“Seeing the Lord” Colchester Federated Church, April 1, 2018, (John 20:1-18) Easter Sunday

There’s a story about three friends who discussed what they wanted their funerals to be like.  Specifically what did they want people to say about them when reflecting back on their lives?  The first friend said, “I would want people to say that I was a great humanitarian, and gave myself selflessly to the community.”  The second friend said, “I would want people to say that I was a wonderful mother, wife, and friend—a good example for people to follow.” The third friend thought for a while and said, “Well I would want people to say—look, he’s moving!”

Now our Easter story is fairly well-known.  This is the most important day of the year for Christians and why we worship God together in community every Sunday.  It could be that the surprise of the Resurrection (the look he’s moving surprise!) is hard for us to feel so long after this amazing religious experience.  Though it would have been the ultimate April Fool’s joke.  Can we imagine?  To go to the tomb with hearts heavy and faces still tear-stained from Friday only to see the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and experience the Risen Christ in our midst.

All these years later, it’s still amazing to see the varied reactions to the empty tomb.  The “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (who tradition tells us is John himself) runs ahead of Peter to reach the tomb first.  He bends down to look inside and sees the linen wrappings.  But he doesn’t go in, waiting for Peter as a sign of respect.  Peter arrives and goes right into the tomb as soon as he gets there, seeing the linen wrappings and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head rolled up in a place by itself.

Now we don’t know exactly what Peter thinks of this yet.  The Gospel doesn’t say.  For Peter, the real transformative encounter with the Risen Christ will come in the next chapter of the Gospel according to John.  When Jesus has a fish fry breakfast for the disciples on a beach and asks Peter if he loves him.  Allowing Peter to be forgiven and redeemed after denying Jesus three times by affirming three times that he does in fact love Jesus with all his heart.  He’s ready to live into this new life that has been promised.

So on that first Easter morning, the beloved disciple does go inside the empty tomb after Peter.  He sees and believes.  Instantaneously, he believes.  Peter will believe in the power of resurrection fully in his heart.  But it may have come a little later.  Peter and John return to their respective homes.  And then the story focuses on Mary Magdalene.

Mary had gotten up early while it was still dark on that first Easter Sunday.  She makes her way to the tomb alone and sees that the stone had been removed and immediately sets off to find Peter and John.  While they investigate and go home, Mary tearfully stands outside.  She weeps and bends over to look inside the tomb probably in disbelief, and sees two angels.  Remember she’s alone.  Peter and John left.  Or at least she thinks she’s alone.  Because it ends up that there’s these angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been, and then eventually she turns around to see Jesus himself.

In one of the funniest moments in scripture, she doesn’t know it’s him at first.  Jesus could look different.  She may not be able to comprehend how it would even be possible for this person to be Jesus.  She may be numb because of grief.  It’s hard to say.  Though she thinks he’s the gardener.  Mary says with a heavy heart, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”[1]  And with one word from Jesus her life will change forever.  With one word our faith will be born anew.  With one word Mary will stop crying and probably start laughing.

“Mary!”[2]

As soon as Jesus says her name she knows that it’s him.  Deep in her bones she knows that this person seemingly against all odds is Jesus, her beloved friend who she thought was gone forever.  Then Mary does something that Peter and John don’t do.  After her conversation with the Risen Christ, Mary goes and announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”  Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the Resurrection.  Peter and John saw the empty tomb and go on back home.  Mary stayed behind, weeping, and saw the Risen Christ.  So guess what?  Without this woman preaching, we wouldn’t know about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ!  (For obvious reasons, I just love that!)

Here’s the point.  John sees the empty tomb and immediately believes.  Peter sees the empty tomb, and we don’t know his exact response.  We do know that later on he will be redeemed and declare three times that he loves Jesus at that fish fry breakfast on the beach.  Mary weeps outside the tomb and meets the Risen Christ.  She takes it upon herself to go and announce the Resurrection to others.  The reactions that morning are as varied as the people in the Gospel.

