Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Our Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 1st, 2018: Whom Are You Looking For? John 20:1-18
Early 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. So 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.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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.They 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.’When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus 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.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Whom Are You Looking For? John 20:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That is how this whole Gospel begins... with poetry that is trying to tell us something about Jesus. It says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." There are few lovelier phrases in the whole Bible. John wants to make sure we understand something. Jesus was close to God... was as close to God as a word on God's lips. Jesus was at the beginning, the word that started everything. Jesus was a Word that had life to it... that created... that had power. Jesus was the Word and this Word is life and builds life and is the light the gives life. Jesus is a Word that can never be drowned out or overcome. Jesus is a light that never will truly be put out. We should remember that when we start today's reading in the darkness of the tomb.
John asserts that this Word was never simply an idea or a feeling. Not that ideas and feelings aren't important or powerful. It's just that John thought this Word was concrete. This Word became flesh and lived among us. This Word is like us, experiencing every facet of what it means to be human. The Word was born and had a family, though the Gospel of John chooses not to outline all of that story. This Word had friends and enemies. This Word hungered and grew thirsty. This Word mourned and laughed and wept and grew tired. In every way that one can be human, the Word was like us. This Word even died. That's how completely Jesus, the Word that was present at creation, identified with humanity. This identification had a purpose. The Word did not become flesh just to see if it could. Incarnation is not a Divine Power Trip. The beginning of this Gospel told us that this Word had a purpose. You see, all people who receive this word will be changed. Whomever receives this Word will become a child of God. This Word is here to create connection... to build a family with humanity. Nothing will be more powerful than this mission. Not even death can sever the connection from God through Jesus to humanity. The Word cannot be drowned out. Even the tomb cannot seal the Word away forever.
Even the location of this story tells us something about the relationship fostered by Jesus with God and humanity. In the same way the beginning of the Gospel calls us back to creation with the Word, this story calls back to creation with the garden. In the beginning of the whole Bible, God's first creations lived in the garden. God engaged with the ones in the garden. God called the Garden good. There was intimacy, life, and beauty in creation of the garden. The garden was a place of abundant life... life enabled and enacted by the Word. I am certain that Jesus' followers thought his crucifixion was his destruction. I am certain that they thought it was the end. But, we readers recognize words that we've heard before. We remember that good things happen in gardens. We know that in a garden there is always the possibility of new and abundant life. There are few places where the human and the Divine have been closer together than the garden. The Word can re-create life, even here, in this garden of death.
Mary will need to hear this Word before she'll understand the miracle that is happening right in front of her. Seeing won't quite be enough. This is not the first time that one has needed to hear the Word in order to know the Word. In chapter 10, when Jesus described his relationship with humanity, he said he was like a good shepherd who cared for his sheep. He said that he would do anything for his sheep and that he must add more to his fold. He said that his own sheep will hear his voice and follow him. He will call them by their name and will lead them out. Just as a blind man hears Jesus and believes in chapter 10 and Lazarus hears Jesus and is raised from the dead in in chapter 11, Mary will need to hear Jesus to understand that he is living again. She will need to hear the Word to understand.
First, she sees that the stone has been rolled away, and she is afraid. She goes and tells her friends who look and see that Jesus' body is not there. Then, in her deep mourning, she looks herself. She sees angels where Jesus' body is supposed to be. It appears that seeing angels isn't even enough to restore her hope. She continues to weep. The angels ask her why and she explains that she believes that someone has stolen Jesus' body and she does not know where they took him. In her distress, she turns away from the angels. Can you imagine being so bereft that angels don't even hold your attention? That's what Mary is feeling at this point. So, she turns around and sees a man who she thinks is a gardener. They are in a garden. It makes sense. She's still not seeing clearly, though. She still needs to hear the Word to understand.
Jesus speaks for the first time in the story. He asks her two questions: Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? The first question is one of compassion, a hallmark of his ministry. The second question calls us back to the beginning of his ministry. The first thing he ever said to his very first disciples is a similar question: "What are you looking for?" We are to read this and recognize it. We are to realize that we are hearing a new beginning. But, she still doesn't recognize him. She asks him if he knows who took Jesus' body and offers to retrieve it. Jesus picks this moment to relive his role as the good shepherd. He says his sheep's name. He says to her, "Mary!" She hears the Word. She finally understands. The Word has not been erased. Jesus is risen.
At this moment, Mary joins the multiple other women who serve as the first witnesses to revelations of Christ. The Samaritan Woman at the well heard Jesus say "I AM," that is, I am the Messiah of which you've heard. Jesus' mother was the witness to his death on the cross. And, now, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Jesus commissions her to be the first preacher of this good news, too. After he tells her that he can't stay, he reassures and tells her to deliver a special message to the others. He will ascend to God. This is where the greatest future promise lies. You see, this isn't simply a story about resurrection, that is, salvation from the grave. This is also a story about ascension. The ascension is the final act in this Gospel that assures the continuing relationship between God and God's children. Jesus doesn't just want Mary to say that he is risen. He wants her to remind them that the Word has made them children of God. Jesus' ascension will assure them of this promise and of their on-going relationship with God. Not even death can destroy that promise. So, Mary went to them and she preached the Word. She said, "I have seen the Lord." She reminded them of the promise.
While Mary was the first preacher of this particular good news, I believe Jesus' words to her have a lot to say to us, too. If Jesus were right here today and asked you, like he asked her and like he asked his first disciples, "What are you looking for? Who are you looking for," what would you tell him? What did you expect to see when you walked through these doors? If you didn't see what you expected, what would you need to hear in order to believe? What Word reminds you of Christ's promise? And, when you leave this place, what Word will you carry with you? What Word will make you shout "I have seen the Lord?" Who are you going to tell about Jesus?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Randall C. Bailey, "Easter Day (Resurrection of Jesus), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Mary Hinkle Shore: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3610
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5121
Lucy Lind Logan: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1236
Also, our great Easter art came from the Salt Project: http://www.saltproject.org/
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.