Like all preachers, I want you to leave here saying, “I saw Jesus.” If I could hand out a little Easter Sampler Basket to give you that then I would. It might hold beautiful wrapped gold foiled delights: “A sense of the Holy, Awe before the Creator, knowledge that you are made in God’s image, divine compassion seen through Christ Crucified, boundless joy in Christ Risen, guidance in the Holy Spirit, Grace overcoming legalism, Love that exceeds knowledge, peace that surpasses understanding, Hope that never fails, and justice as your life. And one wrapped the colors of the rainbow: “God loves and accepts you, Come follow”. The problem is mystry won’t fit in a basket. Easter requires a journey. Let us pray.
Early in the morning, while it is still dark, pause and listen as the Breath of God stirs the pine needles. Hours before the sun rises the blackbirds and robins lift their praise. Creation, itself, groans in labor pains, awaiting Easter hope. (Romans 8)
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb. In John’s portrait, Magdalene comes alone. Matthew shares that “the other Mary” comes along. Mark names Solome. Luke adds “Joanna and the other women”. No matter the number or names, every Gospel proclaims that Jesus appears first to his female followers. I love that Belmont’s 1930 stained glass Easter scene contains no men! Jesus and the angels will ordain Magdalene, Mary, Solome, and Joanna as Christianity’s first preachers. These women are Apostles: They saw the Lord on Easter! If Bartholomew, Thomas, the other James, the other Simon, and Saul of Tarsus are named as apostles, surely Mary, Magdalene, Solome, and Joanna are more so. You that have ears to hear, listen: the church accepted the Easter message but rejected female messengers. We Methodists only granted full clergy rights to women in 1956. Just because we have tradition- it does not mean our tradition got it right!
How is it that, John shows Magdalene coming alone to the tomb? Does not our grief isolate us? Can we not sit in the presence of others and yet feel alone? Mary had lost Jesus who helped her find life. She witnessed love crucified. She stood with Jesus’ mother at the cross. She saw the disciples scatter. The crowds’ cruel tweets echoed through her head. She recalled the priests’ smirking selfies. Perhaps, she heard that Judas added to their grief by taking his own life.
When Magdalene arrives at the cemetery, the mausoleum’s 1,000 pound stone door is ajar, opened, out of its groove, toppled over, and rolled away. In Matthew, the earth quaked as a team of angels rolled back the grave door, flipped it on its side, sat down on it, and just beamed glorious heavenly light. In our text, Magdalene sees no angels. She sees the crypt door ajar and fears a deeper insult… the desecration of Jesus’ grave. She assumes “they have taken Jesus’ body away”.
Unable to look inside, she runs back to the disciples. We love to point out Peter’s stumbles, but Peter and John are the kind of faith framily that gets out of bed at 4:30 am to be with you. The church is full of people like that: maybe slow to believe, yes-sinful, yes- misunderstanding, but ready to bring over a casserole, clean up a mess, or get your ox or car out of the ditch.
I imagine Magdalene woke Peter to say, “They have taken my Lord away.” Who are the “they”? Who are “they” in your life? They did this. They made us lock the doors. It was great before they came. They did that. Friends, do not let “them” take Jesus away? A lot of bad theology begins with “they”…
Peter and John race to the tomb. Did Magdalene beat them both? Magdalene and John wait outside the tomb for Peter, who runs right past their hesitation into the crypt. Peter and John see that Jesus’ body is gone. But no angels greet them. However, the linen shroud that covered the crucified Lord remains. Did the risen Lord neatly fold the bloody sheets and lay them triumphantly aside? John records that he “as the beloved disciple” saw “and believed” something. “One saw and believed. Still, they didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” Easter is not just a matter of theology and history. Easter unfolds as holy mystery. Faith blooms in “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding”. (Philippians 4) Easter is an “unsearchable” mystery wherein “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge fills us with the fullness of God”. (Ephesians 3) “For, we only know in part… but faith, hope, and love endure forever.” (1 Corinthians 13) We preached “I have seen the Lord”.
Peter and John leave to get coffee. Mary stands alone again. She weeps. She turns toward her grief and looks into the tomb; she sees two angels. One sits where Jesus’ head had laid, the second angel glows at Christ’s footmarks. The angels ask her, “Why are you crying?” I wonder are these the B-team angels? She replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” Mary turns away from the angels. Let that soak in. Magdalene turns away from shimmering angelic light! Did she find no comfort in their question? Did it seemed a rebuke? Did the question run too deeply into her grief?
Turning away, Mary sees Jesus standing right next to her, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Now Jesus asks, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking Jesus was the gardener, Magdalene replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Hearing Jesus call her name changes everything. Love. Her heavy chains fall off, her heart grows free, she rises up, she will persist, she will preach. The Apostle Magdalene preaches Easter’s first sermon: “I have seen the Lord.” They did not take Jesus away.
On that Easter evening, the disciples lock the doors in fear that “they” might come. But instead of “them”- Jesus comes. Jesus stands in our midst preaching, “Peace be with you.” Jesus shows the marks of what “they” did. When we see Jesus there is a deep healing. Love heals the marks “we” made! Somehow, when we feel the Divine Embrace, what “they” stop matters less in light of the surpassing love of God. A deep, almost unbelievable, joy fills our hearts. Faith, hope and love bubble up like streams of water nourishing us into eternal life.
In the midst the Easter celebration, Jesus shifts gears: “Peace upon you, as God sent me, so I am sending you.” Easter is not a one and done. Easter sends us to do the things that Jesus did. Easter benedicts us to go and feed the hungry, open free health clinics, stand up for justice, comfort the weary, and love the unlovely. We will see Jesus- when we do the things that Jesus did.
Then Jesus does the strangest thing: Jesus breathes on them. Jesus breathes life into us saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.” When we lock the doors in fear of “them,” Jesus comes through our walls to break down the barriers. Jesus longs to resuscitate God’s image within us and our neighbors. The particular word for “breath” shows up in Genesis 2:7 as God animates a lump of clay into a human being and in Ezekiel as God’s word revives a wilderness of dry, scattered, disjointed bones. Jesus calls us to exhale the toxic deadening air of “they”… “they have taken my lord away.” “They” made us lock these doors… Forgiveness is the new birth: we start again with love. At times, the haters harm us; unfollow them, and repeat the mantra of Jesus’ cross: “Oh God forgive them, (oh Jesus, forgive me), they just don’t quite get it… yet.” Forgiving births God’s love in us. The authentic church is always characterized by an easy way of forgiving.
I Love that Jesus did not even bother to formally forgive Peter. It goes unsaid. Jesus just sends Peter out to forgive, not mentioning undelivered boasts, betrayal, denial, and lying. Let us leave the judgement to God and allow God to animate us back to life. Oh, yes, we must oppose unjust systems, oppressive theology, and evil actions, but let us do so with hearts being renewed by divine love. Breath in the Holy Spirit and persistently overcome evil with good. (Romans 12) Let go of Judas, Pilate, the priests, the crowd, and all of “them”. “They” can’t take Jesus away. Nothing in all creation can separate from the Love of God. Forgive and persist!
Oh you, who feel alone, disjointed, lifeless. Breathe in Easter and live. You who are beloved and forgiven, go and do the things that Jesus did. Amen.