March 24, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript for my Easter Sermon, March 27, 2016.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
On the first day, while it was still dark
Our Gospel lesson today began: Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.
John confronts us with two very important facts about the resurrection day up front. It was the first day. And it was dark.
Do you see what John’s doing there? He’s bringing his story full-circle. Not just back to the beginning of his Gospel. But back to the beginning of everything.
The first day. While it was still dark.
After all, that’s where John jumped off. His Gospel story began at the beginning, when there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1.1).
John rewound all the way to the creation. The first day. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being, John says. The first day was the day God spoke.
And on that first day, while it was still dark, God spoke into the darkness. And what came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people (John 1.4). God spoke life. God spoke light.
The Word of God had pierced the darkness: Let there be light!
And John tells us: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. There is no darkness that cannot be penetrated and overcome by the light.
Oh, but Friday, we watched the light go out. We saw the light of the world—the light for all people—overcome by the darkness. Nailed to a Roman cross. Dying. And being hidden in the darkness of a tomb.
Humans had murdered the very source of life and light.
And so it should not surprise us that it was dark when Mary came to the tomb on that first day.
Nor should it surprise us that God isn’t about to let death and darkness get the last word.
John tells us that it was the first day, and that it was dark, for one reason.
To remind us that it was also dark that first day when God spoke a Word of life and light. We call what God spoke into being creation.
And so in the darkness of this first day, God again spoke a Word of life and light.
We call it resurrection. We call it new creation.
We call it Easter.
Chasing Easter bunnies
So that’s what’s going on in our Gospel reading today.
When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on the first day of the week, while it was still dark; and she saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb, she didn’t realize that she had walked right into the new creation.
She didn’t know that the air was still ringing with God’s decree—Let there be light . . . again! She didn’t know yet that the life that was the light for all people had just shattered the darkness of the tomb.
Mary didn’t know it yet. Peter didn’t know it yet. That unnamed disciple—the one whom Jesus loved—didn’t know it yet.
But the church has known it for two thousand years now. Or should know.
That’s why I get so impatient when I catch preachers who ought to know better doing what I call chasing Easter bunnies.
You know what I’m talking about. We preacher folk are notorious for getting off-task mid-sermon. Meandering off on to side-roads, to show you every piece of gravel, every blade of grass. But completely losing the trail of the story in the process. We typically call this tendency chasing rabbits.
Well, I’ve noticed that there’s certain rabbits that get chased year after year after year during Easter sermons. And the cute phrase I’ve come up with for it is chasing Easter bunnies.
I wonder if I can trademark that?
Typically, preachers chasing Easter bunnies are looking for some mysterious significance in every little detail. As if John’s telling of the Easter story were written in some sort of cryptic code. But what inevitably happens is that these little nuggets of meaning they mine don’t do much to help us connect to the story of the resurrection. Nor to connect the truth of the resurrection to our lives, or our world.
Like, here’s one of those Easter bunnies preachers love to chase. John says that when Mary Magdalene first meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognize him. She still thinks some cruel person has stolen his body for some ungodly reason. And she’s freaking out. So Jesus comes and tries to talk to her. But John tells us: Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
Why on earth would Mary mistake Jesus—one of her best friends in the world—for a gardener? That seems mighty random, doesn’t it? Sure, we know from the previous chapter—John 19.41-42—that the tomb where Jesus was buried was located in a garden. Is that why Mary automatically assumed the man she saw was the gardener?
Some want to go straight at poor Mary’s faith when they read this. Obviously she didn’t really believe Jesus’ word that he would be resurrected after three days. So Mary Magdalene isn’t really the shining example of Easter faith we’ve always been led to believe!
I say phooey. And shame on them for doubting sweet sister Mary! It was still dark out, right? Also, maybe Jesus actually was dressed as a gardener! After all, the Roman soldiers had taken his clothes and gambled over them. And he’d left his burial clothes in the tomb. Would we expect the risen Jesus just to wander around naked? Maybe the gardener had some clothes out on the line, and Jesus borrowed his tunic until he could get something of his own.
Here’s another Easter bunny folks like to chase. It’s the footrace between Peter and the unnamed disciple. John says that after Mary Magdalene told them the tomb had been unsealed, Peter and the other disciple—the one Jesus loved—left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there.
Entire sermons have been built around the idea that the beloved disciple outran Peter to the tomb, but Peter caught up and went in first. I dunno. To me that one little detail isn’t interesting enough to justify an entire sermon. Maybe the beloved disciple wasted all his energy rushing to the tomb. So while he stopped to catch his breath, Peter just walked on by and went on in.
Or maybe there is more going on than meets the eye. From the earliest days of the church, it was thought that this unnamed disciple in John’s Gospel—the disciple Jesus loved—was the Apostle John himself. But if you listen closely to the way John tells the story, you’ll notice that this disciple bent down to peer into the tomb. And he saw the linen cloths lying there. Jesus’ abandoned burial shroud. But he didn’t go in. This beloved disciple made a conscious choice to stay outside the tomb.
