Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 27, 2016

John 20:1-18 Commentary

A friend of mine who is a true believer in the Gospel once confessed to me that Easter services can be a little hard on him. There’s just something about all that exuberance, all that blaring brass, all those bright lights and white lilies that combine to go sufficiently over the top in ways he finds jarring. That much excitement, he says, also does not quite match his own spiritual struggles in the workaday world very well.

So I once told him that he’d enjoy John 20’s way of doing Easter. Maybe John’s account really does fit our ordinary lives better than all the high, bright, light, and clear stuff of many Easter services.

Because John 20 tells the climax of the gospel story in about as understated a way as can be imagined. Here we have no pre-dawn earthquakes, no soldiers fainting dead away. Like all four of the gospels, we also have absolutely no description of the moment Jesus emerged from the tomb (apparently no one witnessed that and so no evangelist embellishes otherwise). Instead John purposely keeps this whole story on the level of ordinary expectations precisely so that when those typical expectations are shattered by the new thing God has done, our amazement and awe will be the greater.

We begin simply: Mary Magdalene treks to the tomb. She notices the stone has been moved and, apparently without any further checking, concludes that there is something fishy going on. Similarly, if you went to the grave of a loved one only to discover the headstone cracked in two and mounds of freshly dug dirt all around, you wouldn’t bother, probably, to hop into the hole to see if the casket was still there. You’d high-tail it out of there to call for help. What had happened was obvious. Since Jesus had been dead, and since Mary knew what dead looked like and how undeniably Jesus had fit the bill that past Friday, if he wasn’t in the tomb where they laid him, then someone else had taken him. As a general rule, dead folks don’t do a lot for themselves.

Peter and the other disciple, probably John, make the same conclusion, albeit only after a bit more of a thorough investigation of the alleged crime scene. Taken together, verses 8 and 9 of this passage indicate that Peter and John and Mary did not tumble to the notion that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What John says he “believed” in verse 8 is obviously the conclusion that something fishy, and maybe even grizzly, had gone on. (In his recent commentary on The Gospel of John, my friend Frederick Dale Bruner asserts that he does think John believed the resurrection at a deeper level already at this moment. It’s a rare point on which I disagree with Dale!)

What follows is the now-famous scene of Mary Magdalene weeping her eyes out over this latest indignity visited upon a man she loved. Twice the Jesus-incognito figure asks Mary why she is weeping. Often we read this ironically: that is to say, we know there is actually no reason whatsoever to weep and so we inflect Jesus’ words with a tone similar to what a parent would take toward a child who is crying over a dead pet when, really, the pet is just fine and sleeping over in the corner. “Jimmy, why are you crying? Knock it off and open your eyes–Squeaky is right over there!” But I suspect that is the wrong way to inflect the voice of Jesus here. Jesus knew better than anyone that Mary Magdalene’s tears are representative of the tears of all humanity. This is the weeping, the bitter spilling forth of salty tears, that has enveloped the human race for ever-so-long now.

Why was Mary crying? For the bluntly obvious fact that all of us are altogether too familiar with death, that we know about death’s irretrievable finality. Mary wept because death had done to Jesus’ body what death does to each person’s body: renders it vulnerable to decay, decomposition, as well as totally defenseless against the whims of those who might be minded to abuse a corpse. Jesus twice asked his logical question out of a deep well of both compassion and empathy. Mary Magdalene on Easter morning is an emblem of the whole human condition. Mary is at once every single one of us and the whole lot of us taken together. And so it is precisely into that situation of dereliction that Easter must burst forth. Listen: Easter does not happen here in this room or in any similarly bright, airy, and decked-out-in-white church sanctuary. Easter doesn’t happen around the dinner table when we have our family around us and mounds of delicious food to tuck into.

Listen: Easter happens in the E.R. when the doctor comes out to the waiting area and shakes his head. We couldn’t save him.

Easter happens at the funeral home when that first glimpse of dad in the coffin hits you like a cinderblock to the solar plexus. You can’t breathe.

Easter happens in the crack house where men and women watch each other slowly kill themselves with drugs, where life has become a living death.

Easter happens on the nursing floor where once strong-bodied men and women watch their peers disappear one by one and where these wheelchair-bound precious people know that all of life has now come down to this long waiting for death.

Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place it is needed.

So today Jesus still comes up from behind to ask, “Why are you weeping? Why are you depressed? Why are you filling your veins with heroin? Why are you so afraid that you, too, will end up in that wheelchair? Why are you so sad?”

Every one of those questions has a perfectly logical answer. We none of us weep without cause. Mary Magdalene didn’t either. She, like each one of us, had an absolutely iron-clad good reason to cry that morning, and had God not done that day a new thing the likes of which had never before been known, Mary’s reason for crying would have also been correct. That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebuke her for crying. There is here no hint of “Knock it off” or “Silly woman, open your eyes!” Jesus himself knew that he and Mary both needed the tears if the truth of what had just happened was going to come to mean exactly what it still means: we have the hope of new life smack where we need it most: in the midst of a world full of death and dying.

