Sermon for Easter Day Yr C, 11/04/2004
Based on Jn 20:1-18
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“The Risen Christ”
One Easter morning, a Sunday School teacher asked her class if they knew the origins of this, special day. One young man responded immediately, "It's opening day for the Expos and Blue Jays."
Not wishing to stifle creative thinking, the teacher responded, "What a wonderful answer! But I had something else in mind."
A young girl then stood and remarked, "That's the day we get nice new clothes and go find the eggs from the Easter Bunny.
"That's right," said the teacher. "But there's something else just a little more important.
A young man then jumped up and yelled, "I know, I know!! After Jesus died on the cross, some of his friends buried him in a tomb they called a sepulcher."
The teacher thought, "I don't believe it, someone actually knows." The little boy continued, "And three days later Jesus arose and opened the door of the tomb and stepped out."
"Yes, yes!" said the teacher. "Go on, go on!" And the youngster said, "And if he sees his shadow, we have six more weeks of bad weather."
Like this joke, even the disciples, including Mary Magdalene, did not at first understand what happened on that first Easter morning. One of the principle characteristics of John’s Gospel is that it almost always presents at least two levels of meaning; there is the immediate or on-the-surface level of meaning and there is the deeper or spiritual level of meaning. The immediate, on-the-surface level of meaning usually emphasizes blindness, confusion or failure to understand; while the deeper, spiritual level of meaning usually emphasizes those aha! moments of seeing, recognition, and understanding. Today’s gospel very skillfully displays this principle characteristic.
In our gospel, when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, she doesn’t see Jesus laying in it, nor is the stone covering it. What Mary sees on the immediate, on-the-surface level leads her to the conclusion that Jesus’ body had been stolen. In her deep sadness, she was seeing, thinking feeling and experiencing the worst possibility. She failed to realise at that point in time that the rolled away stone and the empty tomb were signs of our Lord’s resurrection. The mist and darkness obscured Mary’s vision. She was still thinking about death, not resurrection. The rolled away stone and empty tomb were, at this point in time signs of sorrow, fear, defeat and death.
It isn’t until after Mary runs to tell the two disciples the terrible news, and after they enter the tomb to look for themselves that the deeper, spiritual level of meaning begins to come into the light. John tells us in a very subtle and masterful way that after “the other disciple” went into the tomb, looked at the linen cloths and the napkin, then “he saw and believed.” Exactly what he believed at this time we do not know, since he does not tell us. Nonetheless, by telling us about the grave clothes and rolled up napkin, this gospel writer makes the subtle point that Jesus had not been stolen. Robbers would not have taken time or care to remove a body from the linen cloths and carefully role up the napkin. So here we are given hints of Christ’s resurrection. However, note that neither Peter nor the other disciple speak a word about what they have just seen. Rather, they “return to their homes” in silence, probably still sad and confused about these things.
Then we’re told that Mary remained outside the tomb, wept, summoned the courage to look inside, and spoke with the heavenly messengers. Her words still reflect deep grief, and the belief that Jesus’ dead body had been stolen. However, then comes an important change in the story. John tells us “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there.” Yet, she fails to recognize him with her tear-filled eyes, thinking he’s the gardener. Then, for a second time, the same question is asked, this time by Jesus and Mary gives a similar answer. Next, he calls her by name and she turned now in an aha! moment of recognition, saying “Rabbouni!” which is a word of endearment for “Teacher.” Once again the subtleties of John are at work in mentioning the mistaken identity of Jesus as the gardener and in telling us of Mary’s two turns toward Jesus.
In Mary’s mistaking Jesus for the gardener, we are given the information that the tomb is located in some kind of garden. This, of course, harkens us back to the Book of Genesis with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; where they disobeyed God eating the forbidden fruit and in so doing, bringing sin into the world. Now we are in another garden, call it if you like the Resurrection Garden! Here we encounter not a dead body of Jesus; which is one of the trademarks of the consequences of sin. Rather, here we encounter the risen Christ; which is the “first fruits” of the “new creation;” the new being; the new person—thanks to the consequences of his resurrection, which reverses the powers of sin, death and evil. Sin, death and evil no longer have the last word. In this Resurrection Garden with the risen Lord; relationships of unconditional love and forgiveness, health and wholeness are the order of the day.
The two turnings of Mary toward Jesus are also likely symbolic of something deeper and spiritual. In Mary’s first turn towards Jesus, she fails to recognize him because she is still in a state of tear-filled despair, grief, and fear. In her second turn, Mary has left behind her darkness and gloom, and it is replaced with joy, faith hope and love. This turn has changed her whole way of seeing from darkness to light; from sorrow to joy; from despair to hope from death to life.
Is this not also true of us too? In the everyday events of life there are things we miss because we fail to turn and see them. Or when we look, our preoccupation with fears and anxieties can darken and impair our vision. We can turn away and take a path of life that leads to destruction and death. Or we can turn in the right direction, truly see, then appropriately respond to what we see—just as Mary did when Jesus called her name. The risen Christ helps us to turn away from our: fears, despair, grief, darkness and death. We too are invited to turn to him so we can see: Light and life, hope and joy. And we, like Mary, have been given the message of Christ’s resurrection—so we too can go out and share it with others.
In this second turn that Mary makes, we learn it is a response to hearing Jesus call her by name. This too is an important subtlety of John’s resurrection account, which is consistent with whom Jesus is in the Fourth Gospel and how he draws his followers to himself.
When Mary listens to the voice of the risen Jesus, her perspective on the events in the garden changes. She no longer understands the empty tomb as a manifestation of death, but as testimony to the power and possibilities of life. In the parable of the shepherd in John 10, Jesus said, “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…. The sheep follow him because they know his voice” (10:3-4). Jesus called Lazarus by name to summon him from the tomb (11:43), and now his voice summons Mary to new life. 1
Jesus also has called us by name when we were baptized and made members of his family; sharing in his death and resurrection to become a new creation in Christ. We too can still hear the risen Lord’s voice speaking to us if we listen carefully in the silence of our hearts and in the depths of our souls. He is giving us the same marching orders as he gave Mary and the other disciples—go into the world, be my witnesses, preach the gospel in word and deed.
Mary Magdalene could not contain herself, the message of Christ’s resurrection is not the best-kept secret—rather, it is a message meant to be shared with everyone. So, may we follow Mary’s example, by being eager and willing to share the message that the risen Christ has defeated the powers of sin, death and evil. And he comes to give us full, meaningful, abundant life, with a capital L—filled with hope and joy. Amen!
1 Cited from: Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, The Women’s Bible Commentary (London: SPCK & Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 301. See also: Raymond E. Brown, A Risen Christ in Eastertime (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 71-72.