The Sunday Sermon: Easter Sunday – April 16, 2017
Scripture: John 20:1-18
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Our Last Feast … and the First
Oh, my friends, how familiar are you with this morning? (Fifty-two Easter mornings, for me! Who can beat that? Anyone here have more than fifty-two Easter mornings in your life?!) And we’ve spoken it so many times already on this day, let alone all the other Easter “days” in your lives. We’ve sung it, we’ve prayed it, we’re living it again this morning … and now I step into this space as the primary pulpiteer of our beloved church to tell you … what?! Everything you already know, surely.
I wonder every Easter morning every year what in the world there is to say again to all who will gather together in this sanctuary, and the legion more all around the world. With a deep concern for the validity of my own vocation, but more importantly for the meaning of the Resurrection lives of everyone one of us, and all those around the world, I always get to this point on a prayer that there’s something new in the words I share!
I so do not want my words, or any words, to “get in the way” of the experience of this day and these moments of it. For that’s finally what created the need for this day and what has sustained the recognition, the celebration, of this day. The experience of the Risen Christ in the lives of those who followed, and still follow the “Way” of Jesus. It’s an experience that is impossible to describe in words, though (at least as far as we know now) it was as early as forty years after Jesus’ death that attempts were made … to “explain and describe” the inexplicable and indescribable. Our earliest known written explanations come from Matthew and Luke. (Paul was writing earlier, but he never attempts to describe the resurrection experience, just to exalt it. And Mark is the oldest Gospel, the first written, but he doesn’t go to the tomb on the third day and attempt to express the miracle that is perceived only by faith. If you don’t believe me, find the sixteenth chapter of Mark when you get home and read. The “longer ending” … was added later.)
Somewhere around the end of the first century our Gospel of John was written. By this time, as with Matthew and Luke, explanations and descriptions were needed, even required by a growing community that was finding “faith,” the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” harder and harder to hold onto in the “real world.
Listen for the Word of God from the first part of the Gospel of John’s early description of what we still experience on Easter morning: Read John 20:1-10 …
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 who 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 disciples 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. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
The first experience of this morning is the experience of an “empty tomb.” Before anything else, something was experienced as “missing,” or better yet, “removed.” Now you can take that literally, if you want to, if you need to. But whether it “really” happened or not, you must begin by asking what does this mean?! The experience and this description of “an empty tomb?” What is John – what is “God” through the writing of John – trying to tell us. The first thing this day can mean is that those places that “hold our deaths” can be emptied, if we’d only understand that it’s possible. But we don’t.
The saddest verse in this first part of our Easter story in John is the first part of verse nine: for as yet, they did not understand the scripture. The second saddest verse is verse ten – then the disciples returned to their home. They just “went home.” What? Went home?! After seeing what they saw? That is sad. But they did that because first “they didn’t understand.”
What in all the world is going to get us to understand? I do not want any of you to “go home” this morning without some deeper “understanding” of what happened and is happening to you, for you, for us, for the world, today. What’s it going to take? More Easter mornings? I’ve had fifty-two (and that’s nothing compared to others here), how many more is it going to take?! More readings from scripture? Those readings, these readings – Easter and otherwise – confuse us as often as they help us to understand. They leave us with more questions than we care to admit.
But, we return to the story, scripturally speaking, every year. Listen to the second part of the Easter story from the Gospel of John: Read John 20:11-18 …
(Peter and the Beloved disciple have just gone home because they didn’t understand. But … ) 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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). 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.
The Word of the Lord” … Thanks be to God.
Believe whatever you want to, whatever you need to about whether or not these events ever actually happened, but ask and answer the question: What do they mean? I personally don’t think John had any need for his followers or, could he have imagined it, any need for followers two thousand years later, to believe his words “literally.” The meaning of his writing is found in the “more-than-literal” interpretations we so desperately search for.
Mary didn’t understand either. There’s no way she could have. There’s no way any of them could – Peter and the Beloved Disciple, too. I don’t blame them for that. Their friend, their Teacher/Rabbi, their Lord, their Messiah was betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, dead and buried. All in a day! How in the world are you to get your head around that? We don’t understand, either. But … we’re here. We remain. As Mary remained.
Whether at the side of an actual tomb with an actual stone rolled away and actual linen clothes bundled on a stone slab, or in her own empty room, all alone with her tears – she remained. She “stood weeping outside the tomb.” She remained and we are still coming, still here. We can question those who “go home” when they don’t’ understand. (I’m sure we have bear some responsibility when we don’t offer credible expressions to the mysteries of the Christian faith, but ultimately it’s the decision of each one of us to leave for home, or stay and seek out.) Mary stayed … and sought. Her faith sought understanding. And we have stayed – we’re here together again this year. Such a faith as this is never able to “go home.”
The gift for this faithfulness, for this remaining, this hanging out, hanging back? An encounter with the Risen Christ. The experience of Resurrection. How many of you understand now? Yea … me neither. I blame it on the sparse table we’ve set for, the meager meal we’ve made of, Resurrection. The Final Feast in our Lent-to-Easter journey this year.
