Chaplain Mel Baars
April 8, 2012
“An Easter People”
If you didn’t get the memo earlier this week, or if, perhaps like many of us, the Groundhog Day syndrome has warped your sense of time and space and season, I feel I should say once more, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!!” For many of us, this day marks the opportunity for enjoying chocolate again, or drinking diet coke, or picking up again one of our vices which we attempted to do without these past forty days. In college, whenever I had given up candy, my roommate and I would enjoy an Easter breakfast of M&Ms. I never minded the sunrise service since it meant a jump start on the Easter basket chocolate.
Over the next 18 or so hours, many people, some deeply religious and others not so much, will gather in sanctuaries across every time zone. Church pews will be filled to their brims. All around the world, family members, not always able to share each other’s company, will come together and to hear this message, “The tomb is empty. The Lord is risen.”
Our scripture today is an incredible drama, with suspense and emotion which is gripping even for us, despite the fact that we know what is coming. If this story tells us anything about human nature, it is that people are all very different, reacting in many ways to the news of the empty tomb. Of course, with hindsight, it’s easy for us to connect the empty tomb with the resurrection. We happen to know the rest of the story. But, for those first few who witnessed it that first Easter morning, who didn’t have the privilege of reading ahead to the last chapter, these events were far from the expected and loaded with surprise.
Last Easter, I think in an attempt to simulate the surprise of those who first witnessed the empty tomb, my pastor decided to do an Easter egg hunt in the sanctuary as the “children’s sermon.” When the kids finally found the basket of eggs, and then scrambled to open them, they discovered that they were ALL empty- just like the tomb. This scene was a true depiction of the spectrum of human reaction to unexpected and undesirable news, from denial to disbelief to anger. It was also church comedy at its finest. Some of the kids, thinking that maybe they got a “bad” egg, reached into the basket for another and then another, hoping that this repeating emptiness might magically change. Others sat back in utter disbelief, watching the scene unfold from the sidelines with looks of horror on their faces. I even heard one little girl murmur under her breath, “Oh no she didn’t...” referring to the pastor. I think the only reason any of these kids have ever come back to children’s time, after the horror of the empty Easter eggs of 2011, is because they got to leave church early that day to go on a real Easter egg hunt. Even still, I wonder if any of them suffered from a little post traumatic stress. After all, when opening Easter eggs, the expectation is definitely that something good will be found inside.
Easter is a day that defies our expectations in just about every way. We understand how surprising these events were to those who experienced them by observing the three main characters of today’s gospel reading: Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the “other” disciple, known as the one that Jesus loved. Just to be clear, Jesus loved all of his disciples, even the one who betrayed him. But I think it’s rather telling of our human need to feel special and loved that the supposed writer of this gospel happens to self identify as the “beloved” disciple, the one that Jesus loved. But I digress…
When Mary went to the tomb that first Easter morning, she was not expecting to find an empty tomb. In her complete shock, she runs to find help from the others who loved Jesus, who would have been invested in what happened to his remains. Now, Mary is convinced that Jesus’ body has been taken away, most likely stolen. She says as much, not just once, but three times, first to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, then to the angels inside the tomb, and finally, to Jesus himself. She is kind of like the kids who doggedly persisted in opening yet another egg, hoping in vain that if she persists, someone will tell her where Jesus is. Someone will rectify the problem of the empty tomb, bringing Jesus’ body back where it belongs. She is so distracted by her searching for his body that she sees, hears, and talks to Jesus and still doesn’t recognize him. Her expectations blind her. She is looking for Jesus’ body, lifeless and wrapped in burials shrouds, not Jesus, resurrected and among the living. She thinks she understands. Her assumptions cause her to miss Jesus altogether.
Simon Peter and the other disciple were not expecting news of an empty tomb, either. When Mary informs them that Jesus is missing, they start off running, almost as if they are racing each other to the tomb, as if one getting there faster than the other would alter the facts. The tomb is still empty. The “other” beloved disciple beats Peter to the tomb, but he doesn’t go inside. He just looks in from the edge, perhaps having second thoughts about entering alone. Then Peter, momentarily brave despite the fear which caused him to deny even knowing Jesus three times, goes inside by himself, facing the evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion. The burial clothing and the cloth that had been wrapped around his head are piercing reminders of a memory still raw and tender.
Eventually, the beloved disciple goes inside, too. The passage tells us simply that “he saw and believed.” But, believed what exactly-- that Jesus had somehow survived the cross, that his body had been stolen or that he had been raised from the dead? Which is it? The verse goes on to say, “for as yet, they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” That’s all we get. We know nothing more. So, did Peter believe too? Did these two disciples tell anyone else? Or, did they simply go home and keep the news of the empty tomb to themselves?
Mary, however, stays at the tomb, weeping. She is unwilling to let go of her grief over Jesus’ disappearance. She is holding on to hope that she may be able to find wherever they have taken him. For her, the empty tomb, the burial clothes that are left behind, these do not trigger a belief in the possibility that Jesus is alive. They simply indicate something tragic-- Jesus is missing.
And, even when she doesn’t see Jesus standing right in front of her, he doesn’t lose patience. This is how we differentiate between God’s character and ours own. Instead of giving up on her because she failed to see him the first time, Jesus reveals himself again, this time by calling her name. Suddenly, she knows that this man is the Good Shepherd, the one who calls his sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:3). It is not until she hears her own name spoken by the risen Christ, that her eyes are opened fully. One might even argue that it takes her the longest to believe. But, as soon as she does understand, she is the one who obeys him. She goes back to the others and proclaims, “I have seen the Lord.” She is our very first evangelist. It is Mary, not the disciples, who first spreads the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
In this story, we have three very different characters, three very different responses to the empty tomb. Yet, each of these, the quick believer, the brave skeptic, and the unlikely evangelist, all make up the earliest Christian community. Not one of them is better than the others. Each one plays an integral role in receiving and responding to the good news.
And, the same applies for our community here and now, all of us who gather this Easter morning and, like Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple, find that the tomb is empty. There are those among us who sprint blindly to the tomb, all caution into the wind, ready and willing to believe the good news. Others of us come along, but with a little more skepticism. We may not run as quickly-- or as mindlessly-- to the tomb, but when we get there, we are brave enough to go inside and remember the pain of the cross. And, also, perhaps, to make room for this hope, what seems impossible is made possible with God. Others of us get so caught up in our expectations of what we will find when we get to the tomb that we struggle to notice when God has done something even more generous and gracious than we could ever imagine, something as remarkable as bringing life from the ashes of death.
But, all of us, no matter how we react to the empty tomb are enfolded into a community of faith where we are known and called by name. It is a community of many kinds of characters, who profess many different and sometimes even opposing beliefs. It is made up of some who are ready to shout the good news and others who hesitate. It is a community, which empowered by the Good Shepherd’s voice, has courage to call out other’s names, even the names of those who have brought harm or caused pain. This is the Easter community-- a people who have witnessed that the tomb is empty, a people who have seen through Christ that, much to our surprise, life follows even our greatest losses, a people who know the end of the story, that love is stronger than death. Amen.