April 9, 2023
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”
—John 20:19, ESV
Good morning, my friends and a very Happy Easter to you. We hear the words from the Gospel writer John this morning who speaks about that first Easter morning…“On the first day of the week, while it was still dark” he writes, (John 20:1) Mary Magdalene, a dear friend and disciple of Jesus, makes her way to the tomb where he had been placed following his death. Because it was the Sabbath, she hadn’t able to complete the burial rituals, so while it was still dark, she enters the garden. She has no idea that early morning that something new is being reborn. We can understand that Mary doesn’t greet this day with joy and celebration, certain that everything will work out. She arrives with a heavy heart, eyes likely still filled with the tears of recent days and I’m sure, with little hope in her soul. She ventures out while it is still dark despite her grief, having no sense of what the day will hold for her, but she goes nonetheless to be near the One who had surely changed the course of her life, to be near the One who renewed her faith. With dirt under his fingernails, she mistakes him for a gardener (John 20:15). The one she was looking for arrives in his resurrected glory, but she cannot grasp this quite yet.
Let us pray, On this Easter morning, we too seek you, O Risen Lord, we seek you in our darkest moments and we look for you on the best of days. Help us to recognize you in those we meet; help us to feel the hope of this Easter morning and believe again that Your Love meets us in each moment of our lives and helps us to rise along with you. Amen.
How often have any of us awakened in the darkness confused or in grief? Who among us has been so lost at times that we cannot look up; we cannot see the Living God who reaches out to greet us in the dawn? Life can also be filled with much joy, the joy in fact of a beautiful spring morning as new life is breaking forth with the sound of the birds greeting the day, the crocuses pushing up through the cold dirt, the buds on the trees and the sounds of children playing outdoors.
And yet, when life seems overwhelming, we find that nothing makes sense. We recall those times when our hearts are broken beyond repair… when life becomes upended because of loss or pain in whatever form it shows up one day and shakes the very foundation of our lives. It is just such times when we can recall the story of Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morn and search for signs of Jesus—for signs of hope—while it is yet dark.
Even in recent weeks, we have seen unbearable sorrow on the faces of our brothers and sisters in Rolling Hill, MS and in Nashville, TN. I imagine that they are walking in darkness this very day, trying to make sense of what feels entirely senseless…caught in the grief of unforeseen loss and suffering beyond all imagining. Suffering and grief visit too often in our broken world, leaving confusion and despair behind far too often.
It was twenty-five years ago that a tragic bombing took place in the town of Omagh, Northern Ireland. In August 1998, just a few months after the Good Friday Peace Accords had been ratified by the voters in Northern Ireland after the long years of violent conflict and injustice there, 31 innocent people lost their lives, including nine children. Approximately 220 people were injured. The Omagh bombing inflicted the greatest loss of life of any single event in the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Not long after the attack, Daryl Simpson, a local singer, who later became a member of the Celtic Tenors, created a choir of Catholic and Protestant teenagers, the Omagh Community Youth Choir, in an effort to use music to help facilitate healing for the survivors and their community as they sought to pick up the pieces. His vision for the Youth Choir was to bring together young people from varying backgrounds and traditions, and particularly from the Catholic and Protestant communities, and to create music in harmony and to help these young people imagine a different future for themselves and their communities, a future of peace and reconciliation. The choir has since performed around the world and their message of love and hope continues to open hearts and minds wherever they perform. For those who have been involved with this amazing choir over the years, for their families and for their community, this has been an opportunity to sing in harmony and to embrace the beauty of music to facilitate healing and new life. The message they share is that hope does indeed shine through, even in times of incredible darkness. Somehow light indeed shines through.
When Mary arrives in the darkness of that morning two days after Jesus had been put to death, she doesn’t really see much. She is so upset that immediately after she finds the door to the tomb wide open, she runs to tell Simon Peter and the other disciples that Jesus’ body has been taken. We might imagine how confused they were to find the linen cloths lying there; why would grave robbers only take the body? Once Peter enters, he finds that the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head has been rolled up in a place by itself. Why would someone do that? It doesn’t make any sense to them, as John explains, because they didn’t understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Still, when the beloved disciple followed Peter inside the tomb and saw the clothes lying there, he believed. But what does he believe? We are not told; all we hear is that he believed and without any further words he leaves with Peter to return to their homes.
It is Mary who sees the angels and Mary who is the first to see the risen Lord. At this, Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” She too is confused and imagines he may be the gardener, as she asks, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
And Jesus replies simply, “Mary.” He only speaks that one word. Mary. He calls her by name; he recognizes her even if she cannot recognize him. And remember, Peter and the other disciple aren’t present for this. They found nothing but the empty tomb and two piles of linens but we are told that one of them believes.
The writer and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Any way you look at it, that is a mighty fragile beginning for a religion that has lasted almost 2000 years now, and yet that is where so many of us continue to focus our energy: on that tomb, on that morning, on what did or did not happen there and how to explain it to anyone who does not happen to believe it too. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life on earth. No one has ever seen it happen, which is why it is helpful to remember that no one saw it happen on Easter morning either.
The resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God. There were no witnesses whatsoever. No one on earth can say what happened inside that tomb, because no one was there. They all arrived after the fact. Two of them saw clothes. One of them saw angels. Most of them saw nothing at all because they were still in bed that morning, but as it turned out that did not matter because the empty tomb was not the point.
Jesus had outgrown his tomb, which was too small a focus for the resurrection. The risen one had people to see and things to do. The living one’s business was among the living, to whom he appeared not once but four more times in the Gospel of John. Every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.”
This morning, I invite us to remember that it was the appearances of the Risen Christ after the resurrection which were so powerful and important to his followers and not what happened in that tomb. We may never know exactly what unfolded that early morning in the tomb; that is only known to Jesus and God. For Mary and for all of us who seek to be followers, Easter began the moment the gardener called her by name and she knew who he was. “That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening — not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.” (BBT)
This amazing story of the first Easter morning still inspires us because those who discovered that empty tomb ran back to tell their friends. We may believe because his closest friends shared their astonishment and joy, despite their fear and despite their trepidation. They assure us that Jesus appeared to them, his beloved friends, and we understand that he also comes to us in the darkest moments of our lives and calls us by name. We may not always feel confident in our beliefs but Jesus shows up anyway. Jesus shows up to embrace us with hope, to whisper words of love, and to be present to us in peace. We may never know when he will be there, but even through the darkness, we can feel his Presence and we can recognize him.
If we find ourselves too focused on that empty tomb or lost in the darkness, we may not always recognize him when he does show up in our lives. As Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “After the resurrection, every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.” That is our invitation this Easter morning, an invitation to be more like him, to be stronger, wiser and kinder and to shine His light and peace upon our families, our communities, our world.
Kate Bowler and Team, “Bless The Lent We Actually Have”
-Barbara Brown Taylor-Christian Century, April 1, 1998