April 20, 2014, Easter – The Dawning of Recognition
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Mary Magdalene was the first person to come to the tomb that early Sunday morning, and in the dim light before dawn she saw the huge stone rolled away from the tomb, and the tomb empty. And her first thought was – the Lord has risen from the dead! But no, it wasn’t at all – her first thought was that someone had come in the night and stolen the dead body of Jesus and taken it away, and she was desperate to find it. She ran to Peter and the other disciples, and she asked two angels whom she saw when she came back and looked inside the tomb, sitting on the stone where the body had been laid, and she even asked a man whom she took to be the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, please, tell me where you have laid him.” Her love for Jesus was so great that the thought of losing his body, which was all that she now had of the man who had healed her and been her teacher and true friend, made her desperate with grief. She doesn’t even cry out with surprise at the sight of the angels hanging out in the empty tomb – her mind was consumed by that one purpose, to hold onto all that she had left.
We know the story of Easter so well, that I think sometimes we forget how impossible and unthinkable it was that Jesus actually came forth from the tomb, not a body, stolen away as a prank or a trick of some kind, but a man, fully alive. No matter how much Jesus had taught and warned the disciples, step by step, what was going to happen – Matthew tells us that Jesus “told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – they were still entirely unprepared for the truth when it happened. He told them not once, but many times; he prepared his small circle of disciples carefully, intensively, as they traveled for the last time along the road to Jerusalem. He could not have spoken more plainly, so plainly that Peter was horrified and tried to argue with him. But in the end no one expected it. Facing the empty tomb, no one had a glimmer of hope, or the smallest dawning of recognition that they were seeing exactly what Jesus had told them to expect.
Our whole faith is built upon the truth that Jesus is not dead but alive, and not alive 2000 years ago only, but alive today, fully alive, flesh and blood, his heart beating, his lungs taking in the air, a man whom, if he walked in those doors, we might think was a new resident of Norwood – or maybe a gardener, as Mary Magdalene did. And he is no longer in Jerusalem, or in Capernaum, or Bethany – he is present at this moment with his Father and our Father, with his God and our God. Human cells and human breath, human life in the person of Jesus Christ now live in the heart of the Almighty God, and that is as impossible and unthinkable and unexpected as saying that the tomb was empty not because someone stole the body, but because the one who was dead blasted the power of death itself and emerged, fully and eternally alive, by his own power. It is the greatest of mysteries, and it is the most wonderful of truths.
This Easter morning, like every Easter morning, the beauty of the service, the joyful hymns and alleluias, the flowers, and the goodness of being together, all those things that we love but that are no longer strange or unexpected or hard to believe, all those things rest upon a mystery so great that we would certainly not have understood if we had stood ourselves before the yawning opening of the empty tomb. Just like Mary, we can only believe it because he has spoken to us. As soon as that man, the man she took to be the gardener, spoke her name, “Mary”, the light of truth suddenly turned on in her heart like a thousand-watt bulb in a dark closet. At the sound of her name, spoken by the voice she knew and loved above all others, Mary knew, against all hope and all reason and all possibility, that the Lord she loved with all her heart and mind and strength, the Lord whose death she had seen with her own eyes, was standing before her. Even then she could not have understood the how and the why and the what of it all. She just knew it was he, and so she believed the unbelievable.
Don’t you love the presence of the angels in these resurrection stories? They don’t sing and fly and make a lot of pronouncements like they do in other Bible stories; they actually do a lot of sitting; they are just there, hanging out in the tomb, ready to point out that Jesus isn’t there anymore. But what a wonderful and joyful task it must have been for them on that day of all days. I like to imagine them, young men clothed in bright white, sitting quietly with knowing and amused smiles on their faces at the complete bewilderment of the women and other disciples. They don’t explain; they don’t give directions; they simply tell, “He’s not here.” We are not called to understand or to be able to explain the resurrection, because it is impossible. What we are called to do is to hear the voice of the one who was dead but is most certainly alive, against all possibilities and all probabilities and every possible law of physics, because he calls every one of us by name. And when we hear his voice, the mystery of his life invades our hearts with an overflowing and uncrushable joy that satisfies and sustains us as nothing else can ever do, because we were created for life, not death.
The mystery of the Resurrection is the unthinkably joyful truth that death will never again have the last word, and that our very humanity – this created stuff of blood and flesh and bone – has made its home in the heart of the eternal God. The bones of the man Jesus Christ are not laid away in a grave outside of Jerusalem or anywhere else; the tomb is empty now and forever. Jesus lives, and so shall we. Alleluia, amen!