John 20:1-18, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Our first summer of marriage Jenn and I lived in a cottage on several acres forest that someone lent us. Jenn was doing an internship at the congregation where I grew up and I was working with my dad in carpentry. One evening we were going to go to a large theater on the other side of the county. My parents had given us tickets, for a birthday, I believe. Being early in our lives of not having parents or a cafeteria providing food, we were not yet very good at judging how long food preparation would take. Additionally, we were, and are, enthusiastic for hot peppers. On this particular occasion, when we were trying to make it to the theater on time both of these features were present. The food took longer than expected to cook and it was a fiery hot Pakistani dish, which took awhile to eat. Both of these conspired against our leaving on time—which meant we were hurrying. Thirdly, there was storm brewing. At one point about halfway to our destination we were driving down the one straight stretch of country road in Lancaster County. It was also flat which is also unusual and through a large field—which is not unusual. We could see dark swirling clouds and rain behind us and to our sides closing in on both sides of the road ahead. But through these ominous walls the sky was bright with the sunset.
It is Easter—We feel the triumph of resurrection on this morning. We have likely been harried and hurried in our lives this week. We have seen the clouds gathering and swirling in as we neared Jesus’ death. For those of us who participated in worship service and liturgies throughout the week we have been on a serious ride. Though we remembered that Easter was coming we were in the storm. This morning we have broken out of the darkness, out of the storm. Like our driving toward and emerging into the sunlight this morning we made it through.
This ride began weeks ago at the beginning of Lent.
We saw Jesus clearing of the temple and moving toward a major confrontation.
We witnessed his triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts and singing.
We ate at the last supper in which Jesus eats with his disciples, washes their feet, and then goes out to the garden of Gethsemane and is arrested.
We languished at the crucifixion then the waiting of Saturday.
All this before we get to this morning—the glorious morning of the empty tomb.
Immediately before our passage we read of Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus asked for Jesus’ body, took it down from the cross, and wrapped it in spices. Then “because it was the Sabbath”—a day when work generally and certain work specifically was strictly limited—they laid the body in a new tomb cut from rock.
So early on the first day of the week—Sunday—while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.
She finds it empty–goes back to tell the disciples.
Two disciples race. It doesn’t say why only two came running but there seems to be a foot race of sorts between Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved”—John. Though the other disciple was apparently faster (strangely it is noted twice that he arrived first) Peter, the impulsive one doesn’t hesitate but charges into the now empty tomb with the deliberately folded grave wrappings.
Verse 8 and 9 read “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” On first reading I imagine most of us hear “he saw and believed” to mean some statement of faith. Like the “believing” discussed in the 1 Corinthians passage or a believing that Jesus had been resurrected. We hear belief in this context and default to a larger idea and import a great deal of theology into this—belief being linked with salvation and a transformation toward Jesus. On a second read though we notice the next verse which states, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” In the presence of this verse, the “belief” of the disciple is a more mundane believing Mary’s claim that the tomb was empty.
So the men go home but Mary is standing outside the tomb. Is she waiting? Does she expect to find a clue? Is she in such despair she can’t get herself to go home? Whatever the case she lingers—and Jesus appears. Well, first Mary bends to look in the tomb then she sees angels and the then see turns and sees Jesus—who she thinks the gardener—and then she sees Jesus. She truly sees him when he speaks her name. Mary becomes both the first witness of the empty tomb and the first witness of the risen Christ.
Mary was the first to see Jesus. She is the first to announce the empty tomb and then the first to announce Jesus’ resurrection. Paul, however, doesn’t mention this noting only Peter and the other 12. This becomes a pattern through church history. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza notes, “The apostle Peter, who according to some traditions was the first witness to the resurrection, has been hailed as through the centuries as the first among the apostles, whereas the apostle Mary of Magdala, who according to other traditions was the primary witness to the resurrection, has lived in Christian memory as repentant whore and sinner. (But She Said, 80)”
In a resurrection faith Mary, at least in the Gospel is the first apostle of our faith. But how do we understand this event? Brethren have often resisted single point of summary on Jesus. Rather than a short creed which states the basics we have said “the New Testament is our Creed.” We have also tended to emphasis the whole of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection as a necessary comprehensive whole which both saves and transforms us.
In the 1 Corinthians passage Paul seems to take a more minimalist approach. Paul seems to say it all rides on this resurrection. This passage, however, asserts a pivot point of sorts—perhaps a hinge. It all hinges on this. If not this then there is nothing.
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,[a] of the good news[b] that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
Paul proclaimed the “good news,” in the New International Version translation of the Bible “good news” is translated as “the Gospel.” Also of interest is the base word for the noun translated as good news or the Gospel is the same. It is risky to make too much of such linguistic parallel but it does seem to further indicate that there is an inherent proclaiming element to the good news, the Gospel. It is not a neutral fact but something necessarily outward moving—something to be proclaimed and acted upon.
Paul continues, saying,
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5
Easter morning is good news. The resurrection of Christ is a triumph. We are rightly joyful this morning. We rightly praise God. We are glad that that cross is now empty. Jesus is no longer hanging there a spectacle and horror.
So with this we go out. All is well. We may live victorious. We await the coming of the Spirit to fill the disciples and us with power. Right?
Perhaps. Perhaps, however, we are so bent on happy endings or perhaps we have not been accustomed to the lingering pain—but while Easter may be a triumph over death we still remember the death.
The darkness is still in our memory
“Doubting” Thomas still has scars to put his fingers into—which means Jesus still has scars.
The resurrection pushes back the darkness. In one scripture we read that “death has lost its sting.” There is, however, still death and darkness. The darkness may be held at bay but it remains. Though we live in the resurrection we dip back into the darkness at times.
I started with describing our driving and splitting the storm—breaking out into the sun. There is a different variation of this from a different time. Once I was biking through the countryside near where I grew up. I was on Mountain View road. Now if you are from the mid-west or some other place with straight roads and have driven in PA you will have noticed that the roads are bendy. They twist and turn and sometimes even end up at almost the same spot they started. Mountain View road actually went somewhere but it was on the winding side of the spectrum. One day I was biking along this road and I saw a storm in the distance. Off to the north side—which was to my right—of the road. It was one of those storms that had a distinct edge. Sunny. Stormy. And this edge was not straight. As I biked along the winding road along jagged edge of the storm I would enter the rain and then almost immediately be back in the sun. And then back into the rain and then back into the sun. For several miles this pattern continued.
Yesterday we were experiencing the death, the agony, the sorrow. Today we experience the resurrection, the new day, the joy. Tomorrow—tomorrow we will remember both the sorrow and the joy but who knows what we will feel in our bones. Who knows what we will experience in our work, what we will experience in our souls, what we will read about in the news, what we will hear about from our friends.
I don’t say this out of cynicism or the desire to dampen your day. I say this because this is what we will experience. This is what we will experience but praise God Jesus is risen and is with us. Praising God that Jesus is risen and with us does not mean that I will be perpetually cheery. Or that I need to feel guilty when I’m not. It does not mean that I won’t experience the darkness. It does not mean that you need to feel shame when you experience the darkness. What it does mean—what it does mean is that you are not in the dark alone. You are not alone.
You are not alone.
Praise God Jesus is risen. He is risen whether your bike tires on riding in the sunshine or in the storm. Whether you feel the resurrection or are remembering the tomb.
Praise God Christ is risen.