The Message

April 16, 2017

Series: April 2017

Category: Easter Sunday

Passage: John 20:1-18

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Tags: easter, mary, resurrection

Somewhere along in the ordination process I was asked what would become of my faith if they found the bones of Jesus, presumably nullifying the resurrection because the body wasn’t raised. I gave the theologically appropriate, though largely uninspired, answer that we’re given a new body in the resurrection and thus it wouldn’t matter.  Test passed.  Hoop jumped.

It’s Easter morning, which is all about inspiration, when in search of resurrection hope, we come with bated breath to see the body is gone. Who can blame us?  We’ve been forced to see too many lifeless bodies lately.  Last week, it was bodies of Syrians.  My eyes landed for some time on a news photo of a man (a father?) in Syria carrying a child (his son?) in his arms, naked but for underwear (alive?).  In an instant I was drawn back to that picture of the little Syrian boy washed up last year on the beach, fully clothed, drowned, a refugee of a world he didn’t create.  I have a son about his age.  We’ve taken him to the beach many times, seen him stop what he’s doing and lie down out of sheer exhaustion, but he always gets up to continue playing. 

I visit the tomb on Easter knowing I’ll find hope there. I don’t know why Mary Magdalene went, Mary who gave us the first testimony of the resurrection.  Talk about loyalty.  She goes to attend to the body, when for all she knew it was all that was left of her beloved Jesus and perhaps even the dream he embodied, crucified by those who couldn’t stand the sound of the truth.

Mary, we are told, goes early in the morning, “while it was still dark” (Jn. 20:1), the light of the world having gone out. Her journey, like so many of ours, begins before the way is clear.  Upon finding Jesus’ body gone, she rushes to tell the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”  It’s amazing how quick we are to turn to blame when our grief feels too much to bear.  Would we have responded differently?

Perhaps fittingly, the scene surrounding Jesus’ resurrection includes parallels his birth. The linen wrappings in John are like the swaddling clothes of Luke.  Similarly, the angels here harken of the ones who appeared there at his birth.  Here, the people rush to see what has taken place, just as they did there.  The tomb, we are told in symbol, is a second manger.

Then, it happens. Jesus appears to Mary, yet she cannot recognize him.  Only when he calls her by name, “Mary!” does the light of recognition break through.  Scholar Anna Carter Florence reminds us, “You can’t explain resurrection.  It addresses you…”[1]   It’s how Mary, in turn, addresses the risen Jesus that perhaps is most surprising.  Do you remember what she calls him when she realizes how it is?  “Rabbouni! Which means Teacher” (20:16).

Raboouni. Teacher.  What a strange thing for us to hear her say at that moment to Jesus.  We have been taught he is Lord, Messiah, Savior, King of Kings.  This is the Gospel of John after all, with the highest Christology of all the gospels, meaning Jesus is depicted as most godlike, sometimes his grittier human qualities seemingly smoothed over.  Here he’s unquestioningly divine.  He’s now overcome the grave as if to prove it.  Wouldn’t we think she would take that moment to pronounce did as the centurion did that he is the Son of God!?  No, teacher.  Teacher.  And, that’s when I realized, we’ve been getting it all wrong, or, at least, we’ve been getting it only partially right all along.    

The Easter message that God has defeated death once and for all, that there is ultimate hope on the horizon is indeed of great comfort to us. And yet, Mary’s one word, “Teacher,” reminds us there is hope for where the sun shines right now.  Mary remembers what over the centuries the church has sometimes forgotten, namely that Jesus wasn’t just something that happened, Jesus had something to say.  He may have conquered death, but he also showed us how to live.  Both make him the Messiah.  You won’t find that in the early creeds, but both are how God meets the world’s needs.  If the resurrection gives us confidence, the teachings give us guidance.  Each without the other is the lesser.

This is the year in the lectionary assigned to the gospel of Luke, so I went to search Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, the longest of Jesus’ teachings, which Luke terms “The Sermon on the Plain.” A geographic discrepancy perhaps, I like the democratic feel of the teacher teaching from a level playing field, not from on high.  Before I got there, however, I ran into Jesus in the cornfields, feeding his students on the Sabbath, breaking the law, reminding us that laws which don’t care for the people aren’t real laws.  Then on another Sabbath, I found Jesus tending a man with a withered hand.  It’s his right hand, indicating it’s likely he was a craftsman, suffering from a workplace injury and now couldn’t support his family.  Jesus was a second career savior.  His first career was a craftsman, and he takes up the cause of the worker, restoring him not just to health, but to productivity and to dignity.

