Easter Sermon: John 20:1-18
Good morning, church. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen. Please go with me to John, chapter 20.
After talking with AJ this morning about what he would have preached today, I want to begin this morning with three stories from holy week this year in our family: one funny, one serious, and one which seemed serious at first but which is now mostly funny.
One: a joke I told AJ this morning to make him laugh because he woke up grumpy, which AJ asked me to you.
Two, a conversation I had this morning with him.
Three. As a church, we shared a traditional seder meal on Wednesday evening, which includes things like bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Grape juice or wine. But really the center-point of the meal is the passover lamb. It represents God’s sacrificial provision for us, his abundant grace, his forgiveness of all we’ve done and all we’ve left undone. In excitement for the feast, I volunteered to bring the lamb.
Three days ahead of time, I purchased all of my ingredients, searched several recipes, and Tuesday night I got home from work and began cooking the lamb. I took my time and slow roasted it, the smell of roasted lamb and rosemary filled our home the entire evening. I spent my own money buying ingredients, several days preparing, and about five hours cooking it. Then I fell asleep next to Annie on the couch. I woke up at 4am to find God’s grace and forgiveness burned beyond recognition.
And seminary training doesn’t always work in your favor: for example, looking at this passover lamb I had burned and ruined, I remembered with horror that the Hebrew word for burnt offering is literally holocaust. I may have overreacted at that point. Annie woke up to me sighing and moving pans, flipping on lights, she asked me what was wrong and I told her, angrily, that I had ruined Jesus, and she laughed at me, to my face.
But the good news of Easter is, there is grace and forgiveness enough for disciples who fall asleep in gardens and on couches. And that supper in the upper room in Jerusalem was not Jesus’ last meal with his friends. He made them fish one morning on the beach, and even without lamb Wednesday, he would have been there together with us gathered. Because Christ rose on Easter, he lives today, and because Jesus lives today, we have hope today.
C. S. Lewis writes, in his book Miracles, “The resurrection and its consequences were the ‘gospel’ of good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels,’ the narratives of our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for those who had already accepted the gospel…The miracle of the resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it… The first fact in the history of [Christianity] is a number of people who say they have seen the resurrection.”
When I think about “The resurrection and its consequences…” as Lewis so succinctly summarizes all of Christian life, history, and theology, I get a sense of what some call the numinous, or the sublime—that still, small sense of wonder you get when you look out at an ocean and see the water curve out of sight. Or when you stand on a high mountain or look up at the heavens at night and you realize you’re standing on the edge of something inexplorable—not because you’re forbidden from striking out into it, as far as you can go, but inexplorable because of it’s breadth and depth. You could dedicate your life to searching through it and only know the smallest piece.
“The resurrection and its consequences…” The consequences of the resurrection, being eternal, reverberate through all of time. This is an event which effects and changes the past as much as it effects the present and future—like a person who is healed of cancer, and suddenly, not only does she have a new and bright future, but her past, all of the sickness, all of the struggle, becomes a story of survival and providence and joy rather than death and sorrow.
Or think of a wedding, like Kallee’s and Josh’s just a few weeks ago. A single event, a single moment in time, which is able to weave every date they’d had, every fight, every conversation into a story of a life lived together. The resurrection is an event like that, one which changes our past into a story of redemption and points the arc of our lives toward a future in which we can hope for something besides what we’ve always known.
I want to give you that king of hope this morning, or at least show you where I’ve found it. Read with me in John, chapter 20, starting v.1. [John 20:1-18]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
If you’ve been around me for any length of time over the past year or so, you’ve probably heard some version of what I’m going to preach this morning, because it’s what God has been teaching me over the past year, and I’ve been trying to communicate it in my faltering way—it’s difficult to explain, and in the beginning may sound strange, but I promise I’ll get to what we’ve read this morning. I’m just trying to put into words what has become for me a life-giving spring of hope in otherwise hopeless days. And it has everything to do with the resurrection.
Basically, my point is this: there are two true histories of the world, vastly different. In another book, this same apostle John—and Ezekiel before him—imagines the two true histories of the world as two books, two stories. He says, in all of human history, the truth is, there has only ever been two kingdoms, two queens, and two kings: the kingdom of men and the kingdom of God. All of the various kingdoms and nations through our long histories have essentially been the same. The two true histories of our world are written by and about these two kingdoms, and the two books are the book of humanity, and what John calls the book of life. Again, both are true histories of the world, even though they are vastly different. The book of humanity chronicles what humanity has done through our long ages on this earth. The book of life chronicles what God has been doing in all of this time.
The story of humanity begins well, with long life among the trees and growing things, unashamed, intimate with each other and with our creator. But a lie enters in, and it didn’t start with us, but we let it in, and gave it growth. The lie was death in a seed form. To people created in the image of God, Satan said, to be like God we should take, control, conquer the world around us, even if we have to blame and manipulate the people around us to do it. Which, when you think about it, I’m not sure I can think of anything less like the God revealed in Christ.
And through the long ages of humanity, this lie, this death now fully grown, no longer a seed, began to reign over humanity like a king. Lies always promise control, and then control us. They promise us freedom as a means of conquering us, the whole time whispering, “if only you were enough like a God!” But the truth is, we’ve always born the image of God, not in our taking and controlling of things and people, but in our loving, serving, and stewarding them. But the story of humanity, you’ll know, is disjointed and tragic, cruel and hopeless. The story of humanity comes to us through news outlets and social media, through experience and pain. It can be overwhelming, taking part in this story of humanity.
