Easter and Everything

(John 20.1-18) Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

That’s the story.
That’s the confession of the Church.

That’s what we celebrate
today and every day.

In the first century,
a human being—a Jewish man—a rabbi—
came out the other side of death.

What a strange story.

It’s not exactly a story you would make up
especially if you want people to believe you.

The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection
don’t play out anything like
we might expect.

There are all kinds of strange happenings, mysterious details
really just plain weird things—that no one would make up.

For example,
the accounts are emphatic
that Jesus is alive again.

It’s definitely Jesus,
and yet people frequently don’t recognize him at first.

People go on long walks with him
and have conversations with him
and don’t recognize him,

Mary mistakes him for the gardner (v15).

It’s definitely Jesus
but there’s something different about him.

Another weirdness:
the accounts are emphatic
that Jesus’ body is alive again.

He’s definitely got a body—
a body that can be seen,
a larynx that can articulate words,
a mouth that eat snacks and meals,
a digestive tract that can digest those snacks and meals.

A body that can be hugged—
that Mary can embrace
somewhere right after verse 16
to the point where Jesus has to tell her (v17):

“Ok, Ok, you can’t keep holding on to me,
there’s stuff to be done..”

He’s definitely got a body,
and yet he can walk through walls,
or appear and vanish from their sight,
or something.

It’s just plain weird.

There’s a story at the end of Luke
where Jesus is convincing his disciples he’s not a ghost
(“I really am here, I’ll eat some fish to prove it”)
but just moments earlier he had just appeared out of thin air.

In our passage today,
he tells Mary that she’s got to stop hugging him
because he’s got to ascend to God.

“There’s work to be done, Mary. Go. Talk about this.
I’ll catch up with you after I enter into a deeper dimension of reality.”

Well, alright then.

And Mary is the first to see Jesus.

In all the accounts of the resurrection,
women are the first to see Jesus and tell about Jesus.

Most of us have heard it countless times, but it bears repeating:

At this time, in this culture,
women were not considered reliable witnesses.

The testimony of men counted,
the testimony of women did not.

In the first century,
telling the story like this—
with the word of women at the center—
doesn’t help the story.

It actually undermines the story.

It’s a crazy story anyway:

Jesus resurrected from the dead,
recognizable but also mistakable,
appearing and disappearing,
ascending to God but he’s got fish stuck in his teeth.

The only explanation for the why the gospel writers
tell the story the crazy way they do
is they were trying to tell the truth.

They were trying to tell the truth.

“We’re not going to change the strangeness of what we’ve seen—
we’re just going to tell you.”

“Jesus is alive—really alive, with a body—
he’s the same but he’s different.”

“And we’re not going to massage the details
so that it sounds like men saw Jesus alive first.”

“Men didn’t—we know that doesn’t help our story—we don’t care.
The boys only saw the grave wrappings (v6-8).”

“It really was women—it was Mary—
who saw him alive first.”

We’re not trying to tell you a believable story,
we’re trying to tell you the truth.

The early church knew how bizarre this story is.

Even before the advent of modern medicine
the ancient world knew that the dead stay dead.

The prospect of bodily resurrection from the dead
was just as laughable in the first century
as it is in the twenty-first.

The early church knew how bizarre their claim was,
and they did not care.

It’s unlike anything any of us in this room have ever seen
it’s unlike anything anyone in history has ever seen
but this is what happened.

This is the confession of the Church.

In all its strangeness,
in all its perplexity and paradox
in all its just-plain-weirdness:

Jesus of Nazareth is alive.

He HAD died.
He WAS dead.

Killed in the most gruesome of ways,
and beginning to decompose in a tomb.

But now—now something unbelievable and unexpected has occurred.

Something new has happened.
Something new is dawning.

That’s what John is saying in the way he tells the story.

Verse 1 begins:

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”

This is the same guy who begins his gospel
by invoking the words of Genesis:

“In the beginning…
now let me you about Jesus”

John loads his account of Jesus’ life
with every bit of meaning that he can.

And now that he’s here—
at this strange and crazy turn of events—
he says:

It’s still dark—
it still looks like business-as-usual,
it still looks like last week,
it still looks like Saturday night,
but it’s actually the first day of a new week.

The Jewish week begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday—on the Sabbath.

That’s the Jewish week
because that’s the scope of creation in Genesis.