By the time Jesus is on the plain he is speaking plenty plain: Blessed are the poor, having shed Matthew’s spiritualized, “poor in Spirit.”  Blessed are the hungry, the weeping, those who are hated and reviled for justice’s sake.  Woe to the rich, the full, the laughing.  Tough teachings and they get tougher.  Love your enemies.  Bless them and pray for them.  Turn the other cheek.  Give to everyone who begs.  Don’t judge others or you will.  Forgive and you will be.  Don’t seek the speck in your neighbor’s eye while walking around with a log sticking out of your own.  What flows from the heart is what comes out of the mouth.

It goes on and on before culminating in one curious scolding, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I tell you?” 20:46), which is precisely what Christians have done so often over the years, call Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” without doing what he told us. The biggest critique of us is not that our beloved Jesus was a joke; it’s that we haven’t taken him seriously, that we have been quicker to share him than we have to be shaped by him.  One is much easier than the other.

Did you hear those teachings? How can we be expected to live up to that?  Give to everyone who asks?  How quickly would we too be broke?  I’ve been fascinated by that emblematic question for a long time.  In another chapter of my life, I studied charity, and this question came up from time to time, “What do you do when approached on the street by someone asking for money.”  We know the usual answers:  Give.  Don’t give.  Give money.  Give only food.  Give to a local charity. Or the more common one, say we give to a local charity and then don’t. 

To this day I’ve never settled for any length of time on one answer to the question. When I’m with young people and the opportunity presents itself, I like to ask them, “What do you do, and why?”  I’m generally interested.  I get all kinds of answers, and it helps, though it doesn’t solve it for me.  Perhaps that is the point.  It can be so easy to rationalize actions that ignore the teachings of Jesus and in doing so lose all connection with the plight of our fellow human beings.  We must return again and again to teachings and not settle for our work around.  The other day, I was at the seminary library doing research and they had this box out—I guess it’s national poetry month?—well, I was in desperate need of inspiration (as potentially evidenced by this sermon) so I reached in the basket.  When I got to the table and spread out my things, I opened the poem to find these words arranged in a weaving figure eight on the page, going round and round, and you never quite new where to start.  Okay, this is not what I needed.  Don’t make me work for my insight.

No matter where you start, you loop back over where you were before, and that’s the way it is with Jesus’ teachings. You come around with them again and again, bringing the teachings to bear on all we encounter in life, and each time we do new insights emerge.  Don’t call me “Lord,” says Jesus.  Call me “Teacher.”  It’s good news, for Lord is the kind of word we trip over, but a good teacher we can all understand.  “Teacher” we can agree on that, and strangely, it’s more powerful.  Lord, how we use it today, we can keep in a nice theological box, giving us hope for the afterlife, but not requiring much change now.  Teacher, and we’re challenged to change, to grow, to evolve.  Lord gives us hope for life after death, and thanks be to God, but Teacher gives us the possibility for a better life before death, and not just for ourselves but for all, and a better chance to ward off premature death.  “Lord” sends that little Syrian child on the beach to heaven, and thanks be to God, but Teacher stops him getting washed up there in the first place, because if we all listened to The Teacher we would co-create a different world and that child would have been allowed grow out of his shoes the way my child has. 

That morning God raised the body, oh yes, but God also raised the message, lifting it up, affirming for all to see that this way is good, is holy, this love is more right than the might that tried to put it down, this truth can put down, but in time, in a new body, it will rise again. In that sense, whether that resurrection is true doesn’t depend only on whether the body was there that day.  It’s depends whether the message remains alive in this body today, in you and in me.  Did we come to see the body is gone or did we come to become the body?  Don’t leave it all up to Mary Magdelene.  Hers may have been the first testimony.  Now it’s time for ours.  Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed.  Amen.  


[1] Anna Carter Florence, Festival Sermon 2016 in Journal for Preachers, Vol. XL, No. 3, Easter 2007, 36.