“Witnessing the Resurrection”; John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43; Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Witnessing the Resurrection”
John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Video shown at the beginning of worship service:

Audio and slides of the sermon:

 Slide01Try to picture the scene: It’s early. The grass is still wet with dew, which darkens the hem of Mary Magdalene’s clothing as she makes her way to the grave. Her sleeve is similarly damp from wiping away the tears that have slipped out as she’s hurried on her way past a few stationed guards and vagrants scattered among Jerusalem’s streets, quiet in a Sabbath rest.

Now she is before the tomb, but things are not as they should be. The stone closing the chamber where Jesus laid is pushed away. She is in shock, assuming the worst: grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body.Slide02

Though an empty tomb was not what she had expected, it makes me wonder what she was looking for. She knew that he had died. She saw him mocked, tortured, and hung on the cross. The man that she loved was gone. She knew, or at least thought she knew, that she would never talk, eat, or laugh with him again. But yet, she came to his tomb.SLIDE 3 - Mary and Disciples

Maybe she just needed to see it for herself for it to be real; the giant stone as a final punctuation to the drama of the past three days. That stone would serve to separate and sever Mary from the man she was never too far away from in life. But with the stone removed and the body gone she wasn’t able to have that kind of closure. Though at this point she surely did not picture Jesus as supernaturally exhumed, she knew quite clearly that the open tomb meant that the story still had not ended.SLIDE 4 - Mary Empty Tomb

In the shock of the empty tomb Mary takes off running towards the disciples. Of anyone, surely they would understand her grief, her confusion, her frustration. She runs to them, likely telling them the details of the situation through panting frantic gasps.  They do not seem to wait to comfort her, or to form a plan of how they might deal with possible grave robbers, or to pause to consider that Jesus might have actually meant all of those things he had said about eternal life. No, they simply run, breaking into a race.

In this way they seem like young boys, propelled, partially by curiosity, partially by righteous indignation, eager to see what has happened. I can also see them in their running, looking over their shoulders, making sure to keep an eye out for any legal authority that may recognize them from the crucifixion three days before.

SLIDE 5 – John and Simon Peter at TombThey arrive at the graveyard, the “beloved disciple” first, who seems to peek into the tomb, but not fully enter. I can see him sheepishly grinning at the door, like a child at a funeral too young to really understand the weight of the day’s events.

He lets Simon Peter go in first. Peter goes in and surveys the scene. The burial cloths are rolled up, which is just enough evidence for him to see that, wherever Jesus’ body is, this was not the work of grave robbers. We are told that the “beloved disciple” enters as well, sees, and believes (though we’re not told exactly what it is that he believes).

Slide06This is enough for the two of them, and they run back to their homes. They do not wait to see what has really happened, they do not try to gather more evidence, or to care for Mary. It seems that their mourning is a sort of selfish grief. As a child too young to understand the scope of grief and loss, they are concerned with simply how the death will affect them in their own individual lives. Things are changed, and that is what upsets them, but the tomb doesn’t hold any more answers than they were able to find at home.

This is not enough, however, for Mary. She still does not have any answers, and now she has lost her support as well. She breaks into tears, overcome by the compounding losses. She looks towards the tomb and there sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been.

Slide07I imagine that this scene would be shocking: two angelic figures, appearing out of thin air; two figures framing where Jesus had laid. I wonder if Mary knew they were angels. Were her watery eyes blurring her vision? Or maybe she thought they were merely others at the tomb to pay respect, mourn, or indulge their curiosity. Whatever the situation, Mary does not react to their appearance in our text, but the angels react to her.

Slide 8 - Mary Crying“Why are you crying?” they ask. I can see Mary getting frustrated at this. She was at a tomb after all. If one cannot cry there without having to explain it, where can you cry? I can see her nearly yelling her response back at them in between sobs. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Some have translated the Greek phrase in this text “τον κυριον,” which I have read as “my Lord” as “my husband.” Though there’s ambiguity in translation whether her relationship is read as something authoritative like “lord,” or “master,” or temporal and intimate like “husband, “ what is important here is the closeness she felt towards him. Jesus was likely the man to whom Mary was closest. He helped her make sense of the world, and accepted her just as she was. She lived her life in the context of his, not out of obligation, but out of devotion. To see such a man die, and not only just die, but to be crucified had to evoke the deepest kind of grief.

Slide09It is in this moment of overwhelming grief that Mary turns around, away from the tomb. Maybe she too, like the disciples would’ve broken into a run and left this place of sorrow, which, as the dark morning turned to day, was quickly becoming crowded by others who did not, could not, understand the depth of her pain, but there was someone standing in her way.

SLIDE 10 - Mary and JesusIt’s a man. We, the readers know that this man is Jesus. The gospel writer tells us this plainly. Mary however, is unable to see this at first. To her, he is simply another person who disrupts her. She assumes him to be the gardener, and he too frustrates her with his questioning, mirroring the angels’ questioning, “why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?”

Slide11I can see her, at this point quite visibly upset, still wiping tears away with her now deeply tear-stained clothing. The dawn has come, the city is now likely abuzz with the gossip of the weekend’s events as people make their way to the Sabbath worship. Most everyone else walking about on this morning has dressed in their best clothing, washed, and prepared for the day. They may have felt some ripple effect of the crucifixion, but that doesn’t stop them from carrying on with their Sabbath routine.

