worshipped God, perhaps hoping for a better deal now, or on the off chance that God had something great in store for them.

The gospel records are quite clear that the disciples had no idea what Jesus was talking about when he said he would rise again. St. Peter begged Jesus not to risk his life and had been called “Satan” for his troubles.

The gospel choices for today, one from St. John’s gospel and one from St. Mark’s, tell the same story in different ways.

John concentrates on Mary Magdalene. She loved Jesus so much, was utterly downcast and grief stricken, crying her eyes out as she stumbled into the tomb and found it empty. She had seen Jesus die, really die, cruelly, on the Cross. She came to be close to him just as some of us have wanted a last look at a loved one in the funeral home. Even that is taken from her. She turns and senses someone close, probably a gardener up early. “Where have they taken him? Where have they put him?” she blurts out. She is sure that the religious leaders have removed him so that his tomb won’t become a site of pilgrimage.

It is only when the “gardener” says her name, “Mary,” that she knows it is the Lord. When someone who loves you speaks your name, there is something special, something wonderful about the way it sounds.

Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him, but rather to go and tell his followers that he is alive.

Mark, in his usual hurried style, tells of a group of disciples going to the tomb. It is empty. A young man tells them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive. They run back but then say nothing.

Perhaps Mary does tell the waiting group of friends what she has experienced. Perhaps it is Peter and John, Peter the new leader and John the Beloved, who speak with authority and love. We don’t know.

In both the John and Mark versions there’s something important for us to grasp about Easter. Jesus warns Mary not to hang on to him but to tell the good news. So much of our religion is about us. We want Jesus to live in order that he may give us what we want, or keep us safe, or heal us, in this life. Even if we believe in an after life, our belief is vague. We are rather like the people in Jesus’ day who go through the actions of religion with some hope of being rewarded now.

Jesus tells Mary to go “tell” that something extraordinary has happened. Jesus is Risen. Jesus tells Mary that he has not completed the action yet. The Resurrection is not primarily about eternal life. The Ascension completes that part of the whole. The Resurrection is about new life, a new world, a new country. This new country isn’t geographical. It is made up of the dead, the living, and those who are not yet born, who in their lives “tell” that Jesus lives, and work in Jesus to lay the foundations of a new heaven and a new earth.

St. Mark tells us that the disciples ran from the empty tomb and didn’t say a thing! Perhaps they are as embarrassed as we are to blurt out our faith that “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” So we talk about justice, and good works, and piety, and the outward things of religion. We become experts on how the service should be taken or how the parish spends its money. We say nothing at all about the crux and core of Christianity. Christ is Risen.

All the religious things we involve ourselves in, justice and mercy, worship, and parish affairs are good in themselves. Yet without the presence of the Risen Christ at the heart of what we believe, we are, as St. Paul said, “of all people the most miserable.”

Christ is Risen. Be glad, wipe away your tears and then go tell the Good News.

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Christopher Sikkema