Scripture - John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
*Hymn - Alleluia (FWS 2043)
We’ve all seen the iconic images of the Notre Dame Cathedral this week - the video of the spire tumbling from on high, snapshots of crowds singing hymns as it burned, photographs of the billowing clouds of smoke and flames surging from the rooftop. On Monday, there was so much speculation as the fire burned on - what would be saved? What would happen to the art, the relics, the stained glass, the organ? What about the centuries old beams of wood that have withstood the test of time?
Everyone started sharing pictures, memories, stories about their connection with Notre Dame - many heartbroken over the devastation. I saw comments on social media saying “It feels like everything good is on fire these days” or “with the burning of Notre Dame, it seems like all of Western civilization is burning down around us.”
I don’t think we here on this island are strangers to that feeling after the season we’ve had together where it as felt like one unending string of sadness and traumatic events, one after another. It’s that feeling where we’re sitting together in the ashes, wondering what comes next; the one where it seems like everything good in our lives is slipping through our fingers, no matter how desperately we try to hold on; the one where personal tragedies and heartbreaks become communal burdens that we bear for one another and yet still we wonder - how much pain and hurt and suffering can we actually bear? We hurt for our friends and neighbors and children, we hurt for ourselves, we hurt for our whole community as nothing will ever be the same anymore.
It makes me think of Mary Magdalene in the garden from the familiar Easter story. I love the version from the Gospel of John that we heard read this morning - because she comes to the tomb alone while it was still dark. Her hopes and dreams - the ones that were flying high as Jesus came into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week - had been dashed. She comes by herself, not with anything in hand to tend the body, but simply to grieve. I can imagine that she had spent a fitful night of sleep - tossing and turning - unable to rest because of her sorrow and grief. So she does the only thing she can think of to do: keep vigil at Jesus’ tomb...to cling to that comfort of closeness that helps us in the aftermath of a loved one’s death...that even though they are gone, some part of them yet remains for us to honor their memory.
And yet, she is even denied that measure of peace as there is no body anywhere to be found. The stone was rolled away. The tomb was empty. It was the gut punch on top of the horrific events surrounding Jesus’ execution - that last physical touch stone, gone. Mary runs to notify the other disciples, assuming the worst -- and two of them run back to the tomb to investigate for themselves. They go in and see the linen wrappings laying neatly rolled up, no Jesus to be found anywhere - and then the story says that they believed - which honestly, annoys me a bit because they didn’t see fit to tell that to Mary, who stands there outside the tomb, continuing to weep as they leave her behind. No words of comfort, no hope or encouragement. She remains there in her grief, deepened by the physical loss of Jesus.
The words she speaks to the angels who suddenly appear are full of hurt and longing. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” They resonate with intimate emotion and affection and Mary is so caught up in the depth of her despair that when she turns away from the tomb, she sees a man there and assumes he is the gardener when, in fact, it is Jesus himself.
In the conversation that follows, she is again desperate for some clue, some evidence that Jesus’ body is out there, somewhere, and wants to know where she can go to keep that connection, to have some link to the one she had given her life as a follower. It is not until he says her name - Mary - that she recognizes Jesus for who he is - and I can imagine that she must have reached out to touch him, his hands or his robe, to cling to him in some way so as to reassure herself that he was not going to leave her again.
Yet even in that moment, Jesus withdraws and tells her not to hold on to him - because there is more work for him to do - that he was, in fact, going away - ascending to God, and he commissions her in that moment to share that news with the disciples - he says, “tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Even though the other two disciples came to the tomb and believed - Mary is the only one in this story who actually witnesses the risen Christ, who has a conversation with him face to face, who must first wrestle with the news that even though he has risen, he must still leave her, he must still leave the disciples, he still has to leave this world and return to God.
There’s both sadness and hope in this moment when Mary and Jesus part - sadness in the reality that things never will be the same...but hope in that the story will continue unchained from the past expectations of who Jesus was and what he came to do. Jesus calls her by name to announce to the disciples and all believers that a new creations is here, a future they never could have imagined on their own is here, and that this reality she sent out to proclaim is only the beginning of an ongoing revelation of what resurrection and all that that implies might mean.
So often when we think of resurrection, we think of restoration, of revival, of something dead coming back to life again as if everything is back to normal, that everything will be the way it was again. But that’s not here in this story at all - Jesus may be alive, but he’s not staying around so that things will go back to the way they used to be. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of something completely new - of God fashioning a new creation, something that had never been done before, something that arises fresh out of the ashes of the past. We cannot go back ever to how things were because the past is the past and it is gone. Resurrection doesn’t bring that past back, resurrection vaults us into the future where God is doing something radically new - in us, with us, and through us - and by extension, in and with and through our world and all of creation.
Resurrection - true resurrection - means that something new and beautiful will take shape from the dead and broken places in our lives. I love that the choir sang “The Storm is Passing Over” for our anthem this morning - because our whole community certainly has been through a storm this past year. We’ve been Mary, full of loss and pain. We’ve kept vigil at the tomb, not knowing what life will look like next. We’ve been battered by the winds and the rains of grief and felt the rising flood around us. We’ve seen neighbors and loved ones weighed down and burdened - yet what the Easter story promises us is that new life - that resurrection is on its way. The storm is passing over. The morning light does appear. Our task is not to forget the pain of the past, but to let go of it - as Mary lets go of Jesus - to allow the transforming power of God’s resurrection to work to bring about something new and so that we can proclaim that hope will come out of the ashes, that fear does give way to joy, that life does grow out of death. All that is needed is to look to Jesus...and to let go of what holds us back from embracing that love for ourselves...so that we can move forward into the new creation Christ has for us. It’s not easy - letting go of what is familiar to us is scary - but the promise is that God will be with us in the new life that will unfold.
It reminds me of another image that was making the rounds in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire - the one that is on the cover of our Easter bulletin this morning, of the cross shining on the wall in the midst of the rubble of the burned cathedral. It reminds me that no matter what life may bring our way - in moments of joy and celebration...but especially in moments when everything seems to fall apart around us - God is there, Jesus is waiting to meet us - offering us hope and life...carrying us in the moments when we cannot carry ourselves...showing us that our mistakes, failures, heartbreaks, sufferings, struggles - our very brokenness is what makes us able to know and feel the new life that Christ ushered in on Easter morning and that waits for each one of us to claim for ourselves.
And so this Easter - with the storm passing over us - with the light dawning on the horizon - with Jesus risen from the tomb, will we move from pain to joy, from uncertainty to boldness, from mourning to dancing, from death into life - will we enter the resurrection life Jesus brings to us? As we venture, like Mary, into the tombs of our past, will we let go of what holds us back and instead run headlong into joy and love, hope and new life, toward a resurrection so powerful that when we find it, we we too will run to tell the world, “I have seen the Lord.”
Christ is risen - Christ is risen indeed. May that resurrection reality become true for you; for us, for our community, and for our world, on this day....and every day. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.