God begins creating and after a busy six days—
exploding the universe
into existence
and writing the laws of physics
and breathing life into mankind
and planting a garden—

After a busy six days,
God rests on the Sabbath.

It’s like John is hinting that now—
now, the Creator is doing something new.

That’s the only explanation of what we’ve seen:
the Creator is doing something new.”

“The Sabbath just ended
and this is the eighth day.”

It’s the first day of a brand new week.
It’s the first day of a brand new creation.

It’s happening in the dark
it still looks like the old week
but it’s not.

So much of the world looks the same,
so much of your lives look the same,
but really… everything has changed.

Something new has happened in the world.

A human being has come out the other side of death.

There is hope.
Death is not invincible.

The God of life
can and does and will
defeat death.

If that’s true,
it’s incredibly good news.

Like… the best. news. ever.

Christians are the people
who are learning to believe this news.

Christians are the people
who are learning to adjust our lives to this news
to wrap our lives around this news.

Jesus is alive.
Jesus is resurrected.
Jesus is alive.

This news is the central confession of the Church.

The central obsession of the Church, we could say.

What does it mean, exactly?

It’s something the Church announces every year at Easter,
but what does the resurrection mean?

The next six weeks,
I want to think about that.

What exactly does the resurrection mean?

Through the season of Lent—the season that leads up to Easter—
we were asking questions about how Jesus saves.

[slide #1]
We were asking
what does Jesus save us from
and what does Jesus saves us for?

If we were to ask those questions today:

[slide #2]
I think Easter throws down a gauntlet and says:
“Jesus saves us from death itself.”

We need that.

Really badly
we—as a species—
need that.

I mean, we all hate funerals.

Even if you like
horror movies
and the macabre
and the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe,
you don’t like funerals.

It only takes one funeral of one loved one
for all of us to understand the terror and inescapability and finality of death.

“Except… except,”
the Church whispers,
“funerals are not final.”

Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Death is not definitive.
Funerals are not final.

Because Easter proclaims that
Jesus saves from death itself.

But exactly what does that mean for us today?

You know, today,
and hopefully tomorrow—
and every day before we die?

[slide #3]
In other words:
what is Jesus saving us for?

What kind of life are we being invited into?

And what does the alleged resurrection
of a first-century Jewish peasant
have to do with our lives?

What good is resurrection
before our funerals?

For that matter:
what good is resurrection
in a world where we still have funerals?

It’s easy to say that Easter and resurrection
mean that Jesus is saving us from death itself—
that’s a great sentiment—those are great words
but what does that look like?

What effect does that have on our lives?

What is Jesus saving us for?

That’s what we want to explore
over the coming weeks.

We only have time for one brief reflection
before we come to the table this morning.

We’ll talk about this more next week,
but perhaps we should just briefly draw attention to
what the earliest Christians were NOT proclaiming.

The earliest Christians were NOT proclaiming
that they had found a way to go to heaven when they died.

As much as “going to heaven” gets talked about today
in churches and in little pamphlets and by people knocking on doors,
the earliest Christians were demonstrably NOT talking about
some kind remote, vague, heavenly existence after death.

That would have been a more respectable story too. 

Plenty of cults and mystery religions in the ancient world
talked about how you could escape this world after death
and enjoy a blessed existence somewhere else one day.

Plenty of people were talking about
going to heaven when you die.

About leaving this world
and going to heaven.

Christians were the wild, crazy, un-respectable people
who were talking about heaven reclaiming this world.

The gospel gets distorted beyond recognition
when it becomes about escaping earth
to go somewhere better.

To be sure, those who die in Jesus ARE SAFE with Jesus when they die,
but lets be crystal clear about what the good news is according to Easter.

The good news is NOT
that God wants to rescue you from creation

so you can escape to somewhere else someday.

The good news of Easter
that God has not given up
on his creation.

Something new is here.
Something new is possible.

Verse 15 is worth emphasizing:
she mistakes him for the gardener.

That—right there—is the scandal of resurrection.
That—right there—is the scandal of Easter.

You can mistake
God for a gardner.

God himself has become man in Jesus—God himself has died in Jesus—
and his infinite, overflowing, indestructible life can be overlooked.

It looks utterly normal.

He’s not floating three inches above the grass,
he’s not glowing with ghostly energy,
he’s not distant or detached or disinterested in the world.