But John 20 knows something else, too: for now we hold onto that hope of new life without our just yet escaping the very death in whose midst the good news of the gospel becomes truly great news indeed. Once she sees who it is behind her, Mary leaps to her feet and does the utterly logical thing of throwing herself at Jesus in one whale of a hug. And Jesus stops her. That doesn’t seem very nice. In all of life there are some people who hug at the drop of a hat and some who clearly prefer a civil handshake. But even those of us who are not “huggers” typically allow an embrace in certain situations of singular joy and astonishment. You may typically dislike hugs, but if your kid swished the winning basket for Christian High with 1 second left on the clock, I’d wager you’ll be happy to get a hug from everyone around you in the bleachers!

But not Jesus. “No hugs,” he as much as says. “You can’t hold onto me until I have ascended to the Father.”

OK, but hugging Jesus after he ascends into heaven won’t be a cinch either, will it? What does this mean? Perhaps it means that for now, we just cannot grab Easter fully. “You can’t hold me here, Mary” Jesus says. Surely she wanted to do that. I’m sure she wanted to hug his neck and not let go. I’m sure she wanted to grab his hands and then just sit there, staring into his eyes. Now that she had this beloved Lord with her once more, she never wanted to lose him again. Yet Jesus said she had to.

The ascension had to happen, and if there would be no holding onto Jesus before the ascension, we are now living witnesses to the fact that there is no embracing after that ascension, either. It seems that if Mary Magdalene stood for all humanity when she was weeping over the sadness of death’s presence in our world, she likewise stands in for all of us even after she learned the truth of Easter. She, like we, can’t quite yet take hold of that resurrected person in the middle of the story. She, like we, couldn’t hold him there, keep him there. Life goes on, death continues to stalk us, and we are left with many tears that have not yet been dried from our eyes.

But before this stage of the Easter drama closes, Mary runs back to where the other disciples are and becomes the first apostle and minister in the history of the Christian Church as she becomes the first one to declare to another, “I have seen the Lord!” She saw him, even if she could not hold onto him.

And the good news: if you have faith, then you also have seen the Lord. The trumpets may not always blare at every moment of your life as a result. In fact, you may well still do your share of crying, too. But it is in the midst of those bitter tears that Easter happens. We discover a hope, and then cling to the joy of that hope, so as to remind ourselves that death is not the end. By faith, we also have seen the Lord. And for now, it is enough. Enough.

Illustration Idea

Some years ago Tom Long told the story of Mary Ann Bird. Mary Ann had it rough growing up. Born with a cleft palate and a disfigured face, Mary Ann also had lopsided feet and so an ungainly way of walking. Naturally, she was the target of all the school-age cruelty the other children could muster. “Did ya cut your lip?” they’d sneer. “How come you walk like a duck?” Mary Ann lived in a dark world.

One year her teacher was Miss Leonard. Miss Leonard was short and round and a little doughty but she shined with kindness. Back in those days teachers were required to administer a kind of homespun hearing test. The teacher would call each student up to her desk, have the student cover first one ear and then the other, and the teacher would whisper something to see if the child could hear. Usually the teacher would say simple things like “The sky is blue” or “You have on new shoes today.” Well, Mary Ann dreaded this test because she was also deaf in one ear and so this test would be yet another chance for her to be singled out for her deficiencies in life.

On the day of the test when it came time for her turn, Mary Ann waddled and shuffled forward. She covered up her bad ear first and then, as Miss Leonard leaned in close, Mary Ann heard words that would change her life. Because for Mary Ann’s hearing test, Miss Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.” And through those words and in the midst of her personal darkness, Mary Ann heard the voice of Jesus, the voice of love, the voice of grace. And it changed her. Mary Ann grew up to become a teacher herself, and now she shines with kindness and grace for her students. And it started when Mary Ann heard Jesus call her name through the voice of a middle-aged teacher.  Mary Ann.

John 20 gives us an Easter that fits us. John 20 gives us an Easter that can go back home with you when you leave here this morning. Because, you see, if Easter’s joy and proclamation required the blare of trumpets, the thunder of pipe organs, and the shining brightness of white banners and vestments–if that type of setting were the only place where Easter could thrive–then who among us could take that back home with us? Who among us would claim that just about every single evening when we walk through the door after a day at work, we launch right into the “Hallelujah Chorus” because it had been such a wondrous day? How many of us ride the crest of a joy wave most every moment of the average week? Maybe a few of you do lead that kind of singularly lilting existence, and if so, God bless you in it. But some of the folks I know wake up many mornings “while it is still dark,” and they’re not sure they can outrun the shadows the balance of the day, either.

That’s why John 20 gives us good news we can live by and also live with. Because somewhere in the shadows of your life and my life, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting with new life. You see, the darkness of this world does not need to lift completely in ways no one could miss for the truth of Easter to be available. It’s here. It’s now. He’s here, he’s now.

And he knows your name just as surely as he knew Mary Magdalene’s name and burst Easter into her heart the moment he called that name to her.  Mary.  No matter how deep the darkness of your life may seem, listen for that voice calling your name. Because he is calling.   Mary.   Philip.   Keith.   Lucy.   Listen. Listen for that voice. Listen and then start living Jesus’ new life right now.


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