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Good morning, church. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Amen. Please go with me if you have a Bible, to the gospel of John, chapter 20. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, you can raise your hand, and we’ll give you one that you can actually keep if you’ll read it. A gift from our church to you this Easter; it’s actually the best thing I have to give you. We give them away not because the Bible is cheap to us, but because it is so incredibly valuable that, like a national park, we feel we should preserve and share this beauty. It wouldn’t be right for us to keep it to ourselves or keep it hidden behind a door or a gate.
John’s gospel is beautiful, and if you’ve never read the Bible or it’s been years, this is always where I tell people to start, either John or Mark. Mark is the earliest record we have of the life of Christ, and it reads like he’s excited. Especially the first few chapters, he skips over all of the birth of Christ, three decades of his life, he’s all in a rush to get to his point, and his point in the book of Mark is this: “The time is fulfilled. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
That’s really what Mark wants us to know. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, not far away, not in the future, but here and now. Like all of the best fairy tales, Jesus and Mark dare us to believe that if we just reach out—if you just invite the wizard into your house for tea, or step into the wardrobe, put the ring on—if you just reach out, not only will you find a kingdom and people you didn’t expect, but what you find will be worth more than anything you have now, because it will be life, itself, and truth. It won’t just be your perspective that changes; you will change, in all the ways you most desperately long to change.
But that’s Mark, and I’ve just asked you all to turn to the book of John. John is decidedly not in a hurry. John was a child when he knew Jesus, and he publishes his gospel account nearer to the end of his life than the beginning. What I love about the book of John is that he is trying to tell us everything he’s worried we might have missed. Everything that is in danger of being forgotten about this person he loved who changed the world and is still changing it, and he wants us to forget none of it.
So let us “be people on whom nothing is lost” this morning. Read with me, John, chapter 20, v.1-18. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Frederick Beuchner writes that “the gospel is always tragedy before it is good news,” and that is as true in our passage as it is in our own lives. The good news of Easter is that Christ is risen, and because he is risen all of the deathly things in your life, your life itself, if you hear him calling to you, all of you can rise our of whatever tombs you find yourself in, and you can live, too.
But before that good news, there is tragedy. If you look at it, in our passage, the first seven verses are tragic. Mary goes to the tomb while its still dark, early in the morning. She’s expecting to find a grave, and a body, her friend. That’s tragic. When she doesn’t find what she expects, she doesn’t believe something wonderful has happened, she assumes the grave has been robbed. So does Peter, it seems, at first.
It’s not until v.8 that anyone in this story believes anything good, and wonderful, and lifeish has happened. Notice it’s the child who believes first, which doesn’t surprised me in the least. Children are always seeing wonder in things adults see as dead and broken. I went to throw away an egg carton the other day and my seven-year-old asked me if he could have it. I asked him why, and he told me he thought he could make something wonderful from it, and he did.
What I really want to do this morning is to see the resurrection through the eyes of these three people we’ve met in our passage—John, the child, who believes like a child; Peter, who is right in every way, except in the way that matters most; and Mary, who cannot see Jesus through her grief, even when he’s standing in front of her. I want us to understand these three people and see Jesus through their eyes.
John is about the same age in this story as I was when I first really believed Jesus was alive—preteen. I was sitting on the floor of a youth room listening to a girl a few years older than me talk about knowing Christ in a personal way, and somehow it clicked that instead of knowing a story, knowing a history, reaching out to the kingdom of God was about knowing a person. Truth is a person. Life is bound up in Christ. John’s moment of salvation was standing in a grave watching two adults begin to unravel. He ran all the way there but refused to go in because he assumed he would find something scary and empty, but instead what he found was so full of life that it would fill and change the rest of his own life.
I’m not sure what you came here this morning to find, or if you were maybe a bit afraid of coming in, but I hope what you find is Christ, himself, and life this morning even if others don’t see it. I hope you can believe, like John. Because the world without Christ in it is tragic. That’s a world where no one rises, where death ends each and every persons’ story. A world in which Christ is risen, though, is a world where death is overthrown, where I will live together again with the ones I’ve lost.
Peter, at first, doesn’t see anything but tragedy, and he takes John home. Did you notice that? John believes before Peter takes him home, otherwise he would have been there with Mary in her grief. Peter doesn’t see what John saw when he believed, and he doesn’t listen—adults never listen to children—and Peter refuses to stay. He doesn’t want the child to see anything more than he’s already seen of death. He doesn’t want John to have false hope, to be naive about the depth of brokenness of the world.
And to a certain extent, Peter is right, and I want us to notice that. Everything Peter believes is right. Jesus really did die, and people really are cruel enough to rob graves and raid tombs, and if Jesus is dead then Peter really did waste the past three years chasing after some foolish dream of changing his life and his society. It’s not that he’s wrong about anything, it’s just that he hasn’t yet dared to dream of something else which might be true.
I talk to a lot of people with this outlook on faith. Faith is fine and good for kids, and people who need to believe in something—but if you’re smart, if you really know the way the world is, if you’re really able to stare life in the face and have it stare back at you, you just learn to accept the hard things. Try to enjoy what you can of life, and I’m sorry for those of you who don’t have the things I enjoy. It’s all fine to dream about the world changing until the one who’s supposed to change it ends up arrested, executed, and then it’s the same world it always has been; it’s back to the life I knew before I had any dreams. Time to wake up. It doesn’t surprise me at all to find Peter back in his fishing boat in the next chapter.