He’s got a green thumb.

He looks at home in the garden.

He looks like he works the soil.

Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality,
that makes you less interested in this world—
that makes you less interested
in mud
and flowers and sunsets and gardening
and knowing people and calling them by name (v16)—

[slide #4]
Any spirituality that makes you
less interested in this world

has nothing to do with resurrection.

Jesus is mistaken for the gardener.
God is mistaken for the gardener.

Mary’s not far off.

God IS the gardener.

Ever since the beginning of Genesis,
God has always been the gardener.

And God has not abandoned
the garden that he planted.

God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus
back to the world to say,
“Don’t worry after you die you’ll be OK.”

God resurrected Jesus.

The resurrection of Jesus tells us something
about what God has planned for the world.

God plans to restore this world.

God is not interested in throwing out this world
and moving on to something else somewhere else.

If that were the case,
why on earth go to the trouble
of raising Jesus’ body from the dead?

God didn’t say,
“It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”


God raised Jesus from the dead.

Because those cells and proteins that make up Jesus’ body,
they’re good and they matter.

His circulatory system and blood vessels,
they’re good and they matter.

His digestive tract and taste buds,
they’re good and they matter.

That’s some of what the resurrection means.

Molecules matter.
This world matters.
Matter matters.

[slide #5]
The resurrection means
this world that God made

Are there areas in your life, are there parts of the world,
that you tend to dismiss as unimportant
because of your spirituality?

Maybe it’s some habit you have in your life.

The way you treat your body.
The way you treat others.

You push it aside, because my spiritual life is over here
and those things are over there—and they don’t really matter.

Maybe it’s a wound that you carry with you.

That thing that you’ve never dealt with.

You dismiss it,
because what does bringing that thing up
have to do with the joy that God wants to us to have?

“After all,
that thing doesn’t matter
in the grand scheme of things.”

Some books, some sermons, some churches
might give you that impression.

A church might not come right out and say it,
but it sure seems like the only things that really count—
you know, “really counts for eternity”—
are “spiritual” sorts of things.

Reading the Bible,
doing “great things for God”
praying for hours each day,
giving money to the church,
doing churchy, religiousy things,

“Because—after all—in the light of eternity
everything else just don’t matter.”

A statement like that might hold water
if we were Stoics or Platonists or Buddhists.

But we’re not.
But we’re Christians.

We believe in the resurrection.

I mean, this is Easter,
for crying out loud.

And in the light of Easter,
everything matters.

The resurrection says that this world
our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work,
our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies

Quite literally,
everything matters.

Because the resurrection of Jesus shows us
that God doesn’t scrap creation.

He doesn’t throwing things out.

God is the God of resurrection
of reclaiming, of recreation.

Again we’ll be exploring this over the next few weeks,
but at minimum:

[slide #6]
The resurrection invites us
to be more rooted in this world, not less.

Christians should be the people
who are most rooted, most grounded, most invested
in this world.

In caring for the earth,
in educating children,
in working for peace and striving for justice,
in building businesses that better people’s lives,
in cultivating beauty and truth through the arts,
in caring for our bodies and for others,
in taking hikes and smelling flowers,
in weeping hard, and laughing harder—

Christians should be the people
most rooted, most grounded, most invested
in this world.

Because Christians are the people
who believe that this world has a future.

That the second law of thermodynamics is not sovereign law,
that the universe will not end in decay or death,
that funerals are not final—

Christians are the people who believe in resurrection…
maybe we should be mistaken for gardeners too.

Scripture tells us that we come to this table
to remember the Lord’s death until he comes.

The resurrection is what connects those two things
the Lord’s death and he will come again to make all things new.

This table is where we remember
that Jesus was broken and Jesus was poured out for us.

God himself entered into our death
so that he could flood us with life.

Life that loves this world
and everything in it.

Life that says,
“Everything matters.”

We celebrate an open table
if you’re hungry for this kind of life,
if you’re hungry for God,
then this table is for you.

You’re invited to come in just a moment,
to receive a bit of cracker, to dip it in the cup,
and then return to your seat.

May we too be mistaken for gardeners.

May we be people learning to root ourselves deeply in this world
because Jesus is risen from the dead.

May his resurrection show us
that our lives matter
this world matters.

May we begin to believe the good news of Easter,
may our lives be transformed by the hope it brings us,
and may we share that hope with the world.