Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, before daylight makes things clear, the Scriptures say, “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women made their way to the tomb.“ That pre-dawn hour is always the coldest. The creation waits for the sun’s rays to crack the horizon and dance warmly upon earth. Donning extra cloaks, they shake off the predawn chill that shrouds heavy hearts. They come clutching the spices, oils and perfumes of ancient embalmers.
They walk to the garden remembering Jesus’ light, life and love. In Jesus they found rest for their souls. Jesus taught forgiveness, compassion, inclusion, service, hope, and love. They believed God’s kingdom might come on earth as in heaven.
The day before their pre-dawn journey to the cemetery, they went to church. It is hard to keep the Sabbath, when questions, doubts, or fears pierce your soul. Maybe they worried about encountering people happy that their beloved prophet was dead. At times the sting of injustice drives us away from God. Joanna, Magdalene, and Mary kept a pattern of worship that steadies the soul.
On that terrible Friday two days before, Peter and the disciples fled the scene as these female followers stood watching from the edges of an angry and ugly crowd. The crucifixion crowd was the sort that gathered for gladiator games. The women absorbed the taunts along with Jesus. They saw the sky grow dark. Words lodged silently in their throats as the Crucified One prayed, “Father, forgiven them they do not know what they are doing”. Who can imagine such love? They wept beside Mary, his mother, as Jesus prayed “Into your hands I commit my spirit” and breathed his last.
They watched as the crowd trickled away, leaving their beer bottles and popcorn bags strewn about. Luke records “all the crowds who had gathered there for the spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” These female followers wondered why one who taught love hung on the cruelest tree. Perhaps some like Judas had hoped Jesus might come down off the cross like a holy champion: slaying persecutors, driving out foes, purifying religion, and establishing a Christian rule. Maybe some rowdies awoke from their sinful stupor to repent as the Crucified One taught love from the cross. Luke simply tells us the taunting crowd traveled home lamenting.
A small band of disciples witnessed as Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate, securing Jesus’ body. Joseph, a member of the Council that commended Jesus, takes down Jesus’ body. God weaves grace throughout Easter. So Joseph wrapped Christ’s body in linen shrouds and laid it in a newly hewn stone sepulcher. Joseph reminds us not to judge with too broad a stroke.
Very early in the morning, before the sun pierces the night sky and spangles the clouds a thousand shades of lavender, pink, purple, scarlet and gold, Magdeline, Mary and Joanna come to honor their Rabbi. They carry spices for the Beautiful One-the one who brings peace to the chaos inside lives. They comfort each other with chatter about moving the massive stone blocking the sepulcher.
What is Easter? I am intrigued by what Easter is, but maybe more intriguing is what Easter is not. Easter is not a showy display of God’s power. Think of what Jesus does not do on Easter. Jesus does not lead a palm waving procession fortified by an angel army to Pilot’s fortress or the High Priest’s Palace. Jesus does not fly to the pinnacle of the Temple and cast himself down two hundred feet below to explosive adoration and praise. Jesus does not walk through stone Temple walls demanding justice. Jesus faced such temptations in the wilderness. Early on the Tempter offered Jesus worldly methods, thrones, and power. The Disciples might have imagined a different Easter script. When a Samairtan village rebuffed Jesus, the Disciples suggested “command fire to come down from heaven and consume the unbelievers” Jesus rebukes triumphalism, anger, vengeance and judgment.
Jesus does not lead a “Told You So” payback tour.
After defeating evil, injustice, and oppression; after conquering hell, sin, and death: Jesus comes to a single soul weeping alone in a cemetery garden. John writes that the Risen Christ appears first to Magdalene. Religious folks might question Magdalene’s story, after all, Luke tells us her life was a wreck. Like the woman who poured the extravagant undiluted perfume on Jesus’ feet, she prompted the church ladies to whisper: “Oh, teacher, if you knew what kind of gal she was, you wouldn’t have anything to do with her.” Why not appear to Governor Pilot, King Herod, the High Priest, or even Caesar? The Risen Christ comes to the hurting and calls us by name: Mary, Peter, John, Joanna, Paul. The Risen Christ comes with healing in his wings.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us Jesus appears to Joanna, Mary and Magdalene and the other women. “Suddenly Jesus greeted them. And they rushed to him, grabbing hold of his feet, and worshipping him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers.’”