But I was talking with my seven-year old about this last week. He asked me whether or not Santa Clause is actually real, and I know I should have seen that question coming at seven, but it really caught me off-guard, and I realized to my surprise that, not only did I not know what to tell him, I didn’t even really know what I believed on the matter.
And I’m not delusional—all the kids are upstairs, right? I don’t want to be that guy—but I know Santa’s not really out there somewhere in our world, breaking and entering, surveilling children. What I ended up telling AJ is, Santa’s not as real as we are. But I think what gave me pause is that, even though he’s not real like me, there’s something else that’s true there, that’s hard to put your finger on as an adult, but all the kids know it. Maybe Santa, and Bilbo, and Harry Potter, and all the other characters we create aren’t real in the same way we are, but if you dismiss them because of that, then you’ve dismissed something else that’s true and vitally important.
Now, hear me, I’m not equating belief in God to belief in Santa Clause—if anything, God is more real than we are, not less. What I’m saying is that Peter was right that day at the tomb. And also his imagination failed to capture what it’s possible for our God to do, and so for at least that one day he missed life itself. He went home; he missed it, and he dragged John with him, too, so John missed it. Peter was so consumed with all the things he knew about the world that he stopped imagining that the world could be any other way, and when you lose the ability to imagine a different world than the one we live in, a different kingdom than the one that rules us, you lose faith, itself. For a second time in Peter’s life, he lost sight of Christ walking on the waters because he focused on the waves, and so do we.
Jesus knew and said, there’s something about believing like a child that’s necessary to even entering the kingdom in the first place. Sometimes being right matters less than imagining truth. So there’s John, and Peter, and let’s not forget Mary. Mary, who found forgiveness and welcome in Jesus when she found only rejection everywhere else. Mary, whose grief is so intense that she can’t sleep and shows up at the tomb in the middle of the night to find it empty.
Peter leaves to take John home, and Mary is left by herself grieving in the midst of the most joyous moment in the history of the earth. Christ is risen, death is defeated, at long last the enemy that seemed to be so invincible staggers in the midst of the battle, falls, only Mary doesn’t see it yet. In the moment, she can only see what humanity has done, and she can’t yet see what God is doing in and through and around everything we’ve done.
I love the way the angels and Jesus approach her. In v.15, the angels use a term of endearment: woman, why are you weeping—here in NOLA we would say, “Hey baby, why you crying?” And she turns to see Jesus alive, and through her tears she doesn’t even recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener, which I think is both funny and somehow true. God the gardener in Eden, meeting us in a garden again, the work of atonement accomplished we’re welcomed back to the garden, and he calls our names. He calls Mary’s name, but in that call we should hear him calling to each of us, and that’s when Mary believes.
She throws herself on him, and he both scolds her and allows it, which I love. The first act of the resurrected Christ is to dry tears and hold a daughter to his chest while everything that caused her grief comes untrue. It’s his first act and his last. He promises to do the same for each of us. This is the new Lord which follows the downfall of death and the enemy; a king who reigns over every person and nation who with his first act in office comforts his friend and dries her tears. Having been given all power in heaven, earth, and under the earth, he chooses to spend his time encouraging and comforting his friends.
God the gardener, causing life to well up in each of us, pruning us, watering the small seeds of life in us which, when they grow, nourish us throughout our lives. One of the things I love most about life is that it has a way of spilling over, breaking past the neat boundaries we set. You can pour water in a bathtub and walk away and it will stay. If you put a child in a bathtub and walk away, neither the child nor the water will still be in the bathtub when you come back. And the life of Christ, like that is uncontainable. Death could not contain him, and his love and life spills and overflows into each of us, if we will allow it.
Because Christ rose on Easter, he lives today, and because Jesus lives today, we have hope today. I read this last year, but I want to read it again: C. S. Lewis writes, in his book Miracles, “The resurrection and its consequences were the ‘gospel’ of good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels,’ the narratives of our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for those who had already accepted the gospel…The miracle of the resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it… The first fact in the history of [Christianity] is a number of people who say they have seen the resurrection.”
When I think about “The resurrection and its consequences…” as Lewis so succinctly summarizes all of Christian life, history, and theology, I get a sense of what some call the numinous, or the sublime—that still, small sense of wonder you get when you look out at an ocean and see the water curve out of sight. Or when you stand on a high mountain or look up at the heavens at night and you realize you’re standing on the edge of something inexplorable—not because you’re forbidden from striking out into it, as far as you can go, but inexplorable because of it’s breadth and depth. You could dedicate your life to searching through it and only know the smallest piece.
“The resurrection and its consequences…” The consequences of the resurrection, being eternal, reverberate through all of time. This is an event which effects and changes the past as much as it effects the present and future—like a person who is healed of cancer, and suddenly, not only does she have a new and bright future, but her past, all of the sickness, all of the struggle, becomes a story of survival and providence and joy rather than death and sorrow.
That life is open to you today. Whether you’re able to believe like a child, or like Peter you’re so convinced of what you know that you’ve forgotten to imagine anything else could be true, or like Mary you’re so focused on the grief of everything humanity is doing that you forget to look for the work of God in the world—Christ is standing, calling your name willing to dry your tears and embrace you.
The resurrection and its consequences, the life found of Christ is overflowing even to you this morning—in the midst of your grief and mine. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Like Mary, turn around, and believe Christ will meet you where you are. He is calling your name today.