Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 16, 2017
Scripture: John 20:1-18
We have two advantages this Easter morning that Mary Magdalene and the other followers of Jesus did not have: first, we know it’s Easter morning; they didn’t. Resurrection was outside of anyone’s experience. They weren’t expecting it, they weren’t looking for it. Honestly, who would, and who does?
The summer of 1975, I was twenty years old, living at home with my parents in Hopewell, Virginia. It was a Saturday afternoon. I was outside in the backyard, sitting in a lawn chair, working on my bicycle. I was a bored kid home from college for the summer, no romantic interests happening, so I spent a lot weekends bicycling.
So, I’m sitting out there in the yard on this summer afternoon. It was a sunny, clear day, nothing going on, you know, just ho-hum and I look up from my bike. No particular reason. I just look up. And I see an airplane flying down our street…not rolling, not being towed behind a truck. It was honest to goodness flying down the end of our street!
Our house was two long blocks from where the end of the street came to a t-intersection with another cross street. Directly opposite that t-intersection was a small open field. An airplane–a little single engine private plane—had lost power.
Perhaps the pilot was aiming for the field…I don’t know. Like I said, it was a small field, and perhaps the pilot recognized that fact when the field failed to grow much larger as he got closer in.
The pilot brought his aircraft down across that open field, cleared the power lines and then dropped it right down at the end of the street. He rolled it down that first long block, stopped it right in the next intersection, where it tipped over on its nose.
There was no warning. No noise. Just this weird experience of looking up and seeing the most unexpected thing on this dull summer Saturday afternoon, the sight of an airplane flying down my street.
Of course, things got real exciting pretty quickly. The plane stopped, tipped over, a few moments later, the pilot hops out—he didn’t actually stoop over and kiss the pavement, though I sure he was probably thinking about it. Within a minute and I mean within a literal 60-seconds, that intersection was totally clogged with traffic and people and fire trucks, all converging on this pilot and his airplane there in the street.
I did not get up that morning expecting to see that. I didn’t even look up from working on my bicycle expecting to see that. Of course, I’m pretty sure the pilot wasn’t expecting that either when he took off earlier that day. So, that’s one advantage we’ve got over Mary and the others today: we know to look for it…it’s Easter morning.
The other advantage we’ve got, is that the sun’s up and we’ve got daylight. Mary and the others don’t have that advantage yet…it’s very early on this Sunday and still dark, as John tells us in verse one. Mary is moving along by herself in dark. Perhaps she stumbles along, picking her way carefully down an unfamiliar path, her arms full of bundles of bandages and containers of various spices.
Mary is carrying these in order to apply them to the battered corpse of Jesus. She’s going to give his body better treatment that the others were able to give it when they hurriedly placed it in the tomb two evenings earlier.
Only those of you who have suffered Mary’s kind of grief can fully appreciate her state of mind. Since Jesus’ death, Mary’s sleep-walked through the daylight hours of Friday and Saturday, and sat wide awake through the long dark hours of those two nights. Her thoughts have stumbled over the simplest of details, easy things which turned in to dilemmas seemingly beyond her capacity to do.
On this early morning of the third day, Mary doesn’t even consider what is the most basic dilemma confronting her: how is she going to move that huge, heavy stone that seals up Jesus’ tomb? How is she going to talk her way past the Roman guard that Pilate stationed there to prevent anyone from gaining access?
How confused Mary must have been, then, to discover the stone is rolled away; the Roman guard is gone. Well, Mary can no more imagine a resurrection to explain this, than she could imagine an airplane swooping in out of the sky.
Mary can only assume what was more likely, that the enemies of Jesus had broken in and stolen the body of Jesus. They’d probably hauled it off to burn it in the dump outside of city walls, burning away any last vestiges of this troublemaker.
This is where the pace of this first Easter morning picks up considerably! Suddenly, there’s a lot of running going on in the dark. Everybody’s running: Mary runs back into town to find Peter and the disciple whom the Gospel describes as the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. Most assume that that was John. So, Mary runs for all she’s worth, going first to find Peter, and then she and Peter run to find John.
The Scripture says both Peter and John then run back out with Mary to the tomb. We’re told John outruns Peter; he gets there first. Peter comes in second. It’s a kind of sacred footrace, isn’t it…who can get to the empty tomb first. So, I think we need to introduce a new commemorative Easter event called “the 400-meter Resurrection Run”.
It’s be a big hit here in Charlottesville. We’ve got all kinds of runs, Spring, Summer, and Fall. The 400-Meter Resurrection Run would fit right in. We could do it immediately before the annual Easter egg hunt out at the Marshall’s farm. Or, maybe we could shut down this stretch of Main Street heading down through mid-town.
It would be a three-person team event, with each team composed of one woman and two men. The race would start with a spot designated as “The Empty Tomb”.
The race begins with the women team members lined up at The Empty Tomb. “Ready, set and go”! Each woman would run the first 400-meter leg from The Empty Tomb, to Point Peter. Then, she and the first male team-mate at Point Peter would run together to Point John, collect their second male team-mate and then all three would race back to The Empty Tomb. First one’s there win a ribbon and little trophy shaped like, I don’t know, an empty tomb.
