Easter Day—Year B
April 5, 2015
The gospel today begins with tears in the dark at a tomb, not a promising start for good news.
We’ve all been there: On most trips to Atlanta I visit the memorial garden at Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church in northwest Atlanta, so I can be close to my parents. I read their names on the plaque and I stand near the spot where their ashes were placed into the ground.
I’m not much of a weeper, but Mary Magdalene’s grief is fresh and raw. She makes the journey to the tomb of the one Luke (chapter 8) tells us freed her from 7 demons that were destroying her life.
What will happen to her–now that Jesus is dead? Will the demons, those persistent self-destructive thoughts, take over her life again? She weeps for Jesus and she weeps for herself. She is afraid.
And now she finds that someone has disturbed the tomb so she gets Peter and John to investigate. If someone has robbed the grave let the men deal with it.
Peter and John run down and look but they are as grief stricken as Mary, so they go back home to stay hidden from the Romans.
It’s all too much for Mary: The angels ask Mary “Why are you weeping?” Then the Risen Jesus asks, “Why are you weeping?”
It’s a silly question really.
The fact that the tomb is empty means nothing to Mary except that someone has taken the body. Jews in the first century understood that once you’re dead you’re dead. Let’s have none of the arrogance of “modern people” who think ancient people didn’t know about death! They saw death everyday—we rarely see it at all and then only in sanitized hospitals or with make-up applied and hair done, surrounded by flowers with no fragrance.
Jewish custom left the corpse in the tomb for about a year while the bacteria did its work. Then they’d return to gather up the bones and put them in a stone box called an ossuary. Dead is dead.
In addition to weeping, many of us also share another experience with those who have lost a loved one: I’ve had many parishioners, men and women, tell me that shortly after they buried their spouse of 40 or 50 years that they were home alone in the evening and they had the distinct and powerful impression that their spouse was in the room with them—and they are deeply comforted by this.
Sometimes we are encountered by the dead in our dreams. I had a dream shortly after an older friend had died. She had been angry with me for several years. She came in the dream dressed in a white sweater and white slacks: she gave me a warm hug and I knew that we are at peace with each other.
Jewish men and women also had such experiences and they called them what we call them: visitations, dreams, maybe even, ghosts. The one thing they don’t call them is “resurrection”. Resurrection is when God at the end of the age will transform what is left of the body and make a new creation that would share God’s divine life—not in heaven—but on the new earth.
On that great day all the tombs of the righteous will be empty, but until then Mary knows someone must have stolen Jesus’ body, so she asks the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”
Many people heard Jesus teach and preach. One day there were over 5000 listening to him and being fed by him.
Many saw him die on that hill outside the city walls. It was a spectacle not to be missed.
“Hey, Martha, pack a picnic—the Romans are executing a bunch of criminals, including that religious nut job from Nazareth who called God his father and who had meals with really messed up people. Sounds like a fun day!”
But now in the dark there is only one woman in the whole world standing in that cemetery. There’s no CNN live feed going out, no one from NPR quietly reporting what she sees.
Just a grieving woman with a man who stands right in front of her, plain to see, not like a ghost or a visitation or a dream and he calls her by name. She has to go from zero to 60 in just a few seconds. Her circuits are fried, but then reconnected in a new way, a healing way.
Jesus body hasn’t been stolen it has been transformed by the power of the Creator.
If God can make things once, God can make them new again.
Mary now knows that Jesus has undergone resurrection in this age and therefore vindicated by God. He IS God’s chosen, the Messiah, just like she thought. Everything Jesus ever said or did is true and reveals the Father!
In that moment Mary becomes the first witness to the resurrection. This is so odd. Women of that day weren’t allowed to testify in court because no one thought them capable of telling the truth.
Now she is chosen to be the first witness.
She announces to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”
There would be other witnesses: Writing just 25 years after this event Paul bears witness:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
And because of Mary and the other witnesses here we sit 2000 years later. Amazing!
There is no Christianity without the resurrection. His followers would have continued to grieve. They may have had powerful visitations in their homes or in their dreams. But they would have moved on with their lives because it would have been clear that Jesus had been abandoned by God and the powers that killed him were the victors after all.
There were plenty of other would be Messiahs in those days that challenged Rome for a while but then were killed. There were different understandings of what the Messiah would be like but they all agreed on one thing: the Messiah could not be killed.
Without the resurrection Jesus would be a footnote to history instead of its center and its Lord.
But just as there is no Christmas without the Virgin Mary giving birth, so there is no Easter without Mary Magdalene bearing witness. See Fred Craddock’s Sermon “Witnessing to the Resurrection” in his Collected Sermons
She is a living witness to the faithfulness of Father, Son, and Spirit in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
Witnesses to the resurrection are like children swept out to sea, who think they are drowning, but then they suddenly realize God has brought the bottom of the ocean up to their feet so that they have something firm to stand on!
These witnesses cry out to their friends, “You don’t have to drown in your tears—stand up and see: the Risen Christ is here and will never, ever, let you go!”