Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 12, 2020
John 20:1-18 Commentary
In a recent article on preaching in these days of COVID-19 isolation and fear, I suggested that despite the sadness we are all feeling at not being able to gather for Easter services in 2020, we don’t want to preach downer sermons. We don’t want our own disappointment at not being able to preach to an extra-full church seep into our sermons in way that undercut the very resurrection hope and joy we all need right now (well, we always need it but you know what I mean).
I also suggested, though, that now is a good time to let the rather understated Gospel accounts of the resurrection to come through precisely because although we try to celebrate Easter with all the brass ensembles, streaming white banners, and over-the-top enthusiasm we can muster, that’s not what you get from the four Gospel stories about Easter. It is certainly not what you get in John 20, and that just may make this text the one we need in Easter 2020.
I would title my sermon on this passage “While It Was Still Dark” and that may fit this dark moment. Let me explain.
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: While it was still dark that first Easter morning, 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 the wonderful writer and undertaker Tom Lynch reminds us, as a general rule, dead folks don’t do a lot for themselves. They can only have things done TO them.
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 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 same reason COVID-19 is making people weep the world over right now: because of 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 in a bright, airy, and decked-out-in-white church sanctuary. And a good thing too this year because we cannot celebrate it that way.
Listen: Easter doesn’t happen around the dinner table when we have our family around us and mounds of delicious food to tuck into. And since larger gatherings of even our closest family members may not be wise to do this year, either . . .
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 cinder block 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. The recently coined (and painful) oxymoron phrase of “Social Distancing” is difficult for us because we want that human connect. We want the handshakes we cannot give right now, we yearn for the hugs that would be unwise in this moment.
Mary wants this too but Jesus says, “No hugs. 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. It is in the midst of COVID-19 isolation with services on Livestream, on Facebook, held via Zoom that Jesus comes up behind us in our disappointment, sadness, and fear just now to show us he is still here.
By faith, we also have seen the Lord. And for now, it is enough. It’s not everything just yet. But it’s enough. Enough. It is enough this year, while it is still dark.
At the Hollywood Presbyterian Church years ago, the pastor was doing a Children’s Sermon on Easter morning. As recounted to me once by the Bible scholar Frederick Dale Bruner, the pastor asked the children, “What do you suppose was the first thing Jesus said to his disciples after he was raised from the dead?” One little boy instantly leapt to his feet, flung his arms out wide, and declared “Ta-Da!!!”
But as Bruner observes, funny though this little story is, the truth is that Jesus did not do any grand flourishes of the “Ta-Da” variety when he appeared to people after his resurrection. He did not bust through any front doors to sweep in with razzle-dazzle and proclamations of “I’m BAAACK!” No, he usually crept up from behind. From behind the weeping Mary in John 20. From behind the Emmaus-bound and deeply disillusioned disciples in Luke 24. When in John 21 Jesus puts in one of the very few post-resurrection appearances about which the Bible tells us, he appears as just a stranger on the beach, an unknown figure tending to a little campfire on which he’s cooking fish and biscuits.
It is in quietness and in understated ways that Jesus assures us he is really alive again for now and for all eternity. He comes up from behind not with any grand “Ta-Da” flourishes but with simple words like, “Hey, friend: why are you crying?” That is where people after the original Easter found Jesus to be alive in their lives. It’s no different today, especially in the hard time we are all facing in 2020 when we celebrate the greatest news ever told.
Jesus assures us he’s alive. And if he finds us weeping before he reminds us of that truth once more, that’s just fine by him. He understands. That’s why he’s here.
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