Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 on Mark 16:1-8 and John 20:1-18
16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
20Early 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. 2So 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.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast recently on the theme of ideas that were generally believed to be true, but which the experts know are not true, and need to go away. For example, a world class oncologist said we need to stop doing cancer research on mice. She said, after all these years, it is now clear that mice and people are different, when it comes to cancer.
Another idea that has to die, which was sad for me because it was one of my favorite factoids. It is the idea that there is a dramatic difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain that correspond to left-handedness and right-handedness.
The studies on people with brain injuries that left their two brain hemispheres unable to communicate led to those old ideas that one half of the brain was more creative, the other half more analytical. But fMRI brains scans, that scientists can do now, show that both halves of our brains are always at work.
Some old ideas need to be left behind, like the linens that wrapped up a body in an empty tomb. We are going to be looking at some of those ideas today. And that brings us to our gospel readings.
The Gospels and the Linens of Literalism
We just heard two of the four gospels’ versions of Easter morning. My question is, what did the gospel writers think they were doing when they wrote their stories of Jesus? Mark wrote first, within thirty or forty years after Jesus walked the earth. John was at least another thirty years after that, or more, according to the overwhelming scholarly consensus.
Both of them wrote from faith communities and to faith communities. In other words, the gospel stories were written by Christians and for Christians, or possibly for people interested in Christianity.
So, these stories were written by people and for people to whom Jesus was important. In fact, to communities of people who would testify that Jesus was radically and profoundly important to them; even transformatively important.
Most of the Christians in these communities had never seen Jesus nor heard him in person. And yet, Jesus was a present reality to them and for them. Jesus was not dead to them. They lived and proclaimed the resurrection which many of them had come to know about first, in the words of the gospels.
But clearly Mark and John tell the Easter story differently. There are trivial differences and substantial differences. In Mark, Mary goes with two other women to the tomb and they see one man in white, presumably, an angel. In John Mary goes alone and sees two beings, specifically identified as angels, sitting where Jesus’ body had been.
In Mark, the women are told to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has gone ahead of them into Galilee, where his ministry started. But they are too fearful, so they tell no one anything, Mark tells us. In John, however, the first thing Mary does is tell Peter and the other disciple that, as she understands it, someone has removed the body of Jesus. The tomb has no body; only linen wrappings, which are oddly referred to three times.
In Mark, no one sees Jesus in risen form; Jesus never “appears” to anyone. In John, Mary sees him but mistakes him for a gardener until he calls her name. Then she apparently tries to do what Jesus must tell her not to do, namely cling to him. He explains that he has not yet ascended to God the Father. Again, Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the Lord.
We could go to Matthew and Luke and multiply the differences. Suffice it to say that no two gospels share any of the appearance stories in common, as they do many of the other stories of Jesus. Each gospel in which Jesus makes appearances after his death tells unique, separate accounts.
What to do?
I guess we have two choices here. We can either think that the differences constitute contradictions that clearly show that some, or maybe all the gospels, are getting the facts wrong.
But the problem with that view is that scholars know that Mark came first and that Matthew and Luke both used a copy of Mark as the basis for their versions, adding to, deleting from and editing Mark’s version purposefully. They were not making sloppy, mindless errors. But they were telling the stories with glaring differences.
Why? What did the gospel writers think they were doing when they wrote their stories of Jesus? Clearly writing literal history the way we hope our news reporters are trying to do, or the way serious historians do, was not their goal.
In fact the assumption that is so prevalent today, that the gospels were, in fact, attempting to write literal history, is simply a bad idea that needs to finally go away. It just is not true, and it does not stand up even to five minutes of serious investigation.
There are a lot of bad ideas that need to die, and this literalism is one of them. Literalism is like that pile of linens in the tomb. It is an empty approach; it doesn’t have any life-breath in it.
Rather, as people who had been personally transformed by Jesus, the gospel writers wanted to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that communicated how he continued to be a living reality for them.
The Stories as Parables
So they told their stories differently, purposefully. We should look at them like we look at the parables of Jesus. They are stories that present us with powerful truths that we need to hear as we, like those early Christians, try to work out what it means to be people of faith.
Mark’s Resurrection Parables of Doubt
Mark tells a story we need to hear. It is a resurrection story. But it is a complicated one. As complicated as real life is. It is a story of Christians who show up on Easter, but who are faced with the exact opposite of certainty. Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome see nothing that constitutes proof of anything.
The stone is rolled away. A man is sitting in an otherwise empty tomb. He has a message for them, but there is no Jesus there to be seen. They apparently are not convinced at all. They turn and run in bewildered confusion.
What could Mark have meant by writing a gospel this way to a group of Christians who gather to tell and celebrate the stories of Jesus that continue to transform them? Simply that it is hard, not easy. There is no proof. We do not have certainty. The idea that the life of faith rests on certainty, that there is no room for doubt is another idea that needs to die and leave its linens behind in the tomb.
