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Sun, Apr 01, 2018

Easter Service 2018

Duration:28 mins 20 secs

Our Scripture Reading for today comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 1-10. As John tells the story of these key days, Jesus dies on the cross on Friday, the day before the Jewish Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both of whom were secret disciples of Jesus, take his body down from the cross and prepare it for burial. They prepare the body in the normal fashion and anoint it, as was the custom. There was a garden tomb in which no one had ever been laid and so since this tomb was nearby and the time before the Sabbath was short, they put Jesus’ body there. On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and is surprised with what she finds. Let us hear this Word of God.

1 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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It was dark. Not yet even the first glimmer of a sunrise peeking over the hills that morning. A woman, by herself, stumbling over rocks due to the darkness and to her tears. She enters a garden, a graveyard actually. She apparently knows the way to the place where she is going because she does not turn aside. The darkness still barely holding the dawn away, she stops at an unmarked tomb, looks up, and to her horror, she sees the stone had been removed. Turning around she starts to run. She doesn’t bother to look in the tomb or to ask anyone what has happened. She simply runs back down the path and into the city to find two others - Simon Peter and the other disciple. Upon finding them she announces, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him!”

According to John, that is the scene in the garden that first Easter morning. Mary arrives at the tomb while it is still dark and discovers that the stone had been removed. Running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, she speaks the first words of that Easter morning. The words she speaks are not words of faith, words of joy, and words of celebration. No, Mary runs to the disciples and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him!” Those are words of terror, words of grief; words of despair; and even words of accusation. Someone has moved the body of Jesus. Someone has stolen the body of Jesus. Someone has robbed this grave. That’s the first word we hear on Easter morning according to John.

For the Easter story does not begin with Jesus walking out of the tomb. None of the gospels tell the story in that way. No matter how early the first visitors get to the tomb on the first day of the week – in this case, even before the sunrise, no one gets to see the resurrection. No matter how early they arrive, all they see is an empty tomb, a stone rolled away. So, the questions remain: Where is the body and who has taken it?

Simon Peter and the other disciple, moved by Mary’s words, run to the tomb to see for themselves. According to John, Peter had been with Jesus from the beginning, ever since his brother Andrew brought him to Jesus declaring, “We have found the Messiah!” Peter had been with Jesus through it all, often standing out of the crowd, but in the end, he denied his Lord three times. That was the last time Peter was mentioned in this story until now.

The other was unnamed, only known as “the disciple Jesus loved.” This disciple first appears later in the gospel, reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper. He then follows Jesus with Peter to the high priest’s house after Jesus’ arrest, and is later found standing with Mary, Jesus’ mother, at the foot of the cross. It is these two who hear Mary Magdalene’s announcement, so they set out running for the tomb to see and investigate for themselves.

Well, the other disciple arrives first; apparently, he ran a bit quicker than Peter. The initial evidence had not changed. The stone was still rolled away and the doorway was still empty. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there – the ones used to wrap a body for burial - but no body. He waited for Peter to arrive before going in to investigate further.

Peter didn’t stop. He just went right into the tomb. He too saw the linen wrappings but noticed that the cloth used to wrap the head was not lying with the rest. It was rolled up and placed alone by itself. If someone had simply robbed this grave why would they have bothered to unwrap the body? And then why roll up the cloth for the head by itself. It all seemed careful, intentional, and particular.

By now the other disciple had followed Peter into the tomb, looked around and “believed.” It does not say what exactly he believed, but it appears that he believed Mary’s testimony that the body was gone. “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So, they went home. The empty tomb does not inspire belief for the disciples in John’s gospel. The empty tomb only serves to heighten grief and tears. They have taken the body of our Lord and we do not know where they have laid him.

Now, if you are familiar with this story, you probably know that it does not end right here. Mary remains at the tomb weeping. She first sees two angels in white before encountering the risen Jesus when he calls her by name. But I stopped our scripture reading for this morning with Peter and the other disciple returning home, not yet understanding that Jesus must rise from the dead. It might seem like an odd place to stop. This is Easter Sunday after all! But I wonder if you and I as 21st century American Christians find ourselves in this story right there. Not with a face to face encounter with the risen Lord, but with questions and wonderings about resurrection.

For we live in a time and a culture that seeks to understand the world through observation; through what we can see, discover, create, investigate, and know. That is why magazines publish stories about the historical Jesus at this time of year. I recently read in National Geographic a quite interesting article by a reporter who went to Palestine and Jerusalem to discover “The Real Jesus” by investigating archeological digs and discoveries. Actor Hugh Bonneville, of Downton Abby fame, has a documentary on public television right now called Jesus: Countdown to Calvary in which he, as one reviewer puts it:

Does not examine the merits or failings of Christianity. He does not get into question of faith or supernatural belief or the divinity of Jesus. Instead, he and the documentary’s makers … look at the historical, economic and sociological factors that contributed to making Jerusalem a powder keg in the days before Jesus’ crucifixion.

Yes, perhaps it has always been the case but our first inclination in the modern world is to seek to understand. We are right there with Peter and the other disciple who went back to their homes for “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

My friends, let me give you permission to pause this morning … because resurrection is not primarily about understanding. It really happened, Christ has been raised. No doubt about it. But as Professor Richard Lischer writes:

If the resurrection were meant to be a historically verifiable occurrence, God wouldn't have performed it in the dark without eyewitnesses. "Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?" the [old] spiritual asks. No, in fact, we were not. No one was. "Resurrection" was an event transacted between God the Father and God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit. … We don't know if it was a typically warm Palestinian morning or unseasonably cool. We don't know if the earth shuddered when he arose or if it was … still. We don't know what he looked like when he was no longer dead, whether he burst the tomb in glory or came out like Lazarus, slowly unwrapping his shroud and squinting with wonder against the dawn.

No one is there for the moment of resurrection. Just like Mary, just like Peter and the other disciple, all we today have is an empty tomb and a missing body.

So, I want to suggest to you this morning, almost 2000 years later, that as long as we spend our time looking for Jesus in the tomb, we will not find him. He is not there!

For there is no doubt that the Christian faith is the story of death and resurrection, but the one in the grave is not Christ – it is you and me. In our scripture text, Peter and the other disciple are the only ones inside the tomb and they do not understand. Despite our best efforts to understand the resurrection and even more our attempts to save ourselves with our minds and our knowledge, we continue to find ourselves in the mired in the grave. If all we had was our ability to understand, we would be lost for sure. But the good news of the gospel is, as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote, “The Christian faith is about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”

My friends, that is why Christ must be raised from the dead, because those who need to be raised today are you and me.

Yes, we keep digging graves and Christ keeps pulling us out. My friends, in what graves are you at work this morning? Where do you see no hope?

Is it in a class at school that makes no sense?

Is it your marriage that seems to be drifting apart?

Is it your teenager who refuses to listen?

Is it your job that seems to be going nowhere?

Is it an illness that occupies your every waking thought?

Is it a loved one whose mind is slipping away?

Is it the aging of your own body?

Is it a culture of violence and death?

Is it a world that seems to be spinning out of control?

Yes, my friends, what graves are you in this morning?

The good news of the gospel is that Christ is risen! He goes before us to meet us in the garden, in a room behind locked doors, in our homes, or anywhere else we might be in this world. Yes, no matter how many graves we keep digging, Christ keeps coming to meet us by pulling us out.

This is good news! This is the best news you have ever heard! As we return to our homes this day, believe the good news of the gospel. There is not just a missing body and an empty tomb. No, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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