Why all the running? I think I know why Mary was running. She was running to get reinforcements. She was running to stop something else horrible from happening. She was running to get someone to help her track down whoever stole the body of Jesus, get the body back and then give it a better burial that what it got the first go-round.
Mary would probably need someone to help her go to Pilate. Pilate posted the guard; only Pilate could release the guard from its duty. Pilate would be the one who’d know what had happened. If ever the anger of grief got transformed into righteous indignation, surely Mary’s anger must have been the most indignant and the most righteous anger of all.
I’m not sure why Peter and John are running. Clearly, they were not expecting a resurrection. Really, I don’t think Peter and John were expecting or seeking anything. They are simply reacting to Mary. They’re reacting to the outrage she poured out at them when she finds them, when she screams out in her horror: they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.
So, if Peter and John are seeking anything that early morning, they are simply seeking to pacify Mary in her hurt and anger. She’s wanting to do something, so they’re doing something: they’re running to the tomb. “See, Mary? We’re running! We’re doing something! We’re going through some vigorous motions. They don’t really mean anything, but we’re doing them!”
Easters can be like that, can’t they? We can put ourselves through some pretty vigorous activity around Easter time. We get up; we go. We’re not sure what we’re expecting really, nor what we’re seeking. But, we go. As Peter and John go, for Mary’s sake.
They reach the tomb. They can see that something has happened. John wins the race and gets there first. But, John doesn’t go into the tomb. Peter then runs up, huffing and puffing right on past John.
Peter enters the tomb, and he sees what Mary has not yet seen. He sees the burial wrappings, laying all neat and orderly on the low, stone shelf where the body had lain. What grave robber takes the time to unwrap a corpse and fold up everything so neatly? That’s a puzzle. John comes in, and he sees these same things. They see what neither of them had come expecting to see.
Verse 8 tells us something started to click for John. It says John believed. He believes probably with just some inkling of it all possibly being true: Jesus is resurrected. Not enough to say anything to anybody, but he’s starting to get his head around it.
We have no idea what’s going on with Peter. Peter came neither seeking nor expecting anything other than more bad news. He leaves, perhaps so muddled and confused he can’t put two thoughts together. John and Peter are so lost and uncertain and speechless, they simply turn around and go back home. They leave Mary Magdalene there by herself. They offer her no consolation, no plan of action, nothing.
Mary finally stoops down and looks inside the tomb. She sees two men in there, sitting on either end of the shelf where the body of Jesus should have been. Strange…Peter and John said not a word about there being these men there. But these are messengers from the Lord Jesus, and he hasn’t sent these messenger for Peter, or John, or anyone else. He has sent them to Mary. are not messengers sent to them; they are messengers.
They speak first, prompting Mary with this question: Woman, why are you weeping? Why are you crying, Mary? Still distraught over her true loss, that Jesus has been killed, she persists in believing she has lost even more, the body of Jesus stolen from her. She answers, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.
Mary turns to find a third man standing there, whom she assumes is the caretaker. She proceeds to ask Jesus, in effect, what Jesus had done with his own corpse.1 Maybe they’ll laugh about that together later. But, for the moment, Jesus doesn’t answer her question. He simply speaks her name, Mary.
When someone calls out our name, they’re not only calling us to themselves, they’re first calling us to our own selves. Where ever else our thoughts may be, whatever may be distracting us, when we hear our names called, we are called into the present moment. We’re called back to ourselves: “hey, that’s me!” Jesus calls Mary to himself, by first calling Mary back to herself.2
Mary’s panicked, desperate race to recover Jesus’ body is over. Because Jesus is there, present, with her. He is very much alive, embodied before her in a way that defies our understanding.
She’s said over and over that what she wants is to find the dead and decaying body of Jesus, crucified and much in need of a proper burial. But, what Mary truly wants, in her heart of hearts, is Jesus. She realizes that truth, as she comes back to herself, that what she wants is not some shell of her former Lord. She wants Jesus, and that truth, she realizes in an instant, as she hears Jesus pronounce to her, her own name.
The Season of Lent is such a long, drawn out affair. Give up this, surrender that. Then, finally, we find our way into Holy Week, with a joyful Palm Sunday and the foreboding shadows of Maundy Thursday and the somber, funereal notes of Good Friday and Saturday Vigil. Then, the sleepy-eyed Easter Sunrise and then Easter Worship and somewhere in there an egg hunt or two. And, who knows, someday, maybe we’ll squeeze in a team event such as the 400-meter resurrection run.
After all that, we like Peter and John go home in a muddle. Once again, we may return home somewhat believing it might be true, as with John, or we may be still very much not believing, as with Peter. Some go on, in a sort of quiet grief because they think they no longer have even the shell of the faith they once had in the Lord. That was Mary’s plight.
Who wants the shell of what once was, but which the world has now taken away from us? Not me, that’s for sure. No one should. Have done with dead Saviors. But, be willing to look up once more.
Perhaps one day you will look up, for no reason—again, why would anyone look for what they’re not expecting? But, we’re just going through the day, and it’s as if we hear someone call our name. The experience, the sensation, calls us to ourselves in this present moment. Perhaps we realize in that same moment or perhaps only in hindsight as we consider it, there is recognition in the voice that speaks to us. It is when we realize, Jesus lives and calls us yet again to walk in this resurrection life.
1 Paul Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985) p. 104.
2 ibid, 105.