We did not read the Matthew story, but I love it for its realism about doubt. In Matthew’s parable of the last resurrection appearance, where Jesus is on the mountain in Galilee with the disciples, he says,
“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (28:17).
John’s gospel has the famous “doubting Thomas” scenes.
The point is that Christians, like us, even we who have been transformed by Jesus, struggle with doubt. It sometimes paralyzes us. It shuts us up and makes us turn tail and run the opposite way.
Why do we doubt? We experience pain and suffering. We loose people we love – some of them despite loads of sincere prayer. We know unfairness and even abuse. We are not blind to injustice. And to top it off, we live in the world that witnessed the Holocaust and the Killing Fields. We practically watched the Srebrenica and Rwanda massacres on TV. We see what ISIS does to fellow Christians and wonder if the faith we believe makes any sense in the real world or not?
What is even more depressing, is that God does not even seem to be able to stop people who call themselves Christians from practicing open, deliberate discrimination against gay people. They want to pass laws that make their right to discriminate legally protected, as if they were not obligated to love their neighbors!
So we need a gospel like Mark’s in which a community of faith and Christian practices admits that there is no certainty, and there are many challenges.
And yet, we also need to hear again the hope-filled message the mysterious “man” in the empty tomb told the women: Jesus is waiting to meet you back home. Go home. You will find him there. He will continue to meet you, not as a flesh and blood body, but as the Spirit of God, present to you, non-judgmentally, in all your fearful doubting.
We need the gospel of John’s resurrection parables too. We need to read that story of Mary and Jesus meeting face to face. We need to be reminded that this life of faith is personal. God calls our names. In fact it is when we come to trust that we have been called, named by God, that God relates to us personally, that, like Mary hearing her name called, we can trust that God is present.
And we need John’s gospel to see Mary wishing to cling to a flesh and blood Jesus, so that we can hear him say that is not the way he will be held onto. To hold onto Jesus, after Easter, is to hold on to everything his life meant, not to his flesh and blood.
Now, after Easter, to hold on to Jesus, is to affirm that the first way we encounter the risen Christ is by encountering the Spirit of Christ. John calls the Spirit the Comforter, the Counselor. In John we read of the mystical oneness that we can experience with the risen Christ in the Spirit. Only in John, Jesus speaks mystically of us, dwelling in God, and God dwelling in us; of Jesus dwelling in God and in us, and of how all of us, Jesus and God and each other are somehow mystically one.
To encounter Christ in this way is to know that Jesus is a figure of the present, not just the past. That the risen Christ is not limited to one particular place or time, like the physical Jesus was in the body, but that the Christ life is available everywhere and always.
That is why, in John’s parable, Jesus meets Mary in a Garden on the first day of the week and mistakes him for the Gardner: it is like the Creation story of the garden of Eden on the first day for the newly made humans. Encountering the risen Christ spiritually is like a new creation, bursting with hope and new life.
We only read two gospels, but in truth we need all of the parables of the risen Christ. We need Mathew to tell us that Christ can be found now in “the least of these.” Christ is found in the person who is hungry whom we share food with, in the thirsty who need clean water, in the homeless whom we house, and the prisoners who rot away in conditions we would never put our pets in.
Needing Luke’s Eucharistic Moment
We need Luke’s story of the risen Jesus who meets the depressed disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus is there, where only two are gathered, but unknown by them until they gather at table where he is the host. When the bread is broken, their eyes are opened and they get it; the risen Christ is encountered in community, at the sacral meal, when the bread is broken. And of course then he disappears, because that is the point; he is seen in the breaking of the bread, not in a body.
So we too will come together around a table, where we will break bread and affirm the resurrection. Christ will be present to us as we gather, the way families do, around a table for a common meal.
The meal we share will strengthen us to trust: to leave behind a lot of old linens, to let go of ideas that need to die. We can leave behind that old God of wrath and judgment that needed sacrificial blood; that idea needed to die.
We can leave behind the morally suspect idea that God used Jesus as his victim so he would not need to victimize us. We can leave behind Greek, Roman and medieval concepts of hell and torturing demons, and a God who is okay with eternal conscious suffering.
Instead, we hear the risen Christ commission us to go in to all the world and to proclaim the good news, as Paul summed it up:
“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
This is what it means to affirm resurrection: that in Christ, God and the world are reconciled. So now we live as the reconciled, full of a trust that God is present with us, the risen Christ is present, by the Spirit, guiding us, walking with us, and filling us with love and compassion for every person on this planet, indeed, for every life form on this planet, up to and including the planet itself.
Affirming resurrection means that we leave those linens behind, and embrace Christ as our living Lord,
“in whom we live and move and have our being.”