Easter Sunday – April 1, 2018
Do you believe in Jesus?
Over the past… decades, centuries, millennia… much has been made about believing in Jesus. Sometimes the almost cliche question sounds something like: Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Saviour? In different parts of Christianity, questions of belief have become a litmus test… institutionally and personally. Do you believe in Jesus? Do I believe in Jesus? People who aren’t active church-goers will sometimes say “but I believe in Jesus,” while others withdraw from the community of faith, saying “I just don’t believe.” I often wonder what people mean when they ask or answer such a question. What is expected of or from belief? On this day, Easter Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the question can be even more poignant… more pointed: “Do I believe in Jesus?” We might wonder about this question, for ourselves or for others, but it is not a question in our story today.
Today we hear the first 2 scenes in the story of Jesus’ resurrection as told in the Gospel according to John. A story of the empty-tomb is immediately followed by the first story of a resurrection appearance. It all begins with an introduction to ground us in time. It is early on the first day of the week, just before sunrise, when Mary Magdalene has journeyed to Jesus’ tomb only to find the stone rolled away. She runs to tell other disciples and to express her concern and confusion: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” She then fades from the story while the others take off running to the tomb. What follows is a detailed description of what their further investigation reveals, in the midst of an almost comical drama of a foot race and jockeying in and out of Jesus’ tomb. They see, progressively, the evidence of Jesus’ linen burial wrappings lying there, empty. The disciple who Jesus loved, sees the evidence and believes… yes, Mary’s report of Jesus’ empty tomb is indeed correct and true. Jesus’ body is gone.
But the disciples do not as yet understand what Jesus had been telling them or the scriptures or anything even close to the fullness of the miracle that has transpired. In time, it will become clearer. Perhaps once they return home, they will realize that while Jesus’ body is indeed gone, would grave robbers really have taken the time to remove the wrappings from the body? Not likely. Perhaps they will remember how not so long ago, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus emerged from his tomb still wrapped up. It took Jesus’ command to truly free Lazarus from death. But this time, Jesus’ wrappings have been left behind. Jesus has left death behind.
At any rate, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved return home and the focus shifts once again to Mary. In the midst of the hubbub, she has quietly returned. Mary is weeping outside the tomb, her grief at Jesus’ death and now his disappearance, still so raw. She looks into the tomb and she sees angels sitting where Jesus’ body should be. They ask: “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” It is the same thing she said to the disciples when she first ran to them and yet this time it is different. Before Mary expressed the concern and confusion of the community… this time, it is purely about her grief. Why are you weeping? Because I don’t know where Jesus’ body has been taken.
Mary turns and sees Jesus standing there in the garden but with her eyes clouded with tears, she does not recognize him. And then Jesus asks her 2 questions that ring through time and space; questions that get to the heart of the matter: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” We might ask questions of belief, of understanding, of knowledge, but the questions Jesus asks in his first resurrection appearance are questions of the heart: Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? What is your deep pain? What do you desire most? What is the truth of your life?
During Jesus’ trial just a few days ago, when Pilate is questioning Jesus, he asks, apparently rhetorically: “What is truth?” No answer is ever given. The question is just left hanging there… What is truth? It is a question more poignant today than it has ever been. In these days of fake news and photoshopped pictures, we find ourselves needing to fact-check everything and anything. What is truth? Is it merely something said often enough… or loudly enough… or by enough people… shared enough on social media? Maybe it has just taken until today, for the resurrected Jesus to respond: “Why are you weeping?” What if tears are the truth? Not truth as in correct facts about a situation… not truth in any objective way… but what if tears are the truth of our lives? What if tears are the truth of our hearts and souls? I know that in the times of my life when I feel lost and confused and emotional… your average basket case… I will think hard about what is going on. I try to understand, to figure things out. And yet I have come to believe that if God is peace then anxiety is the lie. Acting out of fear matters if there really is a sabre-tooth tiger about to get us, but in our lives today, our anxiety and worry and stress and fears are mostly mind games gone awry. Anxiety is a lie. Tears are truth. Why are you weeping? If you want to know your own heart… your own soul… the truth of your life… turn to Jesus and take his question to heart: Why are you weeping? Because *that* is the truth. And when we are honest with ourselves about our deep pain, the source of our tears, healing has already begun.
The second question Jesus asks is: Whom are you looking for? It harkens back to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, for the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John are: “What are you looking for?” It’s what he asks the first two disciples who begin to follow him way back in chapter 1. And now today, with so much water under the proverbial bridge, the resurrected Jesus asks again: “Whom are you looking for?” If tears are the truth of our life, then this question of deep desire is the truth of our souls. What do you want? Who do you seek? What is the deepest desire of your soul? Questions of belief are nowhere to be found… because in the resurrected Jesus… in the triumph of life over death… what we find is healing of pain, forgiveness for bad choices, and an affirmation of the truth to be found within our hearts and souls. In the resurrected Jesus, we know God’s love touching our hearts and informing our desire.
But Mary doesn’t yet know any of this. Mary’s eyes are still clouded with grief and so Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Still, she answers his questions with her profound sadness and deep desire to have Jesus back: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Only when Jesus calls her name: “Mary!” does recognition dawn and she knows that it is her beloved teacher, Jesus, before her. Perhaps she has already begun reaching out to embrace him when he cautions and commands her: “Do not hold on to me…” I wonder if this is where we’ve gone wrong in the church for too long? We have held on to Jesus… asking ourselves and others if we believe… when Jesus himself commanded us not to hold on but to follow. To listen to his messages of life and love, and his dreams for a world of peace and justice for all that he called the kingdom of God.
Jesus commands Mary: “Do not hold on to me…” and then goes on to try and explain that even with this miracle of new, resurrected life on this Easter morning, Jesus’ story is not over. There is more still to come. Jesus will be lifted up, glorified, for a final time. Jesus will leave again and turn over responsibility for God’s mission in the world to the community of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit. But all that can wait for another day. This morning it is enough to stand outside Jesus’ empty tomb and weep and wonder and look for Jesus standing near, standing around us, maybe incognito.
If you want to see Jesus this morning, perhaps the best place to start is not in wondering how to believe, or trying to understand, or searching out facts beyond the truth of your own heart and the desire of your own soul. Why do you weep? Whom are you looking for? What is your deep pain? What do you desire most? What is the truth of your life? Will you trust today that God in Christ will come to you, is already there for you, in your answers to these questions?
Jesus Christ is risen today and stands in the garden of our lives, calling us by name. All we have to do is turn, see, and know the truth in our hearts and then go out to share the good news with our friends and neighbours: “I have seen the Lord!” Death is not the end. Jesus lives again. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!]