John 20: 1-18
27 March 2016
Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Sometime ago I read a sermon on today’s lessons by the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano. His thoughts helped shape my thoughts this week. You see, he reminded me of an old favorite book, Practicing Resurrection, by Nora Gallagher. The book has helped me understand resurrection better. Practicing Resurrection. Isn’t that a wonderful phrase? When I first saw it the book just jumped right off the shelf and into my hand. Thing is, more and more I realize that Gallagher has captured something incredibly important in her title. Think about it. We have four stories in four Gospels about the resurrection. They are all similar but, they are not identical. They each tell the story in slightly different ways. We read John today. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark, saw that the stone had been removed and ran to Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. But if we had read the alternative lesson today, we would have heard the story from Luke. We would have heard how the women who had been with Jesus came to the tomb at early dawn and found the stone rolled away. Then, when they entered the tomb, they discovered Jesus’ body was gone.
They were perplexed that Gospel says. I would have been more than perplexed. How about you? Two men in dazzling white clothes said to those women: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” We hear how those women remembered Jesus’ words and went to tell what happened “to the eleven and to all the rest.” But their words were received as an idle tale. Two faith communities, two stories, one event. The main point is that tomb was empty. Jesus wasn’t there. He had risen.
I wonder if we spend too much time wondering about exactly what happened and how it happened those many years ago? Gallagher wonders if perhaps we spend too much time discussing whether we believe in the resurrection or don’t believe in the resurrection.
Resurrection doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us .And theories abound concerning what exactly happened to that body. Are we missing the point? Let me share a paragraph from Practicing Resurrection. “ When I think about the resurrection now”, Gallagher says, “I not only wonder about what happened to Jesus. I ponder what happened to his disciples. Something happened to them, too. They went into hiding after the crucifixion,
but after the resurrection appearances, they walked back out into the world. They became braver and stronger; they visited strangers, and healed the sick. It was not just what they saw when they saw Jesus, or how they saw it, but what was set free in them. …What if the resurrection is not about the appearances of Jesus alone, but also about what those appearances point to? What they ask? In the end what we do with those sacred stories that really matters. Will we make them into superstitions? Or will we use them as stepping stones to new life? Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”
Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. We say the words all through the Easter season. Christ has broken the bonds of death. We are given the gift of new life, resurrection life. But what does that really mean? I think Gallagher is on to something with that notion of practicing resurrection. It’s like playing the piano, or riding a bike, or learning to sew. Resurrection, like any new skill, needs to be practiced. We so often need resurrection in our lives. A single mother struggling to cope with a rebellious teenage son. A man in the aftermath of an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down wondering how he will support his wife and children. The newly widowed learning to get along alone after a long marriage. From time to time we are all a bit like those women entering the tomb early on Easter morning. To live at all is to eventually lose something important. Our hearts become heavy with the burdens we face in life. For Mary and the other women it was their dear friend Jesus. They had taken the risk of following him. Now he was dead. Imagine them. Grieving, exhausted with the turmoil of his death and with their own weeping. They hoped to at least complete the burial rites. Their life with Jesus and the way he called them out of themselves was over. They had known his love but it had apparently died with him. Had all their hopes and dreams died too? And now this. The tomb broken open. The body gone. There must have been, just at that moment, fear and frustration mixed in with their grief. They entered into the tomb, the place of deepest fear and grief, the place of death. And there was nothing there. No body at all, just those linen wrappings.
And the experience, (Were they men or angels?) of being reminded that this was not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Oh yes, they needed that reminder of the resurrection. And we do too. But even more they needed to practice resurrection. They needed to go and tell the story. And in practicing resurrection they were changed from grieving women performing rites for the dead into apostles bearing witness to our living Lord. The men had their own experiences. They practiced resurrection as they left their place of hiding and went out into the streets. They were changed from people cowering in fear behind locked doors into apostles’ preaching and healing with grace and power. Is it possible that, being reminded of what Jesus said, we might also come to practice resurrection? As a deacon I worked with the good people of Thankful Memorial Parish in the St. Elmo community in Chattanooga. It was a diverse and wonderful parish. Set in an older, down at the heel’s, neighborhood made up mostly older folks and the working poor. In 2000 it was an active and slowly growing parish. That wasn’t always so though. Once it was a dying parish with an old building and empty rooms. The grounds had been vandalized The people were tired and discouraged. Someone looked around and said: “there are a lot of kids in this neighborhood who go home to empty houses. There are kids who have trouble learning and parents who have trouble helping them. The kids drop out and just hang around.” Someone else shared something he had read about a reading center in some other community. A third person said, “I’ll bet we could do something like that.” When I started with them they were repairing the parish hall, the stage had been re-painted, shelves built and books gathered. A few members had gone to work repairing the grounds and building a prayer garden. Volunteers, some from the church and some from the community, provided snacks for a growing group of kids who came after school to do homework, to be read to or to read to others. As they practiced resurrection, new life became obvious.
Easter promises that we can indeed practice resurrection. We don’t need to go along living like the dead among the living. Jesus Christ has been raised. He is alive, the first fruits of new life in God’s Kingdom. The truth of Easter, our truth, is that the promise of new life is not just something to look forward too after death. It is a present reality. We can live new lives here and now as we practice resurrection. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.