But over and over again, God has been drawing my attention to the truth, the unveiling, that he’s written another story. There are two true histories of the world, vastly different. And the reason I’m saying all of this this morning is: in the incarnation, the two histories fully merged. In the resurrection, the history of God’s work in the world began to redeem the history of humanity’s works, and restore creation. “The resurrection, and its consequences…”
Later in the same book I quoted earlier, Lewis writes this: “A new nature is being not merely made, but made out of an old one. We live amid all the anomalies, inconveniences, hopes, and excitements of a house being rebuilt.” Again, the idea is one of restoration. God is making all things new, but he’s not starting over, he’s using the core of what’s here already. Like a renovated building, like a wedding, like a person healed of a grave illness, he is changing without destroying, changing the past and the future of this history humanity has written through our lives across the ages without changing the core of who we are. In fact, I would argue, he’s restoring us to who we are.
He’s able to do the same in each and every one of our lives. Since you’re here today, I would assume he’s probably already begun. I love this passage in John, because it shows us, in miniature, in Mary, what Christ’s resurrection means for all of creation, and for us. She starts the passage weeping, and she ends it running in joy to tell the others. She starts out mourning, and ends clinging to this person she had loved and lost. In short, she starts out thinking the world would always be the way she’s always known it, and ends with everything, even the past, having changed.
I don’t know if you noticed in the passage, the different reactions. Mary gets to the tomb first, then John. John, a child at the time, comes out of the tomb believing somehow in hope and life, as children so easily do. But Mary comes out of the tomb weeping. She’s lived too long in the history of humanity to believe in a story that ends in anything other than death. Her mind goes, not to God, but to humanity’s story. Jesus is missing—he must have been carried away. Grave robbers maybe, or soldiers wanting to add some final insult to the crucifixion. “What have you done with him?” She shouts, “Tell me where you’ve taken him!”
If I’m honest with you, I’m much more like Mary than like John. I have a hard time recognizing God’s work in the world and in my life. It’s hard to see past what we do, we, humanity, because it’s so close, it’s all around us, and it demands to be noticed.
I look in this passage, and it’s almost comical that Mary thinks this man is the gardener, but there’s sadness in it, too, that we often miss. She’s not the only one who doesn’t recognize him after his resurrection, and I’ve heard all kinds of theories about Jesus not looking like himself after he was raised, or more spiritual reasons why Jesus has to call her name for her to know him, but I don’t think so. I think she doesn’t recognize him for all the same reasons we don’t recognize the person and work of God when he’s standing right in front of us, when he’s working all around us miraculously, raising people from the dead, transforming lives, setting the world back to rights, and we go about our lives in tears, only seeing what humanity is doing—crucifixion, and hiding, and losing hope.
Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because she saw him die; she was at the foot of the cross that day. She saw him die, and so in her mind he’s gone. That’s the way the world is. And she’s right, that is the way the world is; that’s the way it’s always been. No one can turn back death. It’s an inevitability, like taxes, it rules over us like an empire.
We also, in our daily lives, we understand how the world is. People die. Bad things happen, just keep your head down and try not to let it happen to you. Good doesn’t always win, and evil people aren’t always punished for their evil. World peace is a joke told at beauty pageants, and joy is an advertisement selling vodka or cigarettes. Humanity is ruthless in the way we advertise our work in the world.
The resurrection teaches us, though, that the world is not all there is, and “the way the world is” is not the only way. The resurrection is impossible; that’s why it gives me hope. I want impossible things to be able to happen. I want peace in the world, and justice at the same time. I want to experience joy in my life and to be truly satisfied. And I want good to win in the world, and for the lowly to inherit the earth, for the ashamed to be forgiven. And if Jesus is able to come out of the grave, what else is he able to do? If death can’t win over him, what can?
If you’re willing to see it. God is also working in the world alongside humanity. He’s quieter about it, gentler. He doesn’t take out billboards or bid for primetime spots. But he did create us with a longing in our hearts to know him, to love and be loved. He did hang the stars and set the boundaries of the seas. He created us to eat and be sustained by his body and blood, to sleep and remember our death.
He wakes us up each morning to remind us that when we sleep in death, he will wake us up again. The sun rises each morning, glorious dawn breaking open the night—never once has it failed—to remind us of his coming again like the dawn. Winter’s death turns to life springing forward, “leaping greenly spirits of trees and a true blue dream of sky.”
You can see it, if you look, the promises over and over again that God is continuing to work. Continuing to create, to renovate and restore this world. He hasn’t left us, and he will raise us again to a world remade. There is a different story being told in our world other than humanity’s history.
In heaven’s story, those people who die are raised up again. And we’re not separated from friends and family by time or space. There is peace and justice, not just for one nation but for all. Things like oppression and sickness are broken, forgotten about, machinations left to rust. Everyone is fed, and everyone is fulfilled. The light never fades into night, and there are no hidden, evil things to come to light. Everyone is fully known for exactly who they are, and fully loved, because God created you to be exactly who you are, and without sin, you can finally be that person you’ve longed to be.
So here we are, in between two stories, like actors on a stage where two simultaneous performances are happening, one a comedy, one a tragedy. It can be hard to figure out your role. This life is chaotic and disjointed. I would encourage you to start learning the lines of the story that ends in life and beauty, these words of scripture and sacrament. Begin saying them to yourself, memorizing them so you can speak them at the right moments to those gathered who need to hear them to know God’s story in the world; or in the dark nights of your own soul, in your doubts and struggles, when you need to see the sun rise, the sleeper awake, the spring bloom.
Start acting as though you are part of a story, not of misery and desperation, but one of everlasting life in this world, restored. Start caring for yourself, the people around you, and the world itself as though we’re not disposable or transient and are instead permanent fixtures in your own life and story. Start acting like you’re part of a story where impossible things happen.
And if, today, you feel like you’re living in a world where evil wins and nothing lasts and everyone leaves, maybe it’s time to step into a new story, to recognize your part in God’s work and story in the world.