For forty days we’ve traveled through Lent as a church, a community this year. It began on March first, Ash Wednesday, and it ended as the sun came up this morning. forty days, not counting Sundays. Why didn’t we this year, why don’t we any year, count Sundays during Lent? Because one of the understandings in the ancient church, before any splits, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant, when there was just “one holy and apostolic Church,” was that Sundays were a “feast day” for all. Every Sunday was a celebration of the love of God for the world in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Every Sunday was a little Easter, a celebration all to itself. Sacrifice was not prohibited – one could certainly keep their discipline of “giving up” or “taking on,” but it was not required. So, Sundays didn’t, and still don’t, count in the forty days of Lent.
We took up that understanding here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian this year in our Lenten season. We encouraged everyone to maintain their “fasts” and Lenten disciplines, but on Sunday mornings together in this sanctuary, we feasted – on scripture and on six doctrines of our church, one for each Sunday. We stretched our understanding and our living-out of those doctrines, filling the table full with “food for thought” and then digging in to the feast, discovering the many, many ways we may experience and express God, Christ, our humanity, the community called the church, our salvation, and our work for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Six feasts through Lent and one more this morning, (One Feast to feed us all!)
Those weekly feasts were featured this past week in our Annual Holy Week Video Reflections. (Side note: I got more than one comment on how I took twelve to fifteen minutes during Sunday sermons to say what I said in three to four minutes in the reflections! But … ) Those videos are still up, and will be for a while, on our website. You can “binge watch” all of them later as another Easter indulgence!
God is. “I am,” says the mystery itself in the Book of Exodus. Our first feast. God is compassion. God is inclusion. God is mercy and promise. And more than just a noun, God is the holding of hands, the sharing of tears, the joining of laughter. God is relationship, collaboration, and conversation. God is joy, and hope, and peace. God is you as you give joy, offer hope, and work for peace. God is love. God is … a feast. We imagined the guests who may arrive, or who just might return, if we would only set our table with the feast of “God” that is ours to consume.
Jesus, as Christ, was one in whom this God’s call, aims or directives, purpose, were received, experienced, and shared every moment of his life. In every way tested as we are, says our scripture, like us in every way, except without sin … without separation or disconnection from the Holy. Fully human and, so, divine. Our second feast. This Jesus, this Christ – Jesus Christ – does not differ from us in kind … only in degree. The implications for our own lives are astounding. We begin to find Christ, then, not only a human who lived two thousand years ago, as beautiful and “time altering” as that one life was, but in the world today. In our own lives today. In our own life today.
Our own humanity, the third feast, is then understood as something sacred. The reason for begin born human is to become human. Fully human ..
When we gather together as the church, the Body of Christ in the world. Feast number four. We are called to love and welcome all, even our enemies. We are called to clothe and feed all, even the stranger. We are called to treat others as we would like to be treated; to do more and be more; to be “ecclesia” — called out from the world, remembered and reminded to be mission-centered, to be the change that scripture calls us to be, to move beyond these four walls and into all of God’s creation.
We feasted on our salvation on the fifth Sunday of Lent, so much more than “a life after death.” Eternal life means “the life of the age to come” and every one of our Gospels confess that in Jesus, the “life of the age to come” has come, is here. Eternal life in Jesus is not about sometime beyond death, but about right now. The thing entrusted to us by God in Jesus Christ is sacrificial love. However else it happens, Jesus saves us by showing us how to love. And we must do that loving here and now, in this life. This is a feast that we feed to whole world.
The last feast of Lent, last Sunday – Palm Sunday, was about “last things” and end times. Our fascination with this doctrine includes a divine destruction of the physical earth and rapturous judgments of humanity that vacate the earth for a new heavenly location. But that’s only one interpretation, and a wrongheaded and dangerous one, at that. Our God’s vision of end times doesn’t have to do with destroying this earth, but cleaning it up! Love, the love of God revealed in Jesus the Christ, can “end” the toxic evil and impurity, the injustice and oppression, the war and violence in this world so that God’s Kingdom may come … in this world, “on (this Earth), as it is in heaven.”
All of these “feasts” all of this food for thought and empowerment for action is possible because of this day – Easter Day. Our final feast … and our first … is Resurrection. We have remained, we have returned, to this place on this day and our gift for this faithfulness, for this remaining, this hanging out, hanging back is deeper understanding of what an encounter with the Risen Christ can mean – Resurrection. Not simply for later, not even principally for later, but for right now; for our own lives, for the lives of those we love and live with, and for the world.
18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have encountered our Risen Lord. I have experienced Resurrection. And the world was never the same again. With our Lenten journey behind us, with the Holy Week of 2017 now behind us, the feasts are set. We now must dine on all we know, and seek with every fiber of our faithful beings to know more.
Our final feast is our first. Our tombs are emptied. Happy Easter, Pewee Valley. May this day be far more than that. May it be a new life, a resurrected life, lived fully and full of love.
Christ is alive in each and every one of you. Now you go, too, and tell everyone that I’ve told you these things. Alleluia! Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 16, 2017