As we sit today in the tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, here’s a little throwback to the Easter Vigil message I preached five years ago:
Gospel Lesson: John 20:1-18
1Early 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.
Tonight is a night of remembering, a night of telling stories. It is a sacred and holy night in which we are reminded through story who and whose we are. It is a night of remembering the stories of our faith and life.
As Christians, we are a people of stories. As human beings, we are people of stories. We love stories – from the whimsical fairy tales woven in Walt Disney animated classics, to the stories of our lives that we share with friends over coffee or around a campfire – we love stories. The stories we live and the stories we tell are the very fabric of our lives – weaving our lives in and out of those of others, and drawing us deeper into the heart of our God – a God who shares our love for stories.
Tonight, as we gather on this Holy Saturday, we remember that we are a people with a story. We join the disciples in their wonder, worry, and grief. I can only imagine the emotions that gripped the disciples as they watched and waited. Their teacher… their rabbi…their friend… the one who they had expected to change everything, had just been brutally crucified on a cross the day before. Was this really the way it was supposed to end?
As I think about the experience of the disciples, and try to place myself in their shoes, I am reminded of the experiences that I have had with death in my own life – the death of a friend, the death of a family member, even the death of a mere acquaintance. When I think about those situations, I am always reminded of one thing – stories. Whenever someone close to us passes away, the first thing we do is begin to tell stories – it helps the grief process when we remember the stories.
So, imagine for a second if you will, Jesus’ disciples sitting around, grieving the loss of their teacher, friend, and mentor – and just sitting around and telling stories. Perhaps Peter recalled the time when he tried to walk on water with Jesus. Maybe they all remembered with wonder and joy the many miracles of healing that they witnessed. I bet they told story, after story, after story. And so tonight, we too, tell stories. We remember the story of salvation. Our story. God’s story.
Tonight, on this eve of the resurrection, we have spent some time listening to our story. In the Genesis reading, we were reminded that we were created by God as the pinnacle of his glorious creation. In Exodus, we walked through the Red Sea on dry ground as the Lord delivered us from slavery with the Israelites. We were reminded by Isaiah that the Lord has indeed planned for our salvation and has made a way for us. We sat with Daniel in the fiery furnace but we were not touched by the flames. These are the stories of our faith – they remind us who we are and they remind us whose we are as the people of God. God’s story is, in fact, our story. It is a story of love, a story of hope, a story of redemption. When we remember our story, we are reminded that God is faithful. He demonstrated His faithfulness to the Israelites, and He demonstrates his faithfulness through the obedience of Christ even to the point of death on the cross.
This week, we have lived through the betrayal and pain of holy week. We have found ourselves in the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. We have found ourselves in the indignance of Peter when Jesus attempts to wash his feet. We have found ourselves in the crowds as they yelled, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The passion of Christ observed during Holy Week is just as much our story as the deliverance of the Israelites from the Red Sea. Jesus’ death on the cross is our story – Jesus himself tells us in Luke 9:23 that “If anyone would come after [him], he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow [him].” In the cross of Christ, we see our story – we see who and whose we are.
But there is Good News! Our story does not end in the cross of Christ. We live in the glorious hope of the resurrection, and our story continues by the grace of God. We know that on the other side of the cross there is an empty tomb. The risen Christ lives in each and every one of us, and God continues his story in and through us and our lives. As we heard in our reading from Romans, Paul promises us, “If we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” What an incredible promise!
Tonight it is in our Gospel lesson that we find this promise – the promise of new life in the resurrection of Christ. In examining this promise, we are going to take a closer look at Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. After the disciples found the tomb empty, they “returned to their homes,” but Mary – “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” When all the disciples had gone home, Mary stayed, grieving the loss of the teacher she had grown to love.
As she is there weeping at the empty tomb, she is posed a question – first by the two angels, and then by Jesus himself, who she doesn’t even recognize. They ask her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Jesus had made it known before his death numerous times that he would rise. He had spoken of his death. He had made it known that it must happen, but that his Father would be glorified in the end. And yet here is Mary Magdalene, standing at the opening of the empty tomb – a witness to this very resurrection, and she is weeping.
The resurrection life is one in which we are called to joy that replaces our mourning. We are called to step beyond the crucifixion and recognize the victory of God in the empty tomb. Christ is risen!
As soon as Mary recognizes the risen Jesus, her immediate response is to grab hold of him – to hug her teacher who she thought was dead but who is, indeed, alive – risen from the dead. She clings to him in the same way that many of us would have probably done in a similar situation. But Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, but go and tell.” It would be great if Mary could just stay there in the presence of her teacher, but that is not what he desires. He needs for her to let go of him and to go and tell everyone what she has seen.
It is really easy for us to want to stay here in this place, basking in the victory of the resurrected Christ. But Christ says to us, “Do not hold on to me, but go and tell.” Christ has secured our victory over death in his resurrection, and now he wants us to go and tell everyone we know. What are we to tell? Our story. As we tell our story – the story of our life, the story of our experiences, and the story of our own relationship with Christ, we are indeed sharing in the telling of God’s story. We are here tonight, sharing stories, remembering and witnessing the glorious resurrection of our Savior, but once again, the story doesn’t end here. The story continues as we go and share the good news that “Christ is risen” with a broken and hurting world.
So, how then do we tell our story? Let’s take a look at Mary. Mary leaves the comfort and joy of Jesus’ risen presence and goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” That’s it. “I have seen the Lord!” Telling our stories doesn’t have to be complicated or complex, or even frightening. Mary does exactly what we are called to do – she goes and tells of the good news of the risen Christ – the risen Christ who lives inside of us!