This joyous Easter band returns to share Good News with sleepy apostles, as they stumble around the condo looking for comfort or a coffee filter. Luke tells us the apostles do not receive these women preachers’ Easter message. Indeed, some today still do not receive the message when spoken by faithfully called and sent women. Often we fail to see the Risen Christ appearing among us.
That same day Jesus appears to the disciples. What would you say to them? What does Jesus say to friends who betrayed, denied and deserted him? What is Jesus’ sermon for those who can’t believe or remember his teaching: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the Gospel will keep it for eternal life.” What does Jesus say to those who forgot or disregarded his prophetic word: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests, and they will condemn him to death; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ What does Jesus say to deniers, doubters and sinners like us?
Easter’s message is a surprising word: “Peace be with you.”
Easter is reconciliation, restoration, salvation and purpose. Jesus stands among us saying “’Peace be with you.’ Then he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” Easter is about love. Jesus has no time for rebuke. Jesus does not come to condemn but to offer life, salvation and hope.
Easter can come to those who miss church on Easter. Thomas missed Easter: clearly a loss. Thomas might have been grieving alone, ashamed or angry. He blurts out: “Unless, I put my fingers in the nail scars I will not believe.” Yet, Thomas returns to the group and Jesus appears. Christ embraces doubters.
A few weeks later Jesus will come to Peter again. Peter wonders back into fishing, his old line of work. Jesus will bless Peter’s catch rekindling Christ’s first call. Jesus restores this denier to leadership.
In fact, Easter first came on Good Friday. Easter came as Jesus offered forgiveness, salvation and eternal life to a thief dying next to him on a cross. How lovely, that the first soul to join Jesus in Paradise would be a death row convict.
But the text of my preaching this morning comes from Luke 24, where Easter comes to two disciples, Cleophas and an unnamed disciple. Maybe you are that anonymous disciple? Maybe on life’s road you stumble some, question, wonder, lack direction or are headed away from the centers of religious life?
These travelers admire Jesus as they walk away from the band of disciples. Jesus comes to them as a stranger. Luke notes, “they were kept from recognizing Jesus.” But the Unrecognized Jesus asks, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” After chiding Jesus’ ignorance of recent events, they begin unloading heavy burdens. They speak of injustice, dashed hopes, and broken dreams. They speak of the Crucified One, nailed to a tree by jealous judgmental religious folks. The Unrecognized Jesus teaches them from Moses and the prophets. Hope grows, their hearts stir as they unknowingly walk with Jesus. As they draw near to home Jesus pretends he has further to go. Indeed, Jesus must appear in Lynchburg, Manchester, Normandy and Sewanee, Tullahoma, Ugonda, Vietman and Winchester. They do not know this Traveler is Jesus but they remember Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you feed me, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” . Unknowingly they invite Jesus in.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus”
Easter came to me one August in Rose McKee’s Sixth grade Sunday School class in 1978 as we sang “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” Easter has come to me a thousand times since that day, picking me up and putting me back on the path of life ten thousand times.
What is this Easter? It is personal, for Jesus seeks open souls not swooning crowds. It occurs around tables where people remember the teaching and actions of Jesus. Easter occurs when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, comfort the sick, visit the prisoner, stand with the crushed, embrace the leprous, encourage the hopeless, defend the downtrodden, pray for enemies, absorb insults, rebuff gossip, open closed hearts, welcome doubts with faith, love the unlovely, forgive the unforgivable, and take up our crosses and follow him. May Easter come to you today, may you open your heart to the Risen Christ, may your receive the Holy Spirit, may you go forward and work that Christ’s Kingdom might come on earth as in heaven. Let us rejoice, for Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!
Pastor Paul Purdue
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