April 1, 2018: Easter – Expect Miracles
Video of Entire Service: YouTube
Video of Sermon: YouTube
Scripture Used: John 20:1-18
It is the first day of the week. Mary Magdalene walks in the early hours to the tomb. Her beloved teacher Jesus had died on Friday, and due to the religious custom of not working during the sabbath, Mary, who we assume is going to the tomb to prepare his body (according to other gospel accounts), could not start until the day after. She goes at the earliest hour she can.
John’s gospel doesn’t tell us why she goes. It may be to finish the preparations, or it could be that she just wants to be there one more time. Just once more to be in the presence of her master, the one she followed, who had healed her of seven demons, who loved her. Even if it is just to stand outside the tomb and weep.
But she arrives to see the stone rolled away. The stone was placed there to keep out wild animals or other people from taking his body. The stone was supposed to protect what little dignity he had left, after having been executed as a criminal, shamed and beaten before that. That stone was all she had to keep him safe. And it had been moved.
She runs back and tells Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. They ran to the tomb and look inside to see that the clothes are still there, the face cloth curiously folded in place. It was as if he had vanished.
The disciple whom Jesus loved goes up to the door and looks. Simon Peter catches up and immediately goes in. The disciple Jesus loved goes in after, sees the folded cloth, and believes.
The two male disciples return home, but Mary remains. What else could she do? Where would she go? She goes inside the tomb and sees two messengers there. Why hadn’t the men seen them? They asked why she was weeping.
“Why? WHY?! They took away my Lord! They took him! I gave everything to him, the one who healed me and loved me. I was by him as he died. I just want to see him one more time. But he’s gone!”
She turned, ready to get away, maybe to storm out or just leave the presence of these strangers, and she sees the gardener. Or at least she thinks he is the gardener. He asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Thinking he would be the one who would be charged with keeping this exact thing from happening, she says, “Where did you put him? Tell me! I must go find him and bring him back.”
Jesus, kindly, compassionately responding to her anger and grief, says, “Mary.”
That voice was not what she expected. The days and hours of grief, shrouded by the fear of being found and taken as conspirators, must have felt like its own prison. And at this moment, the chains fell and the doors burst open. It was HIM.
“Rabbouni!” she exclaims. The writer tells us that means teacher, but it’s more than that: it’s beloved teacher. She saw hope.
Jesus expects, like we all expect, that she would want to grab hold of him, to go back to how things used to be, but he tells her that he is beyond grasp, it wouldn’t matter if she tried. He just tells her to tell the others. So she does.
This story is about expectations:
- When Mary and the disciples got there, they expected to find a body. They didn’t.
- When Mary sees the risen Lord, she expects him to be the same. He isn’t.
- When we hear this story, we expect all the disciples to tell what they have seen. They don’t.
Mary, who had been healed of seven demons, who knew the power of grace in the most personal of ways, was the first person to proclaim the gospel of the risen Lord. Who’d have expected it: A woman was the first to preach that Jesus rose.
Mary nor the disciples expected the resurrection. They did not expect that their teacher, who many thought was the messiah, only to watch him be killed, could still be the messiah if that was his fate. Death is permanent. There is nothing else to look for.
They had hope. They had love. Mary was even ready to take it upon herself to carry Jesus’ body back to his tomb. But they didn’t expect a miracle. Only the beloved disciple saw the cloth that was on his face had been folded up and knew what that meant: in most cultures, even then as we do today, folding your napkin meant you would return to the table.
The people hearing this in later tellings would know that the beloved disciple would recognize this meant Jesus would return. In literature and cinema, these details that are hidden for the audience are called “Easter eggs.”
This is our story.
The guiding light of Christianity is found in Easter. While the Eastern church celebrates most around Christmas and the Incarnation, and the Western church places much of its identity on the message of sacrifice found in the cross, the foundation of the Christian witness is in the Resurrection and the empty tomb.
It takes faith to believe in the Resurrection. No matter how much logic we can place to find evidence in our belief, resurrection escapes our ability to explain. There is only room for faith in the miracle that death was defeated and the world was changed to its core.
However, faith is in short supply today. People are too ready to make quick judgments on what they do and do not believe, and on top of that, we don’t hear enough of God’s good action in the world that counts as modern miracles. We are missing stories where God has shown up in the darkest hours. So it is up to us, the Easter people, to spread hope and good news in our communities whenever we can. It is up to us to look for miracles in the world that others do not see.
Faith in miracles can be hard. The teachings of the church often find stiff resistance to our sensibilities. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and we choose which enemies to love. Jesus says to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, so we love neither very much. Jesus says feed the hungry, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, and we put our faith in systems that weed out those who don’t deserve it. We don’t have faith that God will redeem it if we love as extravagantly as we are called to.
The body of Christ needs faith; we need to believe. We need to welcome anyone and everyone who wants to hear good news. We need to let guests and visitors help design and plan our worship, our missions, and how we speak to our community. We need to believe God will never let the church down if we spend extravagantly on the needs of others. Henri Nouwen once said that nothing we give to God will ever be lost. And on top of it all, we must believe down in our souls that risk in the name of love is worth it, because no boundary can separate us from God’s love and redemption. In short, we need to expect miracles from God, from ourselves, and from each other.
But I know it is hard to believe. It is hard to expect miracles. Life gets in the way.
There are times we feel like Mary, standing outside the tomb, weeping because we see the stone rolled away.
Or times we feel like Simon Peter. Willing to jump in, but once we’ve seen nothing good is there, we are just as willing to leave.
There are times we are like the beloved disciple. The sign of something wonderful is there; we believe in it fully. We just aren’t sure if the time is right to stick around and be a part of the message.
But Mary, wrapped in the grief of her humanity, believed. She expected that something was there the others didn’t see. She had faith, and her faith was rewarded not only by the appearance of the heavenly messengers but by the risen Christ himself.
This week, I attended the funeral of Rev. Michael Williams, who was a retired Methodist pastor in Nashville. Michael was a profound preacher and speaker, and a world-famous storyteller. He was working with many people on projects in his retirement that proclaimed the goodness of preaching, poetry, and drama. All things that bring faith and beauty into the world. Michael’s unfinished work is no tomb. All of the thousands of people who were affected by his friendship and love will go on and teach the world the very same message Michael preached and taught every day.
One day, he, like Jesus, and all the rest of us, will walk again in the presence of God, but in the meantime, his work was resurrected from the first moment someone spoke of his encouragement and support. Michael not only believed in miracles, he was one. For all his accomplishments, his greatest, I believe, was best summed up in one sentence spoken at his service: “If you thought you were his favorite, so did we all.” In a room full of over a thousand people, everyone agreed. Michael loved everybody. Everybody felt important and loved around him. May we all have such a miraculous gift.
I dare say the kind of love Michael showed is the kind that Jesus showed. The kind of love that everyone wants to believe in; the kind of love that overlooks faults and bad interactions and always seeks to come back to a good place – a place that believes in the power of resurrection.
It is inconceivable that there is a love that could not be undone. A love that would go to all lengths to prove its reliability and its promise. That love was found true in the life of Jesus, God made flesh. He gave up his divine self, became one of us in the incarnation of his birth as a child, lived and taught us the ways of heaven, suffered rather than condemn us, and even submitted himself to the uncertainty of death. And he rose, again proving that God won’t let anything separate us from the truest of loves.
People of God, don’t just believe in miracles. Expect them to happen. In every act of kindness, every sign of hope, every moment where your love is unconditional, Jesus is there, treading the ground in an empty tomb.
In the name of the risen Christ, Amen.