Why would he do that? Well, perhaps someone who had a traumatic experience involving tombs and grave clothes would hesitate at the entrance of a tomb, and the sight of grave clothes. Especially if the event that caused the trauma had happened recently. Can you think of a disciple of Jesus who had recently had a traumatic experience involving entombment and grave clothes? That’s right: Lazarus! Lazarus had been raised from the dead by Jesus just a couple of weeks before. In John 11. And when Jesus had brought him back to life, and ordered the stone rolled away from the tomb, Lazarus had stumbled out. Still swaddled tight, gagged, and blindfolded by his grave clothes!
What if the beloved disciple was actually Lazarus?  Someone who had already experienced resurrection firsthand? I know if I’d been raised after being dead four days. If I’d come to in a dark place, full of the stench of death. Bound head to toe in strips of linen. And had to inchworm my way out of there. If I’d just been resurrected myself two weeks ago, the last place I’d want to be is back inside a tomb. How about you?
And maybe there’s some significance there. Maybe Lazarus hesitating at the entrance of the tomb means something. At least the recently-resurrected Lazarus peering into the tomb of the newly-resurrected Jesus is on-topic. But I don’t have any more time to follow that rabbit trail. Y’all can try and chase that Easter bunny on your own time.
My point is that none of these side-roads—scenic as they are—helps us understand the story of Easter any better. To apply the good news of resurrection to our own lives; or to our present world; or to the future of the creation itself.
The real truth, the real message, the real significance of Easter isn’t found in analyzing footraces between disciples. And I suspect, deep down, a lot of folks know that. But they’d rather distract us with mysteries and trivia than point us to the real truth of Easter.
Because the truth of Easter shakes our world to its very foundations.
The truth of Easter is that you have a man who said God especially honors the poor and the powerless and the hurting and the hungry. That those who make peace are God’s children. Who taught people to be reconciled to their enemies instead of killing them. Who taught people to sell their stuff and give the money to the poor. Who taught people to love their enemies. Who taught people not to repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.
And the world heard this man. And the world said he was a fool. The world said that there was no room in it for a man who said such things, and practiced what he preached. The world said this man and his crazy ramblings were just too dangerous to be allowed.
And so they killed him.
But God raised him up.
And by raising Jesus from the dead, God was saying: No, this man—my Son—is right. Everything he said is right. Everything he did is right. Everything he said about me is right. It is you, world, who are wrong. Wrong about him. Wrong about me. Wrong about yourselves.
Easter means that the Jesus way
Welcoming the poor and powerless
Making peace and doing mercy
Making room at our tables
Loving our enemies
Overcoming evil with good
Is the only way to live.
Gardening with Jesus
I guess what I’m saying is that the most faithful message to proclaim each Easter (but not only at Easter, obviously) is the obvious one: Humans killed Jesus, but God raised him.
God wants us to know that Jesus was right. And God wants us to know that it is possible to follow Jesus, even if it kills us. And God wants us to have the confidence to follow Jesus—even to the cross—because God does not let even death have the final word.
And that has everything to do with our lives now. It has everything to do with the world we live in now. And it has everything to do with the world to come—the future of God’s creation.
And those are connections John did make, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
I pointed to one of those connections at the start of the message today. John’s Easter story begins on the first day, while it was still dark. John is taking us back to the darkness of the first day of creation.
John is saying that the resurrection of Jesus isn’t an isolated happening. It isn’t a one-time event. Rather, Easter—resurrection day—is the dawning of a new creation.
And all those who follow Jesus—the entire assembly gathered by and in and around the creative Word of God—are already participating in this new creation. That we already share in his resurrection. That we already have a stake in the world to come.
Brother Paul says it like this in one of his letters: If anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! (2 Cor. 5.17).
Already the new creation is upon us. We are already part of the new creation. The old things are already passing away, and new things are arriving even now.
Oh, and by the way—what I said earlier about Mary mistaking Jesus for the gardener? Okay, I fudged just a little bit on that. That’s full of significance.
That tomb from which Jesus emerged. Where the light shined again in the darkness, proving that the darkness has not overcome the light. Remember, that tomb was in a garden.
The resurrected Jesus; the Word become flesh; the new creation, walked out into a garden.
We’re back at the beginning again. Remember Genesis 2? When God created the first human? It says: The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed (Gen. 2.8). And why did God put that human in the garden? The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (Gen. 2.15).
The first human was a gardener.
John wants us to connect the dots between the first human, and Jesus—the new Adam. The new humanity. The new creation.
In that regard, Mary was not mistaken at all when she thought Jesus was the gardener.
Jesus is the gardener who invites us to beat our swords into iron plows, and our spears into pruning tools (Isa. 2.4). And to join with him in cultivating kindness and mercy and abundance and gentleness and justice and peace and love.
Because that’s what it means to live already in the new creation. Because those ways of living and being and doing and relating will endure for eternity. These will go on in the life to come.
In the meantime, to live in Christ means being Easter people. People who reflect the hope of resurrection in our lives, and in our life together. People who make the words of Christ become flesh in our world. Who welcome the poor and powerless. Who have learned to love strangers and enemies. Who nurture peace, and pursue reconciliation.
May our lives be evidence of the resurrection for each other, and for the world. May our lives—who we are and what we do—witness to a skeptical world that Jesus was right.
May we be the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness does not overcome.
 Ben Witherington, III actually argued this rather provocative thesis about a decade ago. See Witherington, Ben. “Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?” January 29, 2007. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/01/was-lazarus-beloved-disciple.html.