In the midst of this morning, this Jerusalem, Mary is mess. Perhaps this is why she is unable to recognize the man she knew so closely. He is separate from her experience. He is put together. He is composed. How could he have anything to do with her situation? To her, he is just another suspect. She pleads with him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Albert Edelfelt 1890“Mary,” Jesus says. “Mary,” not “here I am,” not “why could you accuse me?” not “silly woman.” “Mary,” Jesus says. This, she finally understands. I can see her eyes light up, her shoulders relax, and she cries, “Rabbouni!”

I can see her now wanting to collapse into his arms, and Jesus anticipates this too, saying, “Do not cling to me.” It’s hard to imagine her not being hurt by this command. Do not cling to me? Here is a man whom shared much with, whom she thought was dead, now alive in front of her, but yet she cannot be close to him. The relationship has changed. It is still intimate, to be sure, for after all Mary is the first of all of Jesus’ followers to see him in this state and it is intimate as well that he calls her by name, but, still, there is a new distance here.

Instead of enveloping her grief in his embrace, he directs her outwards. Out of the graveyard, out of her grief, to go to tell the disciples that he is ascending to God the Father. And what’s is truly surprising, she goes. The text gives us no sign of any hesitation, there’s no further dialogue between the two. She simply goes. She tells the disciples what she’s heard and seen and all of history is forever changed as a result of it.

This is what shows us the selflessness of her grief. If her tears were for her own loss, she would still be crying, for Jesus’ reappearance at the tomb does not mean a return to life as it was. She will never be close to Jesus in the same way again, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The loss of her relationship with this man is not what matters to her. What matters to her is that in returning to life, Jesus has made real the promise of resurrection. What was once the theme of many confusing parables is now a lived reality. It is in this, Mary is brought from deep grief to deep joyous peace.

SLIDE 13 - Flower at TombNow take a moment to think. Where would you be in the scene? Are you Simon Peter: running to and fro, curiously searching for tangible evidence of what really happened at the tomb? Are you the “beloved disciple”: wary of the tomb, confused by the loss, but believing still? Are you a citizen of Jerusalem: intrigued by the gossip, the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion, but not sure that it has anything really to do with you? Or are you Mary: deeply grieved at the loss of this intimate companion but propelled into the world by the greater news that the tomb cannot contain the Christ?

On this Easter Sunday, I invite you to take a place in the scene with the resurrected Christ. Maybe your place isn’t as close, or as passionate, as you would like it to be. Maybe you’re still standing nervously outside the tomb. Maybe you want simply to run in the opposite direction of all the crucifixion drama. Wherever your place, I pray that you may be close enough to hear and bold enough to listen to Jesus speaking your name as well. We’re all invited to know the joy of our Christ resurrected and to speak that joy into the world. Amen.

“Saints and Sinners”; John 11:1-45; October 28, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Saints and Sinners”
John 11:1-45
October 28, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”[1]

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”[2]

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more.[3] Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence. [4]

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”[5]

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[6]

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

It is this hope in the face of hopelessness that creates saints from sinners.

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. This is a day of acknowledging those Christian brothers and sisters who have come before us. We remember them, we honor their legacy, and we look to their examples as we also seek to follow Christ. In doing so, it’s tempting to look only to their saintliness. We look to the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and our own saintly family and church members, and we see all the good that they accomplished. We marvel at great legacies of lives well lived. It may be overwhelming to think of all the good that people have done in the name of Christ. As we revere the past, we should be also be aware of the humanness of each of these Christians. Only Christ is sinless, and so we are to remember that each of these people had moments of sinfulness. We acknowledge this not to degrade the legacy of these great Christians, but rather to recognize the possibility in each of our lives. You, too, are called to be a saint.

In the New Testament there are 62 references to “saints.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saints,” used 44 times in reference to the Church on earth. We become saints through our baptism, our acceptance of God’s claim on our lives. We become saintly only through Christ’s power in us. God continues to be incarnate in this world as God works through us. We as God’s people are made holy not because of our behavior, but because of God’s presence among and within us. God desires to be embodied in our lives. God wants us to be saints on this earth. God is not done with us yet. Each step that we take towards this great hope, even in our sinfulness, is a step towards saintliness.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

Simply, they had hope that God wasn’t done with them yet. They had hope that God could work beyond their sinfulness, beyond their complaining.

In this strange story of Lazarus we hear a preview of our own fate. Resuscitation from death is not promised, but we are given a different promise, the promise of eternal life beyond this world.

We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. After our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin, into a life of everyday sainthood.

I heard that this congregation had programming and sermons a little while back themed around the song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It is great to hear about how that theme transformed this church, invigorated the mission and the call of each of you. We are indeed called to live a life in the now, a life in perspective of God’s greater call on our lives, lives in constant attention to how God’s will may be enacted through us.

We are also called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

“We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Lazarus was dead. Martha could smell it. Those mourning with Martha and Mary wept at the reality of it. Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

There’s a poem by Victor Hugo that speaks beautifully to this hope. He writes:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb to slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings
Knowing he hath wings

God is not through with us yet. Through Christ, though we are all sinners, we are also still saints. Amen.


[1] Luke 7:36-50, There is debate about the identity of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, with many claiming it was Mary Magdalene. John 11:2 identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.”

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32