We don’t all respond to significant moments in the same way.  Our faith journeys will never look exactly the same.  Maybe they aren’t supposed to.  We’re on spiritual journeys and at different stages of those journeys.  We know that the persistent search for God can produce an authentic relationship with God.  Yet our searches don’t all look the same.  So maybe we experience the miracle of resurrection differently just like those first followers of Jesus Christ.

Though resurrection is not just a one-time event in the story of the Christian faith.  It’s not even just a one-time event in the story of our faith journeys as we have gathered here from different places and stages to be here at Colchester Federated Church on this Easter morning.  We always explore the Resurrection on Easter.  Capital R Resurrection in talking about Jesus and the disciples and that empty tomb in Jerusalem.  But what makes the Easter story so significant and timeless is that resurrections still happen.  We still see life after death.  We still witness that God can make a way out of no way.  And just when we think that there is no hope and that all is lost, God’s grace bursts forth and we can’t even comprehend in retrospect how it was even possible.

Here’s one example of resurrection from God’s good creation.  A few years ago my older sister Maureen and I traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana to celebrate my birthday, just the two of us.  We each chose a few trails to hike.  One of Maureen’s selected hikes was the Huckleberry Nature Trail (AKA the Forest and Fire Nature Trail.)  The description in our Day Hikes Guide Map read: “formerly an interpretative trail about fires until it got burned again, this trail is a mellow walk with limited offerings.”  Now doesn’t that sound compelling?  Maureen argued that the trail was in part of the Park that we hadn’t explored yet, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see a forest recovering from fire?

She won the argument as always (my sister is a talented Prosecuting Attorney and argues cases for a living.)  And I begrudgingly got up with her at dawn to hike her chosen trail.  That early morning hike ended up being a transformative experience.  We were alone—go figure with a description like “a mellow walk with limited offerings.”  But it ends up that you literally hike through the rebirth of a brand new forest.  There are thousands of little pine saplings growing among the charred remains of thousands of dead trees.  This area of Glacier National Park was severely burned in 1967 and again in 2001.[3]  Part of the rebirth process of a burned forest attracts wildflowers.  So among the dead trees and young saplings are the most beautiful purple wildflowers everywhere you look.  When we got to the top of the trail and looked out, we could see the mountains near the Continental Divide by looking through mostly collapsing dead trees.  It’s a view of life coming out of death.  This is a view of resurrection.

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Just when we think that all is lost and burned beyond recognition—somehow new saplings grow.  Wildflowers burst open.  In the process of forest fires the soil becomes rich in nutrients and this destruction somehow allows new life to eventually come forth.  Life finds a way!  The scientists and scientifically-minded among us may know all about that natural process already.  But to witness and experience the rebirth of a burned forest is nothing short of holy.

Sometimes we fear that there’s no hope and that destruction and death have the final word in our world and in our lives.  Never forget that our God is a God of renewal, rebirth, and resurrection.  In the words of Father Richard Rohr: “Resurrection is not woundedness denied, forgotten, or even totally healed.  It is always woundedness transformed.[4]

When Jesus experiences the Resurrection we see that he bears the marks of the nails in his hands and feet.  We don’t deny that woundedness in our Christian tradition.  We don’t forget the scars and the cross.  Though we see that death doesn’t get the last word.  On Easter we see Christ’s woundedness miraculously transformed for all time.  Love gets the last word in our Christian story.  And if God can do this for Jesus and if God can do this for a burned down forest, do we believe that God can bring about resurrection—new life—for us?

Thanks be to God and Happy Easter!  Amen.

[1] John 20:15, NRSV.
[2] John 20:16.
[3] “Forest and Fire Nature Trail,” Glacier National Park, http://www.hikinginglacier.com/forest-and-fire-nature-trail.htm
[4] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self, 161-162.